The Ockham Society (Friday - Week 5, HT20)

Ockham Society

Session Chair: Lucas Didrik Haugeberg 

The notion that the universe is ordered rationally and providentially for the good of the whole features prominently in both the early as well as the late Stoic authors and constitutes a central aspect of their ethics and indeed their philosophical system as a whole. The doctrine has however always been deeply contentious, and, needless to say, has since become a philosophical non- position, being highly implausible if not morally offensive to the vast majority of contemporary readers. Yet the ethical doctrines of Stoicism have remained attractive, as is perhaps best evidenced by the recent resurgence in public as well as academic interest in the theory’s therapeutic aspect. This raises the question: Is it possible to dissociate Stoic ethics from the context of a providential cosmos?

In contributing towards an answer to this question, this talk will propose a non-providential eudaimonist argument for the axiological core of Stoic ethics, i.e. the claim that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. This argument will be based on one of the most prominent passages in the Stoic corpus, namely the very first sentence of Epictetus’ Encheiridion: “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” (Epict., Ench. 1.1, trans. Oldfather 1928). I will then examine the plausibility of the arguments’ premises, arguing that it crucially relies on the distinctively Hellenistic assumption that the happy life is a life characterized by what the Stoics call serenity (εὔροια). I will conclude that this thesis appears to be of central importance to the project of constructing a Stoic ethics without providence. Finally, I will note that, as the Stoics reliance on providence is extensive, this general approach however faces difficulties in doing justice to the Stoic preoccupation with nature and being in accordance with it. This in turn leads to problems of justification in several areas of ethics, which must be addressed by any comprehensive non-providential Stoic ethical theory. We thus have reason to be skeptical about the project of constructing a “Modern” Stoicism.




Ockham Society Convenor: Sean Costello | Ockham Society Webpage