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 Eousseau 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 rim may be 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 con cerning 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, whiph 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 maintainor 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 1 Sophist, 251 o.

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