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The Stoic Worldview

First posted on the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).
In my workshop at Stoicon 2015 I talked about Stoic physics and about its relationship with what we would today call religion and science. My aim was simply to try to give participants a sense of the broader ‘Stoic worldview’ beyond their practical advice about how to live well.
I Bodies
The Stoics begin with the claim that only bodies exist (Cicero, Acad. 1.39). Everything that exists is a physical thing. Anything that has any kind of causal power must ultimately be a physical body. So, if the Stoics claim that virtue impels us to act, for instance, and so has some causal power, then virtue must be a body. And they think it is: virtue is an excellent mental state, i.e. the physical soul organized in an optimal way. Closely connected to this claim that only bodies exist, the Stoics reject the existence of universals (i.e. Plato’s Ideas or Forms). Only particulars exist. So when they …

What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections

A couple of quite different projects I have been working on recently have required me to have a view about how to define a Stoic. Here are some thoughts. Some of this material comes from my introduction to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. It is also posted on the Stoicism Today blog.
What is a Stoic? Who counts (or counted) as a Stoic? One might think the best way to answer these questions would be to point to a core set of doctrines and say that anyone who holds or held those doctrines is or was a Stoic. Alternatively one might focus on following Stoic guidance, living a Stoic life; someone who does this is a Stoic.
Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Sen…

Stoic Mindfulness

A recurring theme in popular discussions of Stoicism is a perceived affinity between Stoicism and mindfulness techniques adapted from Buddhism. This modern version of mindfulness, often abstracted from its original context, promotes attention to one’s immediate experiences and often proceeds by recommending paying close attention to the experience of one’s own breathing. The Stoic idea that we ought to keep our thoughts not on the past or future but rather the present moment (e.g. Marcus Aurelius 12.3) looks like it might offer some form of parallel here. Did the Stoics in their comments about the importance of focusing on the present moment propose something close to modern versions of mindfulness?
I want to suggest that the Stoics did have their own version of mindfulness but that it was quite different from the modern version adapted from Buddhism. While that version encourages paying attention of our immediate sensory experience (e.g. our breathing) in order to draw our attention …

Stoicism and the Human Condition

A post originally written for the Stoicism Today blog

A common remark about the recent revival of interest in Stoicism is that this is merely a reaction to current economic difficulties in parts of the developed world. In tough times people turn to Stoicism, so the story goes, but when all is well people have little interest in or need for Stoicism. This echoes Hegel’s account of Roman Stoicism written two centuries ago, claiming that their focus on self-transformation merely reflected the fact that they were powerless to change the world.
I don’t think this is right. Of course it may be true in some cases, but it hardly tells the whole story. Rather than see Stoicism as a response to current external circumstances, a sort of short-term therapy for current adversity, I would rather see it as a response to something more basic and fundamental about the human condition. The central ideas presented by the Roman Stoics all reflect in different ways on the fact that we are by nature fini…

Stoics on Papyrus

Some notes based on material in my Introduction to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition.

The body of surviving ancient Stoic literature has been far from static over the last century or so. Von Arnim’s Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (1903-5) included a number of Stoic texts and testimonia that had only recently been discovered in papyri. These included fragments of treatises by Chrsyippus that had been recovered from the scrolls found at Herculaneum, notably parts of his work Logical Questions (the papyri finds printed in von Arnim (1903-5) include Chrysippus’s Logikôn Zêtêmatôn (PHerc 307, SVF 2.298a; cf. Crönert 1901), the Papyrus Letronnii (SVF 2.180), a Herculaneum text previously edited by von Arnim (PHerc 1020, SVF 2.131; cf. Arnim 1890), and a handful of other fragments taken from papyri published in the Herculanensia Volumina (SVF 2.639; 2.640; 2.1060)). Von Arnim had edited one of these finds himself a few years before the publication of his collection (Arnim 1890). An e…

Cicero on Living a Stoic Life

A post originally written for the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).
What is involved in living a Stoic life? In his book On Duties (1.107 ff.) the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero outlines a theory involving four distinct rules for living a life. This is known as the four personae theory and it is usually supposed that Cicero is following a now lost work by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. There are scholarly debates about how closely Cicero follows Panaetius and to what extent Panaetius might be deviating from the orthodox Stoic view, but putting those questions to one side Cicero’s account is on its own terms an interesting window on what might be involved in living a Stoic life.
We have, Cicero says, two natures, one common and one individual. Our common nature as human beings offers one sort of guide to how to live. The fact that we are rational, social animals gives us one set of pointers to what a life in accordance with natu…

Meditation on Past Evils: A Neostoic Spiritual Exercise

A post written for the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016). These comments draw on a fuller account of Lipsius and spiritual exercises available here

Much has been written about the Stoic idea of premeditation on future evils: pre-rehearse potential bad events so that if they come you are better prepared to deal with them and, if they don’t, be all the more grateful for your good fortune. But what about past evils? Is there anything to be gained from reflecting on evils that have already happened? 

In the sixteenth century Justus Lipsius thought there was. Lipsius was a Humanist and committed to Stoicism His On Constancy of 1584 is a dialogue about how Stoicism might help people then caught in the middle of horrific religious wars. He went on to produce an important edition of the works of Seneca in 1605 and published with it two volumes that, for the first time, tried to bring together all the surviving evidence for the early Stoics, in …

Stoicism and Emotion

Text of a presentation at the Stoicism Today 2014 event in London (video of talk here). Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).
One of the most common popular ideas about Stoicism is that the Stoics deny the value of emotions. This might be formulated in a number of different ways – the Stoics repress their emotions, or reject them, or overcome them – but the shared idea behind these different ways of putting it is that the Stoics think the emotions are not important for a good life. Indeed, not only are they not important, they are in fact an impediment to living a good life.
That’s a common view. Equally common is the objection that this Stoic attitude towards the emotions is deeply unattractive. This objection might also take a number of forms: a healthy human life must involve a healthy emotional life; the emotions are an essential part of what it means to be a human being; denying or repressing emotions will only generate longer-term negative consequences; t…

Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher

Originally written for, and published in, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (2010).
Marcus Aurelius was not only an emperor; he was also a philosopher. His interest in philosophy began at a young age, as his correspondence with the rhetorician Fronto indicates. One of Marcus’ tutors, Rusticus, introduced him to the philosophy of Stoicism and lent him a copy of the Discourses of Epictetus. This proved to be a decisive influence.
Although this interest in philosophy started very young, our only document for Marcus’ philosophy comes from his old age. The text that we now know as the Meditations was written in his final years, while on military campaign in Germania. The modern title Meditations dates only from the seventeenth century; the manuscript tradition offers the title To Himself (ta eis heauton). The earliest reference to this title dates to the ninth century and the original text may well have been untitled. This should come as no surprise, however, as the Medita…

Tough Luck

Originally published in The Philosophers’ Magazine as part of a themed section on luck (2011), I was asked to write something about Stoic attitudes towards luck.
There is a sense in which all of Stoic philosophy is about luck. Strictly speaking this is not true, of course, as the ancient Stoics developed a philosophical system addressing a wide range of topics (from logic to politics, astronomy, and grammar), but if one were forced to try to summarize the general thrust of Stoicism in just a few words it would be tempting to say that it is most concerned with luck.
Let me try to flesh this out some more. Like the majority of other ancient philosophers the Stoics are eudaimonists and so the goal of their philosophy is happiness or wellbeing. The way in which the Stoics think we can achieve wellbeing is by looking closely at our relationship with the external world and at the way in which we ascribe value to things. In particular they suggest that we ought never to ascribe value to exte…