CHAPTER XXI. PHILOSOPHY - STOICS AND EPICUREANS

With such an unsatisfactory equipment of science, and with such a vague and morally inoperative religion, it was no wonder that the higher minds of the contemporary world turned to the study of philosophy. Of such studies there had been many schools or sects, but at this date we have chiefly to reckon with two - the Stoics and Epicureans. There were, it is true, the Academics, who disputed everything, and held no doctrine to be more true than its contrary. There were Eclectics, who picked and chose. But the majority of those who affected a positive philosophy attached themselves either to the Stoic or else to the Epicurean system, not necessarily with orthodox rigidity on every point, but as a general guide - at least in theory - to the conduct of life. Where we belong to a certain religious denomination or church, and "sit under" a certain class of preachers, they belonged to a certain school of philosophy, and attended the lectures of certain of its expounders. Instead of a chaplain or parish clergyman they engaged or associated with an expert in their special system. But just as the Frenchman remarked, "Je suis catholique, mais je ne pratique pas," so might one be in principle a good Stoic without much exercise of the accepted doctrines. The distinction between the tenets of the two great schools was wide, but within each school itself individuals might differ as widely as "Broad Church" from whatever its opposite may be called. The choice between the two schools was mainly a matter of temperament. Persons of the sterner type of mind, caring comparatively little for the physical comforts and gracious amenities of life, and possessed of a strong sense of duty and decorum - inclined, perhaps, not only to piety and self-abnegation, but also to be somewhat dour and uncompromising - were naturally attracted to Stoicism. Those of the complementary character preferred the doctrines of Epicurus. The Stoics were the Pharisees, the Epicureans the Sadducees, of pagan philosophy. As the Pharisees were the most Hebraic of the Hebrews, so it was Stoicism that came to be the characteristic Roman creed. The ordinary Roman had been brought up in the tradition of obeying the law of the state and the claims of duty; he had high notions of personal dignity and a leaning to the heroic virtues. Give him a strong, consistent, and elevating religion and he would be normally a pious man. Stoicism supplied him with a standard which was in keeping with such tendencies. About Epicureanism there was nothing heroic or elevating.

Put briefly, and therefore crudely, the Epicurean doctrine was that happiness is the end of life. What men seek, and have a right to seek, is the most pleasant existence. Our conduct should secure for us as much real pleasure as possible. Now at first sight this looks like what it was opprobriously called by its enemies, "the philosophy of the pig-sty." It by no means meant this to its founder. For what is "pleasure"? Not by any means necessarily the gratification of the moment, physical or otherwise. A present pleasure may mean future pain, either of body or of mind. Wrong actions and bestial enjoyments bring their own penalty. You must choose wisely, and so direct your life that you suffer least and enjoy most consistently. Temperance and wisdom are therefore virtues necessary to a true Epicurean. You desire health; therefore you will live, as Epicurus lived, on simple and wholesome food. You desire tranquillity or peace of mind; therefore you will abstain from all perverse acts and gratifications, desires and emotions, which disturb that peace. In short the thing to be sought is nothing else but this grateful composure of mind - a thing which you cannot have if you are always wanting this or that and either abusing or misusing your bodily or mental functions, or needlessly mortifying yourself. To the plain man this apparently meant "Take life easily and keep free of worry." Naturally the plain man's ideas of taking life easily became those of taking pleasures as they come, indolently accepting the agreeables of life and feeling no call to make much of its duties. It is all very well for a high-minded philosopher to avoid a pleasure in order to avoid its pain, and to realize that a pleasure of the mind is worth more than a pleasure of the body, but one cannot expect the ordinary pupil - the homme moyen sensuel - to comprehend this attitude with heartiness sufficient to put it into practice. It followed therefore that the Epicurean tended, not only to become lazy, but to become vicious, or to make light of vices. This was not indeed true Epicureanism, and Epicurus is not to blame for it; it simply shows that Epicureanism, whatever its logical or other merits, provided no sufficient stimulus to a right life. As regards theology the position of the school was that there might very well be such things as higher beings - there was nothing in physical philosophy to make them any more impossible than a man or a fish - but that, if they existed, they were not concerned with man's affairs; his moral conduct, like his sacrifices and prayers, was not matter for their consideration. No need, therefore, to let superstition worry you, or to trouble about future punishment. Conduct your life according to the same principles laid down, and let the gods - if there be any - look to themselves. Naturally the result of such a position is that ceasing to regard the gods means ceasing to believe in them, and, as a Roman writer says: "In theory it leaves us the gods, in practice it abolishes them."