Chapter 1d

Summary of Stoicism and other Propriety-based Moral Philosophies

September 27, 2015

46 The Stoics believed that those who had not attained perfect virtue might have some proficiency in virtue. They organized those proficiencies into different classes, according to their level of advancement. They called the imperfect virtues not as rectitudes, but as proprieties, fitnesses, decent and becoming actions.

  • Cicero called these officia.
  • Seneca more exactly called them convenientia

Cicero’s Offices wrote about the doctrine of those imperfect, but attainable virtues as ’the practical morality of the Stoics’. It was the subject of another book written by Marcus Brutus, but is now lost.

47 The moral system of Nature for human conduct seems different from the Stoical system.

48 We are naturally interested with the events that affect our little selves the most. Our interest creates our feelings which are often too vehement. If they become too vehement, Nature’s proper remedy is the real or even imaginary presence of the impartial spectator, the authority of the man within the breast, to overawe and moderate our feelings.

49 Nature has left us a consolation if all the events which affect our little selves becomes disastrous. That consolation may be drawn from=

  • the complete approbation of the man within the breast, and
  • if possible, a firm reliance on, and a reverential submission to, that benevolent wisdom which directs human life.

It is a still nobler principle. We would never have suffered those misfortunes if they were not necessary for the good of the whole.

50 Nature prescribed this sublime contemplation to us only during our misfortunes and not as the great occupation of our lives. On the contrary, the Stoical philosophy prescribes it as the great occupation of our lives. It teaches us to be earnestly interested only in those events which concern the great Superintendant of the universe. But I think that we cannot manage the job of Jupiter.

Stoicism makes us unconcerned in the success or failure of everything prescribed to us by Nature by=

  • the perfect apathy it prescribes,
  • trying to eradicate all our private, partial, and selfish feelings, and
  • not even letting the impartial spectator’s sympathetic feelings make us feel for whatever happens to ourselves, our friends, and country.

51 Philosophers may confound our understanding. But they can never break down the necessary connection between causes and effects. Despite all the reasonings of Stoicism, the causes which naturally excite our feelings would produce their effects on each individual according to his actual sensibility. However, the judgments of the man within the breast might be much affected by those reasonings. They might teach that great inmate to attempt to overawe all our private, partial, and selfish affections into a perfect tranquility.

The great purpose of all moral systems is to direct the judgments of this inmate. Stoicism had a great influence on the character of its followers.

  • It might sometimes incite them to unnecessary violence.
  • Its general tendency was to make them act heroically and benevolently.

52 In some modern systems, virtue is in propriety. Dr. Clark’s system places virtue in=

  • acting according to the relations of things, and
  • regulating our conduct according to the fitness to certain things or relations.

Mr. Woollaston’s system places virtue in acting according to=

  • the truth of things, and
  • their proper nature and essence, or in treating them as what they really are

Lord Shaftesbury’s system places virtue in=

  • maintaining a proper balance of the feelings, and
  • allowing no passion to go beyond its proper sphere.

All of them are inaccurate descriptions of the same fundamental idea.

53 None of them give any precise measure to judge this propriety of feelings. That measure can only be found in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator.

54 Some of the modern authors are not very good in expressing things. The description of virtue in each of those systems is quite just. There is no virtue without propriety. Wherever there is propriety, some approbation is due. But this description is still imperfect because even if propriety is an essential ingredient in every virtuous action, it is not always the sole ingredient.

Beneficent actions have another quality which make them appear deserving, not only of approbation, but also of recompense. None of those systems explain=

  • the superior esteem due to beneficent actions, or
  • the diversity of feelings created by beneficent actions.

Neither is their description of vice complete, because in the same way, impropriety is a necessary ingredient in every bad action. But it is not always the sole ingredient. The very harmless and insignificant actions are often the most absurd. Deliberately pernicious actions, against those we live with, have other qualities, in addition to their impropriety, which makes them appear=

  • deserving of disapprobation and punishment.
  • as objects of dislike, resentment, and revenge

None of those systems easily explain our superior feelings of detestation for vicious actions.


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