Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Spartan or Stoic

Stoic vs. Spartan

The Spartan Life

 *Sparta was the main rival to Athens in Ancient Greece. The city-state had a unique moral and cultural society. Two hereditary kings ruled at a time, presiding over a war-obsessed culture that shunned any form of luxury and threw 'weakling' newborns down a nearby chasm. Boys were separated from the rest of society at the age of seven and brought up in a military school that emphasized physical toughness and encouraged stealing as a form of subsistence. They were taught to speak 'laconically': briefly and wittily. As the men of Sparta were often separated from the women to engage in war with Sparta's neighbors, the women enjoyed a greater degree of power and freedom than was found in other Ancient Greek states.

The peculiarities of the Spartan way of life has rendered it a continuing source of fascination from Classical times until the present day. Machiavelli, for example, was an admirer of Spartan culture, as was John-Jacques Rousseau.


Its founder, Zeno (c 336-264 BCE) (not to be confused with the Eleatic Zeno), discussed philosophical ideas at the agora in the Stoa Poikile, Painted Colonnade, or porch and thus his followers came to be called Stoics or "philosophers of the porch". Like so many others, Zeno was impressed with the thought and character of Socrates. Interpreting the Socratic model from the point of view of the Cynics, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and Crates of Thebes, of whom Zeno was for a time a disciple, Zeno admired most in Socrates his strength of character and independence of external circumstances. From Zeno's point of view, virtue resided not in external fortune, wealth, honor, and the like, but in self-sufficiency and a kind of rational ordering of intention.

The Stoic Life

Later Stoics of the Hellenistic period, including Cleanthes of Assos (c 331-233 BCE) and Chrysippus (c 281-208 BCE), developed Stoicism as a systematic body of doctrine, complete with a system of logic, epistemology, and cosmology. In logic, the Stoics developed the logic of propositions more recently formalized by Frege and Bertrand Russell. Chrysippus was recognized by his contemporaries as the equal of Aristotle in logic. Stoic epistemology was decidedly empiricist and nominalist in spirit. They rejected both Plato's and Aristotle's notions of  abstract universals. Only particular things exist and our knowledge of them is based on the impressions they make upon the soul. Our knowledge of particular objects is therefore based on sense perception, as is our knowledge of our mental states and activities, our soul itself being a material thing.

Metaphysically, the Stoics were materialists. While all that exists is material, nevertheless there are two principles of reality. The passive principle is matter devoid of quality. Borrowing from Heraclitus, the Stoics identified the active principle of reality with the Logos, Reason, or God. Unlike later Christian versions, the Stoic view of the Logos is both materialistic and pantheistic. God has no existence distinct from the rational order of nature and should not be construed as a personal, transcendent deity of the sort essential to later Western theism.

The Stoics were determinists, some even fatalists, holding that whatever happens happens necessarily. Not only is the world such that all events are determined by prior events, but the universe is a perfect, rational whole. For all their interests in logic and speculative philosophy, the primary focus of Stoicism is practical and ethical. Knowledge of nature is of instrumental value only. Its value is entirely determined by its role in fostering the life of virtue understood as living in accord with nature. This practical aspect of Stoicism is especially prevalent in the Roman Stoic, Epictetus (c 50-138 CE), who developed the ethical and religious side of Stoicism. This practical side of Stoicism can be seen best in the life of Marcus Aurelius who described the stoic life in hi famous Meditations.

*The Ruins of Ancient Sparta (GNU Free Documentation LicenseThe Ruins of Ancient Sparta - Credit: Thomas Ihle)


Parrish Lantern said...

Check this out from horrible histories

JohnJEnright said...

That was very well delineated. People do mix these two up at times, even though they are deeply different. I suppose they are both "tough minded and uncomplaining".

James said...

John, Thanks for your comment. The comment was suggested to me by a reference to Sparta and my own interest in Stoic philosophy. It seems that stoicism is often thought of as Spartan in spite of the differences. No doubt for some it is just "all Greek".