Home > philosophy > Impulse and Proper Function (LS 57, 59)

Impulse and Proper Function (LS 57, 59)

One of the problems that plagues philosophy as a study (aside from the contempt that Americans seem to have for intellectuals) is rooted in the alleged uselessness of the discipline for daily life. To some extent I can see how this perception has occurred. When viewed over the course of the last fifty years philosophy has not really produced anything worthwhile. When deconstruction and Chomsky are the big movements/names it’s easy to see why the disdain for the discipline exists. Not only is the writing purposefully dense but it seems to apply to nothing. Looking back we can probably identify the last great philosopher as Wittgenstein, and even then that’s a tough sell to the average person. So who are we left with? Heidegger, the Nazi? Or Rawls and his veil of ignorance? I would love to throw my ring in Rawl’s hat, although I can’t agree that we ought to form an ethical theory independent of context, we’re not all Kantians. The trouble is that no major philosopher or school has come about to address all aspects of life. This is what has been missing, the general population looks at this stuff and says, “but what about me?” The academics look back and say, “it’s not important if you don’t understand.” While Hellenic schools seemed to have some of this aspect in them, generally it’s not as pronounced and they tried to address all classes of life. To be a Stoic, an Epicurean, a Cynic, was to live a philosophy as if it were a religion sans god(s).

The first object of the first impulse of all animals is self-preservation. This is common to all animals, the drive to continue to exist must be first as it will be apparently impossible to take care of anything else if the creature feels it is alienated from its own body.[1] This impulse drives toward the acceptance of the appropriate and the rejection of harm.[2] This is guided by pleasure and pain, which are not impulses but the byproducts of them. If the creature follows the reasonable, the rational, it will get along appropriately for nature cannot mislead the creature into something contrary to its nature.

            The appropriate disposition to oneself is benevolence, we are supposed to like ourselves. Our kindred we show affection towards.[3] While we are still animals we are rational, and that exercise of reason has suited us in a different manner than the other animals which inhabit this world. For we are naturally disposed to form “unions, societies, and states[4]” appropriate to us. Living in these states we become accustom to them, preferring the common good over the individual good. The state, the natural consequence of our gregarious nature, is important for the direction of the species for the education and that passing down of wisdom to the young.[5]

            The state, the city, is what we term “proper function.” A proper function is so defined as “consequentiality in life, something which, once it has been done, has a reasonable (re: rational) justification. The contrary to proper function is defined as the opposite of this (i.e. contrary to reason).[6]” These are the activities “appropriate to any constitution that accords with nature.[7]

            Reason dictates what is the proper function of each individual. This delineation is between reason and non-reason is not entirely complete. Thus we do not have a simple dialectic between proper function and improper function, there is the third category which is neither. It is not dictated by reason nor contrary to it. These are the activities with no consequent, picking up rocks, taking a walk.[8]

For anything else we can judge we can judge its virtue on whether it accords with reason. Some of these are situational while some are universal. What this means is that some actions are wrong essentially, i.e. that they can never be rationally justified in any case. While others are merely wrong in consequence, i.e. they are only wrong in the effects they affect.[9] We may, as Kant does, hold that lying is a universal wrong however if we lie to protect an individual(s) or if a doctor deceives a patient in order to make them better we will see the ultimate virtue in their action.[10] Such is the same with a doctor who causes pain in a patient in the process of saving them.

The contrary attaches as well. Some acts are always virtuous while some are only virtuous because of what they produce. In any case the ultimate judge is the character of the agent performing the action. A wrong action, according to the Stoics, is always wrong and equally wrong to all other wrong actions. For they are all against nature. The difference between them is only the agent. Some acts may be more wrong, but it is not the act. The performer is key, if the act arises from a dangerous and incurable character (the vicious of Aristotle) it is worse than a momentary lapse from an otherwise rational person.


[1]Diogenes Laertius LS 57A

[2] ibid

[3] Hierocles LS 57 D

[4] Cicero, “On Ends” LS 57 F

[5] ibid

[6] Stobaeus LS 59 B

[7] Diogenes Laertius 59 B

[8] Diogenes Laertius 59 E

[9] ibid

[10] Philo 59 H

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