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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Stoicism, Part II 

Abstract:  Part II of Stoicism includes a discussion of Spinoza's notion of "active awareness" and a list of objections to Stoicism.

I. Spinoza adds the notion of "active awareness" to clarify the Stoic's stateBaruch Spinoza of mind. You impose your attitudes on the world by moving from passive emotions to active emotions.

  1. Once we understand that people act from the necessity of nature (determinism), we can overcome the hatred we feel because someone harms us. If we trip over a rock, we don't blame the rock for being there.


  2. Freedom comes with understanding the order and necessity of the universe and acting in accordance. Thought and thought alone gives freedom. E.g., What is the difference between someone going back on his word and that person changing his mind? The glass being half empty or being half full?


    1. We see some movies more than once even though we know in advance what is to happen. The value of the movie is not in the outcome.


    2. Consider hearing the same music more than once. Our choice is to hear the beauty or to react with "Oh no, not that again."


  3. With active awareness, we are no longer at the mercy of moods. E.g., how would we live if we had no fear, if we saw that misfortune cannot affect our happiness? The state of the soul is independent of the external situation.


    1. In this manner we avoid compulsive desire and automatic anger which would make us reactive to the forces acting upon us.


    2. Alfred Tennyson credits this active awareness as "absolute clearness of mind."


    3. Consider the failure to break an unwanted habit. We fail because of the very self who is trying to break the habit is the same self who is subject to it. Hence, a new sense of self is needed--one that goes beyond the limits of the "old" self.


    4. The single most important techniques is self-observation--you watch yourself just as if things were happening to someone else.  for the Stoic, "Awareness = Happiness."


  4. You can enjoy your worldly activities regardless of results. You are not at the mercy of anything in the world--your sense of psychological survival does not depend upon this or that happening.


II.  An Adaptation of  John Hosper's criticisms of StoicismJohn Hospers

  1. The Stoic solution is really negative in outlook--stoicism doesn't seek happiness; it seeks to avoid unhappiness.


    1. The Stoic ethics misses some of the best things in life: love, reliance on others, pride in external objects, and so forth.


    2. Some of the greatest things in life are achieved through emotional and mental turmoil.


    3. Possible Stoic response: The objection is a question of emphasis--it's better to be affirmistic than happily deluded. One can enjoy these things without investing one's essential self.


  2. Our power extends farther than the stoic believes--we do have some control over external events.


    1. It's contrary to human nature not to desire more than the Stoic recommends. "Your reach should exceed your grasp."


    2. Maybe we don't have total control over other people and circumstances, but at least we have some influence.


    3. As William James wrote

      Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, "Do not decide, but leave the question open,: is itself a passional decision,--just like deciding yes or no,--and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.  William James, The Will To Believe.


    4. Possible Stoic response: Beliefs like these make people unhappy; these beliefs set you up for profound disappointement.

  3. A life of desire, even though not totally satisfied, is better than suppressing desire.


    1. "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."


    2. Possible Stoic response: Sure you can love, but don't invest your essential self in it


  4. The world isn't as hostile to the fulfillment of desires as the Stoic claims.


    1. His is an empirical claim and depends upon not only the culture, nations, and social circumstances, but also the nature of the individual


    2. Possible Stoic response: The truth of this objection can only be found in life experience


  5. The Stoic is an emotional weakling--the Stoic is trying to "play it safe."


    1. The Stoic is afraid to take risks; the Stoic fears loss more than possible gain.


    2. Possible Stoic response: This is an ad hominem attack. Such a view prevents persons from rooting out the real problems of their unhappiness.


  6. The fundamental flaw in Stoicism is that our "active awareness" does affect what we do and what we do does affect the world. The mind-body dualism is ultimate untenable because it leads to psychophysical parallelism

Recommended Sources

Cynicism and Stoicism, Part I:  Cynicism and Stoicism are ethical philosophies based on distinguishing between those things in your control from those things not in your control.  Both views stress emotional detachment from the world and emphasize the development of independent character. 

Varieties of Determinism: The central philosophical doctrines relating to the degrees of the freedom of the will are outlines.

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