3. Cynics, Stoics, Sceptics, Neo-Platonists (a).
Should philosophy be understood primarily as a way of life, which is to say, as an essentially moral phenomenon? Should philosophical doctrines be regarded primarily as public teachings designed to sustain and protect this way of life? Or should philosophy rather be seen as an intrepid kind of questioning? Does the philosopher serve, first and foremost, to free people from illusions rather than to produce and perpetuate them? Can these two faces of philosophy somehow be integrated? (Catherine H. Zuckert. Postmodern Plato’s)
We might call what Zuckert puts to the question here, the terms of the division.
Ok, this is going to be highly sketchy – if that's a plausible confection?
Initially, I wanted to do all the ancients in one lecture but Aristotle got away from me, even if we only dealt with one aspect. Albeit, as I said, what seems to me central to what is both his separating himself from Plato – somewhat ironically – and also what I think for him is his Platonism insofar as he thinks he has gone further in the direction that Plato pointed, and even resolved an aporia there.
I touched on this last week toward the end but one of the ways Aristotle undermines and overcomes Plato is by validating what he sees as a Socratic version of the forms – so an original and importantly practical or practiced version, that Plato tries to radicalise beyond their specific context, appearance and content. That is to say, beyond their ethical efficacy such that the Forms are what remain over despite the change in the situations of their occurrence – thus in their situated particularity. For Aristotle, the Socratic version is tried and tested in the field, it’s in actual discourse and supports real arguments for things currently at stake and effective in lived experience and thus doesn't purport to some form of eternity or infinitude.
In short, Socratic forms, as opposed to Platonic, do not suffer the indignity of being meta-physical – which is another way of saying un-natural.
It is this distinction between a lived particularity and the insensible idea of it which Aristotle wants to confront and insofar as this distinction is that between Socrates and Plato, between moral philosophy and metaphysics, it becomes almost foundational of the history of philosophy hitherto.
Thus tonight we’ll have a somewhat schematic look at how it replays itself originally in the Cynics, Stoics and Skeptics – the first two in particular truly radicalise the division: On the one hand rejecting what is for them a Platonic metaphysics, while on the other taking the method of Socrates to its logical conclusion – although this conclusion is where these two, born in the same soil, might diverge.
We’ll start with the Cynics.
For the Cynics, then, the Socratic refusal of the goods of the city – goods not Good note – or of the nomos (hence law and custom) in favour of the ‘life of the street’ and more radically, of nature such that ‘all nature’s functions could be performed in public, in convention with canine custom’, leads Plato himself to remark of Diogenes, the founder, in light of Antisthenes’ teachings of the Cynic movement, that he is like Socrates on crack – well not on crack – but as ‘gone mad’.
After Diogenes in the Cynic line of descent is Crates, one of my favourite figures, who married Hipparchia, the daughter of a rich family, who herself became an important cynic philosopher and practitioner. There are stories of what these two got up to in the street. The name Cynic is, as implied, from Kynos, which means dog. It's originally a slander which these street philosophers happily took up; especially insofar as it separated them radically from their fellow men whom they considered deluded and corrupt, essentially. Just as Socrates suggested when he found that the knowledge of the city professing itself as the good of all didn't seem to play out that way, and that none of those who so professed it could seem to account for it. A familiar story and perhaps why cynicism is so much part of the contemporary mood.
But whether there is more a defeatism or fatalism or even nihilism in the contemporary version of cynicism is a good question – certainly it has manifested in these ways – but perhaps it is more that nihilism is a general characteristic of contemporary states today more so than individuals, given that almost everyone in the west experiences all the talk of the good of the west, democracy, humanitarianism etc. as only an empty rhetoric, necessary to facilitate the ravages of capitalism and this precisely because there is now nothing else for it, nothing else that can be thought of our situation.
In this sense, then, to be an ancient style Cynic would be to be cynical in regard to this nihilistic version of the state, which requires, then, that some conception of the good is possible of which nomos – sort of the nexus of culture and law – is its corruption. And indeed the ancient Cynics do posit that in fact the ‘nature’ of things – human nature as such – was itself essentially Good and only corrupt in being subject to the social and moral and economic codes of the city and its culture. This is the reason Diogenes, in a famous image, runs into the market place in broad daylight carrying a lantern seeking after ‘a human being’ – an image Nietzsche will reuse against ‘Platonising-Christianity.’ The point being that the Good life or even the true life, requires a practiced exile from the corruptions of the city. But as with Socrates, from within the city itself.
In this, what the Cynics practiced was simplicity of life – thus doing away with all property and possessions apart from a cloak, staff and small satchel and concomitantly, practicing what we might call ‘frankness of speech’ ; denuded then of all fancy rhetorics, sophistries and metaphysical speculations (note the blanket denunciation which brings Platonism and sophistry together). This in turn supported a sort of watchfulness, which we can easily associate with the dog: when it sees what is a threat to what is for it the good, it barks, simply. Thus the essence of the ‘fidelity’ to kynon was, Rankin notes, a certain form of ‘watchfulness of the present’. It’s worth noting that in the Republic, Socrates praises the nature of the well-trained dog as a model for the guardian, making use of the high regard in which the dog was held in Greek tradition.
And indeed throughout the dialogues Socrates often appeals to ‘the dog’ as if it were a deity of some sort and in the Sophist it is differentiated from the wolf and this is used as an analogy: philosopher is to sophist as dog is to wolf. The Cynics turned this watchfulness into a way of life, guarding against all and every form of what they considered dissembling and corruption.
There is an obvious connection between Socrates’ way of life and that of the Cynics, yet it is the ‘frankness of speech’ in regard to convention which ultimately characterises what similarity there is and this is why the Cynics radicalise the figure of Socrates out of his Platonic corpus because for them, the metaphysics Plato builds around or out of or in fidelity to Socrates is essentially anathema and really the kind of return to some figure of law or determination outside lived experience that they absolutely reject, and moreover the consequences of this, as seen in Aristotle, or the later Stoicism of the Romans, is a language of technique which works to preclude people from philosophy itself – ‘the language of typhos’, they say, is a ‘mumbo jumbo’ which conceals ignorance and falsehoods and as we know can function to serve very specific interests, not only at the expense of those excluded from it but of the Good itself, which, for the Cynics, is ours by nature.
This is in fact the worst sort of corruption of all, the type that predicates itself on the very good it works day in day out and by all means to make truly impossible. We call it democracy today, which is not coincidental. And for the Cynics, any education to this effect needed ‘to be renounced’ and this, they famously did – at every opportunity.
The motto of the Cynics is, ‘deface the coinage’ or deface the currency, which works a bit better because what we are talking about is not actually coins per se even if that is where the motto comes from – Diogenes’ dad was accused of doing just that defacing coins and was sent into exile. Like any good son Diogenes made the true/false charge against his dad real, in a radical and extensive sense. Psychoanalysis knows about such things.
Anyway, the point of course is that a coin has value only with regard to the symbolic rendering with which it is faced. Effacing the coin returns it to the base metal that it is.
This trajectory is what the Cynics pursue. It’s not however a return to nature as such – as if it itself were a metaphysical construct – as much as the assertion of the nature that we are or have and in terms of method we can say, and I mean lived method, what is central to the Cynic movement is Askesis, a practiced asceticism. Not, note, of the priestly kind that hides the joy in the renunciation under the cover of suffering for god or man or whomever and is as such another moralism but an asceticism that is essentially positive and even joyful – the joy of not giving in to the nomos as the affirmation of our very nature. Or as one Cynic put it: ‘to have done with pleasure is the greatest pleasure.’
What the Cynics were invested in, so to speak, was the present. They did what they did for today, as it were – to live for today! We still hear it because for the Cynics nature takes its course and this course is not ours to determine; thus to have plans or to live according to custom or the Idea are equally against nature in this sense and thus all finery, and wealth and ambition and so on and even wine drinking are similarly deluded.
Thus it’s not like todays version is it, which would be the epicurean cum hedonist version – where living for today means to take all ordinary pleasure. For the Cynics, these so-called pleasures were corruptions of the Good of our nature not only because they were not natural but also because they had to be acquired by unnatural means – work being one.
Brilliantly, they did not work – or at least worked only if necessity demanded or opportunity arose and no more. They were certainly indifferent to the notion of a career, which of course supposes a knowledge of the future, requiring the negation of the present. The negation of the present is what opportunity in turn negates, which is to say that chance plays a part in their ethos as does fate but in this vein we could definitely say that Cynicism is a sort of cultivation of the self, predicted on the rejection of pretty much all that would presume to be its essence or truth or eternal verity or what have you. And moreover, just to emphasise, the Cynic’s is not a project of renunciation but essentially affirmation that what appears as true or good under the guise of law is not and what is not is what the Cynic affirms – no law, no money, no goods, no house (Diogenes was said to live in a barrel) no clothes (sometimes) and typically no wife or children – Crates and Hipparchia being an exception. Apparently, they had two pups as well.
Crates as I said was a student of Diogenes and they are often contrasted in terms of temperament: ‘if Diogenes was truculent and gruff Crates is depicted as the epitome of Cynic kindness’ – he was, so its said nicknamed the door opener because he used to visit people and talk philosophy. The doors were opened for him, I should stress. It’s significant that Pltuarch wrote a life of Crates when he usually only wrote about nobles. He was also a very good writer, apparently, compared in this to Plato, and wrote in many different styles. He was witty too. Consider this little ditty, which sort of encompasses it all – style, humour, frankness of speech, status and so on – which he composes as ‘the diary of a profligate’, which is to say, a libertine or a hedonist or today, a consumer:
For the cook, reserve ten minae, for the doctor a drachma,
For the flatterer five talents, and smoke for the counsellor,
A talent for the whore, and for the philosopher, three obols.
You need to know there were: six obols in a drachma; one hundred drachma in a mina; and sixty mina in a talent which means 36000 obols in a talent…
I could go on but we have a lot to get through and all I want to do with these ancients is point out that Plato is at stake in some way and also to point to what the 20th century will in some sense repeat in its anti-Platonism. Clearly the Cynic position is not at all foreign to us. So let me just quickly summarise, following William Desmond, what they reject in philosophy, as it was understood and insofar as it was Platonist:
Diogenes did not care about ‘music and geometry and astronomy and all those useless, unnecessary things’(73). They are useless because, as mentioned, they seem to have nothing to do with the present and Cynicism may be most defined by concentration on the simple present: this spot of sunshine, this pithos . Sunshine, note, because there is the story that Alexander – he of the great who was taught by Aristotle and who gets satirised by another later cynic, Lucian – travelled to see Diogenes and on encountering him laying about on the steps of a temple promised that he could have anything he wanted: Diogenes told him that what he wanted was for Alexander to stop standing in his sun. (And a pithos is of course a barrel.)
So for the Cynic, thinking and reason can be unreasonable in that they so often lead one astray into thoughts about what is abstract, or distant in time or space. When this happens, one needs some surprising gesture or unusual expression to jolt one back to the present. Thus, when a sophist or a Zeno ‘proves’ that human beings have horns or that motion is impossible, Diogenes unexpectedly ‘refutes’ them by touching his head, or walking about (39).
So we can see in this that metaphysics thus, in one way or another, what is ‘after’ physics, derived from phusis, so nature, is then the latter’s corruption and philosophy insofar as it follows the path from nature to meta-phusis, if you like, and so is after it, or more, that it is beyond it, or beside it, will necessarily fall into corruption being concerned precisely with what it should not concern itself with and must then be brought back to what it is – a sort of present of the real we might call it – by frank speech and real acts. Metaphysics, for the Cynics is essentially anti-nature just as it really is, I reckon, for Plato. The difference is that for the Cynics this is its problem, for Plato this is its virtue. Or for Plato, being must be thought in order that what exists be truly knowable, while for the Cynics no such thought is possible and being is what one does or ‘effects’ we might say. In other words, being and existence are the same thing. No thought can supplement for phusis. Later, Heidegger will try to tell us that phusis thinks and poetry alone is its expression.
Cynicism was an active disruption, too. Like Socrates, they put their bodies on the line in all sorts of ways. ‘In many anecdotes,’ Desmond tells us, ‘Diogenes disrupts the complex discussions going on in the Academy or Lyceum. In one session, for instance, when the Platonists have agreed to define man as ‘a featherless biped’, Diogenes rushes in with a plucked chicken shouting, ‘Here is Plato’s human being’ (40). Apparently the definition was then amended to ‘a featherless biped, with broad nails’. In Cynic literature, these types of imaginary incidents function to ‘send-up a type of intellectualism that boasts a rigorous precision, but ultimately only produces thin, pathetic human beings – plucked chickens – scratching amid their anemic ideas.’ If these are fair extrapolations, Desmond remarks, ‘they may form the context for Bion’s saying: ‘Conceited thinking (oiēsis) is a hindrance to progress’ (50).
The Cynic philosophy does not privilege cogitation in the way that a Plato does and this anti-intellectual attitude was general until the end of the tradition. Thus, Julian the Apostate, who was not a stoic but who wrote in praise of the Stoic way of making men, can, Desmond says, only deplore contemporary Cynics’ ignorance of the philosophical tradition’ (Or 7.225b; Or. 6). Such ‘uneducated’ Cynics, in their own, way revisit Apollodorus’ epigram that Cynicism is the ‘short cut to virtue’ (Diogenes L 7.121), to the vast exasperation of Julian, who thought that people should take the long road, as he himself did (Or. 7.225b–d, 7.235d).’
So, to Stoicism.
“Stoicism” is a philosophical school founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. This school met informally at the Painted Stoa, a covered colonnade on the northern edge of the Agora (marketplace) in Athens, and, as is common to all these old schools, is how the “Stoics” gained their name. So the Stoics are essentially a derivation of Cynicism with again a kernel of Plato – which is to say, there is the radicalization of something that pertains to the figure of Socrates.
Even though there was for a short period a sort of return to Plato in the Stoicism of Antipater, Paneitius and Posidonius in 1st C BC, mostly in reference to the Timaeus (just as the Neo-platonists will do) it is Socrates who remains consistently the hero. Indeed, as David Sedley neatly puts it: ‘there was a tradition of merely using Plato’s dialogues, while maintaining a distance from Plato’s own thought in order to plunder them as a historical source for the life and philosophy of Socrates, a uniquely revered figure in the school.’
But there is also in the Stoics the effort to reclaim this for knowledge and an effective engagement with the city. Whereas the Cynics decidedly reject the goods of the city, the Stoics make a sort of accommodation with it and this adds up to one of the key Stoic thesis. As Sedley describes it: ‘For according to Zeno and his successors, bodily and external advantages such as health and wealth are not goods – Stilpo [a cynic] was right about that – but they are, on the other hand, natural objects of pursuit. We should, therefore, in normal circumstances, seek to obtain them, not caring about them as if their possession would make our lives any better, but on the ground that by preferring them we are developing our skills at ‘living in agreement with nature’, the natural ‘end’ whose attainment amounts to perfect rationality, happiness, and a good life. In this way, Stoicism could underpin a thoroughly conventional set of social and personal choices, and was thereby enabled to commend itself more widely in the Hellenistic world than its essentially convention-defying forebear Cynicism.’
There is something structural to note here I think: Clearly Plato builds a corpus around the singularly strange figure of Socrates and this involves developing an account of knowledge which includes what Socrates teaches about it, but which necessarily exceeds it in order to establish its consistency or coherency in terms (and in ways consistent with it) but which situates this knowledge in something other than the present form of the city or within present or natural forms of known knowledge – which clearly Socrates, as he says, knows nothing about. In a sense, Plato builds the referent of Socrates’s knowledge, which is finally what it is to know as such & and hence the form of what it is to know.
The Cynics go the opposite way and naturalise Socrates, as a knowledge without finery, sophistication, duplicity, dissembling and so on – Socrates is a man of the street and has no need, then, of a referent for his knowledge – neither recognition by the city – its laws, customs, morals, knowledge etc., which is corrupt. Like Crates going about, we have knowledge in its naked, most uncorrupted form – plain speaking as plain truth, we might say.
The Stoics, as this citation from Zeno suggests, take something from both and in a sense have it both ways. They don't situate this Socratic form of knowledge outside the city, as it were, nor as absolutely subtractive of it – they put some of the goods of the everyday city outside knowledge as such thus allowing the knowledge of the philosopher an uncorrupted space within the knowledge of the city. From this position – comfortable but uncorrupted – the Stoic can bring to bear on the city this practice of an indifference to it. In other words, they can teach the city a knowledge of itself beyond that which a life determined by its goods demands of it. We could say the Stoics consider themselves the good conscience of the corrupt city – thus this non-city knowledge, present to the city finds its referent in both past and future. That's to say, the good is what is inherent to natural man – sort of like the Cynics – but this good must be unfolded within the city as its future. This is the ever-present role of the Stoic.
Let’s quickly note, following Brunschwig, this temporal schema contrasted with the notion of time as some whole, as it is important to Stoic philosophy: ‘past and future are unlimited … on one side only’, their other side being limited by the present; it seems obvious that they have a much weaker ‘degree’ of reality than the present since the past is no longer and the future is not yet.’ Thus ‘by introducing a broader way of conceiving the present, namely ‘as extended’ (kata platos), that is, as containing a part of itself already past and another one still to come. In this sense, the present has a higher degree of reality than the past and the future: Chrysippus said that only the present ‘is the case’ (huparchein ), whereas the past and the future ‘subsist (huphestanai ), but in no way are the case’.
Deleuze will make much use of this but just note for now how this conception of a present works with regard to the Stoics is as determination to reconcile philosophy to the city as what is here and now both of its past and future but beholden to neither at the same time, and in so doing it takes on a kind of immanence and materiality.
Zeno is essentially the founder of the tradition, even if it is Chrysippus elaboration and systematisation of Stoic thought in 705 Volumes no less, who establishes its logic – and we should note that this nuance that he brings to the Cynic positions – a nuance bordering on casuistry, lets face it – he derives from Polemo who was head of the Academy at the time – which comes down to the notion that there are some goods, ‘bodily and external goods’, albeit minor ones, which are nothing in regard to the mental or cognitive goods which philosophers aim at.
So you can see the tradition here going back to the way Aristotle criticised Plato’s separation of forms and sensibles. Thus the goods of the city, the Stoic is saying, are of the sensible kind and thus, note, natural, and so not proper to philosophy or what it thinks about as its own and so he adds that it doesn't matter if we have them or not as they are not a matter of philosophical concern, they are, and this becomes part of the practice, a matter of indifference to philosophy even if they are a product of the nature of things.
So philosophers think about the higher things, let’s say, while being indifferent to those of nature – goods etc., even if they might enjoy them. But this indifference is in effect the proper relation to nature and as such fulfils the directive to live in accordance with nature. After all, natural things are beyond our control as a sort of necessity and so we need to conform to its demands, but for the Stoic this conformity is a proper indifference, which is the effect in fact of its cultivation or what is proper to thought. It's a bit tortured but straight forward enough and in my opinion mightily convenient.
Anyway, that would be a cynical view of Stoicisms ‘improvement’ on Cynicism. But it is the case that a logic is put into effect by Zeno and it is explicitly so as a rejection of Plato’s metaphysics. As Sedley notes, the logic, finally, includes ‘not only the formal study of argument and other modes of discourse, but also what we would broadly call ‘epistemology’. Here, in a clean break with his Platonist teacher, Zeno developed a fundamentally empiricist thesis according to which certain impressions, available to everybody through their ordinary sensory equipment, are an infallible guide to external truths and, therefore, the starting point for scientific understanding of the world.’
Thus we can see that the socio-political practice noted above squares nicely with the epistemology – and this is at it should be for doctrines which took seriously the very Platonic imperative to live philosophically. Thus one needs to be experienced with the goods of the city – a man of the sensate nature of the city – in order to be in the position to speak the truth of it. Thus again we can see the Socratic component and we can also see the anti-Platonism – that is, if we accept the version of Platonism on offer that via the metaphysical turn, lets say, Plato separates the Form of truth from the knowledge of sense and thus hierarchises the former over the latter, which would entail precisely a fundamental change in constitution. And I mean this philosophically, subjectively and politically.
Whereas the Stoic is all about finding proper regulated accommodations between sense and truth within the city as it is always already constituted. Hence, of course, what we typically understand by Stoic – solid in the face of what is, toward what they call the ‘moral end’. It is no coincidence, then, that the Stoa find themselves well represented in Rome: ‘Augustus maintained two Stoic philosophers, Athenodorus of Tarsus and Arius Didymus, who combined the roles of moral adviser and philosophical scholar. Under Nero, Seneca (1 b.c. – a.d. 65 ) also combined these roles but was a much more important figure politically and philosophically. Seneca was first tutor, then adviser, to the young Nero, and’, I love this bit, ‘is thought to have been a key restraining influence on the emperor during the first, more successful, period of his realm’ (54 –62).
So I’ll just quickly recount the basics of Stoic metaphysics and of course leave out this historical account which sees Stoicism adopted into the education of the Roman ruling class right up to Emperor level by figures such as Cicero and Seneca – both men neck deep in what Lacan ambiguously, but in properly Cynic fashion, called ‘the service of goods’. That is, they were really rich and well connected in one of the most corrupt empires ever but were nevertheless teachers of true virtue. And of course beyond Rome the austere moralism of someone like Epictetus, for whom Socrates was the ultimate philosophical role model, attracted the interest of early church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen – and persisted among medieval Christian ascetics.
We should note that not all school adherents were wealthy; Cleanthes in particular was reputedly impecunious and is reported to have charged fees – like the sophist did. His successor, Chrysippus wrote in support of the practice, which he himself plainly adopted. In his work On Livelihoods, Chrysippus enlarged the question, asking in how many ways a philosopher might appropriately earn a living. The only three acceptable means, he concluded, were serving a king (if one could not oneself be a king), reliance on friends, and teaching.
Indeed the Stoics were never shy of accepting state offerings. Of course Socrates himself had ruled out all but one of these: in the Republic, he reverses the Homeric saying that wise men go begging at the doors of the rich saying ‘It isn’t natural for the captain to beg the sailors to be ruled by him nor for the wise to knock at the doors of the rich—the man who came up with that wisecrack made a mistake (489c).’ And earlier in the text he had used it this way: ‘Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on [c] sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant rituals’ (364). Indulgences.
And famously, Socrates not only reviled the idea of teaching for money, the province of Sophists, but insisted on of this very understanding that he wasn't a teacher at all; as for the reliance on friends – friends have all things in common, he said, the essence, after all, of the Republic. Perhaps this is why we have, in the ideal Stoic sage, who would be perfectly rational, emotionless, indifferent to his or her circumstances and, infamously, happy even when being tortured on the rack – not a Socrates on crack, this time, but one whose impossibility serves as regulative Ideal.
What we can suggest then is that the Stoa presumed a pragmatism to be central to their ethics – thus structured by this impossibility one must constantly negotiate in respect of it – and this, as I have said, is consistent with their ontology. As Bruschwig notes, and in the shadow of Aristotle’s ontological determination to think being qua being, ‘the purpose is not to study some privileged objects but rather to study any and every object from a certain point of view’ thus (‘qua being’, and also qua such and such type of being). The Stoics, then, ‘cared much about characterising, defining and classifying the ontological status of the items which had any role to play within their philosophy … [the] Stoics raised such questions not only about physical items such as bodies, but also about ethical items like virtues and the good and logical items like predicates and propositions.’
As noted, nature or phusis or the natural way of being, which is to say, ‘something’ is what matters to the Stoics as inherited after a fashion from the Cynics and even from Aristotle too. As such Brunschwhig argues, ‘nature (phusis) encompasses everything, including things, phenomena, and events which in other worldviews might seem to be ‘super-natural’ in some way. They had a firm conception of how philosophy (more exactly, its discursive exposition or logos) is and should be divided; and their primary division (into logic, ethics, physics) did not provide any place for anything like ‘metaphysics’.’
But, he goes on, ‘it’s actually possible they had two meta-physics which is essentially a division in physics itself between a set of particular elements of it and a set of generic specifics. I’ll just note the division – it’s really too complex to go into:
According to the ‘specific’ division, the Stoics ‘distinguished five topics: (1) bodies; (2) principles; (3) elements; (4) gods; and (5) limits, place, and void. According to the ‘generic’ division, they distinguished three topics: (1) the world (kosmos), (2) the elements, and (3) the search for causes (aitiologikos topos ).’ (Brunschwig)
Note here a very keen sort of inversion: the more concrete, real even material topics of physics are the generic ones: world, element, cause. Clearly these are immanent to nature and effective existents of it. ‘They take the kosmos – that is, the organized ‘whole’ (holon ) – with its present cosmic organization (diakosmˆ esis ) as their primary object, and inquire not only about its elementary furniture, but also about its causal workings; in this sense, they look, at least vaguely, like what we would mean by ‘physics’.’ The specific topics divide physics in a seemingly more general way. And thus ‘Generally speaking, the topics in the ‘specific’ division clearly share a common feature: all of them are in some sense primary.’ (Brunschwig)
Which is to say, for the Stoics, ‘bodies are the only genuinely existent beings; principles (as indicated by their traditional name, archai , both ‘beginnings’ and ‘governing powers’) are the primary factors of reality as a whole; elements are the first and simplest cosmic products of their interplay; gods are the most perfect beings; and limits, place, and void are the primary conditions without which the existence and interaction of bodies would be neither possible nor intelligible.’ (Brunschwig). So in essence, then, the Stoics address being through the notion of bodies, that everything that exists qua phusis, including God, note, is a body and a body as primary is the only orientation to being – or to what being can be.
What matters in and as philosophy then for the Stoic can perhaps best be summed up in this from Epiectetus. In it we see the Socratic impetus and the anti-Platonist assumptions that appears to be so necessary to it:
Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for humans, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject matter. For just as wood is the material of the carpenter, bronze that of the statuary, so each individual’s own life is the material of the art of living.’ (Diss. 1.15.2)
And in this living example it’s possible also to see how the three parts of Stoic philosophical discourse, logic, physics and ethics, resonate as the actuality of the whole: ‘Philosophy, they say, is like an animal, logic corresponding to the bones and sinews, ethics to the fleshy parts, physics to the soul. Another simile they use is that of an egg: the shell is logic, next comes the white, ethics, and the yolk in the centre is physics. Or again they liken philosophy to an orchard: logic being the surrounding fence, ethics the fruit, physics the soil or the trees. (DL 7.40)
The challenge in this is to what we have seen determined as Plato’s division between being and appearing or more incautiously, the Platonic claim that the material world that we experience is merely a shadow of another realm where real existence lies. As Sellars points out, ‘the materialism of Stoicism is rooted in the contention that there are only bodies (except for some entities which are but don't have to credit this is-ness to being and so subsist – speech or perhaps language being one) against Plato’s attempt in the Sophist to trap materialists into admitting that non-material entities, non-physical beings, must exist – justice, intelligence, virtue etc.’ Zeno escapes this precisely by not compromising, saying, as noted, all are bodies, there is nothing that can be thought outside the corporeality of existence per se. Simply, there are no forms, there is no form of being. Forms neither exist nor subsist; forms can only be, as I say, not-something as only something is thinkable.
Again, the point is not to critique or even elaborate these philosophies too much but to note how they establish themselves in one way or another – negatively in some senses, positively in others – in relation to Plato and also thereby to set the scene somewhat for what Nietzsche ushers in as what we know as continental philosophy. What we can already say then is that for the Cynics and the Stoics, Plato cleaves to something essential for thought that they come to consider unthinkable as such, having no part in it. Or what Plato thinks as absolutely necessary to knowledge itself – the thought of being or that being must be thought – Cynics and Stoics, differently, but at this level similarly, necessarily posit as critical to them that this being is ‘impossible to think’. Or to turn it around and into the historical accusation: Plato claims to think the impossible to think and in so doing determines what is thought as such. How dare he.
* Where possible I have referenced by authors name works quoted. Otherwise, works consulted:
H. D. Rankin, Sophists, Socratics and Cynics.
Harald Thorsrud, Ancient Scepticism
William Desmond, Cynics
Pauliina Remes, Neoplatonism
Mauro Bonazzi & Christoph Helmig (eds) Platonic Stoicism – Stoic Platonism: The Dialogue between Platonism and Stoicism in Antiquity
John Sellars, Stoicism
David Sedley, The School, from Zenoto Arius Didymus
Jacques Brunschwig, ‘Stoic Metaphysics,’ Cambridge Companion to the Stoics
Christophr Gill, The School in the Roman Imperial Period, Cambridge Companion to the Stoics.