Determinism, swerves, and the relationship between metaphysics and ethics
An ancient debate on the nature of the world is still with us, and for good reasons
Last weekend I taught an intensive online seminar — eight hours total — on Socrates as seen by Xenophon. We read and discussed the Memorabilia, which presents a lively portrait of the sage from Athens, with Socrates freely giving advice to wannabe politicians as well as courtesans. It is also, incidentally, the book that inspired Zeno of Citium to get into philosophy, and therefore indirectly led to the founding of Stoicism.
At some point we got into a discussion on the relationship between metaphysics — how we think the world works — and ethics — how we think we should behave in the world. The Stoics argued that the two are tightly related: to live ethically means to live “in agreement with Nature,” and to do the latter we need to understand Nature. Turns out, though, that the Stoics were not the only ones to connect metaphysics and ethics. So did their arch-rivals, the Epicureans, though the latter posited a different metaphysics and arrived at a different ethics.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the basic framework of the debate is still with us today. And so are the available options to resolve the debate, despite more than two thousand years of intervening philosophy and quite a few centuries of modern science. Here, then, is yet another chance to dive into Greco-Roman thought not just as a historical curiosity, but because it could change the way we look at the world and at our place in it.
Let us start by comparing and contrasting Stoic and Epicurean metaphysics, then we’ll examine a couple of major consequences the two views have for ethics. And finally I’ll make some comments about what this means for us denizens of the 21st century.
The first thing to appreciate about both the Stoics and the Epicureans is that they consciously kept their metaphysics very near their epistemology, that is, they made sure to have good evidence for whatever metaphysical view of the world that was being advanced. I wish I could say the same for modern metaphysicians like David Chalmers and Philip Goff. But I can’t.