Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: Zeno and the Moral Sage - Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings
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2: Zeno and the Moral Sage - William Dyer Grampp, Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings 
Economic Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1965). vol. 1 The Beginnings.
Part of: Economic Liberalism, 2 vols.
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Zeno and the Moral Sage
Zeno began with a conception of the universe. It was that the universe was composed of material objects, of things which he and the early Stoics called “real” and “solid” and which they believed could be apprehended fully by the senses. Their view was meant to oppose the Platonic conception that the universe consisted of ideal constructions of things which existed completely only in the mind and which were represented imperfectly by the objects the senses perceived. The elements of the Stoic universe were looked upon as being in a continuous state of growth, each moving with the other in a harmonious design toward a predetermined end. Presiding over the universe as prime mover, source of harmony, and governing power was the force of nature. It was called phusis, which literally means the process of growth. This particular conception—the idea of nature—appears again and again, especially in the period of classic liberalism in political philosophy. It sometimes is called providence, occasionally God, but often nature and will be called that here. Nature was the exclusive reality in the Stoic system.4
From these premises the Stoics quickly moved to what was their principal interest, the substance of human conduct. On the other fields of philosophy their influence has been negligible, but in ethical theory it has been profound. In order to explain conduct and to judge it, the Stoics inquired into the characteristics of the individual and their origin. As moral philosophers they tried to answer two questions: Why do men behave as they do? By what standards shall their behavior be judged? The first led them to what they believed was the distinctive characteristic of man—his reasoning faculty. It is the cause or motive of behavior. The second question they answered by asserting that behavior is to be judged by its reasonableness. It is good if reasonable, bad if not.
THE LOGIC OF STOIC MORALITY
A contemporary moralist would find this rather slim. What the Stoics said was that men were directed by reason and were virtuous if they were so directed. That is like saying all men have brown hair and are good men if they have it. If men always behave according to their nature, then there is no meaning in the statement that men are good when they behave according to their nature. Hence, ethical statements are meaningless. If however they are asserted to be meaningful, the assertion implies that men do not always behave according to their nature. This in turn implies that their nature does not always direct them, from which it would follow that the statement is wrong that men are directed by reason because they are reasonable by nature.
This is harsh on the early Stoics but it does indicate where they went wrong. They did not distinguish between the positive character of the first question (What determines behavior?) and the normative character of the second question (What is good behavior?). More than that, they answered both questions with the same proposition: That reason determines behavior and reason determines good behavior. I do not mean positive propositions have no place in ethics; I believe they have. The Stoics were not wrong because they asked two different sorts of questions but because they seemed not to realize that the questions were different.
This weakness is not as obvious in the early writings as I have made it here. As the Stoics developed the answers to each question, they introduced other ideas that served partly to conceal the weakness in the answers and partly to remove it. They said, for example, that man’s reason was given to him by nature and was a part of the rationality, or harmonious design, of the universe; that nature intended man to use his reason, and that when he did he was acting naturally and hence in harmony with the universe. Such behavior was virtue. That is, virtue consisted in conforming to nature’s intention. In some such way the Stoic doctrine can be made rather substantial looking. But I do not believe I do it an injustice in saying its early postulates were weak.
Yet, the weakness was not a fatal one in the sense of lessening the power of the philosophy to influence conduct. The emphasis of Stoicism was on the second question: How shall behavior be judged?—a question of value. It was not on the first: What causes behavior?—a question of fact. Stoicism was more interested in morals than in psychology.
From these initial ideas, the Stoic doctrine came to be known as a code of self-abnegation. As nothing but the life of reason had any reality, the Stoic could not be interested in anything external to the mind, nor could he even recognize an external except as something to be avoided. He was indifferent to wealth, honor, rank, and power, because all of them were separable from reason and so were unreal and immaterial. He also was unmoved by bodily comfort or discomfort, by pain, by disease, or by health, because they too were external to his real being. Most of the things that Stoicism disparaged are things the modern world values in some way, and the austerity of the doctrine puts one off. . . . Still there is something about it that commands respect or at least attention. What Marcus Aurelius wrote about pain may seem ingenuous:
But if it happens in such wise as thou art not formed by nature to bear it, do not complain, for it will perish after it has consumed thee.5
A psychiatrist might tick him off as a masochist, and a logician call him a maker of truisms. But Aurelius did not mean that the Stoic enjoyed pain. The Stoic did not, any more than ordinary mortals; but he was different from them in refusing to allow pain to disturb the equanimity of his mind and the exercise of his reason. One may think that such a mind is not aware enough of external reality, but one would have to admit it was something to be reckoned with. There is a story of the Stoic who was captured by the soldiers of a foreign conqueror and told to renounce his beliefs. He refused and was tortured. Still unable to make him recant, the soldiers told him he would be put to death. He answered that they could do whatever they wanted with his body but whatever they did they could not injure his philosophy. That was in his mind, and their authority, in its physical or moral aspect, did not extend to that. The story is similar to many accounts of martyrdom, except for one difference. The difference made Stoicism unique. Unlike the Christian or the communist martyr, the Stoic did not go to death believing his ideas someday would prevail, or that he would secure salvation from a higher power. He went to his death because his integrity was worth more to him than his existence.
“No man in his senses refuses the things which are dear to him, unless he thinks he is already abundantly provided with other things which he values still more.” So it is remarked in a Renaissance discourse on manners, the Galateo of Della Casa; and the idea is an echo of the Stoicism of 1500 years earlier. There is an even stronger echo in Tawney’s Equality, a book that reveals the ambivalence of democratic socialism toward liberal and idealistic political theory. In a liberal strain, Tawney wrote about power:
To destroy it, nothing more is required than to be indifferent to its threats, and to prefer other goods to those which it promises. Nothing less, however, is required also.
REASON AND VIRTUE
The early Stoics emphasized the supremacy of reason as the mark of virtue, and the emphasis was so pronounced that they often did not distinguish between the two. Initially they regarded reason as the means by which virtue was achieved. Later it became virtue itself, and the moral hero was the man who used his rational faculty. The errant individual was one whose behavior was unreasoning. Goodness came to mean the way an individual chose from among different kinds of possible conduct instead of meaning the conduct itself. Gilbert Murray, in his admirable lecture on Stoicism, said that the essence of Stoic morality was the idea that goodness resides in the act of choice and not in the thing chosen.6 An individual was to be judged not by what he did but by the way he did it. If in all his acts he consulted his reason, he would be assured of attending only to the reality of life and of avoiding its immaterial aspects.
It is difficult to know how much of a departure this represents from the initial Stoic conception of virtue. There certainly is a difference between saying a man is good because he does a particular thing and saying that he is good because he does it in a reasonable way. For most kinds of conduct, the distinction is one between ethical standards and nihilism. But the distinction probably cannot be made for the kind of conduct in which the early Stoics were interested. To them the exercise of reason would lead to only one kind of behavior: the life of reflecting on man’s place in the universe. Such behavior was the essence of virtue. To do what was reasonable was to reflect upon man and nature. No other course was possible. On all other matters of conduct and existence to which a man might attend out of interest or necessity, the early Stoics had little to say because they considered such matters to be unreal. Their best advice was the counsel of rationality. If this standard were applied to all of man’s interests, he would have to believe that goodness was in the act of choice because it was inseparable from the thing chosen.
Out of these ideas the Stoics constructed the moral sage: the completely reasonable person. He invites comparison with the economic man. The Stoic hero uses his rationality to achieve virtue and he is virtuous when he is rational. The economic man also has rationality. He uses it to accumulate wealth.
The Stoic hero was no more “real” than the economic man (rather less, if anything). Neither was meant to describe individuals as they actually were. But the weakness of the Stoic conception was something different from unreality or unfactualness. Once we turn away from its radiance to a disinterested study of the doctrine we encounter many difficulties. Perfect rationality, it has been observed, is a self-contradiction, to know everything is to banish all questions, and there is nothing left on which the reasoning faculty can exercise itself. Even more often it has been remarked that the idea of a natural order is troublesome. If the good is foreordained, why should man strive to bring it about? Overlooking the conceivable impiety of such conduct, what shall be said of it from a mundane viewpoint? Does not the faith in a natural order deprive men of their will and enervate their conduct? The Stoics are said to have resolved this difficulty by making virtue reside in the effort to do one’s duty. But does this really solve the problem—does it not merely substitute the effort to do good for the good itself? If all things are predestined to come to pass, so is the striving for virtue as well as virtue itself.
So, too, is evil, or error, or failure, or weakness, or whatever the opposite of virtue is called. In such a universe, an individual cannot be made responsible for his faults or esteemed for his merit. There is not much point in discussing individual behavior, the exercise of reason, the wisdom or folly of choice. One could reflect upon such ethical matters, perhaps, but one could hardly reason about them for the purpose of influencing conduct.
Yet the Stoics, like many others, insisted that the individual was a free agent capable of making choices and responsible for their consequences. One is reminded of how Milton considered the problem in Paradise Lost, of how he raised the question, defined and disposed of it, all in about thirty lines, of which the following are typical. God explains to His Son how Satan and the other angels were made free, how He knew they would revolt, and how they must be held responsible for their disobedience.
To the implied question of how Satan’s choice could have been free if his maker had foreknowledge of it, God declares:
Having done so, they are accountable.
Just how this strikes one is probably determined by the predispositions one brings to it. It strikes me as a statement of what one must believe if one is to believe in an omnipotent power and at the same time believe in individual responsibility. Milton hardly proves his contention in the ordinary sense of that word. He asserts it, and, one notes, he uses his thirty lines to repeat the assertion rather than to demonstrate it. Milton, incidentally, thought the predestination doctrines of Calvin were damnable.
The kind of assertion he makes seems to me to be a necessary part of any moral doctrine that presupposes a supernal force. Yet one must dwell on the problem of reconciling freedom and predestination. Stoicism certainly did not reconcile them. While accepting the reality of a divine power, it did not release individuals from responsibility for their behavior. There is a story of the Stoic who one day became angry with his slave. The slave was exasperatingly slow in bringing the master’s drink and when he finally served it he spilled the cup. The master stormed and scolded and began to beat the slave, all in a way that was far from being Stoical. “But master,” the slave remonstrated, “do you not know that my transgression was foreordained from the beginning of time!” “Just so,” the master answered, “and likewise is my beating you for it!”
Another of the difficulties in Stoicism is the disturbing presence of evil in a universe that is benevolently constituted and governed. Evil is the product of unreasoning behavior and so must be unreal. But being “unreal” does not mean it has no “existence”—and we are forced to look for a distinction between reality and existence. These are old, old troubles and have beset many other ethical systems. Stoicism was no more unsuccessful than they in reconciling obvious evil with a benevolent providence and freedom with predestination. It was, however, more successful than most in the influence it exercised and in the long period of time in which it was the ruling ethical doctrine.
 See Gilbert Murray, The Stoic Philosophy (New York, 1915).
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. George Long, x, 3.
 Murray, op. cit., p. 42.