In many ways, Aristotle’s ethics provides the form for the adumbration of the ethical teaching of the Hellenistic schools. One must first provide a specification of the goal or end (telos) of living. This may have been thought to provide something like the dust jacket blurb or course description for the competing philosophical systems—which differed radically over how to give the required specification.
A bit of reflection tells us that the goal that we all have is happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). But what is happiness? The Epicureans’ answer was deceptively straightforward: the happy life is the one which is most pleasant. (But their account of what the highest pleasure consists in was not at all straightforward.) Zeno’s answer was “a good flow of life” (Arius Didymus, 63A) or “living in agreement,” and Cleanthes clarified that with the formulation that the end was “living in agreement with nature” (Arius Didymus, 63B). Chrysippus amplified this to (among other formulations) “living in accordance with experience of what happens by nature;” later Stoics inadvisably, in response to Academic attacks, substituted such formulations as “the rational selection of the primary things according to nature.” The Stoics’ specification of what happiness consists in cannot be adequately understood apart from their views about value and human psychology.
The best way into the thicket of Stoic ethics is through the question of what is good, for all parties agree that possession of what is genuinely good secures a person’s happiness. The Stoics claim that whatever is good must benefit its possessor under all circumstances. But there are situations in which it is not to my benefit to be healthy or wealthy. (We may imagine that if I had money I would spend it on heroin which would not benefit me.) Thus, things like money are simply not good, in spite of how nearly everyone speaks, and the Stoics call them ‘indifferents’ (Diog. Laert., 58A)—i.e., neither good nor bad. The only things that are good are the characteristic excellences or virtues of human beings (or of human minds): prudence or wisdom, justice, courage and moderation, and other related qualities. These are the first two of the ‘Stoic paradoxes’ discussed by Cicero in his short work of that title: that only what is noble or fine or morally good (kalon) is good at all, and that the possession (and exercise) of the virtues is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. But the Stoics are not such lovers of paradox that they are willing to say that my preference for wealth over poverty in most circumstances is utterly groundless. They draw a distinction between what is good and things which have value (axia). Some indifferent things, like health or wealth, have value and therefore are to be preferred, even if they are not good, because they are typically appropriate, fitting or suitable (oikeion) for us.
Impulse, as noted above, is a movement of the soul toward an object. Though these movements are subject to the capacity for assent in fully rational creatures, impulse is present in all animate (self-moving) things from the moment of birth. The Stoics argue that the original impulse of ensouled creatures is toward what is appropriate for them, or aids in their self-preservation, and not toward what is pleasurable, as the Epicureans contend. Because the whole of the world is identical with the fully rational creature which is God, each part of it is naturally constituted so that it seeks what is appropriate or suitable to it, just as our own body parts are so constituted as to preserve both themselves and the whole of which they are parts. The Stoic doctrine of the natural attachment to what is appropriate (oikeiôsis) thus provides a foundation in nature for an objective ordering of preferences, at least on a prima facie basis. Other things being equal, it is objectively preferable to have health rather than sickness. The Stoics call things whose preferability is overridden only in very rare circumstances “things according to nature.” As we mature, we discover new things which are according to our natures. As infants perhaps we only recognised that food and warmth are appropriate to us, but since humans are rational, more than these basic necessities are appropriate to us. The Greek term ‘oikeion’ can mean not only what is suitable, but also what is akin to oneself, standing in a natural relation of affection. Thus, my blood relatives are—or least ought to be—oikeioi. It is partly in this sense that we eventually come to the recognition—or at least ought to—that other people, insofar as they are rational, are appropriate to us. Cicero’s quotation of Terence’s line ‘nothing human is alien to me’ in the context of On Duties I.30 echoes this thought. It is not only other rational creatures that are appropriate to us, but also the perfection of our own rational natures. Because the Stoics identify the moral virtues with knowledge, and thus the perfection of our rational natures, that which is genuinely good is also most appropriate to us. So, if our moral and intellectual development goes as it should, we will progress from valuing food and warmth, to valuing social relations, to valuing moral virtue. Ideally, we’ll have the recognition that the value that moral virtue has is of a different order to those things that we were naturally attracted to earlier.
Is that all there is to Stoic ethics? Some writers, such as Annas (1993), suppose that Stoic moral philosophy largely floats free of Stoic metaphysics, and especially from Stoic theology. Other writers, such as Cooper (1996), suppose that Stoic moral philosophy is intimately intertwined with Stoic metaphysics. The latter reading draws our attention to the fact that the unfolding of God’s providential plan is rational (and therefore beneficial) through and through, so that in some sense what will in fact happen to me in accordance with that plan must be appropriate to me, just like food, warmth, and those with whom I have intimate social relations.
When we take the rationality of the world order into consideration, we can begin to understand the Stoic formulations of the goal or end. “Living in agreement with nature” is meant to work at a variety of levels. Since my nature is such that health and wealth are appropriate to me (according to my nature), other things being equal, I ought to choose them. Hence the formulations of the end by later Stoics stress the idea that happiness consists in the rational selection of the things according to nature. But, we must bear in mind an important caveat here. Health and wealth are not the only things which are appropriate to me. So are other rational beings and it would be irrational to choose one thing which is appropriate to me without due consideration of the effect of that choice on other things which are also appropriate to me. This is why the later formulations stress that happiness consists in the rational selection of the things according to nature. But if I am faced with a choice between increasing my wealth (something which is prima facie appropriate to my nature) and preserving someone else’s health (which is something appropriate to something which is appropriate to me, i.e. another rational being), which course of action is the rational one? The Stoic response is that it is the one which is ultimately both natural and rational: that is, the one that, so far as I can tell from my experience with what happens in the course of nature (see Chrysippus’ formula for the end cited above, 63B), is most in agreement with the unfolding of nature’s rational and providential plan. Living in agreement with nature in this sense can even demand that I select things which are not typically appropriate to my nature at all—when that nature is considered in isolation from these particular circumstances. Here Chrysippus’ remark about what his foot would will if it were conscious is apposite.
As long as the future is uncertain to me I always hold to those things which are better adapted to obtaining the things in accordance with nature; for God himself has made me disposed to select these. But if I actually knew that I was fated now to be ill, I would even have an impulse to be ill. For my foot too, if it had intelligence, would have an impulse to get muddy. (Epictetus, 58J)