Who is Wise?

The Mishna presents the core teachings of the Jewish sage Ben Zoma as a series of four paradoxes. The paradox is a common tool of Stoic teachers, and these four paradoxes are very Stoic in their nature. Ben Zoma’s teaching is presented as follows:

Ben Zoma would say:
Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise”;
Who is strong? He who controls his impulses. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”;
Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has. As is stated (Psalms 128:2): “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you” in the World to Come;
Who is honored? He who honors everyone! As is stated (1 Samuel 2:30): “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned;”.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In coming days I will be blogging on each of these paradoxes, digging into them, to see what we can learn.

The first paradox is that one who is wise, can learn from any man. Embedded in this teaching, is the virtues not just of wisdom, but also of justice. Justice involves viewing other persons equally, as we would have them view ourselves. (I will discuss this in more detain, in a blog on the virtue of Justice coming days). We must weigh the views of others objectively.

Simcha Ben Shmuel of Vitry in his commentary to this passage observes that that King David was himself characterized by his willingness pay attention to any man who came to teach him something:

A WISE MAN: It is he who is ready to learn even from his inferiors. With such readiness, if his inferior should present him with a wise view, he will not be ashamed to accept it and will not treat his words with contempt. This was characteristic of David, King of Israel, who said, “…I would pay attention to any man who came to teach me something”
(Simcha Ben Shmuel of Vitry).

This was also a characteristic of Moses when Jethro came to him with a Word of Wisdom, that he should share the responsibility of judging the people with the Elders (Ex. 18)

Rabbi Jonah, in his commentary to Ben Zoma’s saying teaches us:

The Gentile philosophers say that even if a person were to know everything [as it were], if he does not want to increase his knowledge, he is not a wise man but a fool…. On the other hand one who passionately loves to increase his wisdom, may be called a wise man even if he were to know nothing. Only this way can you attain true wisdom and discover the will of God. It is to this Ben Zoma is referring when he says that the wise man is he who learns from all men, that is to say, so passionately loves learning that he is ready to ask anyone when he has a question, even individuals with limited knowledge…. This may be compared to a man who lost a small object. Will he not hunt for it everywhere?”
(Rabbi Jonah)

He who is wise, will listen to what others have to say objectively, and exercise discernment, separating truth from error. As we read from Rabbi Meir:

“Rabbi Meir ate the date and threw away the seeds; he found a pomegranate, and partaking of the fruit, he rejected the rind.” (b.Chagigah 15b)

And as we read from Rambam:

“Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” (Maimonides; Introduction to the Shemonah Peraqim)

The Theistic Logic Behind Greek Stoicism

Normally in this blog, I write about Hebraic Stoicism. However, in today’s blog, I am going to write about Greek and Roman Stoicism. Specifically I am going to explain how Zeno of Citium developed Greek Stoicism from premises drawn from Plato, and particularly from Plato’s Timaeus.

There are two reasons I am writing about this topic. The first is that many in the Stoic Community are unaware of the logical basis for Stoicism itself. Many accept the conclusions of Stoicism as axioms, while actually rejecting the premises upon which those conclusions were based. I think we can all agree that this is highly illogical. It is even more illogical to criticize those who do accept the premises upon which that conclusion is based, while agreeing with the conclusion itself.

The second is that a fantastic record of the “dots” of Socratic, Platonic philosophy that connect to create the foundation for Greek and Roman Stoicism is to be found in the writings of the Hebraic Stoic Philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Philo draws his own ideas (Hebraic Stoicism) from the Torah, while recording in parallel, how very much the same ideas are derived in Greek Stoicism from Plato.

One of the problems in the modern Stoic movement is that so few students of modern Stoicism are well studied in the primary sources, but instead prefer to be spoon fed pop-Stoicism from modern, secondary sources. There is nothing wrong with reading modern writers, but it is important to also learn the primary sources.

The basis upon which Greek Stoicism is built is found in Plato’s Timeaus:

…we therefore who are purposing to deliver a discourse concerning the Universe, how it was created or haply is uncreate, … Now first of all we must, in my judgement, make the following distinction. What is that which is Existent always and has no Becoming? And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent? Now the one of these is apprehensible by thought with the aid of reasoning, since it is ever uniformly existent; whereas the other is an object of opinion with the aid of unreasoning sensation, since it becomes and perishes and is never really existent. Again, everything which becomes must of necessity become owing to some Cause; for without a cause it is impossible for anything to attain becoming. But when the artificer of any object, in forming its shape and quality, keeps his gaze fixed on that which is uniform, using a model of this kind, that object, executed in this way, must of necessity [28b] be beautiful; but whenever he gazes at that which has come into existence and uses a created model, the object thus executed is not beautiful. Now the whole Heaven, or Cosmos, or if there is any other name which it specially prefers, by that let us call it,—so, be its name what it may, we must first investigate concerning it that primary question which has to be investigated at the outset in every case,—namely, whether it has existed always, having no beginning of generation, or whether it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning. It has come into existence; for it is visible and tangible and possessed of a body; and all such things are sensible, [28c] and things sensible, being apprehensible by opinion with the aid of sensation, come into existence, as we saw, and are generated. And that which has come into existence must necessarily, as we say, have come into existence by reason of some Cause. Now to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible.
(Plato’s Timaeous 27-28)

Timaeus draws many of the same idea from observing nature, that the Hebrews derived from the Torah (There is some discussion of this idea in the Wisdom of Solomon, Romans Chapters 1-2 and Philo’s On Creation).

From this text in Timaeus we see that every event in the universe is part of a chain of cause and effect. Everything that happens is the effect of a previous cause, and that cause was an effect of a previous cause, in a chain of cause and effect, reaching back to the First Cause (Creator).

Stoicism concludes further that since no effect is greater than it’s cause (an idea today we would call the Second Law of Thermodynamics), that Creator must be superior to anything in the universe.

Timaeus continues:

Let us now state the Cause wherefore He that constructed it constructed Becoming and the All. He was good, and in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself. This principle, then, we shall be wholly right in accepting from men of wisdom as being above all the supreme originating principle of Becoming and the Cosmos. For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter. (Plato; Timaeus 29-30)

Timeaous concludes that this First Cause was “good” and “in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself.” and this concludes “For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter.

So Timeaus concludes by observing cause and effect, that there was a First Cause, that the First Cause, or God, was “good” and introduced that “good” to the Creation by bringing order to it.

This idea that God infused the universe with “good” in the form of “order” is that basis for the ideas in Greek Stoicism that a rational mind known as the Logos permeates the universe, giving nature “order”, and that a wise man will live in harmony with this “order” in order to emulate the “good” which is the effect of a “good” first cause bringing “good” in the form of order to the universe.

This is the basis for Greek and Roman Stoicsim. The Ancient Hebrews found the same ideas in the Torah, and Philo of Alexandra, in his book On Creation, shows how these ideas are parallel, drawing his own ideas from Moses, but by also paraphrasing and at one point even quoting Plato along the way.

It is truly irrational for certain modern Stoics, to embrace militant atheism, rejecting the foundational premises upon which Stoicism was built, while embracing Stoicism itself. It is even more irrational for these militant atheistic stoics to criticize theistic stoics who actually accept the propositions upon which Stoicism was built, from the ground up.