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Core Stoicism

by Grant Sterling

[A post to the International Stoic Forum, September 19, 2005.]

I won't have much time to post for a
while, as I am starting to get swamped at work.
But here's something for everyone to chew on....
[I have to go to class now, so I don't have time to
edit this. Please forgive any howling errors.]

The question came up as to how to explain
the basics of Stoicism without technical
terminology. Daniel has given us his version,
which I find to be an admirable beginning. Here
is my own version--or, at any rate, the skeleton
of my version. Obviously all the points below
would need to be spelled out. I offer as the only
virtue of my version the fact that I have tried to
show how the ideas of Stoicism are connected--
how they flow. More on this below.

Th = theorem The basic principles of
Stoicism, for which I give no argument here.
Some of these may be true theorems [unprovable
fundamental postulates defensible only by
appeal to intuition of their truth], some are
empirical propositions the Stoics thought
were obvious, some are propositions for which
a proof might be offered but it's too complicated
for me to bother with today.
I have not tried to make this strictly
deductive. I leave this as an exercise for the
Spinozists and logicians on the List.

Section One: Preliminaries
Th 1) Everyone wants happiness.
Th 2) If you want happiness, it would be irrational
to accept incomplete or imperfect happiness
if you could get complete [continual, uninterrupted]
happiness.
2*) Complete happiness is possible. [To be proven
below.]

Section Two: Negative Happiness
Th 3) All human unhappiness is caused by having
a desire or emotional commitment [I will henceforth
say "desire" for simplicity] to some outcome,
and then that outcome does not result.

4) Ergo, if you desire something which is out
of your control, you will be subject to possible
unhappiness. If you desire many things out
of your control, the possibility of complete happiness
approaches zero.
5) By 4, 2*, and Th2, desiring things out of your
control is irrational [if it is possible to control your
desires].

Th 6) The only things in our control are our
beliefs and will, and anything entailed by our
beliefs and will.
Th 7) Desires are caused by beliefs (judgments)
about good and evil. [You desire what you judge
to be good, and desire to avoid what you judge to
be evil.]
8) Ergo, Desires are in our control.
9) By 5 and 8, desiring things out of our control
is irrational.

Th 10) The only thing actually good is virtue, the
only thing actually evil is vice.
11) Ergo, since virtue and vice are types of acts
of will, they are in our control.
12) Ergo, things that are not in our control are
never good or evil.
13) [cf 9, above] Desiring things out of our control is
irrational, since it involves false judgment.

14) Ergo, if we value only virtue, we will both judge truly
and be immune to all unhappiness.

Section Three: Positive Happiness or Appropriate
Positive Feelings
15) Ergo, if we truly judge that virtue is good, we will
desire it.
Th 16) If you desire something, and achieve it, you
will get a positive feeling.
17) Ergo, if we correctly judge and correctly will, we
will have appropriate positive feelings as a result.
Th 18) Some positive feelings do not result from desires,
and hence do not result from judgments about value.
[E.g., the taste of a good meal, the sight of a beautiful
sunset, etc.]
19) Ergo, such positive feelings are not irrational or
inappropriate. [Though if we desire to achieve them
or desire for them to continue beyond the present,
then that would involve the judgment that they are
good, and hence that would be irrational.]
Th 20) The universe is, or is governed by, Nature,
Providence, God or the gods. [Different Stoics
approach this idea differently.]
Th 21) That which is Natural, or is governed by
Providence, God, or the gods is exactly as it
should be. [Zeus is just, or however you wish
to express this.] {Nota bene that this produces
a problem for those stoics who are strict
determinists, since it would mean that even
acts of vice were somehow correct, and are not
actually in our control in any important sense.
But I don't think strict determinism about internal
states is a core belief of Stoicism.}
Th 22) If you regard any aspect [or, better, all
aspects] of the world as being exactly as it
should be, you will receive appropriate positive feelings.
23) Ergo, the Stoic will be positively happy, will
have positive feelings, in at least three ways: appreciation
of his own virtue, physical and sensory pleasures, and
the appreciation of the world as it is. The last of those
three is something that the Stoic could experience
continually, every waking second, since at every waking
second one can perceive something as being what it
is, and hence what it should be.

Section Four: Virtue
Th 24) In order to perform an act of will, the act of will
must have some content. The content is composed
of the result at which one aims.
Th 25) Some things are appropriate objects at which to
aim, although they are not genuinely good.
Th 26) Some such objects are things like life [our own,
or others'], health, pleasure, knowledge, justice, truth-
telling, etc.
Th 27) Virtue consists of rational acts of will, vice of
irrational acts of will.
28) Ergo, any act that aims at an object of desire is
not virtuous, since all desires are irrational.
29) Ergo, virtue consists of the pursuit of appropriate
objects of aim, not the pursuit of the objects of our
desires. Such virtuous acts will give us good feelings
[by 17], and since we have no desires regarding
the actual outcome, they will never produce unhappiness
for us.

So now the threads of the sections can be tied
together. Someone who judges truly will never be unhappy,
will in fact experience continual uninterrupted appropriate
positive feelings, and will always act virtuously. Anyone
would agree that someone who led a life like that was
happy. Judgment is in our control. Hence, not only is
prefect continual happiness possible, it is actually in our
control--we can actually guarantee it by simply judging
correctly, and acting on those judgments.

One final comment. Several people on the List
have suggested, at one time or another, that they
regarded Stoicism as a body of doctrines from which
they would extract only those that they wished to use
in combination with some other set of ideas. Of course this
is perfectly appropriate--one should never accept everything
a theory says if one has reason to believe some elements
of that theory are false, nor should one reject all of a theory
if one has reason to believe some parts of it are correct. But
there is a danger to Smorgasbord Stoicism. I have tried to
indicate above that the core ideas of Stoicism interconnect
in important ways. Denying one principle may undermine
support for others, and the very things in Stoicism one
sought to preserve may fall apart. For example, one could
deny theorem 20, or 21, and this would undermine a
great deal of the Stoic view of positive happiness, but would
not obvious damage the views on virtue or avoiding unhappiness
too seriously. But if one denies that emotions or desires are
the result of false judgments [Th 7], then 8, 9, 13, 14, 28, and 29
all collapse. You lose the idea that it is irrational to desire
things, which means you cannot control your happiness,
and that means you lose the argument that all desiring
acts are not virtuous. So denying that one theorem makes
the whole house of cards, regarding both virtue and happiness,
crumble into dust. So if you wish to pick and choose among
the Theorems, be very careful to look at what supports what.

Regards,
Grant [who probably will be limited to short
posts for a few weeks--much to everyone's relief]

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