Blogs > Liberty and Power > RIP, stoic style

Jul 6, 2005 8:47 am

RIP, stoic style

Admiral James Stockdale has died. As far as I know, he was the only Stoic philosopher to run for Vice-President of the United States. I was not even remotely interested in Perot's campaign, but Stockdale was pretty cool.

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Roderick T. Long - 7/7/2005

Just the question one would expect from a philosopher.

Roderick T. Long - 7/7/2005

Another Stoic favourite of my mind is Seneca, who sometimes sounds positively Randian, as here:

"A living being has an attachment to itself, for there must be a standard by which all other things are judged. ... Since I treat my own welfare as the standard of all my actions, I am concerned for myself above everything else. ... Every living thing has an initial attachment to its own constitution; but a human being's constitution is a rational one, and so a human being's attachment is to himself not qua living being but qua rational being. For he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human. ... A ship is said to be good not when it is decorated with costly colours, nor when its prow is covered with silver or gold or its figure-bead embossed in ivory, nor when it is laden with the imperial revenues or with the wealth of kings, but when it is steady and staunch and taut, with seams that keep out the water, stout enough to endure the buffeting of the waves' obedient to its helm, swift and caring naught for the winds. ... Each thing is praised in regard to that attribute which is taken as its standard, in regard to that which is its peculiar quality. ... Everything is estimated by the standard of its own good. ... In each thing that quality should be best for which the thing is brought into being and by which it is judged. And what quality is best in man? It is reason; by virtue of reason he surpasses the animals, and is surpassed only by the gods."

There's also good stuff in Cicero, who was not a Stoic but who was nevertheless profoundly influenced by Stoicism in such passages as these:

"There is in fact a true law -- namely, right reason -- which is in accordance with Nature, applies to all men and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong. Its commands and prohibitions always influence good men, but are without effect upon the bad. To invalidate this law by human legislation is never morally right, nor is it permissible ever to restrict its operation, and to annul it wholly is impossible. Neither the senate nor the people can absolve us from our obligation to obey this law, and it requires no Sextus Aelius to expound and interpret it. It will not lay down one rule at Rome and another at Athens, nor will it be one rule today and another tomorrow. But there will be one law, eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times upon all peoples."

"We must realize also that we are invested by Nature with two characters, as it were: one of these is universal, arising from the fact of our being all alike endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts us above the brute. From this all morality and propriety are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. The other character is the one that is assigned to individuals in particular. In the matter of physical endowment there are great differences: some, we see, excel in speed for the race, others in strength for wrestling; so in point of personal appearance, some have stateliness, others comeliness.

Everybody, however, must resolutely hold fast to his own peculiar gifts, in so far as they are peculiar only and not vicious, in order that propriety, which is the object of our inquiry, may the more easily be secured. For we must so act as not to oppose the universal laws of human nature, but, while safeguarding those, to follow the bent of our own particular nature; and even if other careers should be better and nobler, we may still regulate our own pursuits by the standard of our own nature. ... If there is any such thing as propriety at all, it can be nothing more than uniform consistency in the course of our life as a whole and all its individual actions. And this uniform consistency one could not maintain by copying the personal traits of others and eliminating one's own."

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/7/2005

Yes, good points. I'll revisit Aurelius for sure. Thanks.

Tom G Palmer - 7/7/2005

I like the conjunction of Epictetus and Marcus for two reasons. First, of course, is the fact that two of the greatest Stoics were A) a former slave, and B) the Emperor. Second, I like the style, as the meditations were evidently written for him alone, and not for public education. They're about a man working diligently to achieve self control, not just telling others that they ought to do so.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/7/2005

Yes, I got a chuckle out of that - right after I posted that entry, I surfed over to your blog, and saw that you had done the same. I often assign either Stockdale or Epictetus or both. Don't use Marcus Aurelius much, but not for any particular reason -- does he add something, in your view, or is it more a matter of his expressing it a different way?

Tom G Palmer - 7/6/2005

Great minds must all think alike! (Or at least you two and one mediocre mind.) I also posted a note on Stockdale and his essay. Over the years I've given away dozens and dozens of copies of Epictetus's Handbook and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations to graduating seniors, not to mention inposing them on my niece and nephews.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/6/2005

I'm glad both that your students read Stockdale's story! It probably doesn't matter much if they don't know Perot. I never understood why he was so popular.

Roderick T. Long - 7/6/2005

I regularly assign Stockdale's pamphlet _Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior_ (an account of how Stoic philosophy helped Stockdale survive being a POW in Vietnam) to convince my students that Greek philosophy does have some practical modern application.

(Incidentally, my students have never heard of Ross Perot.)

David Timothy Beito - 7/6/2005

Well, he clearly had the best line in the campaign: "Who am I and why I am here."