Guide The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics

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On the other hand, their intense focus on the state of desire and thought in the pupil made them seek a newly complex understanding of human psychology, and led them to adopt complex strategies-interactive, rhetorical, literary-designed to enable them to grapple effectively with what they had under-stood. In the process they forge new conceptions of what philosophical rigor and precision require. In these ways Hellenistic ethics is unlike the more detached and academic moral philosophy that has sometimes been practiced in the Western tradition. Twentieth-century philosophy, in both Europe and North America, has, until very recently, made less use of Hellenistic ethics than almost B.

Especially where philosophical conceptions of emotion are concerned, ignoring the Hellenistic period means ignoring not only the best material in the Western tradition, but also the central influence on later philosophical developments. A few examples will help to make this point vivid to the reader. When Christian thinkers write about divine anger, or about mercy for human frailty, they owe a deep debt to the Roman Stoics.

When Descartes and Princess Elizabeth correspond about the passions, Seneca is the central author to whom they refer. Spinoza is aware of Aristotle, but far more profoundly influenced by Stoic passion theory. Smith's theory of moral sentiments is heavily inspired by Stoic models, as is his economic teleology. When Rousseau defends the emotion of pity, he is taking sides in a debate of long standing between Stoics and Aristotelians. When Kant repudiates pity, he joins the debate on the Stoic side. Nietzsche's own attack on pity, coupled with a defense of mercy, should be understood-as he himself repeatedly insists-not as the policy of a boot-in-the face fascist, and also not as an innocuous refusal of moral self-indulgence, but as a position opposed both to cruelty and to deep attachment, a position he derives from his reading of Epictetus and Seneca.


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When we speak of the influence of "the classical tradition" on the framers of the U. Constitution, we must always remember that it is, on the whole, Hellenistic especially Stoic ethical thought, via the writings of Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch above all, that is central to their classical education. Thus the neglect of this period in much recent teaching of "the Classics" and "the Great Books" gives a very distorted picture of the philosophical tradition-and also robs the student of richly illuminating philosophical arguments.

Contemporary philosophical writing has begun to undo these wrongs; in both Europe and North America we have been seeing a flourishing of first-rate scholarship on this material, to which the present book owes a large debt. But there is one reclaiming of Hellenistic texts within philosophy-perhaps the most widely known to the general public-that seems to me, though exciting, also deeply problematic.

This is Michel Foucault's appeal to the Hellenistic thinkers, in the third volume of his History of Sexuality, and in lectures given toward the end of his life, as sources for the idea that philosophy is a set of techniques du soi, practices for the formation of a certain sort of self.

Certainly Foucault has brought out something very fundamental about these philosophers when he stresses the extent to which they are not just teaching lessons, but also engaging in complex practices of self-shaping. Many people purveyed a biou techne, an "art of life. These philosophers claim that the pursuit of logical valid-ity, intellectual coherence, and truth delivers freedom from the tyranny of custom and convention, creating a community of beings who can take charge of their own life story and their own thought.

Skepticism is in some ways an exception, as we shall see; but even Skeptics rely heavily on reason and argument, in a way other popular "arts" do not. It is questionable whether Foucault can even admit the possibility of such a community of freedom, given his view that knowledge and argument are themselves tools of power. In any case, his work on this period, challenging though it is, fails to confront the fundamental commitment to reason that divides philosophical techniques du soi from other such techniques.

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics

Perhaps that commitment is an illusion. I believe that it is not. And I am sure that Foucault has not shown that it is. In any case, this book will take that commitment as its focus, and try to ask why it should have been thought that the philosophical use of reason is the technique by which we can be truly free and truly flourishing.


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Writing about this historical period raises difficult organizational questions. The greatest problem for an author who gives an account of Hellenistic practical argument is one of scope. Hellenistic philosophy is hard to study partly on account of its success. The B.

This means that one must deal, in effect, with six centuries and two different societies.

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One cannot deal exhaustively with all the relevant material, copious and heterogeneous as it is. Any treatment must be a sampling. This, then, will not even attempt to be the entire story of Hellenistic ethical thought; nor will it be a highly systematic selective outline. Instead, it will be a somewhat idiosyncratic account of certain central themes, guided by an obsessive pursuit of certain questions-taking as its central guiding motif the analogy between philosophy and medicine as arts of life.


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  • Even with respect to these questions, it is difficult to find principles of selection. If the major works of Greek Hellenistic philosophers such as Epicurus, Zeno, and Chrysippus had survived, one might decide to limit such a study to the Greek beginnings of the schools, thus to a single culture and period.

    But the evidence does not permit this. From the vast output of these enormously prolific philosophers, only fragments and reports sur-vive for the Stoics and, for Epicurus, only fragments and reports plus three brief letters summarizing his major teachings, and two collections of maxims.

    The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics

    For the arguments of the Skeptics, we are almost entirely dependent on sources much later than the school's beginnings-Diogenes Laertius' Life of Pyrrho, and the works of Sextus Empiricus. There is, of course, ample later evidence about the Greek sources; there are also whole original works of Epicurean and Stoic and Skeptic thought from a later period above all from Rome. The lack of coincidence between early date and textual wholeness makes the task of selection difficult.

    But when one turns to later sources, especially to Roman sources, it does not seem sufficient simply to raid them for evidence toward the reconstruction of the Greek sources, as is frequently done. One must face the fact that these Roman philosophical works-works such as the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius and the dialogues, letters, and tragedies of Seneca-are them-selves complex philosophical and literary wholes, whose practice of " therapeutic argument" cannot be well understood without attending to their overall literary and rhetorical structure, their characteristic patterns of language, their allusions to other literary and philosophical texts.

    And this is not all: one must attend to their Romanness. For Roman philosophy pursues its questions about the relation of theory to practice while standing in an intimate relation to Roman history and politics. Roman therapeutic argument is more than incidentally the therapy of Romans and of Rome; one cannot completely understand its operations without understanding, as well, the character of the implied interlocutors-of Memmius in Lucretius, of figures such as Lucilius and Novatus in the works of Seneca, and, in all such works, of the implied Roman reader. This means understanding as much as one can of the relevant aspects of Roman literary, political, and social history, of the nuances of the Latin language, as it both translates Greek philosophical terms and alludes to its own literary traditions, and, finally, of specifically Roman attitudes to ethical and social questions.

    Roman Epicureans and Stoics are Epicureans and Stoics; and as Epicureans and Stoics they are concerned with what they believe to be aspects of our common humanity, as each school understands it. But as Epicureans and Stoics they also believe that good philosophical argument must be searchingly personal, bringing to light and then treating the beliefs that the interlocutor has acquired from acculturation and teaching, including many that are so deeply internalized that they are hidden from view.

    Many such acquired beliefs are specific to the society in question; so good Roman Epicurean or Stoic philosophy must at the same time be a searching critical inquiry into Roman traditions. Frequently philosophical scholars neglect this contextual material, producing a picture of Hellenistic ethics as a timeless whole.

    Typically such approaches will use the Latin texts only as source material for the Greek Hellenistic thinkers, disregarding their specifically Roman literary and social features and the shape of the literary wholes in which the philosophical material is embedded. This book, by contrast, is committed to studying the philosophical arguments in their historical and literary context.

    In-deed, I shall argue that Hellenistic therapeutic argument is, by design, so context-dependent that it can be fully understood in no other way-even, and especially, when we are trying to understand aspects of human life that are of continuing interest and urgency to us.

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    This does not imply that there are no transcontextual ethical truths to be unearthed by such a study, as we shall see. On the other hand, I am aware that to study all of these contextual features completely, in the case of each of the relevant texts and authors, would be the undertaking of several lifetimes, not of a single book.

    Nor can I achieve complete coverage by limiting my inquiry to a single author, or even a single school; the questions I want to ask require comparing the techniques and insights of the three schools. To make matters more complex still, my own preference for whole texts whose literary form can be analyzed as a part of its argument has drawn me more and more to Roman sources as my work has progressed. I have therefore found no easy solution to the problems of chronological and cultural range, apart from that of selecting certain topics for discussion and not others, certain works of a given author rather than others-and, in general, focusing on Lucretius and Seneca more than on Cicero, Epictetus, or Marcus.

    I have begun by limiting my focus to the three major schools in their more or less central and orthodox development, using Aristotle's ethical thought as a background and a foil. I have omitted eclectic schools and the later versions of Aristotelianism. A more problematic omission is that of the Cynics, practioners of a quasi-philosophical form of life that challenged public conventions of propriety as well as intellectual conventions of appropriate argument.

    The Cynics are certainly important in some way in the history of the idea of philosophical therapy; and the reader of Diogenes Laertius' life of Diogenes the Cynic will find them fascinating figures. On the other hand, there is, I believe, far too little known about them and their influence, and even about whether they offered arguments at all, for a focus on them to be anything but a scholarly quagmire in a book of this type. With some regret, then, I leave them at the periphery. In the case of each school, I have tried to give some idea of its Greek origins, as well as its Roman continuations.

    Thus I try to reconstruct the Epicurean practice of therapeutic argument, and to examine Epicurus' own attitudes to fear, love, and anger, before dwelling on the analogous aspects of Lucretius' poem and its therapeutic design.

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    And I attempt to reconstruct Chrysippus' own theory of the passions concerning which, fortunately, we have an unusually large amount of information before examining its development in Seneca's therapy of anger and its ambivalent treatment in Senecan tragedy. In each case I have tried to mention at least those portions of the cultural context that seem the most relevant.

    Although I offer no systematic account of the history of rhetorical practices-again, an under-taking that would require another book-I do consider some portions of Aristotle's Rhetoric in detail, and I attend closely to the rhetoric of particular philosophical arguments. Where my account has gaps, I hope that there is sufficient methodological frankness that the gaps themselves will be visible, in such a way that they can be filled in by others. At the very least, I hope to have shown-by the incompleteness of my account as much as by what it does succeed in doing-how hard and yet how exciting it is to study the history of ethics in this period, when one understands it not simply as the history of arguments, but also as the history of practices of argumentation and psychological interaction aimed at personal and societal change.

    Writing this book has also posed some delicate philosophical problems, which it is best to mention at the start. I undertook this project to get a better understanding of an aspect of Hellenistic philosophy that I enthusiastically endorse-its practical commitment, its combination of logic with compassion. This commitment is to some extent bound up with a more problematic aspect of Hellenistic thought, namely, its advocacy of various types of detachment and freedom from disturbance. The two commitments seem to me to be, in principle, independent of one another; and to some extent this is so also in practice.

    But it is also plain that one cannot go far in understanding these accounts of philosophical therapy without grappling with the normative arguments for detachment. When one does grapple with them one finds, I think, three things.

    The Therapy of Desire Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics Martin Classical Lectures

    First, one finds that to a certain extent the radical social criticism of the Hellenistic philosophers does indeed require them to mistrust the passions: not, that is, to take passion-based intuitions as an ethical bedrock, immune from rational criticism. If passions are formed at least in part out of beliefs or judgments, and if socially taught beliefs are frequently unreliable, then passions need to be scrutinized in just the way in which other socially taught beliefs are scrutinized.

    cuesmarados.ml But this seems to be a wise policy from the point of view of any philosophical view including Aristotle's that holds that some ethical beliefs and preferences are more reliable than others. Second, it becomes clear that at least some of the arguments that Epicureans and Stoics give for radically cutting back the passions are powerful arguments, even to someone who is antecedently convinced of their worth.

    In particular, their arguments against anger, and their further arguments connecting passions such as love and grief with the possibility of destructive anger, seem unavoidably strong.