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The subjectively-idealistic Stoicism which took its start from Zeno, teaches a morality of conflict,—of struggle on the part of the rational spirit (as being alone of worth, and as being absolutely a law unto itself) against sensuousness, of thought against pleasure, as belonging to a lower sphere. Virtue is the solely true good, and all other seeming goods are either indifferent or irrational. But this struggle rests simply on the thought of an unreconciled and irreconcilable antagonism of existence,—knows not the higher 132thought of the inner unity of all veritable existence,—rests on the pride of the subjective understanding and of the absolutely self-legislating individual will, over against all objective reality, even over against a moral commonalty with laws binding on the individual subject. Stoicism leads, therefore, on the one hand, to an unbounded virtue-pride, and on the other, to a querulous despising of reality, also to a disregarding of caprice-checking custom, nay, even to a suicidal non-esteeming of one’s own temporal life,—pretending to an inner peace, but really betraying evidence of un-peace. Any moral significance, and any even slight presentiment of absolute ethical truth, ore to be found only in the more general thoughts of the Stoics; but all the more dubious, arbitrary, nay, even perverted, is the particular application of these thoughts to definite life-relations.
Stoicism stands on the one hand incomparably higher in spiritual vigor and dignity than Epicureanism, and forms a direct antagonism thereto, but, on the other hand, it passes far beyond the truth in the direction of the opposite extreme, and its one-sided unnaturalness manifests even more clearly than Epicureanism the insufficiency of heathen principles for arriving at true moral wisdom.—Zeno, a contemporary of Epicurus, illustrated the teachings of his system (see Diog. Laert. viii) by moral strictness of life, and by the commission of suicide at an advanced age; his writings are lost. His school, which collected within itself the nobler class of minds, and which, while less numerous than that of the Epicureans, yet exhibited far more spiritual activity than the latter, continued to exist until the downfall of paganism,—especially among the Romans, where, though much toned-down and transformed, it was represented not only by the rather eclectic Cicero, but also by Seneca,8686 From him are extant numerous moral writings in popular rhetorical style. by Epictetus 133(toward the close of the first century A. D.),8787 His lectures, for the most part merely popular moral exhortations, are preserved in Arrian; besides these we have the Enchiridion Epicteti, Which has been much used even in Christian times. and by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.8888 From him we have Τὰ εἰς ἐαυτὸν, (moral meditations)—disconnected, and, in many cases, merely suggested thoughts and life rules, with much repetition and without regular development.
On the dualistic antithesis of matter and spirit rests the corresponding ethical antithesis between merely sensuously-natural objective existence and the rational spirit in the individual free subject. Not the mere nature-entity, but the spirit, is the true entity, and it is such in full, freely self-legislating self-sufficiency; its destination is to manifest itself as independent in relation to nature, and to base itself entirely upon itself. Not the passive, but the active entity is the solely true one,—not enjoyment but activity; it is only as active that the spirit is in its true reality, whereas, as merely enjoying, it sinks below spirituality. Man, as related to objective existence, is a self-poised absolutely freely self-determining being,—is, as a rational spirit, perfectly self-sufficient, needs nothing outside of himself in order to be a spirit, to be free, to be happy; he should not let himself be determined by any thing whatever external to himself. Whatever is to have worth for man, and hence is to form a part of, and to contribute to, his perfection and happiness, must proceed from and depend upon himself alone; every thing else, whatever it may be, concerns him not, is indifferent to him,—can, and may, neither hinder nor promote his perfection and happiness. It is in being self-dependent that the wise man is truly free.—The essence of man, in distinction from the brute, is not enjoying and feeling, but thinking; it is not in enjoying, but in thinking, that he is free, that he is a rational spirit; and the more he seeks to enjoy external objects and finds pleasure therein, so much the more is he dependent and unfree, so much the more is he irrational,. and hence so much the less a true man. Thinking and not feeling is, therefore, the decisive criterion of the truth and of the good; hence there should be first judging and then acting. All rational, and hence moral, activity must rest on knowledge; to act 134from mere feeling is irrational; there is no virtue without knowledge. Philosophy itself is a practice of virtue, and knowledge is the first and highest virtue. Out of the knowledge of the good springs, of itself and from inner necessity, pleasure in the good and a striving after it, just as from a knowledge of the evil springs an abhorrence of the same. But these movements of the sensibilities are not the ground, but only the attendants of the moral activity; the ground thereof is knowledge alone. From erroneous knowledge, however, spring irrational sensibility-movements and strivings of the soul, that is, the passions, which are consequently to be regarded as a soul-disease. Now, though all evil springs from error, yet is man nevertheless responsible therefor, for the error itself is guiltily incurred. It is by the knowledge of the good, that is, by perfect consciousness, that volition is distinguished from impulse or instinct. The will aims at the truly-known good, impulse at the merely seemingly good. Knowledge, as an essential manifestation of rationality, is, like the latter itself, germinally innate in man, and hence it is in all men essentially the same; simply the further development and the particular application of the same is left to one’s own judgment.
The essence and the fundamental thought of the good is conformity to nature (ὁμολογία, convenientia, τὸ κατὰ φύσιν, convenienter naturae vivere). Nature is taken here, not as outer sensuous nature in contradistinction to the self-conscious spirit, but as the general order of the world, as the natura rerum, the inner conformity-to-law of the All, and, above all, the rational nature and conformity-to-law of one’s own spiritual existence and life. Hence conformity to nature is agreement with one’s self—the inner order and spiritual health of the life. Even the brute puts forth effort primarily not from pleasure and for pleasure, but for natural self-preservation and self-development. The true nature of man, however, is not the sensuous nature but the reason. To live right signifies, therefore, to live according to reason. Hence evil is a contradiction to the rational nature of man, and the direct opposite of the good,—differs from the good not merely quantitatively, but also qualitatively and essentially,—is the anti-natural and anti-rational.135
Virtue is, therefore, in its very essence, a “being well;” hence it has a feeling of happiness as its immediate and necessary consequence, and thus it is itself per se the highest good. He who is truly virtuous is happy in the same manner as God; he who is vicious is necessarily wretched. Not this happiness-feeling, however, but the good as such, is the rational end of the moral activity; virtue is to be sought for its own sake without reference to the happiless-feeling; the pleasure-sensation is indeed the consequence, but not the end of moral action. There are, in fact, other pleasure-sensations than those which flow from virtue, and other pain-sensations than those which follow from vice; also external things, things not dependent on us and our free determination, such as health, riches, etc., may excite pleasure-sensations, and hence contribute to our external happiness. Now, if the end of our striving were not the good per se, but happiness, then our effort would be directed toward a something that is not fully within our power; but nothing can be truly good, and hence truly to be sought after, which is not dependent upon us and within the scope of our will. The pleasure which arises independently of us from external things may be agreeable, and hence these things may be useful, but real goods they are not. Hence the antithesis of the honestum (τὸ καθῆκον, τὸ καλόν) and the utile. Thus the happiness and perfection of the sage rests entirely upon himself; he is the free creator of his well-being; all that is really good depends solely upon himself; all that is not dependent upon him affects and disturbs him not. Every wise man is a rich man, a king.—As the good differs from the evil, not in degree but in essence, hence all the virtues are essentially equal to and homogeneous with each other; for a virtue inferior to another could be possible only by its being somewhat participant in evil; but this is impossible from its very idea. Hence whoever has one virtue has them all; and they are all intimately involved in each other. Likewise, all vices are essentially equal to each other, and, e. g., to kill a cock needlessly is just as bad as to commit parricide.
From the Stoic notion of the self-based freedom of the sage, as well as from their view of the essence of virtue, it follows that there may be entirely perfect men, men who are 136free of all error and of all immorality, fully possessed of all knowledge and virtue and happiness. That there really are such is taken for granted; and delineations of this self-acquired glory are given in the most glowing colors, and form a favorite topic of Stoic philosophy. On the other hand, we find not the least trace of the notion of a natural corruption of mankind; there is admitted (as was the case in Aristotle’s system) simply a difference between the rude multitude little inclined to, and little capable of, the good, and the more happily-gifted ones,—the latter being of course the Stoics themselves; and it is given as an essential characteristic of a sage, never to repent of any thing.8989 Cic.: Pro Muraena, 29.—In consequence of the diametrical antagonism between good and evil, there is no mean moral sphere between the two, no sphere of moral indifference. There are indeed things that are per se indifferent to man, and which can hence per se neither increase nor diminish his worth and happiness, but their actual application is in each particular case either good or bad. In classifying the virtues, the Stoics, for the most part, follow Plato.
Zeno himself based the moral on religion; also some of his disciples understand by the “nature” with which man is to be in harmony, the divine contents and the divine conformity-to-law of nature, and hence that which harmonizes with the divine will; and they conceive of reason as a manifestation of the divine activity in things. But the later Stoics, for the most part, lost sight of this religious character of the moral, and presented it as quite independent of religion,—as a spiritual life-sphere resting strictly and independently upon itself. In Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius the religious element comes again more into the fore-ground; they recognize reverence for the gods, or for God, as a virtue and as a ground of the moral,—conceive of virtuousness as God-likeness, and viciousness as godlessness, and even attribute high worth to prayer, though here, of course, there is no trace of penitential prayer, but for the most part, only the spirit of the Pharisee’s prayer: “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men.”9090 Arrian: Dissert. Epict., iii, 24, 96 sqq.; iv, 10, 14 sqq., (ed. Schweigh.); M. Aurel. Ant.: εἰς ἐαυτὸν, ix, 40. It is in fact not impossible that in 137the more religious tendency of later Stoicism there is a degree of influence from Christianity.
This view of the moral produced in fact among the Stoics an earnest moral striving, though without enthusiasm or heart, and only in the manner of a cold logical calculating. Feeling amounts to nothing at all; of the potency of love there is not a trace; thought passes directly over into action, and feeling merely accompanies the act as a something entirely indifferent. The love of neighbor is regarded only as a mode of action, but not as an affair of the heart. The sage ought indeed to help the wretched according to his means and according to their worthiness, but to feel compassion, or even to act as if one felt it, would be unworthy of a wise man; for the truly wise man is above all suffering; and the wretched suffer only from lack of knowledge, because they regard external things, which are not within their own control, as real goods.9191 Epict.: Enchir., 16; M. Anton., v, 36; vii, 43; Diog. L., vii, 123; Cicero: Pro Muraena, c. 29; Seneca: De clementia, ii, 5, 6. The friendliness to man which is so earnestly recommended by the Stoics flows not from love, and their patience under received injustice springs only from contemptuous pride. Hence, while, on the one hand, wrath, revenge, envy, slander, etc., are condemned as unworthy of the sage, partly because every passive feeling-movement is immoral, and in part because the sage is too proud to allow himself to be disturbed by the acts and manners of others,—yet, on the other hand, it is held as an unworthy weakness to forgive others for their injustice, for that would be equivalent to declaring the injustice as indifferent, and to lightly esteeming justice.9292 Stobaeus: Eclogae ethicae, ii, 7, p. 190 (Heeren); Diog. L., vii, 123; Cic.: Pro Mur., 29. The Christian principle, “Forgive and ye shall be forgiven,” has no force for a Stoic, because he believes himself never to be in circumstances to need forgiveness.
The morality of the Stoics is a constant contest of the spirit against sensuous nature and against the unspiritual and irrational in the objective world in general; but as this contest is directed against a primordial and never entirely-overcomeable antagonism in existence itself, and hence can never lead 138to an objective victory, it assumes consequently not so much an actively outward-working character, as rather that of a passive resistance against irrational reality. The sage does not undertake to produce a real world of the moral spirit; on the contrary, he retreats within himself in proud contempt of the actual world; only himself, but not the outer world, can he make perfect;—the real struggle is carried on not by a victory-confident assaulting of immoral reality, but by a contemptuous turning away from the same,—by an indifference to pleasure and pain, the depicting of which is given again and again in endless reiteration. This blunt, indifferent enduring of pain is not the fruit of a pious faith in a divine world-government or of love toward mankind, but it is the proud defiance of the absolutely self-relying subject as against a world imbued with a primitive and essential irrationality. This indifference toward all that excites the sensibilities restrains indeed the Stoic from Epicurean sensuality, but is very far from leading to a true resistance of one’s self; the sensuous is only despised, but not positively assailed. Stoic ethics requires no severe self-denial, no fasting, no renunciation of sensual enjoyment; it only requires that one be moderate and that one place no value on the enjoyment; but after all, this restraint was, for the most part, but a mere flourishing of rhetoric;—Seneca accepted, with the greatest suavity, riches upon riches, which his pupil Nero conferred upon him.
The lightly esteeming of the non-spiritual extends also to the physical life. The Stoics indeed regard the instinct of self-preservation as a fundamental impulse of human nature, and as a strictly normal expression of the law which requires harmony with one’s self and with nature, but it is not inconsistent therewith that they should regard life itself as an object of indifference—seeing that it is not within man’s own control. Death must not be feared, but must-as a power not within our control—be despised; and in so far as it is a nature-law, and one that liberates us from a painful bodily life, it is to be regarded even with pleasure. The thought of immortality is, in this connection, regarded merely as a possibility; if the life of the soul continues on, then the wise man is happy; but if it ceases, then ceases for him also all pain; in neither case is there the least ground for fear.—But 139the Stoic goes still further. The wise man is a free lord over himself; but in death he is overcome by an external power. It does not become the sage, therefore, to let the close of his life depend merely on any such extraneous power; it is but a virtualization of his own self-dependent freedom, that he should close his life when it pleases himself, that is, when he has satisfactory reasons therefor. To the Stoic, suicide is, under certain circumstances, not only allowed, but even a duty, a heroic virtue. Among the circumstances that justify suicide, irrespective of self-sacrifice for country or friends, are the following: great distress, poverty, incurable disease, physical maiming, and other oppressive afflictions, deprivation of liberty, and in general, any essential hinderance to living freely and in conformity to reason, such as infirmity from age; all these are divine hints that it is time to take one’s voluntary departure; “The door is open,”—is a saying which the Stoic fondly reiterates as an expression of his perfect liberty, even in regard to the ending of his life.9393 Diog. L., vii, 130; Arrian, i, 9, 20; i, 24, 20; i, 25, 18 sqq.; ii, 1, 20; M. Anton., v, 29; Cic.: De Finibus, iii, 18. Suicide is defended with great zeal, and almost with enthusiasm, by Seneca, on the ground that it is an assertion of the true self-dependence and. freedom, of man; for this reason man may and should proceed to suicide even when the above freedom-hindering evils are merely in threatening prospect, inasmuch as, if he does not, he may in the end be hindered from the accomplishment of this self-liberation. Only a single way leads into life, but thousands lead out of it. No one is wretched save through his own fault; for if misfortune falls upon him, he is at liberty to depart; life keeps none back. The wise man lives only so long as life pleases him; the lancing of an artery opens to him the way to freedom. Death is, after all, unavoidable, why then adjourn it till the evil day? The foulest death is better than the cleanest slavery; the prudent man seeks the easiest death; yet if it cannot be otherwise, he does not shun even a painful suicide.9494 Epist. ii, 5 (17); vi, 6 (58); viii, 1 (70); De ira, iii, 15, (ed. Fickert).—And the practice corresponded to the theory. Zeno himself is said to have hanged himself at an advanced age, because he. had broken one of his fingers; his disciple Cleanthes 140starved himself to death because his gums became sore. The frequent suicides among the Roman Stoics are a matter of notoriety.—This doctrine and this practice are often regarded as in conflict with the general view of the Stoics, which, in fact, denies that pain is a real evil. The inconsistency is only apparent, and contains, at all events, a very true confession. If man has no higher consolation against the miseries of existence than the pride of the self-centered, self-satisfied individual spirit, then it is simply mere truthfulness when he confesses that he is not equal to the misery of real life,—that he has not the moral power entirely to overcome it by morality, and to say with joy, “We glory also in tribulations.” The Stoic knows nothing of an almighty father-love of God, and less still of any personal guilt; lie lacks the entire basis upon which the courage of a Christian heart can even grow stronger amid all the buffetings of life; he rises only to a defiance of the miseries of reality; but this defiance, seeing that it is not exalted to moral courage by the pious confidence of a God-thirsting heart, is not equal to the task of humbly bowing itself under suffering, but only to that of destroying itself in bitter accusation against the moral order of the world, and in the consciousness that the real world is not worthy longer to contain such a sage.
Stoic morality is of a purely individual character, aims only at virtualizing the free self-dependence and self-sufficiency of the individual subject. For an objective reality of the moral thought, and for a moral community-life, the Stoic has no appreciation, and hence also none for the naturally-moral basis of society, namely, marriage,—which, in fact, as requiring self-submission to an objective moral reality, appears as a trammeling fetter for the individual subject; and it is doubtless only from the striving after the maintenance of the complete self-sufficiency of the wise subject in the face of all objective moral reality, that are to be explained the strangely perverted views of the sexual relations that prevailed among the Stoics. By them marriage itself was lightly esteemed, and, while passionate love and lustfulness were condemned, sexual communion outside of marriage was expressly defended against all criticism;9595 Epict. Enchir. 33. and of Zeno and Chrysippus, it is made out with a 141good degree of certainty, that they required community of wives among the wise, and that they declared allowable, sexual communion between nearest blood-relatives (even between parents and children), and also whoredom, self-pollution and pederasty.9696 Diog. L., vii, 13, 33, 131, 188; Sext. Emp.: Ὑποτυπώσεις, iii, 24. It must not be forgotten that in these opinions—with the exception of incest, which is readily explainable from their one-sided, calculating spirit,—the Stoics had the moral consciousness of the Greeks on their side, and that for their community of wives they were countenanced by the teachings of Plato.—Also in other respects their moral relations to other men are neither frank nor pure. The lofty contempt which the sage indulges in toward all non-sages, disengages him also from many moral duties toward them; thus he is not under obligation always to tell them the truth; falsehood is allowable not only in war, to the enemy, but also in many other cases,—especially in view of attaining an an advantage.9797 Stob.: Ecl. eth., ii, 7, p. 230 (Heeren).
The morality of the Stoic is the pride of the natural man who is conscious of being a moral creature, but who has no suspicion of a morality higher than and transcending the individual subject, nor of a personal moral depravity. His oft-repeated high-sounding descriptions of self-complacency make any thing but an agreeable impression. This pride restrains him, it is true, from many unworthy acts; in consequence, however, of his total lack of an objective standard, it did not guard him from grave moral errors, nor from an almost fanatical hate against a higher world-theory, which, at a later period, offered itself to him in Christianity; and Marcus Aurelius was not in the least deterred by his so high-sounding discourses on kindness, tolerance, and charity, from letting loose a fearful persecution upon the Christians,—in whose martyr-courage he could discover only criminal obstinacy.—Though Stoic ethics was distinguished from the essentially-related ethics of the Cynics by the fact that it discarded the unspiritual and unrefined form of the latter, and that it respected the spiritual under every phase, and hence also in art, and placed a high estimate upon the worthy appearance of the body and upon cleanliness, nevertheless at bottom it does not really transcend 142the same. It does not rise beyond the mere formal notion of the moral as a conformity to nature; the material constructions to be put upon the contents of the moral idea are left to the subjective discretion of the individual; and though it really stands higher than Epicurean ethics, still it did not spiritually vanquish the same. Instead of an absolutely and objectively valid moral idea, and of the expression of a divine will, we find only man’s subjective knowledge of his own nature; the contents of the moral law, the Stoic discovers only by the observation of his own personal peculiarities; and the possibility that this self of his might be a morally perverted one he does not even remotely suspect.
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