Report on Stoics talk at King's

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Greatly enjoyed today's talk by George Karamanolis. He was arguing (among other things) that, at least in the early Stoics, "preferred indifferents" have a kind of intrinsic value which they possess by being "according to nature." I wasn't quite convinced; I think that Epictetus captures the Stoic position (even the early one) well when he says that virtue is like a magic wand that makes everything it touches into gold. That is, virtue or wisdom makes things good, makes them have value. But George made me see that there are some puzzles about this, for instance why should we prefer things like health and wealth when their contraries could be just as conducive to virtue? E.g. if you have to obey the tyrant to keep your money, then you should choose poverty instead, and in that case poverty it seems is an "preferred indifferent," yet the early Stoics say that wealth and not poverty is preferred.

This may all make more sense by the way after the next episode which is on Stoic ethics, as it happens!

Peter Adamson on 14 January 2012

A comment from James

A comment from James Warren:

"Sounds like an interesting paper. The fact that there are circumstances in which wealth or health would not be good and under which poverty and sickness would not be bad shows just why these are indifferents and not goods or bads. And perhaps it is not enough to say that health is usually better than sickness in the circumstances. So the question is why health and not sickness is the preferred one. I suppose the Stoic move here would be to same something about the connection between health and nature or perhaps even with divine benevolence. It seems plausible to say that health rather than illness is the state that is according to nature. Wealth might be different matter, I suppose. But at least wealth allows the capacity for achieving various ends while poverty is an incapacity."

And I think James is right here. I actually raised the question, at the talk, of why illness isn't a preferred indifferent if it is better in some circumstances. If you think about it, since most of us are fools it might even be the case that poverty and illness are more frequently good than bad (since for most of us, the more able we are to pursue our desires and act on our beliefs, the worse it is for us). George wanted to push the idea that health, being according to nature, does have some kind of virtue-independent value; I think I'd prefer to say that its being according to nature makes it apt to be used for virtuous ends, even if in unusual cases illness could instead serve the ends of virtue.

John Sellars on 14 January 2012

I wish I had been able to

I wish I had been able to attend the talk, but I suspect I would also have been unconvinced. I think the hard line view we find in Epictetus probably does reflect the early Stoic attitude. It's also worth bearing in mind that if you really buy Providence, as the Stoics did, then illness is as according to Nature (with a capital 'N') as health is, even if it might seem contrary to our own natural functioning.

With regard to poverty being sometimes a preferred indifferent, it's worth noting that this was a hot topic of debate among the early Stoics, with Aristo rejecting a rigid classification of externals into the categories of preferred and non-preferred, suggesting instead that we ought to assess each situation we find ourselves in on a case by case basis. In the case with the tyrant, poverty might indeed be preferred, even though not in other situations. Aristo is now often characterized as heterodox as he lost the argument, but his position makes a lot of sense, and the debate tells us that this question was open for a while.

For Aristo have a look at Sextus Empiricus, Against the Ethicists 65 [Long & Sedley 58F].

JIW on 14 January 2012

John is quite right but the

John is quite right but the problem with Aristo's hardline position is that if someone is not virtous (and we are all not virtuous) then it leaves no guidance whatsoever for our choices.  But if health were to have some kind of 'virtue-independent value' then a virtuous and healthy life would seem to be better than a virtuous and not-healthy life.  Virtue would not be the only good.  The Stoics do have a tricky line to walk.  They want to say that virtue is the only good and vice the only bad, that all other things are indifferent, but that generally speaking it is right to prefer to be healthy than ill and we poor vicious fools would be better to select health over illness.  The debate gets played out in Cic. Fin. 3 and 4.

In reply to by JIW

John Sellars on 14 January 2012

Thanks for this James. By the

Thanks for this James. By the time Cicero is writing the categories have hardened a bit and the idea of pursuing preferred indifferents seems accepted behaviour for a Stoic, but earlier on my instinct is that these things would have been treated as really indifferent. So, in response to the question what should all of us vicious fools pursue, the answer would be 'don't waste your time on health, pursue virtue!'. By the time we get to Cicero and Panaetius, the strong Cynic inflection of the earliest Stoics seems to have been lost. I don't think the early Stoic position suffers from a major philosophical problem but I can see that not many people will find it attractive!

In reply to by John Sellars

JIW on 14 January 2012

True.  But how helpful is it

True.  But how helpful is it to be told 'Pursue virtue'?  What is that?  'Follow nature.'  How do I do that?  Looking after my health might sound like in general a good way to follow nature...  After all, Nature has made us animals conscious of our own state and with a natural drive to preserve what belongs to us...

In reply to by JIW

John Sellars on 14 January 2012

But if our true nature qua

But if our true nature qua rational beings rests with our virtue / condition of our psyche then to live according to our own nature (= nature of the cosmos) is to pefect our rationality so far as we can. If that is what following nature looks like then physical health might seem fairly tangential - useful to be sure, better to have than not, but not really a first step on the path that we ought to be pursuing.

Your line emphasizes the naturalistic side of Stoicism, to which I'm very sympathetic, while my line emphasizes the rationalistic side, which I find far less plausible, so I'm not sure how far I'd want to push this.

In reply to by John Sellars

Peter Adamson on 14 January 2012

James is right that there is

James is right that there is a problem of how we could know what to do, if we are not virtuous. But to what extent might the notion of "befitting" actions (kathekonta) come to the rescue here? These, I take it, were introduced at least in part to provide a class of actions that have value without being expressions of full-blown virtue. But maybe it doesn't help, if the "befitting" turns out to be just another word for "preferred". For instance honoring one's mother is befitting but conceivably there are situations in which the sage would not honor his mother, just as there are situations where he would forego health.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

John Sellars on 16 January 2012

It may be that there simply

It may be that there simply is no argument of set of reasons explaining why we ought to prefer health over illness, given both are indifferents. Instead we simply do, as an expression of our instinct for self-preservation, which the Stoics posit. We don't need to hear a reason in order to know to choose health, we just do it instinctively. This might get round Peter's concern about exceptional cases, as the primary instinct for self-preservation might lead us to choose illness over health if that looks the better prospect in a particular situation, even though for the most part health will be the natural choice.

I'm not sure if it gets round James' concern about moral guidance, but the non-wise will certainly have this instinct for self-preservation and without need of argument or justification the non-wise simply get on with instinctively selecting those indifferents that contribute to thier survival. Inevitably they will sometimes make mistakes.

In reply to by John Sellars

JIW on 16 January 2012

John's last point sounds

John's last point sounds right.  But I don't think that kathekonta are all going to be covered by what is instinctive.  Sometimes it will be a difficult matter to work out what the appropriate thing to do might be (hence the thorny problems tackled in De officiis).  We need to be careful here, though.  Peter wonders if kathekonta might have some sort of value.  I don't think a Stoic would like that thought, at least in some moods, since although a kathekon might be the sort of action a sage might perform, a sage will not perform kathekonta but, rather, katorthomata (perfect actions).  Moreover, whatever is done by someone who is not wise is done by someone vicious and is therefore wrong.  So that's more or less an analogue of the problem that George is interested in (I think) now in terms of actions rather than objects of choice.  We want some way of discriminating between unwise actions, all of which are wrong.  Similarly, we seem to want some way of discriminating between indifferents, none of which are good or bad.  It's a puzzle, alright, but it's pretty clear how the Stoics have ended up in this position and they have good reasons to want to defend each of the contributing elements.

In reply to by JIW

Ollie Killingback on 18 January 2012

"Befitting" and "appropriate"

"Befitting" and "appropriate" both help me more than "value". I've just (very quickly) re-read Marcus Aurelius and he still seems to me to be saying things about actions that are appropriate to his various roles, as Emperor, Human Being, etc. - even if he doesn't say this as clearly as I thought he did. Then it becomes possible to resolve a conflict by prefering actions that are befitting or appropriate to his public roles (which potentially create greater good) rather than his private ones, even if such a preference causes personal pain by being, say, away from his family.

Ollie Killingback on 18 January 2012

I must admit I find the whole

I must admit I find the whole discussion difficult... it seems to me that both health and sickness are according to nature, like it's natural to die of malaria if you're bitten by a mosquito, and natural to be healthy until some disease strikes you or you overdo indulgence in some apparent pleasure (applause from Epicurus here?). When Peter pointed out the malevolent affects of a tyrant's health, I wondered if it wasn't also the case that his continued life might offer an opportunity to realise his error and turn to virtue and undo his evil works. Unlikely maybe. 

But even more difficult is the idea that a value exists in a thing in itself, as in the goodness of a cold glass of beer in a desert with no living thing around to drink it. Maybe growing up in a market economy has warped my mind, but just as the brown of a giraffe's eye is biologically in my brain, an effect of the wavelength of light reflected onto the cones in my retina and stimulating signals along my optic nerve, so also is the beauty of that eye something that exists in so far as I can appreciate it, and giraffe meat may be utterly wonderful if I am about to die of starvation but not under any other circumstance, as I prefer vegetarian cuisine.

Indifferent seems to imply neither one thing nor the other, but I suspect that these indifferents maybe more or less valuable according to circumstances.

George Karamanolis on 20 January 2012

I read all your comments with

I read all your comments with great interest and I do not have very good answers to all of them. And at any rate, the topic is very puzzling. But let me make one point. It is rightly observed that both health and sickness are according to nature, in the sense that when they occur, they occur according to the providence of Nature. But this does not mean that it is according to nature for us both to seek health and sickness. The impulse we have towards the former is an impulse according to nature and as such is to be valued, as something which has a reason to be there and it can trusted, other things being equal, to guide us in life. Of course, when illness comes, we should know that this is for reason too, and thus according to nature, but it is also according to nature for us to want to get better. So I distinguish between 'according to nature' for what happens and 'according to nature' with regard to the impulses we have. These are to be valued for being there and to be trusted to some extent. But I do agree the whole discussion is very perplexing. 

The other important aspect of the Stoic discussion is the metaphysical status value and disvalue have. There is absolutely no literature on that topic. I hope to make progress with my paper and have you reacted to my ideas n more advanced form.

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