Sunday, January 17, 2016

Does Stoicism support individual equality?

Zeno of Citium
"There is no other or more appropriate means of arriving at a definition of good or evil things, virtue or happiness, than to take our baring from common nature and the governance of the universe" -  Chrysippus.
Stoicism emphasises the universal over the local. It imposes duties to humanity over duties to friends. It instils self-control for flourishing over self-destructive passion. These ethical teachings are grounded by Nature being the standard to determine the good: Each of us has a place within the harmonious cosmic order and our duty is to adjust ourselves to living virtuously within the natural order as revealed by reason. But this raises an interesting question: Does Stoicism support individual equality?

Intuitively we answer affirmatively, pointing to Stoic universalism imposing duties to our fellow man. This may however be a rash judgement for Nature and natural order, both intrinsic to Stoicism, were traditionally invoked to support hierarchical inequality. To answer our question then we must examine the birthplace of Stoicism in ancient Greece and locate the seed of Western individual equality. 

 But first some clearing of obstacles is necessary.

When I studied philosophy I learned of the ancient world then of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which gave birth to Modern Man endowed with natural rights and gifted with self-autonomy through reason. This account implies Christianity was an aberration that suppressed reason and oppressed mankind in a dark age of superstition and ignorance;  that the rediscovery of classical philosophy during the Renaissance began freeing mankind from the bonds of the Church. We must now put aside this account and attempt to view the classical world as it actually was rather than imposing a modern, and incomplete, interpretation upon it.

The origins of the classical world lay not in equality and rationality but in religion and the family.  It began as a loose association of humans organized into homesteads banding together for protection. Inside each homestead was a cult dedicated to the worship of family ancestors with the patriarch serving as head priest.  Each home was centred upon a hearth as a locus of worship where the patriarch offered sacrifices and chants passed down from generation to generation. Each family member had a religious duty to maintain the heart which both brought flickering illumination and good fortune for the heart was the material reflection of their ancestor spirits who lived under ground. The origins of the classical world then began in religion as small cults each worshipping their private ancestors within property boundaries established by a sacred domain.

Families prospered and grew and became extended forcing the need for larger city-state associations to develop. But family worship did not vanish but also extended with each expansion in numbers becoming associated with shared ancestral worship. The great city-states of ancient Greece then are best understood as associations of family cults dedicated to ancestor worship.

Eventually ancestor worship became worship of a single deity whose favour must be curried to ensure the survival of the city. The family patriarchs evolved into city magistrates ruled over by a king who also served as the head priest. If we remember a city-state and land was inseparable from the worship of a single deity, we can better understand the appeal of Stoic universalism which developed during the fall of the Greek city-states first to Macedon and eventually to the Roman empire.

Greek and Roman society was one of hierarchies with patriarchs and their first born sons at the top and slaves and women on the bottom. In public life citizens claimed to be guided by rationality to deduce the correct actions for the city and its God. Social inferiors were conveniently deemed irrational or at least not fully rational.  In domestic life patriarchs dominated their families with all but the first born son lacking even rudimentary rights. Rulers also served as priests. Citizens were few in number and were bonded to the protection of the city.

The core of ancient thinking therefore was the assumption of inequality. Even natural processes were understood as a graduated hierarchy with reason and the logos providing the key to social and natural order. Rulers were placed into their respective positions by nature with no need to justify their privileges and slaves were mere living tools by their very nature.

Let us now return to our central question: Does Stoicism support equality or inequality?

It can be argued the Stoic concept of an ordered cosmos reflects the hierarchy of dominance apparent throughout the ancient world. But I think this is unfair. Stoicism it makes no claim on whether a man should be a slave or a free citizen. It speaks little of economic and social order much less demands the status quo be maintained by divine decree. Rather Stoicism is concerned with an individuals inner tranquillity in the face of how the world actually is rather than the well being of a city or how the world should be; Stoicism is not a subversive doctrine.

This emphases on the individual is important and represents a break from the traditional philosophy of the ancient world where the unit of concern was the family and the city. We can reasonably conclude that in Stoicism we see the beginnings of the individual emerging from a system of family clans. Further we can state there is no central claim that natural inequality is a fixed feature of world in Stoicism.

Yet this is not enough. Transforming inequality in ancient society required an awareness that the world was not ordered but disordered; that mankind was not fated as part of the determined cosmos but granted freedom and responsibility over the natural world; that unevenly distributed reason does not grant equality but that each individual would one day stand in judgement for his actions regardless of social rank. In short, Christianity was required to transform the ancient world and these core doctrines are absent in Stoicism.

Against this, we could argue Stoic ethics imposes duties to our fellow humans and is therefore sufficient to support human rights for the common good and for the flourishing of individuals. This is reassuring but the argument still falls short of supporting individual equality.

We are now at the end of this enquiry. We examined the classical world and found hierarchies and slavery. We examined Stoic ethical teachings and found much that is noble but little that is subversive, preferring inner peace over worldly freedom. We therefore must admit Stoicism has little to support individual equality but takes no stance upon human inequality.

I am interested in hearing alternatives viewpoints. Can Stoicism can support equality? Please leave a comment and let me know. 


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