p.l.e. logophilosophy.lander.edu                   Title:  Ethics

Ethics Homepage  > Ethics of Self-Interest  > Cynicism and Stoicism, Part I       


Site Map

Ethics Homepage




Philosophy 302: Ethics
Cynicism and Stoicism, Part I

Abstract:  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. 

I.  Cynicism: The end of life is virtue, not pleasure, and it can only beDiogenes of Sinope obtained by independence of all earthly possessions and pleasures.

  1. Influence from the character of Socrates:  Socrates pursued truth with distain for economics or entertainment. This negative aspect was emphasized. 

  2. The Cynics sought self-sufficiency and rejected the social and religious values of civilization.  Group thinking is thought of as  herd-thinking.  The nature of what it is to be a human being is not a political or social animal, as it was for Aristotle.

    1. Independence is shown through a flouting of convention. Obviously, a philosophy that rejects the social nature of man cannot be the basis for forming a consistent school of thought. Hence, Cynicism, by its very nature, is not a popular philosophy.

    2. Three causes of human misery: desire are said to be desire, indulgence, and ignorance.

    3. The ascetic self-discipline and training achieved by "following nature" leads to self-sufficiency.  E.g., Suppose someone has done you an injustice and tries to amend the wrongdoing by offering you something of great value.  The Cynic refuses in order to show  independence and self-sufficiency.  "You need nothing other than yourself."

  3. The Cynics eschew formal philosophy. Instead, their teaching consists, in large measure, of anecdotal quips, diatribes, and satire.

  4. Influential Cynics include...

    Diogenes of Sinope--the founder, known for holding up a lantern "looking for an authentic man."

    Antisthenes--also credited with founding Cynicism.

    Crates of Thebes
    --known as "the Door Opener" because of the effects of his humanitarian works.

II. Stoicism:  Philosophy is primarily concerned with ethics.  The end or Marcus Aurelius--well known Stoic and Roman Emperor purpose of life is arete (excellence) or virtue which is roughly identified with "happiness."  The central theme is " indifference to external circumstances."

  1. "Live life according to nature"—Our actions should agree with the laws of nature.

    1. Stoics assumed the doctrine of (soft) determinism. In the external world, every event has a cause; there are no exceptions (e.g., miracles or outcomes of actions), but we do have some control over our mental events.

    2. Since we are rational, we can know the laws of nature and can consciously follow them—rather than seek to overcome them or wish the laws were different.

      1. "Let go." Worry about events in the external world is unnecessary. "Whatever is going to be, is what is to be" (not fatalism but determinism). "Don't carry the boat, let the boat carry you."

      2. Be indifferent to external circumstances. Distinguish between those things in your control and those things outside your control. Give your attention only to those things you can control (i.e., mental phenomena).

      3. Freedom and independence can only be obtained by realizing that external events (events in the material world or the world of physical objects) need not affect mental events (thoughts, emotions, intentions). In this way we see ourselves as we truly are, not as we might imagine ourselves to be.

    3. The Stoic is faced with the following difficulty: consider for yourself if the Stoic can avoid the psychological dilemma posed by soft determinism. If every event has a cause, how can our will be free unless mental events were somehow disassociated with physical events? If mind and matter do not interact,  our souls (minds) would be disengaged from the external world of everyday objects and events.

      1. The Stoic recommends  a passive detachment from the world.  Nothing in the external world is good or bad; nothing in the world is painful or pleasurable. Things in the world simply are what they are. Our mind has feelings and emotions in everyday experience, but these are mental phenomena.

      2. Hence, for the Stoic, we can't change the world, we can only change our awareness of the world.  We feel centered not because the world is right for us but because we choose to be right for the world.  If we were to hike in the mountains when angry and again when exhilarated, the scenery would the same in both cases.  Only our experience is different.

II. Moral evil pertains to human will and intention.

  1. No act is evil in itself; moral evil pertains to the intention, the moral condition from which the acts proceeds.

    1. The act considered as a physical entity is indifferent. "As you are in your heart..." rather than "Beauty is as beauty does."

    2. Nothing is good or bad in itself--only the mind has the ability to confer value on things.

    3. C.L. Kleinke writes,

      "Consider a young child who goes to the circus for the first time. Bombarded with new sights, smells, and sounds, the child is in a state of general physiological arousal, experiencing a faster-than-usual heartbeat, slight tremors, accelerated breathing, and possible cold or sweaty hands. How does the child interpret this arousal? What emotion does he or she feel? Let us look a bit further. As the child walks by the lions' cage his or her parent most likely says, "Oh that lion is so big. I bet you're scared. Don't be scared, the lion can't hurt you: later when the trapeze artists are performing the parent helps the child interpret his or her arousal by exclaiming, "Isn't that exciting!" The clowns appear and the parent "instructs" the child by laughing and commenting on how funny and happy they are. Before leaving the circus the child is likely to confront the smell of animals and learn from the parent that arousal in this context is a sign of unpleasantness and disgust. During all this time the child has been in essentially the same arousal as different emotions according to the particular stimuli or events in the immediate situation... What distinguishes emotions such as anger, fear, love, elation, anxiety, and disgust is not what is going on inside the body but rather what is happening in the outside environment." (C.L. Kleinke, Self-Perception (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1978), 2.)

    4. The Stoic would say that what distinguishes emotions is not the events happening in the outside environment, nor is it what is going on as mental phenomena, but it is the mind's interpretation of the two.

  2. We are different from our emotions. Emotions are the result of the perception of an external situation considered with the attendant bodily states. The dangers of the identification of the ego with the emotions include loss of personal freedom.

    1. Indeed, avoid identification with anything, for you are sure to get hurt: e.g., your job, your career, another person, sports, and so on..

      1. "Mary is a CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation," but what is she when she loses her job? Look at what happens if we were to identify ourselves with our university grades.. What we would be then would be not be within our control. (In a sense our lives would be subject to the vicissitudes of our health, the accuracy of evaluation, the conscientiousness of the teacher, and so forth.)

      2. If we identify myself with our feelings, we "become" little more than the feeling. (I.e., consider a child's tantrum where the child's behavior is in a sense the sum of the child's existence at that moment..) For example, when the feeling of intense sadness arises. we need not be wholly subsumed by the feeling—for the sake of health we need to separate the emotion from what we are.

      3. If we use esteem, love, worldly success as a means of psychological identity (picturing ourselves as important people), we unnecessary distraction, e.g., we create anxiety.  For the Stoic, none of these behaviors or attitudes adds  to our internal, authentic lives.

      4. We can enjoy worldly activities regardless of what we might think would be the results of our action. We can have a successful love affair, a career, or a game of chess, but the success or failure of the outcome are not be part of the essential self.

    2. Negative feelings (boredom, restlessness, sense of futility) are caused by us—not by exterior happenings. We don't have to have these feelings; we can choose more appropriate or helpful  interpretations of events.

  3. Character, truly virtuous conduct, and fulfillment of duty, are the points most stressed in Stoic ethics.

    1. Apatheia is the self-conquest  achieved by training to overcome irrational and unnatural feelings (e.g., pleasure, sorrow, depression, fear, guilt, pride). Apatheia is "freedom from morally wrong impulses or passions."  It is not living without feeling whatsoever; apatheia is living without feelings that interfere with the exercise of virtue.

    2. From the Cynics the Stoics adopted techniques for the emotional independence from the world. The Stoic uses many techniques to separate healthy from the unhealthy desires.

      1. Passive self-examination as well as active awareness help us avoid the dangers of identification of our psyche with anything.

      2. Verbal techniques help separate the way we feel from the way we truly are. Thinking of yourself in the third-person enables self-control. By seeing ourselves from a more objective view as we think and act, we can become aware of why we do what we do.  E.g., as you read these notes, you are aware of yourself reading the notes, not just aware of the content of the notes, themselves. Your "overself," so to speak, take charge of your life through self-observation..

      3. All desires need not be distinguished—apatheia requires only separation of  the healthy from the unhealthy. Avoid those which are painful, compulsive, nervous, or angry. Activate those which are for health or self-understanding.

      4. Distinguish between genuine wants (food, shelter) from false wants (needless cravings). The self, itself, has all that it needs.

    Recommended Sources

    Cynicism: Entry from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas from the University of Virginia Library covers the origins, the authors, and philosophy, with a short bibliography by Ragnar Hüistad.

    Cynics: Outline of the history and major figures of Cynicism, with references by Julie Piering in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    The Discourses and Enchiridion: The classic works of Epictetus' philosophy, both translated by Elizabeth Carter, also available as a text files for download by MIT's Internet Classics Archive.

    Ethics of Stoicism: Entry from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas from the University of Virginia Library covers the history and cultural background, with a short bibliography by Anthony A. Long.

    A History of Cynicism: Donald R. Duley's book published by Methuen (1937) provided online by Osmania University, covers Cynic philosophy in Greek and Roman thought.

    The Meditations: Marcus Aurelius' classic work on how to live, translation by George Long, also available as a text file for download by MIT's Internet Classics Archive.

    Stoicism: The history, philosophy, science, logic, and ethics of Stoicism are discussed with bibliography in this excellent entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Dirk Baltzly.

    Related Sources on philosophy.lander.edu

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

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

    Ethics Homepage     

Epicureanism   Top of Page   Stoicism, Part II

Send corrections or suggestions to webmaster at philosophy.lander.edu
Read the disclaimer concerning this page.
10.23.09        2001-9 GFDL

Problems  |  Egoistic Theories  |  The Good  |  Duty Ethics  |  Utilitarianism  |  Rights  |