From stiff upper lip to Stoicism

IF there is a single distinction to be made between modern ethics and ancient Greek ethics, it could be argued that while the former attempts to establish what is right independently of character, the latter tries to establish what kind of character is needed to lead the right sort of life.

Of course, this is a huge generalisation and there is some common ground in that most ethical positions – Egoism being the main exception – look at ways of determining morality beyond individual interests. The main difference is that modern ethics like Utilitarianism and Kantianism, or Deontology, attempt to establish moral truth beyond the desires of the individual, while the ancients sought to find it in the virtuous individual.

In recent years moral systems like Utilitarianism – which seeks to find the greatest happiness of the greatest number – and deontology – which in Kant’s system eschews consequentialism and prefers universal rules like his Categorical Imperative in the Kingdom of Ends – have come under sustained attack form, among others, philosophers who draw inspiration from the ancient Greeks. A leading figure in this renaissance is Aristotle in a field of ethics that is generally known as Virtue Ethics. In a nutshell neoaristotelianism ask what a virtuous person would typically do to reach a state of eudaimonia – roughly meaning flourishing or well-being. The second part of this question is critical because it plucks the theory from the jaws of circularity of simply stating that a virtuous person is one who acts virtuously. Another ancient philosophy, however, has been making a comeback in recent years in the form of Stoicism, which sits somewhere between neoaristotelianism and the austere asceticism of Cynics like Diogenes by valuing external values as long as they don’t deflect you from a virtuous path.

In his book How to be a Stoic, Professor Massimo Pigliucci guides us through the Stoic way of thinking, which is often simplistically referred to as the very British stiff upper lip – needless to say Stoicism is far richer and deeper. According to the author there are three main Stoic disciplines – the first, and perhaps the most important of which, is the discipline of desire. This idea rests on the fact that some things are are in our power while others are not. As the important Stoic philosopher Epictetus is quoted in The Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” In order to tell the difference we need wisdom – a key value in ancient Greek philosophy – and an understanding of how nature works based on the best available scientific knowledge of the day. We are then enjoined to accept that which we cannot change, including death, with equanimity while concentrating our attention solely on those things we can change.

The second discipline is often referred to as ‘action’ and centres on concern for others and how to behave in the world and draws on the virtue of Justice. Finally, we have the discipline of ‘assent’ which, as Pigliucci, writes ‘tells us how to react to situations, in the sense of either giving our assent to our initial impressions of a situation or withdrawing it’. Logic and Reason are the prime virtues behind this discipline. And these three disciplines lead into Stoic ethics which rest on a combination of intuitionism, empiricism and rationalism (Stoics are most definitely not moral sceptics!).

Throughout the book Pigliucci engages in an imaginary discussion with Epictetus as a guide through the dense thickets of modern life by applying the Stoic virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Compassion and Integrity in order to achieve eudaimonia. As we have seen, Stoics distance themselves from Cynics by allowing some external goods but they are also distinct from Socrates and Aristotle, both of whom assumed a degree of material comfort as part of their moral vision. For the Stoics, however, character is what matters ‘regardless of our circumstances’. Interestingly, this idea chimes with the Victorian notion of the gentleman, which they regarded as being accessible to any man regardless of circumstances, a view that may well have been influenced by Stoicism. On the other hand, although the Cynics allowed that their asceticism was available to everyone, the idea of living in a tub all your life – as Diogenes did – is not exactly appealing to modern sensibilities.

Stoicism also ‘makes room for both religious and unbelievers, united by their common understanding of ethics regardless of their diverging metaphysics’. It is interesting to note here that the Dalai Lama makes a strikingly similar point in his book An Appeal to the World when he writes: “I see with ever greater clarity that our spiritual well-being depends not on religion, but on our innate human natures, our natural affinity for goodness, compassion, and caring for others.”

Stoicism is an attractive ethical stance not least because of its grounding in the material world. Unlike Egoism it is clearly other-regarding and is a powerful guide for how an individual should live as a ‘citizen of the universe’ as Socrates put it. But still, it is founded on the individual and communitarians are likely to object to that position. However, it does not take a huge leap of imagination to see the Stoical individual emerging from his or her grounding in the collective, shaped and influenced by it but also evolving from it and, in turn, helping to shape the collective.

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