Active Life in an Uncertain World: The Epicureans and the Stoics

Of the Socratic branches of thought, the Epicureans and the Stoics stood apart from their Platonic and Aristotelian brethren in that they sought to provide philosophies of an active life, and criticised the other two schools for what they saw as their bookish tendencies. In the Epicurean and Stoic traditions, then, questions had to be asked about the ways to personally address the unknown, particularly as it pertained to the future and the perishable world around us. As such, both branches of thought developed natural philosophies that emerged from their efforts to offer followers a method of addressing the unknown in their daily lives. Whether it is the Epicurean goal of freeing the self from fear or the Stoic one of aligning oneself with the natural order, both philosophies seek these goals in response to the unknown, and ultimately, its avoidance or its removal from the cosmos. Both schools related this to their primary objectives, their relationship to the gods, and to the conflagration or infinity of the universe.

As the Epicurean Lucretius states in his On the Nature of Things: “nature craves for herself no more than this, that pain hold aloof from the body, and she in mind enjoy a feeling of pleasure exempt from care and fear”. To do so requires an understanding pleasure and pain, death, and the nature of the gods. The purpose of obtaining an understanding of these concepts, however, has its roots in the removal of fear. Thus, it could also be said that if this fear can be removed with a proper understanding of certain concepts, then it is first and foremost, a fear based on unknowns. A study of natural philosophy is necessary so that people can understand how to properly avoid suffering and seek pleasure, come to terms with death, and realize how arbitrary, omnipresent forces cannot influence them. As Rist states in Epicurus: An Introduction: “Epicurus regards the study of nature as a necessary evil; without it we are subject to delusions about the role of the gods in the ordering of the world and about an afterlife”. Understood this way, eliminating the fear of the unknown through understanding certain key elements of the world around us is the Epicurean ideal. As Lucretius states more eloquently: “This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature”.

It is important, however, to point out that this method calls for knowledge of the natural world only insofar as it removes fear. There are a few very specific areas that are seen as vital to removing fear (i.e. pleasure and pain, fear of the gods, and fear of death). As Asmis says in her work Epicurus’ Scientific Method: “It is, I think, fair to say that Epicurus was not interested in exploiting his method of inquiry to its full potential”. A substantial portion of nature can be left to its own devices insofar as people do not fear those particular events. One primary example of this is Epicurean astronomy, which lagged far behind its Stoic counterpart. Yet, as will be shown in his view of infinity, even these modest goals resulted in the need for a complex account of the universe.

The Stoic account of the good life differs drastically from that of the Epicureans. It appears to demonstrate an acceptance of the unknown nature of the outside world, particularly as it pertains to the future, since the future is merely the playing out of the divine will. For the Stoics then, the place in which they demand certainty is not in knowledge of the world around them, nor even in what will happen to them, but rather how they will respond to what will happen to them. As Epictetus states: “the gods then, as was but right, put in our hands the one blessing that is best of all and master of all, that and nothing else, the power to deal rightly with our impressions, but everything else they did not put in our hands”. This “blessing” is our own reason that grants us the ability to influence how we respond to the events in the world around us. As Epictetus artfully puts it: “Philosophy does not promise to secure to man anything outside him”, rather it allows him to secure within himself a certainty of how he will react to unforeseen events. The rationality of the world outside of man is what permits the Stoics to have such trust in it. Even though they do not know where that same rationality will lead their individual lives, it both must be and is good that it will be. As such it is both impious and foolish to lament what must in the end come to pass. For the Stoics: “The beginning of philosophy […] is a consciousness of one’s own weakness and want of power in regard to necessary things”.

Epictetus argues from the interdependence that he sees all around him in the natural world that there must be an overarching reason dictating all things. Just as the perfect fit of sword to scabbard indicates reason was used in its construction, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that the fact that colour and light would be meaningless without creatures possessing the power of sight indicates that reason was likewise used in their construction. As such, reason and purpose in nature underlie all things. As opposed to the Epicurean concept of nature as something fundamentally separate from theology, there is no separating the natural from the divine for the Stoics. As Keimpe Algra points out in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics: “theology, according to the Stoics, is just a part of physics”. Indeed, it is this very view that compels the stoics to seek their center of certainty in themselves, for: “[w]e must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it. What do you mean by ‘nature’? I mean, God’s will”.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans agree that we can determine what there is to know about the gods based on our primary conceptions, the natural impressions or definitions with which we defined gods qua gods. For the Stoics the definition of a god is that it is an overwhelmingly rational, blessed, eternal, and providential being. Since the world displays this reason and providence, and we have a conception of the gods to begin with, they must, therefore, exist. As such, Stoic good and Stoic God in this case cannot be separated. Epictetus makes this clear in his segment entitled “How One May Act in All Things So As To Please the Gods”. Reason is God, it is nature, it is the whole progression of human life; thus following nature is no more than accepting what is necessary.

Yet this interpretation of nature also has other connotations, particularly in regards to the unknown. If God’s will is God’s reason, and it expresses itself in the knowable world, then what is to separate human knowing from divine knowing, except in quantity? As Algra states: “Behind all this lies the firm conviction that God’s rationality – or, for that matter, the rationality of the cosmos- does not differ in kind from human rationality”. In the larger scheme of things, then, there is nothing that is truly unknown, for all knowledge is encapsulated in the reason of God, and that reason is no different in kind from human reason. Stoic theology in some respects could be said to have removed the fears that Epicurus sought to conquer, for nothing is truly unknown in the Stoic world view. Contrary to Epicurus this victory over fear finds its removal exactly in an affirmation of the power of the gods. As Epictetus has shown, the Stoic’s primary good is the removal of uncertainty of the self and an acceptance of the world around us. However, this acceptance does not show a trust in the unknown, but rather a belief in its ultimate non-existence. The gods know everything, for things existences cannot be removed from the god’s knowing of them. What Epictetus says of men’s relation to the gods is the same as the god’s relation to all things, as universal reason: “what need have they of light to see what you are doing”, for they have willed what all things are doing.

For an Epicurean, however, this view could not be tenable, for the distinction between God and nature is clearly made. Nature and its laws are the result of atoms playing out their individual natures qua matter. This process is knowable, lacking a set teleology, and constant. The gods on the other hand, by definition, have no part to play in the lives of men. Epicurus’ explanation for why people fall into the error when thinking about the gods is that “many people assign to the gods attributes, such as harming or helping men, that are incompatible with the primary concept, or presupposition, of God as an indestructible and blessed living being”. By their very definition, gods for Epicurus can have no part in the world, for they are blessed, thus not wanting anything outside of themselves, and indestructible, thus playing no role in the generation or corruption of atomic congregations such as people. It is reasonable to see that Epicurus’ doctrine against the gods could be viewed as a natural result of his primary goal of removing fear of the unknown, for if the gods did influence the affairs of men then we would be subject to the seemingly arbitrary and unknowable will of some divine personality. If they did influence the affairs of humans, the gods would cordon off a segment of a very personal and immediate part of human life, namely the knowability of natural causes. There is a great difference between explaining a thunderstorm as an impersonal build up of fire in the air that eventually releases itself, and explaining the same storm as Zeus’ will. The first explanation can be known to work given certain understandable conditions, while the other is up to the seemingly arbitrary will of an omnipresent, alien, mind.

Lucretius seems to be addressing the Stoic position on the gods when he says: “But some […] ignorant of matter, believe that nature cannot without the providence of the gods in such nice conformity to the ways of men vary the seasons of the year”. For Lucretius, the fact that there are orderly elements to the world does not rule out the fact that there are also disorderly elements, given the traditional definition of the heavens this should not be so, and yet it appears to be just that. For, as he continues: “judging by the very arrangement of heavens, I would venture to affirm […] that the nature of the world has by no means been made for us by divine power: so great are the defects with which it stands encumbered”. If reason is to rule everything and nature made for the good of man, then from where do their opposites emerge, disorder and misfortune to man?

Both of these positions reach their logical conclusions, however, in their two most expansive cosmological doctrines, that of infinity and the conflagration. When looking at the cosmos as a whole, Epicurus couldn’t argue that there was nothing like reason in the world, for it presented itself all around him. Yet if matter is ruled by a divine reason, then there is something existent outside of the scope of matter and the senses. This determinism could spell the end for the Epicurean good; for if the will is determined, all hope for a doctrine based on acquiring certainty on specific key themes is lost. In order for matter not to need such divine reason, it must be infinite in extent, for only then would probability ensure that everything that could be must be. It would then provide us with something in the natural world that appears to be reason, but is more like a Darwinian process of selection. Furthermore, the doctrine of infinity strengthens the Epicurean belief that nothing is lost, and nothing fundamentally changes, even though our atoms disassociate. As Lucretius states: “one can easily believe’ that ‘these very atoms out of which we are now composed were often previously placed in the same order that they are now’”. Not only are they placed in the same order, but in every possible order, for “if something can be produced by atoms, it necessarily is produced by them. Accordingly the ever unchanging atoms keep producing ever the same combinations as they have been producing in the past”.

This doctrine allows the unknown to be explained away as a function of probability on the universal level, for everything that can be is, yet still permits of the Epicurean view that there is no afterlife or need for divine reason. Lucretius treats upon this in his On the Nature of Things, as Asmis summarizes: “In an attempt to remove all fear of an afterlife, he argues that if there are future individuals just like ourselves, this matters not at all to our present selves, since our memory will have been severed”. Infinity, unlike the conflagration, is also an expansive cosmological view that still permits of the possibility of a free will. Even though everything has to be somewhere, there is nothing to say that any one thing has to be here. Given Epicurus’ goals and methods, the doctrine of the infinity of worlds seems like a natural conclusion. Thus, from one of Epicurus’ first natural principles, that: “the primary bodies have previously moved with the same motion with which they now move, and will afterward always move in the same way” and his desire for a free will also free from fear of uncertainty, the afterlife, and the gods, we arrive at the eventuality of this doctrine of the infinite.

The conflagration, likewise, is the natural and pan-ultimate expression of the Stoic world view. As Michael White puts it: “With respect to the relation between eternal recurrence [the conflagration] and determinism, it is worth reemphasizing the point that both doctrines were considered by the Stoics manifestations of the all-encompassing divine reason controlling the cosmos”. Indeed, in the accounts given by Marcus Aurelius this seems to be the case, since everything will happen again, man cannot and should not bemoan the length of his life. As he says: “all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, […] it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years […] or an infinite time”. The doctrine served well to demonstrate the reasoning and necessity behind the Stoic virtues to adherents and non-adherents alike. As Long and Sedly note in The Hellenistic Philosophers: “in Stoicism the doctrine [of the conflagration] may have served to underline the necessity of accepting one’s present situation. For that will be one’s situation time and again in the everlasting nature of things”.

Yet the conflagration is more than merely a doctrine justifying the Stoic way of life, it also shows how the Stoics ultimately sought to eliminate all unknowns in the ordered cosmos. The conflagration, then, is somewhat like the fulfilment of the promise of causality and reason. As such it represents the absolute removal of the unknown in an eternal cosmic year that itself is the playing out of reason in the world to its ultimate conclusion. This playing out of the cosmos is finally reabsorbed into reason as it progresses and “returns to the so-called primary reason and to that resurrection which creates the greatest year, in which the reconstitution from itself alone [i.e. universal reason] into itself recurs”. All of universal reason, then, must necessarily be a closed circuit. Its reason being no different in kind from that of human reason it thus sees itself completed in a beginning and an end. Most importantly however, is the point raised by Long and Sedly, they write:

It would be a mistake, however, to think of everlasting recurrence as a purely mechanical consequence of Stoic determinism. God is a supremely rational agent, and the most interesting fact about the conflagration is its omnipresent instantiation of his providence […]. In his own identity god is the causal nexus […]; hence the sequence of cause and effect is an enactment of divine rationality and providence. Since every previous world has been excellent […], god can have no reason to modify any succeeding world.

The repetition of the cosmos is required for cause and effect to substantiate the rationality of God. Since God is the supreme cause, with a hyper-humanlike rationality responsible for the universe, he must necessarily circle back on himself to eternally enact the chain of causality. This chain, built upon a hyper-humanlike rationality will necessarily squeeze out any unknowns from the universe, and establish itself as the ultimate good. This allows the Stoics to trust in that which they do not know, but which nevertheless is the enactment of a human-like reason. Thus, insofar as they are willing what happens to them, and aligning themselves to what is, they are in a real way participating in this great whole of divine reason, and thus amputating the unknown from their lives. This is why Epictetus can state “I am a citizen of the universe”, for: “When a man […] has learnt to understand the government of the universe and has realized that there is nothing so great […] as this frame of things wherein men and God are united” he is a part of a universal all-knowing reason, and has no reason to fear anything as unknown, for he wills it as God wills it and sees that it is good.

As has been shown then, at first glance the Stoic goal of asking certainty within the self and how that self approaches necessity seems to be an acceptance of the unknowns in the world around us; however, with a closer look into Stoic cosmology and theology it can be seen that this is not the case. The Stoics eliminated the unknown by endowing all the cosmos with a human-like rationality that is shared by those who align themselves to it. Since the Stoic in some ways could be said to will the future, it would not be unknown to him. There is the trust that all things are known by God because they exist, for God’s knowing and things being cannot be separated, thus there is a purpose to the Stoic world order that does not permit the unknown. This purpose finds its end in the Conflagration which completes the cosmic year and reinstates the divine will of providence as the perfect replaying of reason.

In comparison, the Epicurean goal of removing fear from the individual’s life through the understanding of a few key principles must necessarily be at odds with the Stoic conception of determinism, for they see it as the mistaken idea of gods who result in a principle of personality beyond matter that arbitrarily influences the lives of men. For the Epicureans, rather, the unknown is defeated on the cosmic scale by probability in an infinite nature that lacks any sort of humanlike reason, but which is still subject to its own primary laws. On the individual level it accomplishes this task by focusing on several key areas of knowledge, the nature of pleasure and pain, death, the gods and showing how all fear can be removed by a proper understanding of these key principles. Everything outside of these principles need not be considered, as they do not inhibit the human from living the good life. Thus the question of the unknown in the individual sphere is in part avoided.

In these two philosophies, as philosophies of active life, the unknown has then been conquered by a myriad of principles and methods. It remains however, for the individual reader to see if these methods are appropriate or accurate, and if there can be any philosophy of an active life that permits of the unknown. Barring that, it would appear that any philosophy of an active life must necessarily find some way to banish the unknown to irrelevance or oblivion if it wishes to allow its practitioners the certainty to act in the world.

For More Information:

Asmis, Elizabeth. Epicurus’ Scientific Method. London: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Greek thought: A Guide to Classical knowledge. Ed. Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. New York: Russell & Russel Inc, 1962.

The Hellenistic Philosophers, Long and Sedley, Cambridge U.P., 1987. Vol 1.

Rist, J. M. Epicurus: An Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Rist, J. M. Stoic Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Ed. Brad Inwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers: The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. Ed. Jennings Oates. New York: Random House, 1940.


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