Classically Inclined

September 26, 2018

The difference between the Stoic sage and the Stoic disciple

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:26 am
Tags: ,

One really important distinction to be aware of in Stoic theory is the line that the Stoics draw between the sage and the proficiens or disciple. This division has big knock-on effects for the practical application of Stoic ethics, and thus for how we read what Seneca says about relationships.

The Stoics saw the sage as someone who was living in perfect harmony with reason, and thus was perfectly happy. It’s worth noting that although you’ll often see references to the Stoic wise man, this should more accurately be translated as the wise person, since the Stoics believed women had exactly the same capacity as men to achieve virtue – more on this coming soon. The sage was the template for moral behaviour; they would always make the right decision and behave in the correct way because of the correct internal motivations whatever happened to them. This led to the rather odd position (which their rival school the Epicureans rather got at them for) that the sage would be happy even when being tortured, because physical pain would not affect her ability to be rational or virtuous.

The sage, being perfectly in control of their rational facilities, will always make the right decision and thus is morally perfect. However, the Stoics were realistic – the sage is also as rare as a phoenix (Alexander, De Fato 196.24–197.3, Long and Sedley 61N). They recognised that the likelihood of someone reaching sagehood was vanishingly small; although various people, including Socrates and Cato the Younger, were held up as examples of the Stoic sage, the Roman Stoics recognised that most people were not going to reach these levels of moral excellence.

The Stoics thus labelled the rest of us who are trying to live our lives according to the principles of Stoicism as proficientes, best translated as ‘tryers’ or ‘disciples’. The proficiens hasn’t got to grips with mastering their own reason yet, but they’re trying. They seek to clear their minds of anything that might draw them away from reason and clear it of irrational beliefs, but they’re still prone to making mistakes. The reassuring thing about this statement is that Seneca is quite clear that even the sage has to have gone through this process of making mistakes and getting it wrong in order to achieve sagehood; as he says in On Clemency 1.6.4, even in someone has reached the position of sagehood and is so secure that nothing can unbalance him, he has only got there through making mistakes.

So when Seneca is writing about relationships, he is writing with an audience of disciples in mind; he doesn’t need to write for the sage, because the sage’s own inner reason will always lead her to the correct decision. His writing is meant to help those striving towards virtue to identify the roadblocks in their journey and take action on them, fully in the knowledge that the overwhelming probability is that they’ll never get rid of all the obstacles between them and sagehood. The sage is an encouraging figure, a point of reference and a position to aspire to, and Seneca deploys him as an ideal in his writing. However, he never loses sight of the fact that the vast majority of people in relationships are actually going to be normal proficientes, each at their own stage on the path to virtue, struggling to make the best of things and act as rationally as their limited abilities will let them.

Bibliography

Long, A. A., and D. N. Sedley. 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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1 Comment »

  1. Musonius Rufus up next, then? 🙂

    Comment by A Girdwood — September 26, 2018 @ 3:52 pm | Reply


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