Stoicism, Moral Responsibility, and Freedom

Most people if you ask them if they believe that everything has a cause, they’ll likely say yes.  Most people if you ask them if they believe that everyone is basically morally responsible, they’ll likely say yes.

The ancient Stoics believed everyone was morally responsible more or less and that everything including our own behaviors were causally determined.  The question of course is how can humans be morally responsible and determined at the same time?

The Stoic Chrysippus distinguished between extrinsic causes that are all external to ourselves and intrinsic causes which are internal to our character.  Chrysippus used a clever analogy of a cylinder being pushed to roll.  Basically, the cylinder’s shape represents our intrinsic character and the force pushing the cylinder represents an external stimulus/impression.    In the analogy the cylinder will only roll if two conditions are met: 1. it is pushed and 2. it is round.   1&2 are required for the same effect:  rolling.   So our character assenting to an impression and the external impression itself is what determines us to have an impulse or not.  If we are stimulated but we do not respond, we do not act.  Only when both conditions are satisfied is an action or impulse caused.  Even if the act is to not do anything at all.  Essentially, the idea is that everything is fated but we help co-fate our future.  The shape of our characters is where we possess some control and that’s where we find moral responsibility.

Something counter-intuitive that the Stoics would say is, yes, we have limited freedom to coordinate our future given whether fate allows but on top of that, none of us are truly free except for the Sage.  Ancient Stoics believed that if we couldn’t truly be a master of all of our passions and desires, we were a slave to our passions/desires and ultimately are not truly free.  So even though Stoicism does make room for soft determinism (the position that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible), it also seems to paradoxically hold a hard determinist position that there is no true freedom for anyone except for the Sage.

So we end with that paradox.  We all possess a limited amount of freedom that is compatible with a determinist universe.  But ultimately we’re not truly free like the Sage.  We’re capable of being free in a sense but not truly so.  So we still have to live with the idea that each of us each bear responsibility even if truly the Sage only bears true responsibility.  We’re living in an illusion of freedom because we’re all still slaves to our desires/passions unless we become truly free from our desires/passions and become Sages.

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Stoicism and Moral Responsibility

Most people if you ask them if they believe that everything has a cause, they’ll likely say yes.  Most people if you ask them if they believe that everyone is basically morally responsible, they’ll likely say yes.

The ancient Stoics believed everyone was morally responsible more or less and that everything including our own behaviors were causally determined.  The question of course is how can you be morally responsible and determined to do what you do?

Well, one clever Stoic by the name of Chrysippus believed he possessed the answer.  Chrysippus believed human action could be modeled by a cylinder rolling down an incline.  Basically, the cylinder’s shape represents your character and the incline’s angle represents fate (gravity being a given).  Your character, represented by the shape of the cylinder, had an effect on how the cylinder would roll down the incline.  Chryippus thought that your character is where you possessed some control over how your fate was determined.  Essentially, the idea was that everything was fated but we co-fate our future to a limited extent.  The shape of our characters is where we possess some control and that’s where we find moral responsibility.

Something counter-intuitive that the Stoics would say is, yes, we have limited freedom to coordinate our future given whether fate allows but on top of that, none of us are truly free except for the Sage.  Ancient Stoics believed that if you couldn’t truly be a master of all of your passions and desires, you were a slave to your passions/desires and ultimately were not truly free.  So even though Stoicism does make room for soft determinism (the position that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible), it also seems to paradoxically hold a hard determinist position that there is no true freedom for anyone except for the Sage.

So we end with that paradox.  We all possess limited amount of freedoms that are compatible with a determinist universe.  But ultimately we’re not truly free like the Sage.  We’re only capable of being free but not truly so.  So we still have to live with the idea that each of us each bear responsibility even if truly the Sage only truly bears responsibility.  We’re living an illusion of freedom because we’re all still slaves to our desires/passions unless we become truly free from our desires/passions and become Sages.

What do you all think?  Are we free or not?

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Why is there something rather than nothing? The Stoics provide an answer.

Our scientifically estimated 13.6 billion year old universe could have come from nothing as bizarre as that is to conceive in our minds.  How could something come from nothing?  This question never seemed to bother the ancient Greco-Roman philosophers as much as it did later Medieval philosophers.  God created the universe ex nihilo according to the Medieval interpretation of the Bible so it was thought that there was nothing in the beginning.  If an atheist during the Dark Ages had dared to question the existence of God, she would’ve been met with the question, “well, then how could something come from nothing?”

The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers never cared too much about the issue of how could something come from nothing because they just assumed something had been around since eternity so there was never a nothing.  The Stoics, for example, just assumed the universe had always been.  It, like a fire, sets off, sustains itself, and then extinguishes itself only to be set off again and this process goes on forever.  In fact, the universe is always dying and being reborn and everything that happened in all the previous universes happens in this universe.

The ancient Greco-Roman philosophers tended to have a cyclic vision of time that the universe would be born, sustain itself, die, be reborn and repeat ad infinitum.  This didn’t just happen cosmically but microcosmically.  Civilizations would be born, sustain themselves, and then die, only to have new civilizations be born from those civilizations.  It really wasn’t until Christianity that Western Civilization got the concept of linear time that began at some certain point, say, 4004 BC and terminates on Judgment Day say 2000-something when Jesus is supposed to return.

Anyway, it’s still possible the Stoics are right.  Maybe even though our universe had a beginning, our universe was just born from another universe that is part of an infinite multiverse that has always existed and will never die.  If our universe came from another universe, then it came from something, and if the multiverse is always there, then we never have to deal with the question, “how did something come from nothing?” because something has always been forever and ever.

Before the universe began, it might’ve been a singularity that went unstable.  While mathematically singularities are difficult to describe and physics breaks down, it’s possible that that singularity could’ve been eternally existing, thereby making it never needn’t of an explanation for where it came from.  The singularity had always just been, eternally existing.  Therefore, something never did come from nothing.

This is all just speculation but it makes you wonder how old things really are.  While our universe appears to be 13.6 billion years old.  How old was the singularity before it?  How old is everything outside our universe IF there is an OUTSIDE.

The Stoics had their answer so what is yours?

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