January 14, 2005

Interpreting the Stoics

A book review of The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, which sounds to be a very worthy companion. It is the interpretation that I would like to put into question. Here is the relevant passage:

"Inwood's Companion does not only illustrate how different authors working on a number of subject areas deal with a limited amount of sources, but also how what is thought to be an essentially coherent philosophical system can be approached from many different directions. The Stoics conceived of themselves, and were so treated by others, as highly systematic thinkers.

The reader of this Companion discovers this systematicity after just two or three chapters, which reliably link to thematically related articles in the same volume, as well as to additional literature. The main Stoic contributions to traditional grammar, for example, were made in the context of their analysis of the properties of rational thought (in the 'dialectical' part of their logic). The resulting grammatical theory thus has strong ties to logic, and connects with wider issues within epistemology, psychology, and even metaphysics (since sounds and words are material objects). Stoic psychology in turn has its point in accounting for the good life and is consequently deeply rooted in moral psychology. Psychology must be understood in the context of Stoic ethics and the task of living a good life. Because the good life is lived not only in accordance with human nature, but also with the cosmos generally, it must be determined in the context of both moral psychology and cosmology. And because the cosmos partly depends on the will of the Gods, we cannot do without theology. Stoicism, as A.A. Long puts it, "is coherent through and through -- a system such that to remove one letter would be to destroy the whole account".

Other reviewers also interpret the Companion in terms of systematicity.

It sounds like the modern understanding philosophy is being imposed on the Stoic texts.

Do they really form such a tight theoretical system? Is Ancient philosophy similar to modern philosophy? Or is this the philosophical discourse of philosophy being imposed on these ancient texts that operate with another kind of philosophy?

You can see these distinctions at work here. This relies on Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a way of Life, which makes a distinction between the discourse of philosophy taught in the universites as an abstract and theoretical activity and philosophy as a art or form of living ---as a way or mode of life.

Hadot says that Stoic philosophy:

"...was not systematic because it wanted to provide a total systematic explanation of the whole of reality. Rather, it was systematic in order that it might provide the mind with a small number of principles tightly linked together which derived greater persuasive force and mnemonic effectivenes precisely from systemization. Short sayings sumed up, sometimes in striking form, the essential dogmas, so that a student might easily relocate himself within the fundamental disposition in which he was meant to live."(p.269)

The review implies that Stoicism is systematic because it aimed to provide a total systematic explanation of the whole of reality. Consequently, it overlooks the different kind of philosophy in Stoicism--philosophy as a way of life or an art of living.

Hadot discerns in the various ancient traditions, but especially in the Stoics, a distinction between 'philosophy' (philo-sophia conceived of as the formation of the soul; or in Quinton's terms the deep structure of character, with the addition of an orientation towards the good), and discourse about philosophy (understood as the investigation of the nature of things, and to a lesser extent our knowledge of them). This, of course, is related to the more familiar distinction between practical and theoretical philosophy.

But whereas modern, recent and contemporary thought has invested greatest effort and talent in the pursuit of theory building in the form of epistemology, metaphysics and language the Stoics, give priority to thinking about practice, and within that to the cultivation of wisdom and the development of the spiritual life. Epictetus observes that 'the lecture room of the philosopher is a hospital' which is to say that his work is the cure of souls.

Hadot says that:

"I think modern man can practice the spiritual exercises of antiquity, at the same time separating them from the philosophical [metaphysical] or mythic discourse which came along with them. The same spiritual exercises can, in fact, be justified by extremely diverse philosophical discourses. These latter are nothing but clumsy attempts, coming after the fact, to describe and justify inner experiences whose existential security is not, in the last analysis, susceptible of any attempts at theorization or systematisation ... It is therefore not necessary to believe in the Stoic's nature or universal reason. Rather as one lives concretely according to reason"

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 14, 2005 06:38 PM | TrackBack
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