Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau by Christopher Brooke.
Pretty specialized book, concentrating on the impact of the neostoic movement on political thought from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth century. The impact of stoicism is a fairly vexed subject in academia. Some attribute a large impact to stoic ideas of equality, rationality and nature to Enlightenment politics. Others regard the impact as minimal, seeing coincidence and convergence behind any apparent similarities.
Brooke takes a fairly balanced view, weighing up the arguments for and against influence on any particular scholar. Overall though it seems to me the weight of evidence is that there must have been some influence.
Brooke also reports a strong resistance to stoic ideas, which I wasn't aware of, largely from religious thinkers who regarded stoicism as un-Christian. Other neo-Stoics attempted to synthesize Stoicism and Christianity, but there seems to have been strong resistance to this from conventional Christians.
During this period, stoicism was seen as a politically destabilizing force. Stoics were seen by opponents as potential or actual rebels, far too willing to tear down the structures of authority for reasons of pride rationalized as justice. Brooke thinks that Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" may have been an example: while Coriolanus is not identified as a stoic in the play, he is in Shakespeare's sources.
When the banished Coriolanus leads an army of Volscians against Rome towards the end of the play, the particular worry some Jacobean writers had about Stoicism, that somehow it worked to generate faction, sedition, and rebellion, is brought into focus...This is curiously the opposite of the present day, when stoics are criticizes as being too respectful of authority and the status quo. (e.g.) Brooke also cite some Roman sources via Tacitus who had similar views of the stoics.
Francis Bacon once observed in a discussion of superstition that it was 'not the schoole of Epicurus, but the Porch of the Stoiques that hath perturbed ancient states', but the affinity between Stoicism and sedition was by no means purely a matter of ancient history in the later years of Elizabeth's reign and the Jacobean period. After Essex's rebellion and execution in February 1601, one of the early political issues faced by King James, after his accession to the English throne in 1603l was how to deal with his Tacitist associates. These included leading courtiers, among them Fulke Greville and Bacon himself, who had betrayed his former patron when he testified against him at his trial for treason in Westminster Hall.
However much Seneca and Tacitus might have flourished on the fringes of English court politics, they were distrusted at its very centre. James forgave Bacon, Greville, and the others, and would later reward members of the Essex circle with high office, but he was never keen on those who struck a Stoic pose in public life. Even before becoming king of England he had referred dismissively in his Basilikon Doron to "that Stoick insensible stupiditie that proud inconstant Lipsius perswadeth in his Constantia". For editions of the book published around the time of James's accession to the English throne and afterwards, the specific reference to Lipsius was replaced by a general charge of hypocrisy directed at "manie in our daies" who, "Preassing to win honor, in imitating that auncient sect, by their inconstant behauiour in their owne liues, belyes their profession". The king was not alone in his concern. Andrew Shifflett has described some of the anxieties that grew up around the figure of the Stoic politician, locating James's remarks in a cluster that also included Roger Ascham's identification of the origins of the distinctively Stoic literary style in a 'singular pride in themselves, or some special malice of other, or for some private and partial matter, either in Religion or other kind of learning'; Robert Johnson's verdict that the Stoics were "busie-headed and turbulent"; and Fulke Greville's 1622 poem An Inquisition on Fame and Honour, which 'stated the problem well... when he reflected on the political consequences of one who trusts only in a "self-constellation" and "makes himself his end": "Selfnesse [is] even apt to reare it self asunder: / All governments, like man himself within / Being restlesse compositions of the sinne"." Political philosophers from Cicero to John Rawls have held that a well-ordered political community is one in which the citizens share and appropriate conception of justice, and the perennial anxiety regarding those who present themselves as Stoics is that however assiduously they may be seen to be performing their various offices, they threaten to disrupt the smooth workings of a hierarchical political regime, substituting their own scale of values -- regarding justice or honour, for example - for those that are officially recognized and socially sanctioned, and always placing their paramount concern for their own virtue above what others take to be the needs of the commonwealth for orderly, stable government. "No matter how indifferent to the world he claimed to be", Shifflet concludes, "the stoic was held to be a dangerous political animal". If the self-presentation of the Stoic politician was itself hypocritical -- and if Montaigne had been right about the fundamental inconstancy of human nature, it could hardly help but be-- then the possibilities for sedition were multiplied.
It's tempting to see this change as indicating that stoicism occupies a happy medium between too-authoritarian and too-rebellious, but I don't think that's quite true. Rather it seems to me that stoicism promotes two different kinds of extremism. In matters of personal suffering at the hands of an oppressive government, stoicism teaches that suffering is an trivial thing, an "indifferent" to be ignored. In matters of justice, stoicism teaches that justice is one of the four cardinal classical virtues, which is to be pursued at the cost of any amount of personal suffering.
As such, I think stoicism tends to aggravate both rebels and authoritarians. Rebels get annoyed when trying to rouse anger at a government's material failings, they're told that all material goods are worthless. Authoritarians are annoyed at the idea that a personal judgment of conscience might turn a stoic into a rebel at any time over even a tiny incidence, if considered unjust.
However, the antagonists of stoicism had a different view which Brooke refers to in the title: they thought that the flaw of stoicism was Pride. This was part of the religious critique: the danger of reading stoic texts was that it would convince people that they could achieve happiness/fulfillment on their own, rather than through the divine grace of Christianity.
The book also covers some things about how the modern study of stoicism developed, which explains some things. Apparently Continental philosophers tended to regard Seneca as relatively important, while English-speaking philosophers preferred Epictetus, which I think is a trend that continues to some extent. Marcus Aurelius was used as a kind of refuge after the criticism of Epictetus and Seneca as arrogant, since his Meditations have a lot of the language of humility. Chrysippus has also been regarded in different ways. Today he's regarded as an important figure who systematized and organized stoicism, but in the past he was regarded as a kind of corrupter, replacing authentic experience-based stoicism with a fussy semantic quibbling.
Overall, I thought this was an interesting book, informative and well-balanced, on a subject I didn't know much about. However I think it's probably a bit too specialized to be of much interest to the general reader.
What I'm Reading 2
Finished Pure by Andrew Miller. Novel set in Eighteenth Century Paris, about a young provincial engineer who is appointed to empty an overflowing graveyard that's choking the neighbourhood.
Very atmospheric with a Gothic atmosphere, as the Enlightenment ideals of the engineer meet the harsh realities of ancien regime France. It's well-written and compelling, though the protagonist is a bit wince-inducing at times.
There was a lot of hype about it when it won the Costa book award: not sure it really lives up to it all, but still a good book, well worth reading..
What I'm Watching
Saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch on DVD. Musical movie telling the life story of a Berlin-born transsexual punk-rock singer.
Liked it a lot: it combines good performances and an interesting story. Uses some clever animation and transition gimmicks to make it seem a bit less stage-bound.
Well worth seeing.
Olympic travel disruption is a pain for me, as I work next to a station that's a major Olympic destination. Normally I catch the 8:22AM in to work, have been mostly catching the 6:52 this week to try to get in: it's still jammed with people but I've always been able to cram on somehow. Wondering if maybe the 8:22 would be quieter, but if it's not I'd have big problems. Fortunately the trip back is OK as the competitions are mostly in the morning.
Settling into the new house now, had a nice quiet weekend last time after frenetic Moving Stuff for the last ones. Haven't been out to the theatre or cinema or galleries in ages though.
In general it's good to have a house, especially with a garden. Feel a little bit cut off from things though. Working outside London makes it hard to do anything on weeknights. Don't see my old co-workers and the new ones are very quiet, don't have much time to hang out online.
Socioeconomics. Transpacific partnership could create huge free trade zone. Reforming the housing market, a landlord's view. Income drops, wealth doesn't. Hard line on immigrants 'holds back the UK'. The nature of money. Discrediting the "strong IQ" hypothesis. Chinese imports rise, but mostly from Asia. Unemployment since 1855.
Video. Goat jumps over other goats.
|< so apparently... | I may have started an exodus. >|