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Diogenes: Islands and Ethics

7 September 2017

The island way of life may be quite different from that on the mainland. This is why, probably, mainlanders often don’t feel quite at home on an island, and conversely, islanders sometimes feel a sense of displacement on the mainland although in many cases they may even belong to the same country.

Because outages and water shortages are more frequent on an island, islanders tend to cope with such inconveniences more easily than mainlanders. On an island, it may not always be possible to find what you want, but you can usually find what is an essential need. Islanders are typically less wasteful and more self-sufficient, and their behaviour — guided more by conscious reasoning and affected less by adverse emotions — renders their lifestyle more relaxed and healthy.

The island of Cyprus, in this respect, presents no exception: Cypriots are proud of their long and eventful history. Stoicism — one of the most famous schools of thought — was born and flourished on this island. Generally recognized as one of the loftiest and most sublime philosophical teachings in the entire body of Western thought, its core teaching is the belief that man should be provided with a mode of conduct that will enable him to attain the tranquility of mind and certainty of moral worth — the highest goal of human existence. It is difficult to imagine a more ambitious project.

After Aristotle, no school of philosophy considered knowledge and the striving for it to be ends in themselves. But a new culture began to rise from the horizon, and the Stoics were its creators and its heralds. According to Socrates, to know is to know oneself. This attitude laid the basis for all future disciplines called ‘humanities’. To the Stoics, rationality is the only means by which knowledge of something outside of the self could be achieved. This belief is the most striking feature of Stoicism. It is in fact a fantastic blend of both novel elements and staples of earlier philosophical thoughts including Homeric fate, the materialism of Leucippus and Democritus, the Heraclitean idea that everything changes, the Socratic teaching that virtue and knowledge are inseparable, as well as the Platonic devaluation of the body and the Aristotelian sense of purpose in nature. Bearing this in mind, it is not difficult to understand why the teachings of the Stoics have influenced many of the greatest thinkers, such as Augustine, Spinoza, and Kant, who in turn have influenced many others.

The Stoics created the true model for human existence by introducing reason as the only means of revealing the constancy of cosmic order and the creative source of unchanging value. They believe that analogy based on perceptual experience can yield not only a solid judgement, but certain, absolutely reliable knowledge. To them, reason pervades and governs everything in the cosmos, and virtue is inherent in reason. This concept of reason echoes Thales’ assertion that everything is full of gods. Is Spinoza’s pantheism not an elaborate paraphrase of the Stoic conception of an all-pervading reason? Are the creationists not trying to use the teachings of the Stoics to make their pseudo-scientific theories tasty? Last but not least, have theoretical physicists not been trying to find — so far without success — one single formula that describes the universal law governing the entire cosmos at all its levels? That looked-for general law would perfectly correspond to reason, as suggested by the Stoics.

Our awareness of the overwhelming order governing the entire cosmos makes human beings an active part of that order and induces us to act ethically, for that order is the principle of ethics itself. The Stoic world and Stoic ethics are based on the view that the world is a village, a unity. Kant obviously uses the teaching of the Stoics when he formulates the feeling of a true philosopher (his own, of course) when he says: “The starry skies above me and moral law inside me.” Zeno of Citium (now Larnaca, Cyprus), a true world citizen, is regarded as the founder of this fascinating school of thought.

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