A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: The Stoics and Epicureans(Critique and Commentary of Brett’s “History of Psychology”)

Hits: 157

The abandonment of Aristotelian Rationalism occurred over a long period with many modifications along the way. The general political climate of this change was one of militaristic expansion on a scale never seen before in Europe beginning with Alexander the Great’s Empire building conquests followed by a second wave of Roman Conquests. It almost seemed as if the Platonic concept of spirit and Eros emerged during this period as more relevant to the needs of the times, transcending even the Hebraic concept of Laws and commandments laid down(in an instrumental “Spirit”) in literary texts in the name of justice. These texts were, of course, not like the texts of the works of Plato and Aristotle, to be perused because they manifested knowledge and wisdom as values in themselves, but were rather rhetorical devices designed to recruit and convert the minds of readers to the cause of personal salvation. The Gospels of the New Testament were similarly rhetorical yet somewhat less judicial and dogmatic: more concerned with the “spirit” of love and the universal ideal of the brotherhood of man living in a kingdom of God’s making. The New Testament was definitively a move away from the academic knowledge and wisdom of Plato and Aristotle. The Gospels narrate the life story of a simple “wise” man who himself uses stories and parables to lead lost souls to the path of salvation. In these texts we can find tales of the miraculous: virgin births, bringing the dead back to life, wandering stars etc punctuating a chain of events leading to a dramatic tragic end for this simple wise man who comes to be dubbed “the son of God”. In these texts, we find little concern for the essential natures of things or the rational justification of one’s belief and actions. Indeed what we instead find is the continuation of an abandonment of the achievements of Aristotelian Rationalism that began with the death of Aristotle. The understanding aimed at in Biblical texts was in no sense theoretical or even practical in the Platonic or Aristotelian senses. Literature in its rhetorical form had swamped both the academic fields of science and Philosophy. It cannot be denied that this literature contained words of intent but it was still the case that the primary intention of the text was instrumental or what Kant would term “technological”: a means to achieve a “spiritual” end largely disconnected to the categorical ends of Philosophy. A spiritual form of “other-worldly” justice transcended the rational principle constituted justice argued for by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The brotherhood of man- kingdom could not be achieved via military or economic means or even via academic ideas but rather via literary and rhetorical texts containing the “good news” of the Gospels. This phenomenon, it was assumed would be constituted in the private reading space of the individual with the aid of ceremonial and clerical “services” conducted in the “spirit” of the symbolic. We in our modern world can certainly recognize how real “news” has supplanted knowledge in the sphere of our everyday lives and how it has transformed consciousness from an externally oriented power into an internal self-obsessed attitude.

This movement toward the instrumental, rhetorical and technological use of language and thought had actually begun earlier in the Pre-Christian era. It is in this period that we see the two schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism emerging from the golden age of Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian Philosophy and Science. Professor Brett has this to say about the period in question:

“The death of Aristotle marked the end of an era. The Speculative restlessness of the Greeks declined like their city-states. Their theories were welded into successive philosophies of life, just as their states were welded into successive empires. Speculation for its own sake gave way to symbolic pictures which served to reinforce ways of living. Policies for living rather than theories about living commanded the interests of philosophers. The Stoics and Epicureans were preoccupied with the attainment of individual self-sufficiency as a substitute for the much-lauded self-sufficiency of the old city-states. Life had become something to be endured rather than enjoyed: the problem was how to endure it best. How could the individual fortify himself against oppression, revolution and social change? The Stoics advocated integrity of character, devotion to duty, humanity towards fellow sufferers, and the rigorous discipline of the will: the Epicureans sought an escape from the hazards of life in cutting down the possible sources of misery….they put forward different forms of individualism one of which reached its culmination in Kant, the other in the English Utilitarians.”

These are interesting observations indeed even when viewed from our modern perspective. Symbolic pictures, and products of the imagination replaced rational argument and the discipline of critical theorizing, Brett argues with considerable insight. No real philosophical analysis of the role and significance of pictures in our lives was undertaken until Wittgenstein introduced the criticisms of his own picture theory of meaning from his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. in this criticism, he maintained that pictures do not have an obvious determined meaning but rather can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Pictures are essentially ambiguous. Elisabeth Anscombe in her commentary on Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning uses the example of a picture of two stick men in fencing position with stick swords. She points out how the picture can be used to illustrate either how to stand or how not to stand. A picture of a man with a walking stick on a hill can either depict a man walking up the hill or sliding down the hill.

The above quote by Brett suggests insightfully how the concentration on, or obsession with individual self-sufficiency may have come about as a result of the loss of feelings of security connected with the Greek city-state. What we have seen subsequent to this loss may also be related to a positive phenomenon of the search for the next stage of communal life which may have to occur in a nation-state if mans potential is to be fully actualized. The actual forms the nation-state were to take after 1648 certainly paid scant attention to the theories and practical suggestions of Aristotle and even less and briefer attention to the political and ethical writings of Kant: these forms as we know resulted in two world wars and a number of uses of weapons of mass destruction in the twentieth century(signifying, according to the writings of Hannah Arendt, either a, or, the failure of the nation-state system). Life under other forms of government larger than the city-state had certainly proved to be problematic as predicted by the Greek city-state philosophers.

The suggestion by Brett that the Epicurean and Stoic responses to the loss of the city- state were similar, is, however, deeply problematic and overlooks a number of differences. The Stoic position, like the position of Kant, culminated in a far-sighted vision of the development of communities or societies, a position that posited the actualization of an ideal of a cosmopolitan man that transcended the relativistic consequences of individualism. This ideal for Kant lay one hundred thousand years in the future during a time when reason would be embraced by all the men of the species, thus acknowledging the limitations of all forms of community and life up until that time. Both Kant and the Stoics fixed upon the only realistic attitude to cope with such a state of affairs, namely the devotion to duty that Brett mentioned above. In neither of these positions is there any logical room for the relativism of an individual -based ethics as there is in Epicureanism which had its roots in both materialism and sophism. Here the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain was the perfect theory for an animal satisfied with the status quo of his communities and forms of life. Epicureanism was a philosophy that cannot see or explain the large-scale changes that were on the horizon of the times. The suggestion in Brett is that this position led to that of English and American Utilitarianism and the continued and sustained antagonism between these positions and the deontological position of Kant ought to have caused Brett to pause before issuing the judgment that the Epicurean and Stoic positions are similarly individualistic. Epicureanism and Utilitarianism are undoubtedly rugged individualistic philosophies and they would seem to allow, for example, a drug addict to continue his addiction to his inevitable death without any ethical intervention. For both the Stoics and Kant, allowing this suffering to go on without any ethical attempt to place the individual in the restricted environment of a drug rehabilitation program, would have been a dereliction of duty, a violation of the categorical imperatives insistence that suicide by someone incapable of using their rational powers is a form of practical contradiction of the meaning of life. There is no freedom principle operating in Stoic ethics because it too shared a form of commitment to determinism and a form of materialism(different to the Epicureans) but for Kant the freedom of the individual does not stretch to allowing that individual to remove a fundamental condition of his freedom, namely his life, without a good reason(the kind of reason only a wise man could give): especially not in the circumstances envisaged where the continued use of drugs have impaired the agents ability to use his powers of reason. Of course, the problem of people killing themselves with technologically produced drugs was not a problem during Stoic or Enlightenment times, at least not on the scale we experience today in our so-called modern societies. The Opium wars against China in the 1800s was a testament to the Epicurean and Utilitarian commercial spirit of Post Kantian times that dominated English politics and ethics and these wars and this spirit would have been odious to both Stoical and Kantian moral positions. This is not to deny the political problem of what a government ought to do in the face of such individuals who are jettisoning their rationality on the road to suicide. The question “Does a government have any responsibility or duty in relation to this scenario” is not easily answerable. Utilitarian or early non-Kantian liberalism would formulate the question thus: “is it the duty of the government to interfere coercively in the freely chosen life of the individual?” The reason the question is not easily answerable has nothing to do with the freedom of the individual but rather with the political fact that in Kantian political philosophy the individual is in a sense the government in our representative democratic systems and acting against himself might seem paradoxical. But, in fact, it is not in the least paradoxical, given the Greek model of the rational part of the soul governing the irrational part. Modern Liberal government tends to function on the principle that the law is used to regulate human activity only in circumstances where social or moral regulation ought to occur in the relevant social or moral community but for some reason does not. If, for example, there is literally no family or village community the addict is in some sense a part of, then one can on these principles wonder whether the responsibility or duty to act falls on the government. The status quo of our modern world allows the drug addict to kill himself if that is what he is determined to do. In Kantian ethics the position would appear to be clear: the responsibility is on anyone who finds themselves in contact with the drug addict to persuade them and/or help them to register in a drug rehabilitation programme. Is this then a contradiction between one system(the political) allowing the individual to kill himself, and another system(the ethical) trying to prevent him from so doing? It is probably more a sign of the respect the political system has for the ethical and moral systems of the community of human beings.

It is not clear how the addict would be regarded by the Church. It is clear on a strictly creationist theological position that the addict is being careless with the life and live body produced by Gods breath, if the Old Testament creation story of man is to be believed but if the addict denies that he is committing suicide this suggests that he is not quite conscious of what it is he is doing. The case in some respects seems to be different from that of someone putting a gun to their head or wading into an ocean to drown themselves. Whatever the grounds, the religious sanction is clear: the drug addicts life has been given to him and his therefore not his to dispose of if and when he pleases. There is in this system no space for the wise man weighing up all the arguments(which may include dying for one’s family or city or country or to avoid some greater shame) to decide that there is no further point to his life continuing. The Epicureans, on the other hand, would on the basis of their pleasure-pain principle (the two sovereign masters of man) have no problems agreeing to the act of self-centred suicide if the balance of pains outweighed the pleasures of the individual. This kind of self-centred hedonic calculus would not be sanctioned by either a Stoic or a Kantian account that indeed resembled the Stoic position which in its turn in certain respects resembled Aristotelian virtue theory. This is, of course, another reason to refuse to acknowledge any significant relation of similarity between the Stoic and Epicurean positions. Connected to the position of acknowledging the differences between the two positions is to see Epicureanism as the inheritor of the relativism of the Sophists at the same time as seeing Epicureanism as the father of the individualism of the modern age and modern life. A modern life is obviously, worth less when measured by a modern hedonic scale that somehow can justify the taking of an invaluable human life if painful consequences can somehow be seen to outweigh the sheer pleasure and wonder of living: as if these two different dimensions of our life can be measured on the same scale. On this unilinear scale life is not a gift from God or anyone else but rather a utility to be measured scientifically or symbolically pictured in our literary texts. On this account, my life is a possession to do with whatever I wish, dispose of, if and when I please. The modern art form -film- is filled with symbolic pictures of heroes without a cause sacrificing their lives in a scientific and literary vacuum similar to the vacuum created by the absence of reason that reigns in the world of the addict.

Brett then falsely equates individualism with humanism in another quote in which he seeks to exaggerate the similarities and discard the differences between the Epicurean and Stoic positions:

“Stoics and Epicureans alike are absorbed in the problem of the life of feeling: they acknowledge openly that mans whole being is concentrated in his passions and their thoughts centre upon the fact, whether they preach restraint or justifying indulgence. This is the new focus, the humanism of the new era.”

This is, to say the least, a contentious characterization of the Stoic school of Philosophy which is celebrated for its commitment to logic, knowledge, and cognition as distinct from “feeling and passion”. The reason why the Stoic preaches restraint, namely to be worthy of a flourishing life, might indeed be not worth the effort on the Epicurean (or Utilitarian) hedonic or “feeling” calculus since the pain might very well “outweigh” the pleasure. Yet surely one might wish to argue feeling must have some relation to our judgments! According to Kant’s Third Critique, “The Critique of Judgment” one can indeed speak cognitively about a feeling if that means “speaking with a universal voice” in the hope for assent in relation to others possessing the same feeling. This state of affairs appears to arise when the “cognitive” faculty of the understanding and the pre-cognitive imagination find themselves in some kind of harmonious relation to each other. No conceptualization is involved in this state of affairs but Kant insists that insofar as aesthetic judgment is concerned there should be a suitability-for-conceptualization of the form of the material involved in the judgment. There must, of course, also be involvement of what Kant calls the form of finality of our cognitive faculties: a form of finality that does not universalize the object of the judgment but rather universalizes the subject of the experience. My judgment is, for example, that everyone experiencing the harmony of the faculties of understanding and imagination caused by a landscape or work of art ought to find the experience beautiful and pleasing. There is, of course, no suggestion of any connection of this experience with pain in the context of a hedonic calculation.

It should also be pointed out in this context that the Stoical topoi of Physics and Ethics do not rest the case of their regulating principles on the feeling of pleasure or happiness. In both cases there is, on the contrary, an external question as to whether the truth-oriented beliefs involved are worthy of assent or dissent, whether that is, the concepts involved are truth and knowledge constituting or alternatively the conceptualization of actions in relation to the virtues of the flourishing life. It is clear in both these cases that we are dealing with conceptual justification connected to the assertibility of positions and the universalization of these positions. The Stoics in this context definitely manifested an epistemological commitment to justification by argument in terms of external criteria or standards which in turn entails that if one is possessed by passions this is caused by mistaken judgments concerning what is good and evil. This is clearly a break with the Aristotelian position which is more developmentally oriented towards a more inductive process of steering a middle course between two extremes of excess and deficiency: a process more in accordance with a dialectical form of logic in contrast to that pure deductive form of logic prized by the Stoic logicians. The Stoic position is however reminiscent of the Aristotelian biologically based definition of the human being in that it emphasises our animal nature, perhaps even more than Aristotle did. The Stoic position does not begin with biology however. It begins with the physics of the Cosmos and life emerges from this physical framework in accordance with certain deterministic principles. Human life reveals itself on this account not to be pleasure seeking or pain avoiding creatures but rather beings concerned with the constitution and preservation of our own nature. Our survival in an indifferent world pursuing its own telos will be related to whether or not we deserve to survive. This position clearly diminishes the role of feeling favoured by the Epicureans, in favour of a will to survive that includes a will to preserve one’s own offspring, a more complex task then is the case with other species of animal because of the fact of premature human birth and a long human childhood. This de-centring from ourselves for long periods of time is the beginning of the constitution of an ethical position which the Stoics characterize in terms of a series of concentric circles extending from the circle of our family, including our children to other people in close proximity or more distant proximity to ourselves and perhaps outward to everyone who shares this Cosmos with us. The circles are subject to two forces. Firstly, The indifference and perhaps consequent hostility of the forms of the Cosmos moving outside and affecting the development of the individual and, secondly, the forces moving outward from the individual to one of the outer rings of the system of circles manifested in the wise virtuous cosmopolitan man leading a flourishing life. Here we see an interesting interplay of what the Stoics regarded as the topoi of Physics and ethics. We can also detect the Stoic influence in Kant’s philosophy in the inscription we can find on his grave in Königsberg:

“Two things fill the mind with new and ever-increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”(Critique of Practical Reason)

The Physics of this situation could perhaps be manifest in the near sun worship we encounter in the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic that acknowledges not merely the role of the sun’s light in the development of our eyes and perception but also its role in in the creation of optimal temperatures for the creation and sustainability of life on the little orb that orbits the sun in the greater Cosmos. Placing the will at the centre of this system was a master stroke in the development of Aristotelian philosophy and allowed Kant to formulate the good will as the fundamental and absolute good in his ethical system.

The Epicurean system with its commitment to a materialistic view of the Cosmos would have been rejected by both Platonists and Aristotelians although it has been argued that given the fact that the Stoics saw God as the determining centre of the fate of men, a thought that would be especially alien to the philosophy of Aristotle that respected both randomness(chance) and determinism operating in the events of a changing Cosmos. After the advent of Kant’s philosophy, we can now clearly see how determinism prevented the Stoics from explaining the relation of an individual will to the idea of freedom: a will that strives towards not just life and survival but towards a quality of life manifested in the flourishing life. Both Kantian and Aristotelian ethics would maintain that reason is the only road leading to this destination of the flourishing life. The Epicurean and Utilitarian principles of happiness and pleasure are regarded from the Kantian perspective as principles of self-love in disguise, principles attesting to the fact that the will of individuals acting in accordance with such principles remains within the inner concentric circle of self-interest. The combination of determinism and a form of materialism is however also present in the theories of the Stoics and this is elaborated upon in Kenny’s “New History of Western Philosophy”:

“God, according to the Stoics, is material, himself a constituent of the Cosmos fuelling it and ordering it from within as a “designing fire”(p307)

this is, indeed, a far cry from the Aristotelian conception of God as thinking about thinking or as primary form as opposed to primary matter. Paradoxically this materialistic truth-oriented deterministic conception of God, the divine, leads eventually to the Roman practice of divination which we suspect to be a very different practice to that of the universalization wise thoughts from their oracles. The Romans of course, thought self-centredly that all roads lead to that concentric circle formed by the polis of Rome and they sought in a very modern manner to exercise power over as much of the world as they could conquer, thereby ensuring, they hoped, their survival. This exercise of Empire building did not as we now know, succeed in achieving its materialistic ambitions through the exercise of its military might. The reason for this failure is due to the fact that power and war are fundamentally self-centred forms of activity, thereby violating the first principle of ethical philosophy that demands universal intent in all forms of ethical action.

There is, in Stoicism, very little reference to Aristotelian Metaphysics and more of a concern to transform Aristotelian epistemology to meet the attacks of the growing horde of skeptics and Cynics. In such contexts there is no reference to Aristotelian “First Principles” , “Form” or hylomorphic theory. The consequence for Stoicism is a very historical shipwreck on the rocks of materialism and determinism. The ship of Stoicism was, however, to be restored to seaworthiness by the ethical Philosophy of Kant that rejected both the relevance of materialism and determinism.