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Stoics and Epicureans play Tennis


A bunch of sheep shearers abandon their sheep and turn to metaphysics. The CEO dreams of a tennis match between Epicureans and Stoics.

First Classness and Being Stoic

Why then do you strut before us as if you had swallowed a spit?
- My wish has always been that those who meet me should admire me, and those who follow me should exclaim, ‘Oh, the great philosopher.’ (Epictetus, 55-135 AD)

The shearing shed was alive with curiosity and excitement. Times had been tough and so the crew had given up the wool trade and had gone off trying their hand in markets more in tune with the twenty first century. Everyone was there, the Ringer, the Jackeroo, the Tracker, the Roustabout, the Sheila who did the books, and of course the CEO.

The CEO gave a short speech introducing the speaker and the overall direction of the company. The company was to go into the business of explaining reality. Apparently the question of what’s real and what is not was of growing concern among the general populace. The speaker was to be Jackeroo, who had been doing some background research on the problem.

Jackeroo started off awkwardly, “The problem is to find the underlying principle governing the universe.”

“What if there isn’t any underlying principle?” asked Ringer dryly.

“If there were no principle then the world would be in total chaos” answered Jackeroo

“To me, the world always looks to be in total chaos anyway,” piped in Roustabout.

Jackeroo was beginning to get mired down into technicalities before he had even started. In desperation to cover all angles Jackeroo blurted out, “The universe is organised on a principle which is not a principle,” and then added as a consolatory but desultory explanation, “It’s a principle, which negates itself.” A look of baffled glazed eyes flashed across faces of the audience.

Well that quietened every one down.” commented Ringer, “A principle that isn’t a principle but negates itself, eh? Well, good luck.”

Jackeroo took a deep breath and, reading from rough notes, launched into his monologue,

“We cannot make much headway without starting to come to grips with a very fundamental concept. Borrowing from Computer Science terminology, we call it First Classness. Glimpses of this concept can also be discerned in String Theory in the guise of some kind of ‘democratic principle.’ Of particular interest will be the notion of First Class systems and those systems which are not First Class, that is to say, systems based on Second Classness. There is no notion of Third or Fourth Classness. First Classness introduces a strictly binary notion; you either make it through the pearly gates of heaven or you don’t.

One system that doesn’t make it through the pearly gates is formal mathematics. Mathematics is fundamentally wallowing in hardwired, incurable Second Classness. This is due to the fact that the only candidates for being First Class entities in mathematics are the axioms. Everything else in any mathematical formalism is qualified and predicated by axioms and hence Second Class. This includes even the entities defined in the axioms as also any theorem which can be deduced from them. This absolutist, undemocratic structure banishes all those entities which are dominated by the emperor axioms to stagnate in a static, dead world of Second Classness. Mathematics is not based on First Classness. Mathematics is a Second Class system.”

At this point the CEO interrupted, “Well that sounds all fine and noble but where’s the business opportunity?”

Jackeroo, starting to get excited, and exclaimed, “There it is! Clearly mathematicians have been flooding the formalisation market with Second Class systems for years. Surely then, there must be some people out there that would snap at the chance to take possession of a totally pure First Class Formalisation System. When offered the choice between a Second Class banana and a First Class banana, which one would, you take? Cursory market research will show that most people will choose the First Class over the Second Class, even if only because it just sounds better”.

This small team of former farmhands were fast transforming themselves into entrepreneurial metaphysicians. They decided that there was a market for this first class product. But it is here that they met a snag. There was a market but they didn’t have a product. Presently the market was being flooded by a product based on Second Classness, notably mathematics and the mathematical sciences. Mathematics is fundamentally riddled through and through with Second Classness. What they needed to put on the market was a formalisation system based uniquely on First Classness. They needed something that was entirely the opposite to mathematics, something that didn’t rely on a priori assumptions like axioms and data and so forth, something that could be built from reason alone. Something like what Kant was talking about.

The CEO suddenly rose to his feet, almost delirious with excitement. “And so what we need is…” he yells, but doesn’t have time to finish the sentence as his voice is drowned out by an immense shout from the floor. “We need anti-mathematics!” everyone shouts in unison. And so it came to pass that the case for anti-mathematics was proved; by general acclaim. The shearing shed would never be the same.

The CEO was all fired up by the idea of launching his First Classness super charged anti-mathematics onto the world stage. As the excitement died down, the CEO turned to his Ringer, who was his acting CTO. He asked in a whisper, “What exactly is First Classness?” The Ringer shrugged his shoulders, admitting that he had no idea but maybe the Rouseabout might know as he seemed to know a bit about everything.

In the weeks and months that followed, the CEO asked many wise and learned people the same question. Each time he got the same negative response. The only remotely promising response was from an aging computer scientist who said that First Classness was Good. His eyes glazed and he then entered into an explanation which was totally incomprehensible.

Finally, in desperation, he decided to pose the question to a mysterious Oracle who happened to be passing through town at that time. The Oracle replied enigmatically, “You will find your answer by taking on the complexion of the dead.”

The CEO was rather shaken by this, but after some reflection, he decided that this meant he had to read about the ideas of dead people. He started off by reading about the ideas of very dead people. In fact, he started reading about the ideas of Zeno of Citium, born in 334 BC. Coincidentally, it appears that Zeno also had a similar experience with his Oracle. Zeno, of course, was the founder of Stoicism.

Hellenistic Tennis

After the life of Socrates, Hellenic philosophy started a process of splitting into two poles. The early signs of the process were already becoming apparent with the differences between Aristotle, and Plato his teacher. By the time it came down to the philosophies founded by Zeno of Citium and by Epicure, the separation was complete. The aim of philosophy was to resolve the central problem of man, notably how to achieve happiness. Unlike any of the world religions that came later, both philosophies addressed how to achieve happiness, not in the afterlife, but now in the present. Philosophy became the art of living happily. Both philosophies agreed on the aim but believed that the means to achieving this aim was located on different sides of the tennis court.

Let the game begin.

On the left side of the court are the Epicureans, inspired by the ancient philosopher Democritus. On the right side of the court are their arch enemies, the Stoics inspired by the ancient philosopher Heraclitus. It’s a familiar sight then, with the merry making atomists on one side and the brooding holistic thinkers on the other. In the middle, sitting in the umpire’s seat, are the Sceptics. The Sceptics in their attempt to be absolutely objective have suspended judgment and sit with their backs to the game.

Despite a verbal hand grenade being tossed over the net from time to time, play is slow. The object of the game is the pursuit of happiness.

Epicurean Tennis

The Epicureans have set up a dinner table on their side of the court and are enjoying themselves with pleasant chit chat, pleasant drink and pleasant food. Epicureans love bathing in pleasantness. All their friends are pleasant people who all behave pleasantly at all times. For them happiness is to enjoy oneself. Happiness is synonymous with pleasure. Pleasure however does not mean unrestrained hedonism as the excesses involved inevitably leads to unhappiness which is contradictory to the basic intent. As Epicure himself remarks, “It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life”.

The tension between the Epicureans and the Stoics on the other side is intense. However, despite the deep rivalry, the two schools share a lot in common. Both sides are dogmatic materialists in belief. Both sides are also in agreement that the fundamental aim in life is to live happily. Furthermore, they both unify and justify their doctrines by turning to the science and structure of nature and reality itself. It is at this point they part company. The Epicureans are atomists whilst the Stoics are monists.

Epicure was a great cosmological pastry cook. His strictly materialist creation was a recipe for responding to any question under the sun. The adherent, armed with such a world view, is thus free to lead a life unencumbered by doubt or fear arising from the metaphysical. The task was to be accomplished without recourse to the heavy hand of necessity, so popular in other brands of philosophy. His was to be a world of the laissez faire where even the gods went about their daily business without interfering with human affairs.

A perennial problem for materialists is how to allow a world which admits of beings which somehow behave in a way which is contrary to the absolute mechanical determinism of matter in motion. How can you have free will in such a world? Epicure came up with an innovative response, something that could be very useful on a tennis court moreover. He invented the Swerve. All bodies consisted of matter made up of atoms. The space in between bodies and atoms was filled with the void. Atoms moved about and interacted with each other in a very deterministic manner except now and then there was an exception to the rule. An atom would spontaneously make a tiny imperceptible swerve from its deterministic trajectory. This explains how the universe gradually micro swerved to its present state and the spontaneity of movement in animals and man.

It is interesting to note that Darwin’s theory of evolution introduces the Swerve into the reproductive process of living organisms. Each child organism may differ slightly from its parent or parents explained by a swerve arising from the latent indeterminacy involved in genetic coding arising from combinatorial variation and accidental mutation. Some swerves are successful and the organism lives on to reproduce. The unsuccessful swerves lead to failure of the organism to propagate. Evolution thus becomes the sum total of the successful swerves.

Some writers of recent times working under the banner of Atheism want to push this process further back to a time when the only matter that was, was dead matter. They postulate that somehow dead matter experienced swerves that lead it to leap the bridge from the dead to the living, from the inanimate to the animate. This is all part of the declared war with the stalwarts of Creationist Theory. The Creationists need God to create the world. Like Epicure, the new Atheism only needs the Swerve.

Swerve theories have taken different forms across the ages to express that allusive difference between strictly mechanical deterministic behaviour and the observed spontaneity of the animate. One non-materialist approach proposed by Bergson postulates an elan vital, an underlying “current of creative energy operating on matter directed to the production of free acts.” And so the Epicurean Swerve becomes powered by an elan vital. But, as Julian Huxley dryly remarks, the elan vital is about as illuminating as describing a locomotive as being powered by an elan locamotif.

Epicure’s cosmology starts off with a universe of atoms all moving vertically downwards in straight lines. The idea of the predominance of an absolute vertical up and down axis in the Cosmos might seem curious, but is easier to grapple with if one considers that the world may have been flatter in Epicure’s neighbourhood. His Swerve was necessary to explain how the predominately vertical state of affairs could possibly end up in the complex structured world around us. The world became the way it is by trillions upon trillions of micro swerving atoms. In addition, the Swerve was to be the genesis for explaining non-mechanistic animal and human behaviour. Nowadays modern science has replaced the indeterminacy immanent in the Epicure Swerve with the fundamental uncertainty which reigns in Quantum Physics. This is summed up in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a fundamental tenant of Quantum Theory.

In the Uncertainty Principle we find the most fundamental expression of the Epicurean theory of the Swerve.

Stoic Tennis

While the Epicureans quietly party on the left side of the court, the Sceptics find their particular brand of happiness in their customary fashion by always sitting on the fence. In that way they experience the comforting satisfactory glow of never going down the wrong path, which is their way to a particular kind of happiness,

On the right side of the court we find an entirely different ambiance. Towards the far corner a Stoic called Leon has been captured by the enemy and is being tortured on the rack. The Torturer, a tattooed, seedy looking creature, leers down at Leon and taunts, “I bet you’re not feeling so good now.” “Perfectly good thank you,” replies Leon, “Quite happy.” “Happy?” exclaims the Torturer. “How can you be happy being tortured on the rack?” “I’m always happy as this must have been meant to be. Things might appear to be going badly for me, but that is only how it appears when, in reality, things are going perfectly well. Things couldn’t be better, in fact.” The Torturer was a bit taken aback and countered by boasting, ”You know, I can take your life on this rack.” “Yes, you can take my life,” declared Leon, “but you can’t take my soul: if taking my life profits you, then take it.” This was too much for the Torturer. He gave an almighty twist to the rack and watched to see how the Stoic reacted to real pain. Sweat broke out on the Leon’s brow as he quietly muttered between his teeth, “My friend…” “I’m not your friend, I’m your torturer!” came back the snarl. “I know” said the Stoic “but Dion, that person standing right behind you is my friend.” The Torturer spun around to come face to face with an Athenian soldier in the process of pulling out his sword. He gave a blood curdling scream and ran off.

Dion cut Leon loose from the rack, rubbed down his poor twisted limbs, and the two of them rambled off. “It was lucky that I just chanced to be passing by” commented Dion. “That was not chance.” replied Leon, “It was fated.” Leon was starting to clear his head and muttered, “What appears as chance is caused, but beyond our comprehension.”
They kept walking until they came to the home of Chrysippus where they stood, hesitating at the open front door. They could see Chrysippus in the kitchen inside, warming himself in front of the stove. Chrysippus beckoned to them “Come in; don’t be afraid: there are gods even here.” As they walked inside Chrysippus laughed out loud, “I’ve always wanted the chance to say that. Those were not my words but those of the ancient Heraclitus.”

They sat down at the table and Chrysippus served up a plate of dried figs, his favourite. They started talking and Dion was curious to know how the Stoics related to the gods. Chrysippus explained that men were on the same levels as the gods. There was no friend behind the scenes. Zeus was a friend to men, as men were friends to Zeus. Chrysippus then went on to explain the universe and how it was governed. Dion, who had always been curious about Stoicism, asked Chrysippus a question which had been bothering him for ages. “Chrysippus my dear friend,” asked Dion, “what is virtue.”

Chrysippus paused and said that virtue was the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy
and demanded careful explanation. He drew in a breath and started his small
lecture on the subject: “From Parmenides we learn that the only real truth is founded in
  that which exists in the eternal present. Nothing else exists, neither in the past nor in the future.
  Existence is limited to the pure Oneness of the present. Everything might appear to change,
  but that is only in appearance. In reality nothing changes. That is the truth.
  The ultimate knowledge is knowledge of this truth, according to Parmenides.
  Heraclitus taught that such knowledge could only be understood in terms of pairs
of opposites. He described the oneness of the world as ever-living fire saying:..

This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.

The ever-living side of the world is Nature; the fire side of the world is Zeus, the only immortal of the gods. Zeus and Nature are two sides of the one reality, expressions of the masculine and the feminine which is the Gender Principle. The Gender Principle expresses the opposition between the singularity of subject – the masculine – and the expansiveness of what
  accompanies subject – Nature, the feminine.

Oppositions even have oppositions. In opposition to the Gender Principle is the opposition of the Active Principle and the Passive Principle. The Active Principle and the Passive Principle are the personal expressions of the masculine and the feminine principles. The masculine and the feminine principles are the impersonal expressions of the Active and Passive Principles. This is how everything can be expressed in terms of oppositions. Gender is impersonal Active-Passive and the Active-Passive is personal Gender. As every Stoic knows, these two oppositions explain the four letters.”
Dion interrupted, “Chrysippus, are these the four virtues?”

… (book extract)