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Reasonings About Philodemus’ On the Stoics


On the Cynical Roots of Stoicism

On the Stoics is a polemic written by Philodemus where he argues that the founder of the Stoic school, Zeno, had been a pupil of the Cynics. The work starts out with historical details, and focuses on an early work by Zeno titled The Republic, which Philodemus says is full of faults and exhibits a vicious character, a kind of “disorder from the school to which he had begun to adhere”.

Among the horrors and impieties that the text says The Republic finds acceptable, there is mention of incest and cannibalism, apparently because it alludes to Greek tragedies that make these crimes part of the plot. But there is much more, and in fact a huge portion of the scroll is dedicated to the horrors defended in the text. Here are just a few:

To renounce their way of life to adopt that of dogs … to masturbate in public … to refuse to acknowledge as city or law that which we know as such …

There is also mention of evil speech, distrust and betrayal of friends, sexual exploitation of slaves, and adultery. The author also argues that Zeno never changed his mind, later in life, about the content of The Republic, which he says “proposes laws that aren’t for real people”. This book is praised by Cleanthes, and by Chrysippus while speaking of the uselessness of weapons. These are two prominent Stoics.

As to the arguments used by Stoics when confronted with these facts, Philodemus credits them with saying: “We dont’ judge Epicurus by his early writings, you shouldn’t judge our Zeno”, however Philodemus says that one can’t find anything shameful or impious in the early writings written by our Hegemon during his youth.

The Supreme End

… and it is a thing of inept people to not explain, once the supreme end has been invented, the rest (of the doctrine) in accordance! Now, what is actually coherent with the supreme end, is to admit that which is exposed throughout The Republic.

… it would have been better for Zeno not to have become a sage, that way there would be no place for indignation at his error! … but if they had had the sense of moderation, instead of loving the baseness, to the point of attaching themselves to perverse doctrines formulated in unsupportable terms …

The supreme end, to the Stoics, is virtue. Philodemus discards this doctrine as an “invention” of Zeno, to accentuate that virtue is not what nature has intended for us. In our teaching, we consider pleasure to be the end because the pleasure-aversion faculty is evident in nature. Stoic virtue, on the other hand, is an arbitrary ideal that is not clearly defined, much less in a way that is evident and observable in nature.

As to how we deal with the issue of pleasure as the end and virtues as means to pleasure, one good source to study this aspect of the Epicurean critique of Stoicism, and to clearly understand this key distinction and why it matters, can be found in the third chapter of A Few Days in Athens, where Frances Wright argues that many worship Virtue but few stop to evaluate the pedestal on which it sits.

We believe that while pleasure is real and tangible, other made-up criteria like virtue and “the good” are arbitrary and are never clearly defined. Pleasure is nature’s guide (and, therefore, transcultural), the others are cultural. Epicurus refused to even argue as to whether something was pleasant or produced aversion: this is not a matter for logic or for syllogisms to discern, it’s an immediate and real experience for a living being. Pleasure and aversion do not need to be learned. They’re innate.

Philosophers of logic can’t use word games to redefine pleasure. Instead, individuals can directly discern it with their own faculties, and so hedonism emancipates mortals from traditional authorities and can serve as a useful universal guide to anyone and everyone. In fact, the pleasure and aversion faculties are essential components of our moral compass.

We also believe that, as criteria, pleasure and pain do not lend themselves to the manipulations of rhetors which distort our moral compass in the way that other criteria do. A muslim might argue that pedophilia is virtuous because his prophet set the example, or that wife-beating and subjugation of women is virtuous because it’s in the Qur’an 4:34. A Christian might argue that killing gays is virtuous because Leviticus 20:13 establishes this practice, and a Jew might legitimize genocide in order to steal other people’s land. Authority-based, tradition-based or virtue-based moralities produce arbitrary rules that generate at times much more suffering than pleasure, whereas the goal of an Epicurean’s hedonic calculus is to produce net pleasure for the long term.

Other arbitrary criteria, like reason, can also serve ends other than human happiness and pleasure. Consider how objectivists have established the free-market as a sacred ideal that must never be toyed with or impeded, and how this led to the Bolivian water wars after all the water in that country was privatized and sold to an American company; or how deregulated financial markets led to the 2008 fiscal collapse, where Wall Street squandered over 40% of the savings that Americans had set aside for their retirement. Should we sacrifice our humanity and our happiness at the feet of the free market? Should people die on the streets fighting for access to water, and remain wage slaves until they die, even if they live to be over 90, for the sake of the free market? Should not the free market serve human life and happiness, instead?

And so there is always trouble and suffering and moral misjudgement when people set guides other than that which nature established, and which is evident in infants in the cradle: they seek pleasure and happiness and they avoid pain. Any other ideal, if it truly has a virtuous disposition, will lead to pleasure and to the avoidance or alleviation of pain. This is true ethics. This is a true and compassionate morality.


The content here is very different from what we’ve seen in all the other scrolls written by Philodemus. The tone of the controversy against the Stoics does seem out of character, and the scroll closes with the author swearing that he is telling the truth.

As for us, who have for a long time kept away from pollutions both our ears and our minds, defamation is forbidden to us as it is, in truth, the greatest source of pain, we swear.

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