Friday, 6 July 2018

Enlisting Lucian in the Aristotle vs. Neo-Stoic Debate

I marked the publication of my book Aristotle’s Way with an article on his route to happiness in the excellent free online magazine Aeon recently. My inbox has since been crammed with protests from people who call themselves Stoics.

I argued that Aristotle’s Peripatetic ethics and natural science stress that humans are animals, even if advanced ones, who need to live together in communities, solve problems, figure out how to live well, respect other life forms, and (in appropriate contexts and degrees) embrace rather than renounce pleasure, physical appetites and emotions like anger. This makes Peripatetic thought better suited to the lives of normal modern homines sapientes facing social-political dissolution and environmental crisis than the austere, self-focussed and pessimistic worldview of the Stoics.

The behavioural-therapy methods that today’s self-styled Stoics recommend on their websites and courses to their adherents are harmless. But this is a branding issue. I just can’t locate these ideas in any of the ancient texts and fragments of the dozen major Stoics. This applies all the way from Stoicism’s founder Zeno of Citium and Cleanthes his successor (perhaps the most anti-joy of them all) to Marcus Aurelius and Gaius Musonius Rufus, who recommended withdrawing from society altogether.

I’ve just found an ally in Lucian, the Syrian who wrote satire in Greek. His neglected satire Philosophies for Sale describes how ordinary people in the 2nd century CE saw each famous school of philosophy. Zeus and Hermes organise an auction of personifications of these schools.

Pythagorean Man is vegetarian, hairy, and silent. He propounds reincarnation, the music of the spheres, and numerology. The Cynic practises scathing humour and asceticism while renouncing home, family, society and material goods. The Epicurean also retreats from the world of affairs but devotes his life to the maximisation of pleasure experienced at leisure. These philosophies are presented as daft and inapplicable to everyday life.

Hairy Pythagorean
Democritean belief points to the atomic basis of the physical world; Heraclitans stress fire, flux and change; Socratic thought assumes that our world is a material copy of an eternal world of ideal forms; Sceptics question every assumption, including the belief that we exist. These schools of thought are useless for ‘regular folk’ as well.

Stoicism receives a longer treatment. You can spot a Stoic because he looks miserable, is self-regarding, claims to hold the monopoly on wisdom, courage and justice and that he alone is fitted to be ‘king, orator, millionaire’ (it was the favoured philosophy of fabulously rich Romans such as Seneca): Stoicism works less well for workers who don’t aim to be Top Dog, such as the cook, tanner and carpenter. Stoics are often found in financial industries; they argue that men have little control over fate and that the universe will self-combust. Stoics welcome hardship and endure it rather than pursuing solutions. Stoics teach using deliberate obscurantism in logic to foil opponents' arguments.

But the last school to be studied is presented in a radically different, positive light. Peripatetic philosophy encompasses all branches of knowledge. The Peripatetic is ‘temperate, good-natured, easy to get on with’ and publishes his thoughts in two modes: both ‘esoteric’ specialist treatises and ‘exoteric’ popular pamphlets written so that non-philosophers can understand. 

Aristotle & Peripatetic Colleague Theophrastus invent Zoology
The Peripatetic divides good things into three categories: those internal to the mind/soul (the most important), bodily and circumstantial. He promotes wonderful books on the natural world, especially the environment and zoology, biological reproduction, and what distinguishes man from other animals—all knowledge which is ‘as useful as it is ornamental’. 

Lucian of Samosata had no vested interest, as far as I know, in promoting Peripatetic thought. But he was an informed, lucid and perceptive thinker. I am excited to find him in agreement with me as I try to make the surviving, advanced treatises of Aristotle as accessible to every cook, tanner and carpenter—that is, as ‘exoteric’—as possible.


  1. Dear Edith

    I have some doubts about neo-Stoicism too (here's my review of Irvine's book:

    But are you sure this bit of Lucian is promoting Peripatetic philosophy? There is surely something absurd about the promised bits of understanding on offer: that asses don't build boats; what the soul of an oyster is like; how long is the life of a gnat... (It's not far from the nonsense Socrates is made to be investigating in the Clouds and I think you're stretching it when you describe these as 'wondergul books on the natural world... and what distinguishes man from other animals'. At least, that is a very charitable reading of what's there. Perhaps we need to be just as charitable to the other philosophers on sale.)

    Also, whether or not the buyer in the dialogue is taken in seems irrelevant to whether Lucian is promoting Peripatetic learning. The other bits of the ethical Peripatetic outlook mentioned are pretty common-sensical or so basic as to be deeply unimpressive (three kinds of goods, the stuff about being 'metrios, epieikes' etc. is not very informative even if it sounds sensible enough. And the exclamation 'tes akribologias!' isn't necessarily unvarnished praise (see e.g. Arist.EN 1122b8).

    So, while I am pretty sure I don't want to be a Stoic, I am also not sure that Lucian is a very helpful ally if you want to promote the Peripatetic alternative.


    1. Dear James, I think you are quite right to say the tone of the passage is ambiguous, but you have to agree that the Peripatetic School gets off much better than any pf the others, and FAR FAR better than the Stoics.