Thursday, December 29, 2005

The dissent of Posidonius

We are not done examining Epictetus’ disciplines of assent and desire, but I want to post today on a related topic that was brought to my attention.

Diogenes Laertius inserts an epitome or outline of Stoic philosophy in his “Life of Zeno.” There we read that the Stoic philosopher Posidonius ( circa 135- 50 BCE ) dissented from the orthodox Stoic view about what is good. The early Stoics and Epictetus share the view that virtue alone is good and suffices for happiness. This is what Diogenes tells us about Posidonius:

Further, they [ the older Stoic] say that something is not good of which both good and evil use may be made. But wealth and health can be used for both good and evil. Therefore, health and wealth are not goods. Posidonius, however, maintains that these things are goods. [DL. vii. 103]

[Whilst the older Stoics maintain that virtue alone suffices for our happiness], Panaetius and Posidonius deny that virtue is sufficient. On the contrary, [ they say], we need health and a good amount of money [ choregias] and strength. [ DL. vii. 128 ]

For the Stoics, the good is that from which some advantage or benefit comes, evil that from which some harm follows.[ vii.94] Something may be good for its own sake, or for the sake of something else, or both reasons. The greatest good, it is agreed, is human happiness or flourishing [ eudaemonia ]. Whatever is necessary for or even conducive of happiness is necessarily a good. The older Stoics and Epictetus claim that virtue alone is necessary for happiness. Posidonius disagrees and stakes out a position closer to Aristotle's in the Eudemian Ethics. Health, Posidonius says, and money and even strength are things we need to live a good life.

Unfortunately, Posidonius’ philosophical works have not survived, so we do not have the arguments he employed against the older Stoics. Obviously he must have rejected the argument, noted in the passage above, that only what can always and only be used for good is good. We had occasion to look at that argument in Epictetus a while ago. We noted that many of the cardinal virtues such as courage and temperance can be put to bad use by bad people. IF so, thenvirtue is not good. I conjecture Posidonius made this same point.

I have a bigger conjecture about Posidonius and his views about what is good. I think that Posidonius, everywhere the observer and scientist in his studies of the natural world, took the same approach in studying what is good and what is necessary for happiness in the human world. He did not dogmatically echo the Stoic line that virtue is all we need for a good life, but looked at human affairs and saw what virtue can and cannot achieve by itself. If we are in chronic bad health and indigent and weak, he saw, we are just not going to be able to fulfill any of the natural roles that the Stoics recommend for a man. We shall be unable to fulfill the duties of a spouse and a parent and a citizen and a productive member of our society. Inner virtue is not enough if you lack the means and the ability to accomplish things. Health and money and strength are needed for a good life. So I believe Posidonius argued. Unfortunately, as we saw, Epictetus reverts to the older dogmatic line and seem to pay little real attention to what human flourishing requires.


Post a Comment

<< Home