Intense practicality was one of the primary markers of later Greek philosophy. This was common to Stoicism with its rival Epicureanism. Both regarded philosophy as ‘the art of life,’ though they differed in their conception of what that art should be. Widely as the two schools were opposed to one another, they also had other features in common. Both were children of an age in which the free city had given way to monarchies, and personal had taken the place of corporate life. The question of happiness was no longer, as with Aristotle, and still more with Plato, one for the state or the social unit, but for the individual. In both schools, the speculative interest was feeble from the first and tended to become feebler as time went on.
Both were new departures from pre-existent schools. Stoicism was bred out of Cynicism, as Epicureanism out of Cyrenaicism. Both were content to fall back for their physics upon the pre-Socratic schools, the one adopting the firm philosophy of Heraclitus, the other the atomic theory of Democritus. Both were in strong reaction against the abstractions of Plato and Aristotle and would tolerate nothing but concrete reality. The Stoics were quite as materialistic in their own way as the Epicureans. With regard indeed to the nature of the highest good, we may, with Seneca represent the difference between Stoicism and Epicureanism as only a question of the senses against the intellect, but we shall see presently that the Stoics regarded the intellect itself as being a kind of body.
The Greeks were all agreed that there was an end or aim of life and that it was to be called ‘happiness,’ but at that point, their agreement ended. As to the nature of happiness, there was the utmost variety of opinion. The well-known Stoic formula summarizes their position on the subject which the end is ‘to live consistently with nature.’ It was assumed by the Greeks that the ways of nature were ‘the ways of pleasantness,’ and that ‘all her paths’ were ‘peace.’ This may seem to us a startling assumption, but that is because we do not mean by ‘nature’ the same thing as they did. We connect the term with the origin of a thing, they connected it rather to the end; by the ‘natural state’ we mean a state of savagery, they meant the highest civilization; we mean by a thing’s nature what it is or has been, they meant what it ought to become under the most favorable conditions. Another definition of theirs puts the matter still more clearly: What each thing is when its growth has been completed, that we declare to be the nature of each thing.
Following out this conception the Stoics identified a life in accordance with nature with a life in accordance with the highest perfection to which man could attain. Now, as man was essentially a rational animal, his work as man lay in living the rational life. And the perfection of reason was virtue. Hence, the ways of nature were no other than the ways of virtue. And so it came about that the Stoic formula might be expressed in a number of different ways which yet all amounted to the same thing. The end was to live the virtuous life, or to live consistently, or to live in accordance with nature, or to live rationally.
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