A book on ethics and philosophy of values

suivre sur twitter

2) Other extreme axiological positions


It is possible to imagine another extreme axiological doctrine which, in contrast to nihilism, would maintain that "everything has a value". I propose to call such a doctrine "Eclecticism".
This position asserts that everything has value, including things that appear to be flawed or imperfect. In fact, even things that are commonly hated or despised (such as evil, suffering, etc.) have great value.

This axiological doctrine seems to be found in certain ideas of Stoicism. Stoicism is obviously not reducible to eclecticism, but I would venture to say that certain fundamental texts of Stoicism illustrate this axiological doctrine particularly vividly.

For example, this text: We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker's art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit.
And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion's eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things- though they are far from being beautiful, if a man should examine them severally- still, because they are consequent upon the things which are formed by nature, help to adorn them, and they please the mind.
So that if a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure
1.

This Stoic idea of the absolute value of the world, including its parts that wrongly seem imperfect, is close to the fundamental idea of eclecticism: everything has a value.
It leads the Stoic sage to endure with serenity everything that happens to him, including the most disastrous events, because these are part of the world for which he is so passionate, and which he sings: Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early nor too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature 2.

The world, the great Whole, has an absolute value because it is cosmos and not chaos, a principle of order, harmony and rationality. Events do not unfold randomly, but everything happens according to the laws of the purest necessity: Whatever may happen to thee, it was prepared for thee from all eternity; and the implication of causes was from eternity spinning the thread of thy being, and of that which is incident to it 3.

However, it seems that Stoicism differs from eclecticism in that Stoicism condemns certain human behaviours: lament, rebellion, refusal to accept any harmful event that may happen to us. By condemning these behaviours, Stoicism affirms their negative value, a concept that is foreign to eclecticism. Why such condemnation?

First of all, in a world subject to strict determinism, it becomes pointless to wish for anything other than what has actually happened to us. If it was foreseen from all eternity that my child would die this day, and it was impossible for him to escape his fate, then it becomes pointless to resist, to lament when such an event occurs. Fighting only makes sense if I can change the course of events, and the death of a loved one is only painful and scandalous if it happened by chance, and could just as easily have happened much later.

The man who laments or rebels against the world is the ignoramus who has not understood the world in which he lives, who has not grasped the inexorable necessity that renders his revolt futile, and therefore absurd. But for Stoicism above all, the rebel, by complaining about such and such events, presents the laughable spectacle of a part that wants to cut itself off from the greater whole in order to live independently of it.

This inordinate pride is not simply condemnable because it is an impossible wish to fulfil; the rebel becomes, in fact, as a part that cuts itself off from the Whole, like a tumour of the world: The soul of man does violence to itself, first of all, when it becomes an abscess and, as it were, a tumour on the universe, so far as it can. For to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, in some part of which the natures of all other things are contained 4.

As we can see, the Stoic condemns a whole range of behaviours, and so Stoicism does not consist in affirming the universal value of everything, act or event, which is what distinguishes it fundamentally from eclecticism.


1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, 2
2. Ibid., Book IV, 23
3. Ibid., Book X, 5
4. Ibid., Book II, 16