More Hellenic and Hellenistic Contexts for Responsibility & Reality Formation
This post is the third in a discussion and criticism of the roots, context, spiritual and philosophical significance of the widespread related axioms of reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities” and “responsibility assumption”, or the belief that all individuals are 100% personally responsible for what happens in their lives.
The previous post examined early Classical thinking that is foundational to the question, this post will discuss some slightly more recent Hellenic thinking that also relates. Again, I will provide jump off links from Wikipedia and other useful sites for readers who may wish to explore aspects of these topics in greater detail.
The previous post touched upon intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of our perceptions of cause and reality. Plato placed knowledge in thought, and reality, therefore, in the ideal form. There is a reasonable tendency to perceive an inner and an outer reality, a reality of what is sensed externally–physical reality–and an inner reality of thoughts and feelings. It is not surprising that we conflate extrinsic, or physical reality with the intrinsic consciousness that experiences it. It is also not surprising that over the millennia we have attempted to reconcile deterministic ideas with free will and have argued over both the teleological and causal meanings of the conclusions we draw from our experiences.
In Western Classical thought regarding this, the Stoics directly explored the relationship between free will and determinism finding that the most desirable path is one that incorporates will that acts in accordance with laws of Nature. Philosophy then, became practice.
Of course, in order to act in accordance with Nature’s laws, one would have to know what they are. This would, the Stoics taught, require one to develop logic, ethics, and self control to bring negative thoughts and emotions under control and allow for accurate perception and interpretation of logos, or the divine animating principle pervading the Universe.
This divine animating principle of logos (which also to the ancient Greek meant language and reason) was seen to be a primordial and material element of fire. This tangible, material flame of being was combined by the Stoics with Hellenic pantheistic ideas and the fire came to be seen as an expression of a primal and causal divinity. All things were seen to be composed of this divine flame including the human soul.
At the same time, the Stoics saw this Divinity as reason. Reason was seen as the expression of the Divine Fire, or in other words the Fire is a rational element. Extrapolating from this pervasive divine reason, the Stoics determined that there is a harmonious, divine order and purpose to the universe and that this design is embodied in an absolute law of Nature. The Stoics therefore came down on the side of determinism over free will. Our acts may be chosen and voluntary but they are governed by a necessity born in Divine Nature.
Stoic ethics then, are composed of two principles:
One, that there are no exceptions to the governing Law of the Universe;
Two, that human nature is based in reason.
These principles are both articulated in the important Stoic maxim: “Live according to Nature.” This was seen to mean that humans should conform themselves to the laws of the universe and learn to pay attention to and act upon their own essential nature to be found in and through reason.
An important stoic contribution to ethics and to our ultimate topic of personal responsibility and reality formation can be found in the Stoic belief that it is an individual’s responsibility to be virtuous and that this virtue arises out of reason in harmony with Nature.
In criticisms of stoicism we can also find ideas that will be of use later in our discussion of reality formation and personal responsibility.
One problem with Stoicism involves the logical paradox to be found in their concepts of free will and determinism particularly when expressed in terms of a belief in predestination. If all is predestined then arguments to personally develop or to cultivate indifference seems paradoxical.
Another problem can be found in the question of the social consequences of a widespread Stoic encouragement of a cultivated indifference and a concern that such indifference defies reason. Indifference if practiced widely would appear heartless: a father would not appear affected by death of his child, and for all of us to encourage within ourselves an apparent uncaring, even sociopathic callousness seems paradoxical with what we see in natural law. A likely outcome might be an apathetic approach to life which might manifest in neglect of family or social responsibility. It is often because we love and care and suffer when we see others suffer that we are motivated to take action to protect ourselves and others.
There is some indication in Stoic texts which suggest that the Stoics did attempt to address the paradoxical conflict between a deterministic universal causality and free will. There is an excellent discussion that delves more deeply into these issues and Stoic ethics and philosophy of mind at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . They point to the following texts which indicate a mitigated or “soft” determinism:
“Chrysippus used the illustration of a cylinder rolling down a hill as an analogy for actions that are within our control (Cicero and Gellius, 62C-D). It is true that the force that starts its motion is external to it. This is analogous to the impressions we have of the world. But it rolls because of its shape. This is analogous to our moral character. When our actions are mediated by our characters, then they are ‘up to us’. Thus, if I see an unattended sandwich and, because I am a dishonest person, steal it, then this is up to me and I am responsible. All things come about by fate but this is brought about by fate through me(Alex. Aphr. 62G). When, however, I trip and fall, knocking your sandwich to the floor, this is not up to me. The chain of causes and effects does not flow through my beliefs and desires.”
This analysis is also important in our later consideration of ideas about total personal responsibility for all outcomes.
There were also contemporary criticisms of Stoic philosophy. A great examination of this and of Stoicism in general can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which points to the arguments of Galen, Posidonius, and Cicero:
“The medical writer and philosopher Galen defended the Platonic account of emotions as a product of an irrational part of the soul. Posidonius, a 1st c. BCE Stoic… (criticized) …the psychology of emotions, and developed a position that recognized the influence in the mind of something like Plato’s irrational soul-parts. The other opposition to the Stoic doctrine came from philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition. They,like the Stoics, made judgment a component in emotions. But they argued that the happy life required the moderation of the passions, not their complete extinction. Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, books III and IV take up the question of whether itis possible and desirable to rid oneself of the emotions.”
Disputes over knowledge and truth in ethics and philosophy gave birth to the Skeptic tradition (Stanford Encyclopedia discusses Skepticism here and Wikipedia’s entry is here. The Skeptic tradition can be traced back to Pyrrho of Elis who found himself frustrated and overwhelmed by the attempt to sort out rationally which school of thought had the right approach. Developing distrust of the lofty and complicated language involved in trying to understand issues of causation Skeptics decided to drop the nonsense and advocate instead the seeking of ataraxia, or peace of mind. They claimed that as it did not appear to matter whether you believed in a particular tradition or not, as people who were unaware of the disputes appeared to get along quite well without knowing the details about them. They also pointed out that faith and belief in intelligible realities is not required in order for them to “work” and that as it is impossible to directly perceive causation or purpose, it was therefore a waste of time to try.
There are two basic precepts that arose out of this thinking: that there is no such thing as certainty in human knowledge, and that all human knowledge is only probably true, that is, it might not be true, or it might be true much of the time, but not always.
As skepticism influenced nearly all other Greek philosophies, Hellenic and later Roman philosophies came to take it for granted that certain knowledge is impossible and they turned to focus upon that knowledge which could be deemed to be true most of the time.
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