A Brief Good Word About the Platonists – At the Expense of the Stoics

I like to admit mistakes and correct them as soon as possible, and tonight I found an article that causes me to think that my opinion of Stoicism has been  too favorable. It has been my understanding before today that Brutus (of the Roman conspiracy against Caesar) was a Stoic, and that his conspiracy with Cassius Longinus was an example of Stoic-Epicurean cooperation.

If David Sedley is correct in his 1997 article “The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius”  Brutus was not a Stoic at all, but a dedicated Platonist of the school of Antiochus, who was an opponent of Stoicism.

Sedley’s fascinating article indicates that Brutus was a sophisticated Platonist, and that he prepared for the conspiracy by means of Platonic-inspired questions of potential conspirators. Sedley even makes the statement that it was far from “the case that Brutus was even a Stoic-sympathizer. … It will turn out to be no accident at all that the conspirators did not even include any known Stoics.” Wow!

Sedley explains in significant detail that “there was no Stoic tradition of advocating either tyrannicide or any comparable means of overthrowing repressive regimes. The ultimate Stoic model was Socrates, who had willingly accepted death rather than compromise his philosophical mission or moral stands. … Likewise, the so-called “Stoic Opposition” of figures like Thrasea Paetus and Helvidus Priscus, despite their reverence for the memory of Brutus and Cassius, showed little if any interest in the assassination of emperors, and much more in courting a heroic death…. The very notion of political freedom rarely surfaces in Stoic texts….”  Wow again!

Sedley states that Brutus’ Platonist background led him to oppose them because the Stoics “taught that virtue alone is good, and that naturally preferable items like health, honor, and wealth are morally indifferent: when possessed, they add nothing to happiness. … Whether or not you attain them is irrelevant to happiness.” “Ultimately Stoicism had to allow that no form of government would make the happy less happy or the wretched less wretched.”

And Sedley says “There was no established Stoic tradition of placing constitutions in order of preferability. Platonism, by contrast, had always classified and ranked constitutions, and had done so explicitly on the ground that the subjects in a state can be more or less happy according to its political provisions. It was on a sliding scale of this kind that Plato in Republic 8 had declared tyranny the worst kind of enslavement.”

No doubt I should not, but I find all this shocking.  If there was one reason I had some affection for the Stoics, it was because I thought they were aligned with Cassius Longinus in attempting to save the Roman Republic from a dictator.  [My current view of the Roman Civil War is more complicated – I am no longer sure that it is possible to get enough information about the details of the overall situation to assess which side was “correct.”  It is possible that the state of affairs had degenerated to the point where Caesar’s actions could have been justified under the Epicurean doctrines of PD 30 – 40.  Certainly there is no single form of government that is “best” for all times and all places.  In the end, each person has to judge his or her circumstances and evaluate his or her own path to happiness.]

When I realize now that Cicero was not a Stoic, and also see that Brutus was not a Stoic either, and that few if any Stoics even participated in the conspiracy — that wipes away the entire grounds for giving Stoicism any benefit of the doubt as a practical philosophy.  What we are left with is the impractical ascetic emotion-suppressing core for which they are best known today.

We can contrast this Stoic attitude to Epicurus in several ways. While Diogenes Laertius may not have been referring to political constitution or political nationality in this passage, there is clear relevance in his report that Epicurus had said that not “every bodily constitution nor every nationality would permit a man to become wise.”

More explicity, Sedley also records in his article that there was an Epicurean tradition, going back to Epicurus himself, of suspending the general disinclination to be involved in politics when the situation demanded action. Sedley also writes that Brutus approached the Epicurean Statilius with a question as to his view on participating in the insurrection, which implies that Brutus thought it was possible that Statilius, or any other Epicurean, might say yes consistent with his philosophy.

Sedley also records that it was “an Epicurean tenet already familiar to Cicero (Republic 1.10) that in exceptional crises the “no politics” rule might have to be suspended.” Sedley indicates that Seneca attributed this position to Epicurus himself.

I have not been able to track that down, but of course we have Principle Doctrine 6 “In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.” We also have the doctrines that state that there is no such thing as absolute justice, and doctrines 39 and 40 which refer to the happiest men being able to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors.

All in all this is a fascinating article and I highly recommend it. It contains additional footnotes about Cassius and the Epicurean perspective on these same issues, and it can be accessed free at JSTOR by signing up for a limited free account.

So it appears that I need to go through this website and affix footnotes where I have said good things about Stoicism as a result of my good feelings for Brutus.  And I leave this article feeling more distaste for Stoicism than ever!


Update Note 4/12/15:

Thanks to Domagoj Vaci for finding and sending me this closely related dissertation from the University of Edinborough. This plays right into recent discussions about the goal of living, and shows how both Cassius Longinus and I in my current views are bad Epicureans 😉 . Maybe the failing of both of us is that we decided to read Lucretius, and we were fatally misled when we read that DIVINE PLEASURE is the guide to life! Had we been as smart as some people, we would have realized that PLEASURE is not the guide of life, but rather the only goal worth living for is TRANQUILITY, and that “tranquilty” overrides pleasure, and has little to do with it. Here’s from the abstract:
“I bring this together with a discussion of how each of these aspects contributes to the Epicurean goal of tranquility and thus assess whether the assassination is the correct course of action for an Epicurean. I conclude that, though some aspects of Epicureanism would encourage Cassius to murder Caesar, the assassination is still unjustifiable due to both the personal and political beliefs of Epicureanism. I further conclude that Cassius held Epicureanism as a theoretical ideology, whilst holding his Republican beliefs as more practical in application. Overall this shows that Cassius political beliefs were more important than his philosophical allegiances in these decisions; this gives weight to Griffin’s theory that Greek philosophy’s role in Roman politics was more theoretical than practical.”
So starting with a absolutist point of view that “Tranquility” is the overriding goal of life, someone 2000 years later who has now way to know the details of the political, social, economic, cultural, or psychological details of the situation can conclude that at Epicurean should ALWAYS choose “tranquility” over pleasure. I just received the article so all I have had time for is the abstract, but this statement of the issue is a good summary of looking at something and seeing what you want to see. Some people want to see tranqulity/anesthesia/stoicism, so they read “Tranquility” as “going along with the flow” and sleepwalking through life under anesthesia. And most important of all, they see all the active normal pleasures in life as nothing more than the “cost” of getting to anesthesia! (That’s the clear implication of holding kinetic pleasure to be only useful for getting us to a katastematic state.)
These are fascinating questions. Epicurean philosophy as not for the sake of pleasure, but for anesthesia! I believe they have to be answered by looking at *all* the reliable texts and reconciling them into a coherent whole. And they CAN be, and not without turning pleasure into a synonym for anesthesia.
Previous Article
Next Article