The Stoic Conception Of The Chief Good

I have already spoken of the way in which the Stoic psychology emphasises the unity of the soul, both in its intellectual and in its moral life, in opposition to the dualistic views of Plato and Aristotle. According to the Stoics the conscious self occupies the place in man's nature which the divine reason holds in the universe. It is represented as a central power which, from one point of view, may be distinguished from the senses, but which, when so distinguished, must be taken as absolutely dominating over them. In fact, the distinction is for the Stoics only a relative one, nor is there any real separation between the principle that dominates and the powers and tendencies that are controlled by it. They belong to the same self, and are described as emanations from the ruling power, or as only that power itself under a special modification. Nor, again, do the Stoics admit any separation between the reason and the will, except as different aspects of the same faculty. The will is, as with Kant, simply the reason in its practical exercise. We may ideally distinguish the reason that seeks to discover the nature of the objective world from the reason that seeks to realise itself in that world; but, as the world can be nothing but the realisation of reason, there is no real -separation between the two. The first truth of psychology for the Stoic is, therefore, this: that it is the same soul or self that thinks and wills, perceives and desires; and that, though for some purposes it may be convenient to distinguish these different powers,# though indeed the difference of the organs of sense to a certain extent forces this distinction upon us, yet it must never be supposed that they are like different beings which are, so to speak, enclosed in one skin, and which act and react externally upon each other, Now, in our ordinary descriptions of the inner life, we are too apt to assume or suggest such externality of its elements to each other, and to forget the unity of the soul in the diversity of its manifestations. We are apt to think of the mind as a kind of arena in which intellect and will, sense and passion, and all the other faculties which we personify, play out their game, now conflicting and now co-operating with each other, without interference from any power that lies beyond their divided life. And in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, as we have seen, there is something that favours this misconception. The opposition of form and matter introduces itself into the conception of the relations of reason and passion, and the intuitive intelligence seems in its pure nature to be regarded as independent of that connexion with the other elements of man's being, into which it is brought in our experience. This division especially troubles the psychology of the will, and its supreme act of choice is described by Aristotle as a combination of the two elements of desire and deliberation, without any clear indication of a* principle of unity beyond their difference.1 But •

the Stoic at once sets aside all such dualistic ways of describing the life of the soul. To him the dominating self is at once reason and will. And though, as we shall see, he lays great stress upon the division and conflict of the moral life, yet he will not for a moment allow that desire and passion are other than forms of the life of the one self, or expressions of its self-determined activity. This point is apt to be misconceived, because we frequently find Stoics speaking of the passions as unnatural or irrational. Such language might seem to involve a similar point of view to that of Plato, when he distinguishes the rational and the irrational elements in our being, or to that of Aristotle when he says that the desires are partly irrational, though so far participating in reason as to be capable 'Vol* I, p. 316'¿eg.

of submitting to its law. Now the Stoics allow, as of course everyone must allow, that man does not always act in accordance with the dictates of reason, which yet they regard as constituting his nature. Nay, they conceive that the passions are irrational in an even deeper sense than is admitted by Plato and Aristotle, as being not only indifferent to reason, but directly opposed to it. But they do not conceive of this as due to the existence in men of any separate element which is indifferent or recalcitrant to reason. No Stoic who was faithful to the fundamental ideas of his philosophy could admit that any feeling or desire is irrational in the sense of being independent of reason/ or as, even in its utmost perversion, capable of exhibiting the characteristics which would exist in a creature altogether devoid of reason. The passions, irrational as they are in one sense, as perversions of our rational nature, are yet quite rational as being the determinations of a rational self and the manifestations of its characteristic power of judging and choosing. The folly, or, as the Stoics often designated it, the madness of man, in which he rebels against the rational principle of his being, is still in another sense quite rational. It is not the corruption or perversion of his nature by a foreign principle, but the division of that nature against itself. Hence we can never explain away intellectual error or moral guilt by attributing it to the influence of an irrational part of our being upon that which is rational. We must explain it as a failure of man to be faithful to his true self, as a revolt of the rational being, as such, against reason. If man be said to be misled by sense, this only means that he has not properly tested the images through which he apprehends the objects without him; if he be said to be carried away by passion, this only means that he has failed to make clear to himself the conception of the supreme good which is bound up with his rational nature.1

Now I think that from one point of view this doctrine marks a distinct advance upon the psychology of Plato and Aristotle. It is true, as I have already indicated, that it leaves out of account the process of development by which the implicit unity of man's nature becomes explicit; in other words, it forgets that, though reason makes man what he is, he is ever becoming, and has never become completely rational and self-conscious. But it forces us to realise that the germinal reason is in him from the first, that it is the distinctive principle which constitutes. his selfhood, and that, if there were not, even in his most undeveloped stage such an expression of the unity of the self, there would be in him no self, and, strictly speaking, no humanity at alL Even in the consciousness of an animal there is such a universal unity, that it would be absurd to treat * See Bonhtfflfer, p. 93.

its different appetites as isolated or standing in merely external relations to each other. The animal at least feels itself in all it feels, and this gives an individual unity to its life through all its changes. Yet as this unity in the animal is not self-conscious, the animal might still be said to live wholly in the present, and to pass from one impression or impulse to another, not relating or connecting them, but identifying itself wholly with each in turn.

But a self-conscious being cannot live thus, just because it is self-conscious, or, in other words, because it refers all its action and passion to one ego. * To forget, in considering him, this essential reference, is to leave out the unity which gives its distinctive character to his life, and then to treat the whole as if it were the sum of the parts, or the result of their action and reaction upon each other. On the other hand, if we do take account of this unity at all, we must realise its presence in all forms and changes of the soul's life. Perhaps we may put the truth more exactly by saying that the life that is self-conscious has in it both a new kind of unity and a new kind of division; for in such a life the self is necessarily set against the not-self— at once distinguished from it and essentially related to it—and this division, as well as this unity, is carried out in all its conscious states. But this means that in it sensation becomes perception, and appetite desire.

Hence, If in one sense we may be said to start "with 'the feelings and impulses of animals, yet'the very dawn of our rational life carries us beyond them, so that we never are simply sensitive or simply appetitive. In other words, our sensations and appetites are never what they are in the animal; they may be better or worse, higher or lower, but they are never the same thing. Our sensations may often be less keen in themselves than those of some animals; but they are subject from the earliest dawn of consciousness to a new interpretation, being referred to objects whieh are conceived as standing in definite relations to each bther in the one world of experience which exists for one self. And they have become capable, because of the new meaning whieh is thus put into them, on the one hand, of conveying to us general truths which are beyond the reach of animal capacity, and, on I lie other hand, of deceiving and misleading m in a way and to a degree in which the comparatively simple nature of the animal can never be deceived or misled.

It is difficult, indeed, to describe the intelligible world as it exists for the inchoate self*r.<»nseiousness . without seeming to attribute too much to it; for in describing it we necessarily analyse it m it cannot analyse itself. Still» oven allowing fur the way in whieh, in the slow process of evolution, a change of kind hides itself under the appearance of

the particular end or object as part of a general good. And, though it is possible that for the moment these two things may seem to be identical, and the soul may throw itself with all the energy of passion into one pursuit, such a concentration must in the long run lead to a recoil. For it is impossible that a rational being should permanently identify the good with one element in it, or that he should live wholly, like the animal, in each impulse as it arises. There may be an approximation to this in a low stage of humanity; but, even then, there is a restlessness and .dissatisfaction which indicates that the universal good, the end which a self-conscious being as such must seek, is separating itself from the particular objects in which it has been sought. A self-conscious being, as such, necessarily has the consciousness of itself in relation to a world, and its complete satisfaction cannot be less than to have its world for itself. This limitless self-seeking is the background of all the desires of a self, and it infuses into them all an element which may either exalt or degrade them, but which in any case cannot let them be like the simple and direct impulses which come with a definite physical need and pass away immediately with its satisfaction. The appetites of man, if we may call them so, are capable of being overstrained and perverted in a way that is not possible in the animal life, just because in them he seeks the satisfaction of a self, and tries, as it were, to expand a finite into an infinite good. And, on the other hand, they are capable of being purified and idealised by being made the natural basis of a higher spiritual satisfaction, elements in that comprehensive good which alone can be regarded as adequate to the self.

It was, therefore, a very imperfect psychology which led Hume, as it has led many, to speak of the passions as if they had an independent nature of their own, which reason could not alter. On the contrary, we have to realise that, from the beginning, reason enters into the constitution of the desires, giving even to the simplest of our appetites a character which they could not have except in a rational being, and continuously transforming them by the idea of the good as the realisation and satisfaction of the self. For, as Plato declares, man necessarily seeks the good, "having an antici-pative consciousness of its nature," which gradually becomes clearer and more comprehensive with every step in the widening of his experience and the development of his powers. Hence, whatever may be the explanation of that division in man's life which we ordinarily speak of as the conflict of reason and passion, we must recognise that it is a conflict within our rational nature, between different expressions of reason, and not between reason and something else. In insisting upon this point, therefore, the Stoics hitj upon a truth which was obscured or neglected in the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies. For it is the essential problem of human life that we can thus be divided against ourselves, in spite of the identity of the self of which we are conscious. The division and conflict of the soul, indeed, would not be so deep and deadly, if it could be explained by the opposition of matter to form, of sensuous passion to an ideal principle, and if it were not that the ideal principle in us is turned against itself. That the passions of men mislead them is the superficial aspect of the fact, but the deeper aspect of it is that we mislead ourselves; for the passion that misleads us is a manifestation of the same ego, the same self-conscious reason which is misled by it: and thus, as Burns puts it, it is the very " light from heaven " that leads us astray.

The great question, therefore, is how such self-contradiction is possible, or, in other words, how a being whose nature is reason, can act irrationally. This question is one to which the Stoics directed much attention; and their answer to it is well worth consideration, though it is made incomplete and unsatisfactory by the fact that, like Socrates, they are unable to think of reason except as conscious and reflective, so that for them unconscious reason is no reason at all. Hence they always treat conduct as the result of definite acts of judgment and reasoning. Their view may be summarised thus,

We always seek the good, hut frequently we mistake something else for it, and, when this happens, we commonly say that our passions mislead us. But such passions are really the result of false judgments, in which we subsume under the idea of good actions or objects that are not good. And this again implies one of two things; either we make a mistake as to the idea of good itself, or we make a mistake r as to the nature of the things which we subsume under it. In other words, either we do not clearly realise what we mean when we call a thing good, or we do not clearly perceive what the particular thing in question is, and, therefore, we suppose it to have a character which it has not.

But both kinds of knowledge are, in the opinion of the Stoics, within our reach. The idea of good is within our reach, for it is bound up with our rational nature; and if we do not attain to a definite understanding of it, it is because we do not undergo the labour of reflexion which is necessary to make it clear and distinct. And the knowledge of particular things, at least so far as is necessary to determine their value, is also within our reach, if we rightly use and carefully interpret the images which we receive from sense. To use an Aristotelian mode of expression, the rightness of our conduct depends upon the way in which we develop the practical syllogism, whose major premise is the definition of

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  • HANNO SEIKOLA
    What is the chief good to stoics?
    7 years ago

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