Michael Tremblay | Stoicism’s Place in Hellenistic Philosophy

Michael Tremblay | Stoicism's Place in Hellenistic Philosophy

ABOUT OUR GUEST

Michael Tremblay is a PhD. student in philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston. Before going to Queen’s University he completed a B.A. and M.A. in philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa. During his time at Carleton he wrote a Master’s thesis on the Stoic Epictetus. His PhD work continues to examine Stoic ethics, and the question of how the Stoics thought we should cultivate our virtue. 

Michael’s main interest is in ancient philosophy, specifically moral education in the Stoics. He’s fascinated by the Hellenistic conception of philosophy as a way of life, which is to be practiced in order to achieve virtue and happiness. He is also interested in philosophy as a skill or craft, and how training and practice factor into becoming a better philosopher.

Beyond philosophy, Michael is passionate about martial arts and competes regularly in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling.

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  • “Philosophy” is a greek word that means “the love of wisdom” 
  • The term “philosophy” was not really used that often before Socrates was on the scene, but after Socrates and his student Plato came to prominence the term was used more commonly. 
  • Plato formalised philosophy and created the divisions of metaphysics, ethics, logic etc. 
  • Philosophy is the pursuit of truth, but there are lots of different kinds of truth. 
  • Hellenistic philosophy began after Aristotle and ended before the medieval period. 
  • The development starts with Socrates, then Plato (Socrates’ student), then Aristotle (Plato’s student), and then the Hellenistic philosophies begin. 
  • Hellenistic philosophy focused mainly on a question that originated with Aristotle which was “what is the content of happiness?”
  • The hellenistic philosophies are extremely practical as they’re simply focused on how we should live a good life. 
  • A Daemon is a demigod. It’s not quite God, but it’s the term used for the individualised spirit that guides you. It might be referred to as the conscience. 
  • You could use “daemon” interchangeably with “luck” or “fate”. To have a good daemon, for example, was to have good luck. 
  • It’s something that cannot necessarily be fully explained. We say “thank God for that” because we’re thanking whatever luck, good fortune or fate has come our way that is in our favour and cannot be explained. 
  • The word in Greek was “Theos”, thus “Theology.” 
  • Daemon was the spirit, Theos was God.
  • Greek gods were the gatekeepers of good or ill fate in certain areas of life. For example, the god of weather, festivities, love etc. 
  • The Epicurean believed that the gods were not too concerned with our fate. For example, while the Greeks were looking for favour in the gods or were worried about ill fate from the gods the Epicureans argued that this was pointless because the gods weren’t concerned at all with how human life fared. 
  • The Stoics had one God, however it wasn’t the same as the Christian God. The Christian God is anthropomorphised, so there’s a man and a son and physical abilities. The Stoic God is simply reason, or “the divine principle that inhabits all things and causes motion, order and structure.”  Matter is inert, and so it needs something to make it flow and work together. The Stoics taught that matter was put into motion by the divine providence of reason, whatever it really is.  
  • There is God, or Logos, in everything. The logos, or the divine reason, is what makes things what they are. Rocks have a different portion and shape of the divinity to trees, and trees have different portions and shapes of the divinity than humans or animals. The Stoics suggested that the highest form of divinity is found in the human ability to reason and understand the world. 
  • Divinity flows through every individual and everything within the cosmos. You have a portion of the divinity in you. 
  • God is Nature, so living in accordance with Nature is living in accordance with God. 
  • God is not outside Nature. 
  • Contrary to Christianity, Stoicism teaches that we are not sinful by nature but are rational by nature, so we should understand that God is not separate to us and that we can be happy and effective simply by being what we are, with virtue at the forefront. 
  • “Hellenistic” is simply Greek for “Greek”
  • The question that all the Hellenistic philosophers were trying to answer was “what does it mean to live a good life.”
  • The main players in Hellenism are the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics, the Skeptics, and the Peripatetics.
  • The Peripatetics are the students of Aristotle. 
  • All of the main Hellenistic philosophers had different definitions of the content of happiness. 
  • The reason why we don’t hear much about the Skeptics is because they really didn’t have an answer. People always want an answer to how to achieve happiness, but the Skeptics said that we should refrain from false judgements. They would say that it’s better to say that you don’t have the answers than to follow ideas that you don’t know are right. 
  • The Aristotelians (Peripatetics) taught that a good live was a mix of virtue and external goods. For example, if you’ve lived well but then you lived in poverty and hardship most of your life then you didn’t really have a good life. But if you were rich and virtuous then you could do good things with that money and have a really good life. 
  • The Epicureans taught that the good life was one of maximal pleasure and minimal pain, both physically and emotionally. They taught that what we need in order to have physical pleasure is very little. They taught that physical pain was not an obstruction to pleasure. They also taught that virtue would lead to an emotionally rich life. Pleasure was the ultimate good, but you get pleasure by being virtuous. 
  • Epicureanism was “hedonistic” in the Greek sense, but not in our modern understanding of the term. They taught that, for example, if you were to to betray your friend in order to achieve pleasure then you would not be happy. 
  • The Skeptics asked the question, “what causes suffering?” They taught that suffering is the result of being attached to things. When we’re attached to things or outcomes then we’re liable to be upset when we lose those things or when things don’t turn out how we like. So don’t be attached to anything and you’ll experience a feeling similar to that achieved in Taoism or Buddhism where you’ve lost your attachments. 
  • Stoicism taught similar ideas to the Skeptics. For example, they would say that you shouldn’t believe anything unless you know it’s true. They had a “default skeptical position” that suggested that we should start by not believing our initial perceptions, but that we should work our way out of problems using reason and rationality. Stoicism has a deep commitment to truth and the way things are, and so throughout the ancient Hellenistic debates the Stoics were influenced by many other philosophies when they were proved to be correct. 
  • Stoicism is a branch of Cynicism. The Cynics taught, like the Stoics, that we should live in alignment with Nature. The ideal Cynic was someone who could break away from society and reject the norms created by culture. They were fans of harsh physical training to get students to reject every perception that was the result of society. 
  • Many people who claim to be Stoics are actually Epicurean because their main goal is the kind of happiness called “feeling good” as opposed to the kind of happiness that comes from living virtuously and being an effective human. 
  • There’s far more Skepticism in Stoicism than what people acknowledge. We would do well, when we begin learning about Stoicism, to step back and try to forget about everything we think we know about what’s good and bad so that we can reevaluate. 
  • We should also consider asking the question of what we essentially are as humans. Are we simply our thoughts? Or are we animals who can think rationally who also need physical and mental care. 
  • Hellenistic philosophies are basically “riffing” on Aristotle’s works. 
  • Aristotle’s works extend far and wide in terms of the questions and theories he wrestled with, but his Ethics are the cornerstone of his contributions. 
  • Aristotle suggested that everything that we do comes from a desire to be happy. He argues that if you were to question someone’s motives long enough then you would find that ultimately they’re doing what they do because of a desire for happiness. 
  • He then argued that we should first define what happiness is so that we don’t have to run around looking for things that would make us happy that ultimately won’t. 
  • Happiness means many things. One definition is simply a sensation that comes as a result of feeling good. 
  • “Eudaemonia” is the term used by the Stoics which means a flourishing life. 
  • The flourishing life is not simply about moments of happiness, but rather it was about a totality of flourishing throughout an entire life. 
  • Happiness is objectives. Stoics would look at someone who lives without virtue and rationally decide that they are not experiencing true happiness.  
  • The Stoics and Aristotle were very interested in learning what it meant to live a “good” life. 
  • The origin of Stoicism is the rejection of societal norms. 
  • Epictetus, the great Stoic teacher, referenced Diogenes the Cynic and Socrates the most, which can tell us something about the influences of Stoicism. These two people are perfect examples of philosophers who through away social convention. 
  • Epictetus believed that Cynicism was the highest calling. Not everyone possesses the strength to go as far as the Cynics, but we can try to live well with what we have. 
  • Cynicism taught that a good life was one lived according to Nature, but they said that this would be the pursuit of only virtue at the expense of all else. 
  • The Stoics taught that we should live according to Nature, but that our nature as humans was as rational and social animals. So for Stoics, family and friends and positive social change were not things to be avoided. 
  • Stoics were cosmopolitans and believed that we are humans first, and then whatever roles we’ve been assigned. For example, Seneca suggested that slaves were not slaves, but human beings first. 
  • Life as a philosopher is for a select few, but being a Stoic is for anyone. 
  • Epictetus taught that we should evaluate what we’re good at, what we’re drawn towards and what is in our individual nature and we should do that really well. He taught that “God” gave us certain pallets and skills and we should follow these. 
  • Some people, the Stoics taught, were given the ability to do just philosophy. So the life of a philosopher is one for a select few. 
  • Alignment with Nature was tough on three levels with Epictetus:
  • There is Nature in terms of fate, or the physical world. An example of this is the fact that we are all destined to die, so we should accept this and not fight it. 
  • The second Nature is that we are rational beings. So we should never compromise our nature as rational beings. 
  • Once we’ve aligned with the physical world and our own nature as rational beings, Epictetus taught that we have all kinds of options to choose, and we should follow our individual nature and our social roles that we play. For example, be a good musician (if that’s in your nature) and also a good father (if you’ve accepted that role).
  • So the Stoics taught that your life would go really well if you don’t compromise any of these “natures”.
  • The Stoics were determinists and recognised that everything that happened was going to happen. So we should align with the fate of the world, and should expect things to happen as they happen. 
  • The Stoics were materialists and believed that if we could learn about how matter interacts with other matter then we could predict what would happen. 
  • We’re all participating in the discovery of our own fates. You might try really hard and fail, or you might try really hard and succeed. The fact that you might fail shouldn’t stop you from trying to be the best version of yourself that you can be. 
  • You should set goals, but you should understand that your life can still be good no matter how those goals turn out. 
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