Stoicism in Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza: Examining Neostoicism’s Influence in the Seventeenth Century
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
Roger Ariew, Ph.D.
Daniel Garber, Ph.D.
Colin Heydt, Ph.D.
Douglas Jesseph, Ph.D.
Thomas Williams, Ph.D.
Early Modern Philosophy, History of Ethics, Stoicism, Neostoicism, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza
My dissertation focuses on the moral philosophy of Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza in the context of the revival of Stoicism within the seventeenth century. There are many misinterpretations about early modern ethical theories due to a lack of proper awareness of Stoicism in the early modern period. My project rectifies this by highlighting understated Stoic themes in these early modern texts that offer new clarity to their morality. Although these three philosophers hold very different metaphysical commitments, each embraces a different aspect of Stoicism, letting it influence but not define his work. By addressing the Stoic themes on the morality of these three authors, I also hope to help better capture the intellectual climate of the time by bringing Stoic themes into the foreground. Stoicism is a Hellenistic philosophy that considered the passions a sickness of the intellect and the source of all human suffering; they believed the cure was virtue, which was obtained through replacing irrational passions with rational beliefs. Stoicism had a revival in the Renaissance ushering in a wave of Neostoic authors who play an important role in shaping the intellectual landscape of the following centuries. My first two chapters discuss Descartes, who wrote a “provisional morality” early in his public life, only (as I show) to ignore the subject of ethics until near his death. In my first chapter I argue that, though many present-day scholars misread Descartes’ first ethics as part of his final ethics, this earliest “provisional morality” mimics Neostoic Skeptics such as Montaigne and is provisional because his method of doubt is also provisional. In my second chapter I show that Descartes’ late, and more developed, moral theory attempts to synthesize a variety of ancient, and seemingly contradictory, ethical traditions: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Aristotelianism. In many ways Descartes embraces Stoic morality, but as a mechanist he does not view passions as an intellectual sickness; rather they are a physiological event, an amoral instrument that can be used to help control one’s irrational desires. I further defend my thesis externally by showing that this is the reading supported by Descartes’ contemporaries including critics such as Leibniz and early Cartesians such as Antoine Le Grand and Pierre-Sylvain Régis My third chapter discusses Pascal, who embraces Stoicism differently. Pascal offers Stoicism as the first tier of a binary ethics: modeled after Augustine’s city of God and city of man, it is an alternative moral code for those who are ignorant of the good and true happiness. Finally, in my fourth chapter, I discuss two common misinterpretations of Spinoza’s ethics: one of them neglects the Stoic influence on his thought while the other embraces it too strongly, portraying him as an unadulterated Stoic. Although there are ways that he is more Stoic than Descartes and Pascal, such as in his panpsychism and monism, this does not extend to his morality. Rather than accepting either of the two readings, I highlight anti- Stoic themes that are also present. I conclude that if the discussion is contained to his morality, Spinoza is no more Stoic than the other Neostoics I discuss in previous chapters.
Scholar Commons Citation
Collette, Daniel, "Stoicism in Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza: Examining Neostoicism’s Influence in the Seventeenth Century" (2016). USF Tampa Graduate Theses and Dissertations.