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Lecture Sixteenth: The Origin and Principle of the Stoic Philosophy

I HAVE explained in the last lecture that after the speculative failure of Plato and Aristotle—in spite of their great philosophic genius—to attain to complete systematic unity, and after their practical failure to revive the social life of the Greek State, philosophy tended to become individualistic and subjective, to turn its attention from theories of the universe and the State to the inner life of the individual. As a consequence, greater importance began to be attached to the ideas of the Minor Socratic schools—the Cynics, Cyrenaics and Megarians, who had developed the doctrine of Socrates in an individualistic direction. These ideas, indeed, could not make much way in their original form; but in the philosophies of the Stoics and Epicureans they were freed from the narrowness and one-sidedness of their first expression, and so fitted to gain a dominating influence over the minds of men. It is, however, necessary to go back to the earlier philosophies in order to understand the later, which were manifestly developed from them. In particular, it is hardly possible to understand Stoicism without reverting to the theories of the Cynics and Megarians; for it was the union of the ideas derived from these two schools that gave its distinctive character to the philosophy of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic School.

Now, the Cynic philosophy was one of those beginnings of progress which take the appearance of reaction. When some aspect of thought or life has been for a long time unduly subordinated, or has not yet been admitted to its rightful place, it not seldom finds expression in a representative individuality, who embodies it in his person, and works it out in its most exclusive and one-sided form, with an almost fanatical disregard of all other considerations—compensating for the general neglect of it by treating it as the one thing needful. Such individuals produce their effect by the very disgust they create among the ordinary respectable members of the community; they have the ‘success of scandal.’ Their criticism of the society to which they belong, and of all its institutions and modes of action and thought, attracts attention by the very violence and extravagance of the form in which they present it. And the neglected truth or half-truth, which they thrust into exclusive prominence, gradually begins by their means to gain a hold of the minds of others, forces them to reconsider their cherished prejudices, and so leads to a real advance of thought. In this fashion the Cynic seems to have acted upon the ancient, as Rousseau did upon the modern world, as a disturbing, irritating challenge to it to vindicate itself—a challenge which was violently resented, but which awakened thought and in time produced a modification, and even a transformation of prevailing opinions. It might be likened to a ferment, which sets agoing a process of disintegration and reintegration, which ends in the destruction of an old, and the creation of a new form of human thought. Such one-sidedness may be weakness, and in the long run may he seen to be so; but for a time it gives an invasive strength which, especially when it is directed against an institution or mode of thinking that has begun to lose its vitality, is almost irresistible.

Antisthenes, the founder of the Cynic school, was a narrow, passionate soul, who took fire at the words of Socrates, words which were for him not so much a call to self-reflexion as a proclamation of revolt against the social and ethical standards of the time. The calm independence of the master, his hardy, temperate and almost ascetic life, his disregard for opinion and his refusal to be turned from the course dictated by inward conviction, either by bribes or threats, by any of the rewards or penalties which society could offer or inflict, awakened the enthusiasm of Antisthenes. He was a ready recipient of the doctrine that the ends of the moral life must be self-determined, and not dictated by an external authority; and he understood the lesson in the most exclusive and individualistic sense, as meaning that each man must take the care of his own life upon himself, shape out his course by his own thought, and regard the State with all its customs and laws as a mere usurpation. In this spirit Antisthenes raised the banner of Nature against Convention, and met every claim of society upon the individual with contempt and derision.

But in so doing he really broke away from Socrates, exaggerating the negative part of his master's doctrine, that which threw the individual back upon himself, and neglecting altogether the positive part of it—that idea of the determination of the individual life by universal principles which, for Socrates, was the one thing needful in morality. Antisthenes was a thorough-going Nominalist, who maintained that the individual alone is real, and the universal nothing but a collective name. Following out this view, he held that, as things are quite isolated in their individuality, the only judgments that are true concerning them must be tautological judgments, in which a thing is predicated of itself; for, if the predicate differs from the subject, then the judgment must be untrue when it asserts that the subject is the predicate. Hence in strict logic we can say nothing but ‘A is A,’ ‘a man is a man.’ Antisthenes, indeed, seems so far to have modified this doctrine as to admit that, when a thing is complex, you can define it by resolving it into its elements; but he maintained that when you have got down to these elements you can only name them. This, of course, involves that the whole of any complex thing is merely the sum of the parts.

It is easier to see the absurdity of this doctrine than to show why it is wrong; for, if it were true, we could have no significant predication or judgment whatever, a tautological judgment being in reality no judgment at all. It seems plausible enough to say that judgment asserts the identity of the predicate with the subject, and that it cannot be true, if they are in any way different. And, indeed, it is not long since a well-known school of formal logicians, not seeing where such a doctrine would lead them, proclaimed the law of identity in this sense as the essential law of thought, and maintained that all affirmative judgments must conform to the type ‘A is A,’ that is, to the type of tautology. But the truth is that the whole view of logic of which this is a part rests upon a confusion, which arises from looking at one of the aspects of thought and neglecting the other. There can be no thought, no judgment or inference, unless there be an identity maintaining itself through the different aspects of things that are brought together in these processes: but, on the other hand, the identity must manifest itself in difference and overcome it, else it will mean nothing. We cannot say ‘A is B,’ unless there is an identity between both terms, one principle manifested in both and binding them together; but, if there were absolutely no difference between them, the judgment would not be worth making and would never be made. In any significant judgment the predicate must amplify the conception of the subject, though not in such a way as to destroy that conception. Thus every judgment forms a new conception out of the union of the subject and the predicate, with only the necessary change produced by their union.

Now the aim of Antisthenes is to discredit any philosophy that seeks to reach the true determination of the particular by means of the definition of the universal. In this he was, of course, striking directly at the principles and the method of his master Socrates. He seems, however, to have had specially in view the ideal theory of Plato, who maintained that it is only by rising to the universal that we come in sight of the reality which is hid under the particular appearances of sense. To Antisthenes this seemed nonsense; for, on his view, the sole reality lies in the individual, which he supposes to be given in sense, and thought cannot possibly go beyond what is so given. To account for the particular by the universal was, in his view, as if one should seek to explain things by giving them a collective name, and then by pretending that there was some mysterious entity designated by this name, which was not in the particulars.

Now both Plato and Aristotle are particularly scornful when they come across this crude kind of Nominalism, which sees nothing in the world but a collection of isolated individuals. Thus Plato in the Sophist speaks of those who regard it as a feast of reason to be ever showing that the one cannot be many nor the many one. “You have met such people, Theaetetus, old fellows who have taken to philosophy late in life, who from poverty of thought are full of delight in such subtilties, and think that they have found in them the grand secret of philosophy.”1 Aristotle mentions Antisthenes by name as the maintainer of this doctrine, and declares that it showed him to be a man of no culture who did not understand dialectic. Still it is clear that Antisthenes was useful to Plato and Aristotle, at least as an irritant; for he stimulated them to develop their logical principles, and to show that thought moves not by identity alone, but by identity in difference. Aristotle, indeed, lays more stress on the individuality of the real than Plato, but he gives as little countenance as Plato to the abstract nominalism which would reduce the world to a mere aggregation of individual substances.

The Cynics, however, were primarily bent upon practice and not upon theory; and the dialectical defence of individualism was valuable to Antisthenes mainly as a support to his ethical views, and especially to his attempt to isolate the individual and maintain his independence, his natural freedom and self-sufficiency. Indeed, to Antisthenes, the autonomy of the individual, his independence of everything but himself, seemed of itself to constitute that supreme good which Socrates had taught him to seek. “Virtue is sufficient for happiness,” he declared, “and all that it needs is the Socratic vigour” (ἰσχὺς Σωκρατή). Antisthenes may rightfully claim to be the first of the enthusiasts for ‘formal freedom,’ that is, for a freedom which is nothing but the negation of bondage—the assertion of the self against everything that is regarded as belonging to the not-self, the demand of the individual to be his own law and his own end. To such a temper of mind, every claim of society upon the individual, every custom or law or authority that demands the slightest deference from him, seems to be an outrage; and outrage must be met with outrage. The Cynic, therefore, is in a continual attitude of protest against what is conventional or artificial; and to him the whole order of social life, every rule of morals or manners, or even of decency, seems to be conventional and artificial. He proclaims the watchword: ‘Return to nature,’ with all the dangerous ambiguities that have attached themselves to that phrase. For, while nature is set up as the type to which man is led by reason to conform himself, yet it is apt to be taken, not as meaning the ideal to which his development points as its goal, but that which is earliest and most elementary in its existence, as opposed to that which is later (that which is later being assumed to be imported from without). In this way the Cynic seeks the true man in the child, the savage, or even the animal; and the return to nature means for him the repudiation of all civilisation, of all that is due to education or social discipline. This is the fatal circle which moral speculation has trodden again and again from the time of Antisthenes down to that of Rousseau; and in which the attempt to get rid of what is adventitious and unnecessary, to free life from artificial adjuncts, and to get down to the basal facts of existence, converts itself into an effort to strip man of every veil that hides the nakedness of the animal.2

But this is not all. The Cynic sets up the standard of revolt against all social pressure, as trenching upon the native liberty of man: but, in the strange weakness of this merely negative attitude, the Cynic is found to have his own raison d'être just in that very society against which he protests, and without antagonism to which his own life would be empty and meaningless. His independence is an inverted dependence; his pride and contempt for others are in essence one with the servility that hunts for their suffrages. “I see your vanity,” said Socrates to Antisthenes, “through the holes in your coat.” The Cynics are a crucial example and illustration of the law that men inspired by a one-sided theory and carrying it out unflinchingly to all its consequences, end in becoming a living demonstration of its absurdity. They supply, as it were, the corpus vile on which the experiment is made that exhibits the impossibility of an emancipation that is merely negative. They seek to make men free by breaking the ties that bind them to their fellowmen, to the objects of their desires, and to everything that is not themselves. But with every tie they break, with every relation they repudiate, their own life becomes poorer. In rejecting what seems to them the bondage of the State, they give up all the intellectual and moral discipline, all the culture and refinement of manners, all the opportunity for the exercise of human faculty, which made Plato and Aristotle prize the civic life so highly. Refusing to weaken themselves by luxury, because it enslaves men to outward things, they end in counting everything a luxury which man can exist without, that is to say, everything except the satisfaction of the barest sensuous wants. And, after all, they find that man is bound to the world he would escape as firmly as ever, though now only by the vulgar tie of appetite. They thus discover that there can be no end to what they regard as the servitude of the self to the not-self, except in the extinction of the life they would emancipate. And indeed many of the Cynics, having reduced life to its beggarly elements, were ready to throw it away. Death is the only negative freedom; but bare death is not the emancipation of man from natural forces, rather it is their final triumph over him. There is, however, another aspect of the case. The real interest which fills the life of the Cynic, and in which his happiness consists, lies not, of course, in the necessaries of life to which he confines himself, but in the assertion of himself as against the political and social claims upon him. It is not, therefore, that he really excludes the ordinary interests of life, but that he takes them in a negative way. His very contempt and hatred binds him to that which he despises and hates. But he fails to recognise that such contempt and hatred needs the objects against which it is directed, and that, without such objects, it would have nothing to spend itself upon. Thus, after all, the Cynic is a parasite upon the society he repudiates, and that just because he lives to defy and insult it.

Still, in spite of all this, we must recognise that there was an element of truth wrapped up in Cynicism, and this gave it an undoubted power over a certain class of minds. The negative idea of independence may be false and self-contradictory when it is divorced from any positive idea, but it has a real value as an element in the truth. There is a sense in which the ‘return to nature’ and the repudiation of luxury constitute the conditions of any healthy morality. And the Cynics, in denouncing the artificiality of the Greek State and the whole framework of society connected therewith, might be regarded as defending the integrity of the moral life. For it is true that, in one aspect of it, the civilisation of Greece was an artificial product, based on the social privilege of a slave-holding aristocracy, and, therefore, upon injustice to human nature in the persons of their slaves. Hence also its morality was partial and one-sided, not the universal law of duty but the code of honour of a class, whose honour stood ‘rooted in the dishonour’ of others. It was no little thing that, in the face of such a civilisation and such a morality, there should be men who maintained the dignity of labour, condemned the false glories of war, denounced the prejudices of class and race, and maintained that the only true State is the πολιτεία τοῦ κόσμου, the community of all men. But in the Cynic expression of these truths there is often a crudity and violence which seems to show that they were not appreciated in their highest meaning, that they were grasped as weapons to throw at the enemy rather than as expressions of positive truth. “Follow philosophy till you regard the generals of armies as leaders of asses.” “I would rather be mad than feel pleasure.” “Why should a man be proud, like the Athenians, of being sprung from the soil with the worms and snails.” “The most noble of all things is παρρησία, the power to speak out freely what we think.” Are these sentences expressions of righteous horror at war, of genuine temperance and self-control, of a regard for humanity which reaches beyond patriotism, of a simple resolve to speak the truth at all hazards? Or are they the utterance of a bitter wrath against the pleasures and ambitions of others, of a vulgar hatred and jealousy of superiority either in birth or culture, and of a desire for the utmost license of intemperate speech? We can only say that the good and evil are so inextricably mingled together that we are bound to take the one with the other in our estimate. But we are bound also to recognise that the Cynics in their condemnation of the limited aristocratic State and of the culture and refinement that went with it, were truer prophets than Plato and Aristotle, who spent their great philosophic genius in trying to regenerate a form of social and political life which mankind had outgrown.

Now in the Stoic philosophy all these ambiguities are cleared up. Stoicism is Cynicism enlarged, deepened, idealised, freed from the violence and exaggeration of men who were outlaws and rebels against the social system under which they lived, and transformed into the calm strength of a rational faith. This may partly be explained by the history of the founder of the Stoic school. Zeno got his first initiation into philosophy from Crates the Cynic, and his whole system bore such distinct traces of the Cynic teaching that he was said to have written his works on the dog's tail (an untranslatable pun). But while he absorbed the lesson of the Cynic, we are told that he was repelled by the Cynic's outrages upon taste and decency: repelled also, we may fairly add, by his narrowness and hostility to culture. To this, however, Zeno found a corrective in the teaching of another of the Socratic schools; for we hear that he studied not only under Crates, but also under Stilpo, the Megarian. Now the peculiarity of the Megarian school was that it had developed the principles of Socrates in a diametrically opposite direction to that in which they were developed by the Cynics. To use the terms of later philosophy, the Megarians were extreme Realists as the Cynics were extreme Nominalists. Socrates had laid great stress on the importance of general notions, and had maintained that it is only when we grasp and define the universal that we can rightly judge of the particular. Thus he might seem to have given countenance to that tendency to exalt the universal at the expense of the particular, which is supposed to have led Plato to attribute absolute reality to the former and to treat the latter as an illusive appearance. But Plato, as we have seen, soon became aware of the danger of this exaggeration, the danger of losing difference in unity and treating abstractions as the only realities; and, at least in his later writings, he insisted on the equal importance of analysis and synthesis. The founder of the Megarian school, on the other hand, being a man of subtle rather than comprehensive intelligence, possessed with the Platonic desire for unity without the Platonic desire for systematic completeness, fell early into the trap of abstraction from which Plato escaped. He set the one against the many, the universal against the particular; and he even went so far in this direction as to revive the abstract doctrine of the Eleatics,—though the influence of Socrates led him to call the absolute unity in which all difference is lost by the name of the Good, and also, we may add, to think of it not as a material but as an ideal principle. Moreover, like the later Eleatics, the Megarians devoted all their dialectical skill to the task of showing that multiplicity and change are essentially contradictory, and must, therefore, be mere illusive appearances.

But their doctrine became in this way the opposite counterpart of that of the Cynics. They maintained the exclusive reality of the abstract universal, as the Cynics maintained the exclusive reality of the abstract individual; and while the Cynics set up the independence of the individual as the end of all action, the Megarians taught that the end was to be found in a pantheistic absorption in the Absolute, an extinction of all personal feeling in the contemplation of the One. But ‘extremes meet,’—in the sense that when we entirely isolate them from each other and annul all positive relation between them, their negative relation also disappears, and they reach the same end by opposite roads. Thus the Cynic and the Megarian agree in denying the truth of any judgment which is not tautological; because to admit that the universal can be truly predicated of the individual would be to the Cynic inconsistent with the self-identity and independence of the individual, and to the Megarian inconsistent with the absolute unity and reality of the universal. And, if we consider their respective views of ethics, we can see that the self-centred freedom of the Cynic, to whom any desire or affection that went beyond himself would be slavery, has in it something closely akin to the apathy of the Megarian. It is a curious fact that this community of the two doctrines was already recognised by Stilpo, the Megarian teacher of Zeno, who, therefore, is sometimes called a Cynic, and who may possibly have suggested to Zeno the idea that a higher result might be reached by a combination of the doctrines of the two schools, in which he had received his philosophical education.

Be that as it may, it is the fact that Zeno, looking at the Cynic philosophy with the eyes of a Megarian, and at the Megarian philosophy with the eyes of a Cynic, rose to the conception of a system in which these two theories, which appeared to be diametrical opposites of each other, were united and reconciled. The originality of Zeno consisted mainly in this one illuminating thought—that the individualism of the Cynics and the pantheism of the Megarians, the sensationalism of the Cynics and the idealism of the Megarians, the materialism of the Cynics and the intellectualism of the Megarians, were not really contradictory, but were rather complementary aspects of one truth. The possibility of this union of opposites and the self-consistency of the philosophy founded upon it, we shall have to consider hereafter. But, in the first place, I wish to point out how by this change the spirit, tone, and temper of Stoicism became entirely different from that of Cynicism, and even sharply contrasted with it. For the Cynic school was, as we have seen, almost exclusively occupied with the negative side of its philosophic creed. Its activity was absorbed in the manifestation of its scorn and hatred for the institutions and principles of a society which seemed to it to stand in the way of the free development of the individuality of man; and by the inevitable recoil, it became imprisoned in its own negations, and the half-truth which it grasped was almost turned into a falsehood by the exaggeration of its expression. For the Stoic, on the other hand, the doctrine of independence ceased to be a doctrine of revolt, and became a positive consciousness of the dignity of man as a rational being. The self-concentration—the consciousness of being a law to himself and subjected to no external authority, of being an end to himself and not a means to the ends of any other being or society without him—remained to the Stoic as his inheritance from the Cynic. But he had learned from the Megarian that the reason which made him a true individual, an independent self, was at the same time a universal principle, the principle of a life common to him with all other rational beings and uniting him to them all. Withdrawing into himself from all the entanglements of life, from all the special connexions of society, and realising to the full his individual selfhood and his separation from every other thing or being, he found that, when most alone, he was least alone, and that just in the inmost secret of his soul, he was at one with all mankind.

But in this way the Stoic had discovered that the deepest, and, in a sense, the most individual experiences of humanity are also the most universal. It is what is particular, the special characteristics of the individual and the race, the special traditions of each family and nation, the special disposition and tendencies of each man, that hold us apart and make us incomprehensible to each other; but when we get down to the root of humanity, to the self-consciousness that makes us men, we find that our differences have been left behind or have become transparent, and that the language spoken by each individual is intelligible to all. The inmost secret of each man's heart is the secret of the whole world, and if we only go deep enough, we can evoke an echo in every breast. Hence it is just the greatest poets, those whose range of thought and feeling is widest, who are secure of a welcome everywhere; while those who express the special sentiments of any nation or class cannot be understood beyond their country and time, except by elaborate study and preparation. It is this apparent paradox that the most individual is the most universal, which the Stoics brought to light, and by means of which they, as I have said, changed the whole tone and temper of earlier individualism. While, therefore, the strengthening power of the Cynic doctrine, the ‘Socratic vigour,’ was not lost, while the Stoics were able to show on many occasions that they found in their philosophy a spring of energy which could lift them above fear and desire, and which could be corrupted or intimidated neither by public opinion nor by the earthly omnipotence of the Roman Imperial power; yet they were not, in the first instance, occupied with resistance or revolt against outward authority or influence, but with the effort to rule their own spirits, to live a life of moral freedom, and to die without doing dishonour to humanity in their own persons. And, in spite of their condemnation of the general tendencies of the society around them, and their resolution to live in independence of it as of everything merely external, their attitude to the world was not primarily antagonistic. On the contrary, they held that the very principle which gives the individual an absolute claim against other men, also obliges him to recognise the same claims in them; and that the same reason which makes him an individual, self-determining being, unites him to all beings like himself—or, at least, would unite him to them, if he and they were to become what, as rational, they potentially are. Hence it is to the philosophy of the Stoics that we owe the watchword of humanity: Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto; and, indeed, it is also to them we owe it that the word humanity has the double sense of the adjectives ‘human’ and ‘humane.’ Thus the Cynic's self-assertion against society is turned into a consciousness of membership in the great civitas communis deorum et hominum. And if this universal community remain with the Stoics only an aspiration and does not become a reality, if it be at best a dream of the distant future rather than a consciousness of any actual or possible object of present endeavour, yet even the idea of it did much to break down the barriers between mankind. In short, in passing from Cynicism to Stoicism, we are passing from a self-sufficiency which is all-exclusive to one that, in idea at least, is all-inclusive; and the Stoic philanthropy, if it had not the invasive energy of Christian charity, yet carried with it a comprehensive sympathy, which softened the bitterness of national and personal prejudice and prepared the way for the religion of humanity.

And this leads me to speak of another point which is of special interest to anyone who seeks to trace the evolution of theology. The Cynic philosophy, as it broke off the community of man with man and of man with the world, was, at least in its most prominent aspect, the very negation of religion. In arming man against his fellows, it also armed him against heaven. Its self-sufficiency was the contradictory of all obedience or loyalty to any power above the individual. But for the Stoic it is quite otherwise. Freedom from the law without is at once recognised as binding the individual to obedience to the law within; and as the Stoic thinks of this inner law as absolute, he cannot but believe that the whole world is subjected to it. Hence in obeying his own nature, he is conscious that he is in harmony with the law of the universe,—a law which all things obey, but which it is the privilege only of rational beings to know, and to make into the conscious rule of their own lives. They alone can see that the world is the manifestation of the same reason that speaks within them, and they are therefore able to identify their own freedom with submission to a divine law and service to a divine purpose. Deo parere libertas est.

From the first, Stoicism was a religious philosophy, as is shown by the great hymn of Cleanthes, the successor of Zeno as head of the school—a hymn which is inspired by the consciousness that it is one spiritual power which penetrates and controls the universe and is the source of every work done under the sun, “except what evil men endeavour in their folly.” Man alone is of pure divine race,3 and he alone is able to accept or to resist the divine will—though, after all, his resistance is naught, being in contradiction with his own nature, as well as with the nature of the universe and of God. “Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny, in the work to which I am divinely chosen, and I shall follow, not unwilling; but even if I refuse and become evil, no less must I follow thee.” Thus the moral independence of the Stoic converts itself into a consciousness of unity with God, in which all caprice and wilfulness are lost; and the individual becomes strong in himself simply as he becomes conscious that he is the organ of the divine will. Stoicism may not be successful in dealing with all the difficulties of the question of man's freedom, or in solving the antinomy which arises when we consider his position as, on the one hand, a self-conscious, self-determining ego, and on the other, a finite individual who is only a part of an infinite whole, and whose self-determination cannot be conceived as breaking up its unity. But it is fair to say that Stoicism first brought the two terms of the problem face to face with each other and indicated the line in which alone a solution can be sought. How can morality and religion, free self-determination and absolute self-surrender to God be united with each other? This henceforward becomes one of the fundamental questions of the philosophy of religion. And the answer to it can only be found, if it be found at all, in the conception of the fundamental unity of man's nature with the divine. Thus the Stoics both set the problem of freedom, and showed in what direction the solution of it was to be sought.

  • 1. Sophist, 251 c.
  • 2. Cf. the words of King Lear about the naked Edgar: “Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.”
  • 3. τοῦ γὰρ καὶ γένος ἐσμέν—the words quoted by St. Paul in his address to the Athenians (Acts xvii. 28).