Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: The Modifications in Stoicism - Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings
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3: The Modifications in Stoicism - 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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The Modifications in Stoicism
One reason for its success was the modification of the doctrine. It was made less demanding and so came within the ability of more men to practice it. The original Stoic definition of virtue—the finding of one’s place in the universe by the use of reason—was not a helpful precept for the mass of men. They were not curious and reflective enough. Even if they had been, they could not all have come to the same conclusions, as their betters in fact had not. These were two more difficulties of Stoicism: that not all men were equally reasonable and that among those who were there was disagreement over the conclusions to which their reason led them. Had Stoicism retained its original purity it would have excluded from its authority the majority of men, it also would have excluded all of those among the reasonable minority who disagreed that virtue consisted of the reflective life and only that.
THE EXTENSION OF INTERESTS
In time the Stoics came to approve of many other kinds of behavior. As they did they lessened their emphasis on reason as the only important human characteristic and attended to others. Among them were man’s interest in what we would call material comfort (and which the early Stoics called immaterial), his desire for esteem, rank, and honor, his interest in political power, affection for family and friends, liability to pain, capacity for discomfort, distress, and fear, and other human failings. Seneca distinguished between the rational and the irrational elements in men and he said that irrational conduct was not always an evil.7
Megara says in Mad Hercules.
Marcus Aurelius, although he did not attend to irrational behavior as much as Seneca did, also recognized its reality and he was more perceptive about the causes of error. One, he said, was simply unreasoning behavior. Another is weakness. He said repeatedly that happiness is to be found only in the life of reason. But that life is not for everyone:
. . . the mind which is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and for the future be inexpugnable. He then who has not seen this is an ignorant man, but he who has seen it and does not fly to this refuge is unhappy.
It is clear that the Stoics thought some men were not made for the life of reason, some because they could not be reasonable, some because they would not. The failings of the former were not evils. Unreasonable behavior “is only harmful to him who has it in his power to be released from it, as soon as he shall choose,” Aurelius said, meaning that an evil man is one who is able to be virtuous but chooses not to be.8
Epictetus modified Stoicism even more. He denied that reason had its origin in nature, saying instead that it was the product of education. He made reason separate from the moral sense of the individual and said that only the moral sense was natural or innate. This is the quality that leads men to choose good and avoid evil. He departed so far from the doctrine of Zeno as to say that when the reason of the individual dictated one course and his moral sense another it was the latter which should be followed.9 This meant the individual should not accept the moral values given by education and environment—the factors which created his reason—if the values contradicted his inherent sense of right and wrong. Aurelius while declaring that all men were made for common association and were meant to conduct themselves for their mutual advantage, said nonetheless that each man must reserve to himself the ultimate judgment of what is his own interest, including his supreme interest in virtue.
When he wrote his Meditations much of the early austerity of the Stoic doctrine had diminished, and in its place there was a tolerant regard for human feelings. He did not deny the supreme value of the reflective life—actually, he reaffirmed it—but neither did he ignore the many people who did not live reflectively. Moreover, he found that natural law could guide them as well as it could guide rational individuals. Natural law, he said, disclosed certain virtues that govern the relations among different individuals and it revealed others that governed a man’s relation to himself. The two most important virtues of a social kind were benevolence and justice (as they were also to Smith when he wrote The Theory of Moral
Sentiments). They must always, Aurelius said, guide the individual in that part of his conduct which affects others. The virtues ordained to one’s self were tranquility, simplicity, modesty, and of course rationality.10 In setting down the specific virtues man should seek for himself and in his relations with others, Aurelius was advising him to pattern his life on the order of the universe. The universe was naturally just, benevolent, peaceful, and harmonious, and so must the life of man be. The early Stoics had said just this about the universe, but they did not extend the principle to the ordinary behavior of men because such behavior did not interest them. Not only was Aurelius interested in such behavior, he was also concerned with what might be done if it did not conform to nature. When he prescribed guides to conduct he knew that they would not always be followed, and he offered counsel for those who departed from virtue:
When thou hast assumed these names, good, modest, true, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous, take care thou dost not change these names, and if thou shouldst lose them, quickly return to them.
But if amends cannot be made, then:
depart at once from life, not in passion, but with simplicity and freedom and modesty, after doing this one [laudable] thing at least in thy life, to have gone out of it thus.11
To advise men that the only alternative to a virtuous life is a virtuous suicide may seem an unbending code. It is. But it does acknowledge the reality of nonreasoning behavior, which is something early Stoicism did not do. That doctrine simply turned aside from errancy, believing it had no reality. Although what Aurelius advised was extreme, there was nothing in it that was self-abasing. In one of his finest passages he wrote: “for the pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all.”12
There was instead in his doctrine an effort to place the individual in an order of things larger than himself, to judge behavior for its harmony with this order, to view the life of the individual as one element in it. He said:
Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives, and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago. . . . Wherefore, on every occasion a man should say: This comes from God; and this is according to the apportionment and spinning of the thread of destiny, and such-like coincidence and chance,13 . . .
There is a curious suggestion of this statement in a dialogue in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons which reveals how the Stoic view, in its passage through time, could retain its outward form while being completely divested of its meaning. Two young men, representative of the new generation of Russians which is receptive in a feverish way to European ideas, are discussing the meaning of life. Bazarov, a nihilist, observes:
I think; here I he under a haystack. . . . The tiny space is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be. . . . And in this atom, the mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something. . . . Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?
Arkady, his friend, puts a period to the declaration by adding, “Allow me to remark that what you’re saying applies to men in general.” There was nothing singular about this point of view. Dostoevski made “a sense of degradation” essential to many of his characters. Nor was this a uniquely Russian trait, although it seems to have appeared in that literature first. It is in Russia that Bazarov’s attitude produced some consequential reactions. One has been a repudiation of reason in favor of belief in a misty notion of love. In Anna Karenina Levin discovers that his reason has led him to an impiety in which he can find no meaning—“an agonizing error, but it was the sole logical result of ages of human thought in that direction.” He redeems himself by returning to the church and to its doctrine of love, which “reason could never discover, because it is irrational.” Another reaction has been Marxism, which has given a purpose to the materialism, or atomism, of Turgenev (which he probably got from Lucretius rather than from Aurelius). In the ideas of the Stoics there is nothing which necessarily leads to nihilism. It cannot be read from the explicit judgments of the philosophy, nor can it be made to follow by implication from the Stoic practice of cultivating the individual will. Yet there is something troublesome about any highly individualistic code, which, by turning all moral questions inward and making reason the final arbiter of truth, leads men often to an irresponsible assertion of will. The Stoic doctrine was susceptible to such a result. When the doctrine was transmitted to classic liberalism, it passed along this unsettled question.
MORALITY AND CUSTOMARY BEHAVIOR
When Stoicism brought nonrational interests within its scope, its intention was to apply its principles to a great many kinds of “secondary” behavior—the customary or ordinary conduct of men. The rules devised for such behavior were at first regarded as inferior to the ultimate standard of virtue. Later they became more important, more absolute, and eventually became duties.
The English word “moral” comes from the Latin mores, meaning custom, and originally conveyed much less of an ethical injunction than later. Logan Pearsall Smith in his interesting little book The English Language says that Cicero coined the Latin word for moral. Cicero, as we shall see, attended to secondary interests of men more than any of the other Stoics did. These changes had two important effects on philosophy. It lost much of its austerity and came within the power of ordinary men whatever their interests happened to be. It also became relevant to the particular interests—political and economic activity—which always have been an important part of the life of ordinary men.
Once it admitted that such activity could be a reasonable interest of the individual, Stoicism became a social philosophy as well as a code of personal morality. Its social philosophy rested on the idea that virtue consists in doing the best one can with one’s own. In this way one conforms to nature. Conformity would not necessarily lead men to the reflective life. If their endowment was an intellectual one, it would. But if they had also a considerable property in those things which Zeno called “externals” their reason would lead them to an active part in the world of affairs. If their endowment consisted mainly of the externals of life and only slightly of reason, they would be destined for an honorable if not a leading place in society. But if all they had were the attributes separable from reason and were wholly wanting in reason itself, then Stoicism had no place for them. As inclusive as it became, it was never indifferent to the reasonableness of conduct.
On the opening pages of this chapter, I indicated the importance of this new idea of virtue. It was important from a conceptual viewpoint because it made a considerable change in the tenets of the early Stoics, and it was important in extending the influence of Stoicism, in making it a doctrine that could apply to all ranks of society and all interests, in giving it a hold on the minds of men and their leaders for a longer time than any other ethical system with the possible exception of Christianity.
As the new conception of virtue was applied to economic conduct, the Stoics inquired into a number of enduring political and economic questions. Their answers were not always clear and unequivocal, but this was less important than their recognition of a social aspect of conduct. They wished to know how an individual should conduct himself before his governors, what were the proper qualities in a statesman, what was the ideal government, and what was the meaning of law. In economic affairs they were interested in knowing why an individual sought to acquire wealth and what was the propriety of such conduct. They examined some of the ethical problems which arise when a number of individuals engage in buying and selling and other economic relations. They inquired into the legitimacy of private property (an aspect of the first economic question), the ethical value of different kinds of economic activity and occupations, and the proper relation between the economic conduct of the individual and the powers of government.
 W. W. Capes, Stoicism (London, 1880), p. 153.
Meditations, viii, 48, 55.
Discourses, i, 2, 5.
Meditations, iii, 11.
Ibid., x, 8.
Ibid., xii, 27.
Ibid., iii, 10-11.