Symposion II
  Coordinated by: Gn. Dionysius Draco

  1. Publius Flavius Brutus
  2. Quintus Pomponius Atticus
  3. Gnaeus Dionysius Draco
Topics and conversation:

Brutus: While I was studying today, my thoughts dwelled on philosophy, mainly the Stoa and Epicureanism. I still don't know which one of the two is the best. The Stoa seems dour and boring, but that is largely due to the Roman authors' character. It still has its charm, though. Apatheia is a nice purpose, but I think the emphasis is too much on finding one's place within society. The Logos also seems rather abstract to me. Superfluous.

Atticus: Dry and boring. Little I can say to that. No matter how friendly and good the Stoics were as human beings, their philosophical "faith" remains quite fantasyless, although the same can be said about Epikouros - he was, for example, against culture!

The Stoic metaphysics, with their Logos, Fatum, almost monotheistical Zeus-image and the four elements, appear unmaintainable in these modern times. The Romans already had less attention for these facets than the Greeks, who were crazy about all things abstract. What our Latin friends added, was that one had to seek his place within society, as you say. In Rome, the Stoa was integrated into the local conservative habitus, which already existed before the introduction of Stoicism.

Draco: I half-heartedly agree. Some Stoics were rather rebellious and progressive, such as the Scipiones and Seneca.

Atticus: Those are the exceptions confirming the rule. Cato Censorinus and good ol' Cicero, for example, were not particilary known for their liking of miniskirts and techno music, to actualise them. Cato Maior, for example, promulgated an edict during his Censorship named De cultu feminarum, which he had to withdraw under massive female protest. :)

No, what I really think is valuable in the Stoa, in combination with other elements from other philosophies, are the ethical lessons one can get to become a "good" person. Not to serve an abstract purpose such as the Logos or the State, but just to become a happy, noble person, which seems valuable enough to me as a purpose: self-control, good manners, modesty and such are abilities that have seldomly made a man unhappy, I think.

Draco: With this, too, I only half-heartedly agree. The Stoa has a few valuable things to say, just like Epicureanism, but they can be found elsewhere, and better.

Self-control is best expressed in Seneca's quote: "If you want to subject all, subject yourself to the ratio". In other words; everything is subject to the ratio, because the subject itself is placed under the ratio. Of course, in an urban environment, such morality is good and to an extent even necessary, but the Stoics distort some essential relationships here. The Wille zur Macht becomes fully rationalised, and justifications for "injust success" are attributed to the Gods. They do a game of circular thinking, I think, tracing all their principles back to abstracts, the Gods or the State.

Atticus: To "subject" oneself to the ratio is self-tyranny instead of self-control. Even in modesty, one should reman modest!

And that is where Aristoteles' "golden middle road" comes in. Harder even than to acquire self-control, is to acquire it in the right manner. Self-control, to name the Stoa's crux as example again, is a delicate balance between decadence (Nero) and self-tyranny (Cato).

Draco: I agree. But what does the Middle Road lead to? If we can believe our old friend Shakyamuni, it would be Enlightenment, but that is a consequently contended act of despair. Wonderful man, the Buddha, even if it were only because of his "consequentiality".

I think even the Middle Road cannot grant one happiness, or it will only be temporarily. And even so, does happiness come to exist because of pain? "Happiness" does not exist on its own, and is relatively easy to pierce as an illusion. Of course I can feel "happy", but because feelings are in a constant flux, "happiness" is ungraspable. On top of that, as Brutus said on an earlier occasion, it should be noted that much depends on one's personal disposition.

Atticus: I think it's a mistake to seek for Enlightment, as an abstract purpose for "modesty", because modesty is its own purpose. A Stoic, or Aristotelean, strives for modesty to become modest: simple as that. If I, to name a very Pomponian example, have a full amphora of wine in front of me, I can choose, in the fashion of an ascetic Stoic or Cynic to refrain from it. I can also choose to drain the whole amphora in a few seconds. As a good philosopher, I would simply have two cups of wine, and that's that.

Regarding your perceived impossibility of happiness, mi Draco, I fundamentally disagree. Of course I don't believe in the everlasting "weekend bliss", but I do believe in a state of mind in which one can simply be content. A flux of feelings, which is present within people by nature, can be tamed: children have no control over it, but as we grow older, this flux is more controlled. This proves one can interiorise moral qualities, and can make good habits from good values, which, once acquired, can become part of the form of "happiness" as I see it.

Brutus: To talk about something else: Epicureanism is also a valuable philosophy, I think. The lathè biosas has influenced me greatly over the last year, and to enjoy the smaller things in life (a glass of wine, for example) can be really good.

Atticus: Nothing wrong with that, if it isn't done beyond measure, of course. For me, lathè biosas is no philosophical dogma, but just something that depends on one's personality: an Epicureanist can enjoy activity in a community - or even its leadership - as well, just like a Stoic can live a reclusive life. Others, like us, choose a more reclusive way of living. That choice is personal, and has little to do with philosophy.

Draco: Still, you can't deny that Epicureanism and Stoicism, while both being cosmopolitan, urban philosophies, have another way of dealing with things. Epikouros was not the Philosopher of the Garden for nothing, and Zeno that one of the Stoa. Perhaps such examples, like the ones you name, existed, but they were more exceptions than anything else, I think.

Brutus: For me the key question is: should one be engaged in society or not? If everyone wallows in individualism, we won't get very far. We do live in such an age, but still there are people who engage themselves for a good cause. Won't Epicureanism destroy such engagement?

Atticus: Yes, and that is why a mix with the Stoa could be advisable for many people: on many sides, both philosophies outbalance one another. On the other hand, I have to note that the sobre, Epicurean individualism doesn't disadvantage someone, in contrast to capitalist individualism. If everyone was Epicurean, there would be many less problems in the world: no one would need a disproportionate amount of money, industry and pollution would decrease, religious fanaticism would cease, and waging war would be too exhausting for their kind :).

Brutus: And, just like Kierkegaard said, aesthetical living - hedonism - is not a solution either. An orgy isn't that great anymore when it happens every day.

Atticus: Both Epicureanism and Stoicism should be ranked under "ethical life" and that's the reason why you might think of them as dour, because aesthetics are banned in both philosophies. Therefore, we should mix a genetically altered Stoa with Epicureanism, and then salt it with a sniff of Aristoteleanism.

Draco: There we arrive at a point which can be both fruitful and dangerous. On one hand, rigidly following one current is unrealistic, and testifies of linear thinking and little creativity. On the other hand, there's also the looming danger of eclecticism without personality. I have the feeling that a lot of moralistic philosophies have originated from a feeling of self-justification. Not "how should I live?" but "which points of view describe my preferences?"

I have found out on my own that it's very hard to change oneself, even if you try to live up to half an ideal. And still, paradoxically, do I change every day. It's a point I'm still in doubt about myself. The Ancients had an easy choice: perhaps seven philosophies and about five religions. Now, the range of choices is much wider, and this presupposes doubt, which can be paralysing. However, to throw in a phrase from the rapper Maxi Jazz: one swallow don't make a summer / but tomorrow has to start somewhere.

But should we go to one philosophy alone for our needs? I don't think so. But towards all is just a rationalisation of the inability of making choices. To conclude with Buddha's words: once you have thought about something, and it appears, after thorough examination, that it is true, accept it.

Atticus: I more than agree on that last point, amice.
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