Friday, September 5, 2014

On the Plurality of the Virtues

We seem, as modern Stoics, to have become obsessed with Ethics. This is strange to me, because Stoicism was originally set up as a tripartite system, with Ethics in the company of Physics and Logic. While the written evidence isn't as full, there is mention of Physical and Logical virtues in several places in the Stoic cannon.

We are most familiar with the Excellences under Ethics (Categorized under Justice, Courage, Wisdom and Moderation), but less so with the Logical or Physical virtues. The ability to behave with excellence (ethical virtue) depends on a clear understanding of the way the world really is (physical virtue) and the capacity for excellent understanding and communication (logical virtue).

The Logical Virtues are Dialectic and Rhetoric. A.A. Long ascribes the list of Dialect virtues to Chryssipus but Jedan disagrees, while maintain that they are still virtues. The sources for the logical virtues include Quintilian, Stobaeus and Pseudo-Andronicus.

However, to avoid become too pedantic, and because my interests lie more in practical application than scholarly refutation, it makes sense to me that excellence in behaviour cannot exist in the vacuum of self-reflection, but must be integrated with excellence in knowledge of the universe and our place in it, and excellence in the mechanics of thought, argument, and communication.

To me, this means that as modern Stoics we need to study the physical world, and to become aware of our place and impact on it, as well as the ways in which all species interact, which includes politics, religion and philosophy for a better understanding of  the human animal. It also means that we need to study logic, both formal and informal, epistemology, and rhetoric.

The important thing to remember here is the concept of study, not of dogma. While we may balk, and rightly so, at the conclusions that the ancient Stoics arrived at in their quest for understanding the physical universe, we cannot fault them for the quest itself. It is one we should emulate, though our conclusions will be different. As for their work in epistemology and dialectic, there is a growing interest and recognition of the seminal work they did in breaking down the assumptions we make concerning meaning, argument and knowledge.

We would be hard pressed to justify Stoic cosmopolitanism if we are ignorant of how the world is, and unable to communicate our intentions for caring for it. It would be impossible to explain why a certain act is ethically virtuous without reference to the agents on whom our action will have an impact, their current situations and the change we hope to make. Stoicism isn't, after all, about contemplating our navels. It is about striving to become an excellent human (Sage) and an active contributor to the excellence of our circles of influence, to borrow an image from Hierocles.

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