College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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technê, art of life, practical intelligence, praxis, stoicism


Scholarship stands divided on the question of what one must know in order to act ethically according to the central tenets of Stoicism. Prevailing opinion holds that one must attain universal knowledge of the nature of reality, or at a minimum, knowledge of one's end (telos/finis) in life, but I argue that in Stoic thought, especially as described by Cicero, neither kind of knowledge is necessary for the achievement of human virtue or excellence (aretê/virtus). I begin by sketching the dominant ethical philosophies in relation to which Stoicism emerges, those of Plato and Aristotle. I offer an extensive discussion of Aristotle's critique of Platonism, showing how it paves the way for Stoicism by assigning a greater role to pre-reflective impulses than to theoretical reason, while assigning to impulses the blame for vice and to reason the responsibility for ruling over them. I then proceed to Cicero's De Academica, arguing that the very conflict between our reason and our impulses is avoidable in Stoicism precisely because it arises only in individuals who have allowed their reason to overstep its own limits, with the result that, deviating from the course of action their impulses would otherwise lead them to follow, they turn aside from their own end in life. Thereafter, I show with reference to Cicero's De Divinatione and De Finibus, that the Stoics redefined technical expertise (technê/ars) in order to deny that having expertise in ethical matters implied knowing one’s end in life. Finally, I conclude that the Stoicism of the Tusculan Disputations places no emphasis upon gaining advance knowledge of one’s end in life or deducing from it the means by which it may be reached; instead, it places emphasis upon freeing oneself from the external causes of internal conflict which lead one astray: socially inculcated beliefs. Aside from doing greater justice to ancient texts, this interpretation allows ancient Stoicism to contribute to contemporary ethical debates in the manner Michel Foucault’s work suggests. In particular, the Stoics provide a model for living ethically and resisting social coercion even when no appeal to universal truths can be made.