Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.64

Thomas Bénatouïl, Faire usage: la pratique du stoïcisme. Histoire des doctrines de l'antiquité classique 35.   Paris:  Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 2006.  Pp. 364.  ISBN 2-7116-1840-4.  €38.00.  

Reviewed by Jula Wildberger, University of Glasgow / The American University of Paris (
Word count: 3727 words

In this revised version of his doctoral dissertation Thomas Bénatouïl (B.) examines the uses and meanings of the verb χρῆσθαι, its cognates, e.g. χρῆσις and χρεία, and its Latin equivalents (uti etc.) as they occur in different contexts within Stoic discourse. Assuming two basic, non-technical meanings of these words--[a] any kind of practical behavior by a particular subject, i.e. practice ("practique") in general and not only rational, intentional action, and [b] any kind of practice in relation to a particular object, in contrast to inactive, inert possession of it (10-11)--B. investigates how these non-technical meanings acquire a specific function within the Stoic system and serve to analyze and describe the "interface" between general philosophical theory and individual subject (8) as well as the ways in which humans constitute an active, autonomous but integrated part of the Stoic world (9).

B.'s professed aim is not to reconstruct a lost Stoic terminus technicus but to "bring to light the philosophical problem" (16) that is discussed in terms of use and, according to B., straddles all areas of the Stoic system.1 The methods applied to achieve this aim are extensive philosophical interpretation of Stoic texts containing the notion of use and comparison with similar discussions by other ancient philosophers, highlighting divergences that are significant for the particular Stoic agenda (14-15).2

All in all, B. reads the Stoic discourse as a "radicalization of the Socratic tradition" (15), according to which different practices are viewed and evaluated as good or bad uses of an object: for the Stoics, the range of objects of practice is wider and includes the practicing subjects themselves; the completely immanent principle of practice becomes the all-encompassing condition of human (and divine) existence while, on the other hand, practice's manifold and diverse forms are submitted to a strict, objective evaluation as active manifestations of natural proper functions. B. understands Stoic χρῆσις as implying "a regulated practical relation to a natural resource" (322). Thinking in terms of use offers the Stoics a convenient analytic grid: "Stoic use is the moment of active reception [sc. by the subject] of that which the organization of the universe offers [sc. to the subject]" (323). Accordingly, B. identifies two different criteria being applied in this analysis. [a] As recipient, the subject makes good, i.e. correct and proper use of an object if it understands the pre-determined natural function of the object it receives from providence and conforms to that function, using it in the manner intended by the giver. [b] Insofar as the subject is active, it makes good use of an object if it benefits from the object according to the subject's own pre-determined natural functions; in the case of a human being, this amounts to a use that is profitable with regard to the subject's mental functions and dispositions. In this two-sided manner, "use is the unstable site where man's adjustment to his own nature and Nature [i.e. Stoic god] takes place" (323; an allusion to Stoic descriptions of the end).

B. does not presuppose much specialist knowledge, and his discussion, which is structured according to different classes of things that appear as objects of use in Stoic sources ([1] nature; [2] reason; [3] excellence; [4] indifferents), amounts to an introduction to Stoic ethics from an original point of view that both non-experts and experts can read with profit.

[1] In the first part, on the use of nature/Nature (19-62), B. discusses both what Stoics could have meant when they said that animals use their own body parts and the Stoic conception of human use of animals and other natural resources.

B. points out that, by separating reflexivity from clear, conscious--and, one might wish to add, discursive--self-awareness and care of self ("souci de soi") from mastery of oneself ("maîtrise de soi", 24), it is possible to describe animal behavior as an autonomous activity during which the animal mind makes use of its powers and perceptions to use its natural endowments. The animal does not react automatically to a stimulus but, through self-perception, realizes the pre-determined function of its own body parts and uses them accordingly to its own benefit, in an act that is an appropriation of the "equipment given to it by Nature" (42). Comparing the Stoic analysis to those of Aristotle, Galen, and Lucretius, B. describes the Stoics as taking a middle position: like Aristotle and Galen, and in contrast to Lucretius, the Stoics regard the function of an organ as anterior to that organ (i.e. the body part as something that can be used for the function in question), insofar as the function of the organ is pre-determined by providence; but, insofar as the animal mind must first perceive the body part as a functional organ in order to use it, the organ is anterior to its use and thus its function (32-41).

The conception of use as an appropriation of Nature's gifts is then transferred to the use of animals by humans. B. argues that it is precisely in this specific conception of use that the Stoics differ from Aristotle: according to Aristotle it is natural that humans use animals because Nature does nothing in vain; according to the Stoics animals are explicitly made for humans--it is the natural function of animals to be used by them (43-50). In yet another step, B. applies his conception of Stoic use to a reading of Posidonius' theory of cultural progress: through the invention of technical skills and arts, humans use and thus appropriate natural resources in general. These natural resources are designed for human use but, just as animals must have a perception of their organs in order to use them, humans had first to perceive that these resources were designed for their benefit and to find out how to use them. In this way the Stoics would again take a middle position, similar to that of Protagoras' myth in Plato's dialogue of the same name: technical achievements were neither gifts of the gods, i.e. totally prior to human use, nor chance inventions by humans themselves through trial and error (as Lucretius would say) and thus posterior to human use; rather, humans were endowed by Nature with a general faculty to invent the skills necessary to appropriate the resources given to them by Nature together with this inventing faculty. However, contrary to the never failing use of body parts, human use of natural resources is "practical mastership (maîtrise) of the preexisting natural function inherent in the objects which are appropriated by use" (61), and not everyone arrives at this mastery--there is also failure; by humans, natural resources can also be used badly (50-62).

[2] Such bad use is to be explained as a failure of human reason, the use of which B. discusses in the second part of his book (65-143): in animals, according to B.'s reconstruction, it is the leading part of the soul that makes use of the body and external objects; in humans, if there is proper use of objects, reason (λόγος) is the agent that uses these objects, and at the same time also uses itself for making use of other objects. Humans make good use of an object if they use their reason for using the object and do so consistently.

B. proposes the hypothesis (69-77) that only with the Stoics does λόγος become a term for reason in the sense of a particular mental faculty (i.e. not only a term for certain classes of activities or processes like talking or thinking) and thus a possible object of good or bad use. B. believes that Chrysippus discussed λόγος as an object of that kind in his book περὶ λόγου χρήσεως (D.L. 7.201; Plu. Stoic. rep. 1037b) and considers ways in which Stoics could have conceived of multiple, good and bad and thus ethically (not just logically) relevant uses of reason (80): [a] the argumentatio in utramque partem, which is bad if directed against correct but weak opinions of a student and good if used to strengthen such opinions by refutation of contradicting arguments--good because in this case reason is used to enhance its ability to use itself (81-96)--and [b] the passions as a bad use of reason--bad because reason decides against its own ability to use itself when it assents to a passion and thus loss of self-control (97-105).

B. develops his reading as an answer to Academic criticisms of Stoic teleology, contending that the use of reason was introduced to refute arguments against providence according to which natural resources often harm rather than benefit humankind; the resources are beneficial but, as rational beings, humans can err and thus fail to use them to their benefit (58-62). Then the Academic objections are discussed on a second level: if humans do not use their reason correctly, reason itself is as harmful as other natural resources which hurt those who ought to profit from them (106-12); in other words: if reason cannot help but direct human action all the time (102), how can a Stoic distinguish between a bad use of reason and a good use that is reason's only and proper function (113)? B.'s solution to this problem is that there is, in fact, no bad use of reason but only a use of bad reason, i.e. of a reason distorted and corrupted by the external causes of διαστροφή.

As in his discussion of corruption by sophistic arguments, B. insists that, according to the Stoics, human reason is right by its own nature and not in any a priori need of correction or development from outside, e.g. a Platonic-Socratic elenchos or a maieutic procedure. Humans have right opinions but are too weak to retain them (83). Right reason is the law, which is reason telling itself what to do, i.e. how to use itself, and the ability to do this in a perfect way is "prefigured" (120) in reason right from its origin: it is its inborn, "elementary capacity" (123) to perceive and seek what is consistent (ἀκόλουθον). Here, again, B. finds an ambivalence which allows the Stoics to blend particular subjective and systematic objective criteria: what is καθῆκον is always subjective to a particular agent in a particular situation (123); consistency, on the other hand, is something objective (127). So, while deciding on a consistent particular course of action, reason uses its "inherent norm" (126) to seek what is, at the same time, an objective, externally given norm: the consistency present not only in logical thought but also in the common notions of all human beings and the rational order of the universe (129).

Having thus argued for the inherent goodness of any use of reason, B. has to show how Stoics still can distinguish different--better or worse--qualities in the use of reason, instead of only degrees of use or non-use. For this purpose he introduces a distinction between "instrumental" and "organic" use, which he derives from different passages on the role of λόγος or λογική in philosophy (131-43): organic use takes place when a rational system uses something that is an integral part of this system, having been created by the system for a certain purpose within itself; instrumental use takes place when another system uses something that has not been created by itself and for itself and of which it has no proper understanding. Logic, philosophy in general, and the mental capacities humans develop out of themselves and for themselves are parts of the system λόγος and designed for organic use by λόγος. To use them instrumentally is a "perversion" of reason.

[3] The third part (147-217) is devoted to explaining what the Stoics could have meant with their assertion that the sage uses his excellences throughout his whole life. B. gradually pins down this meaning, first clarifying that the statement concerns permanent, uninterrupted use, not use for a specific period of time (161-3). Discussing passages in which Stoics debate whether the sage loses his excellence while he is unconscious, drunken, insane, or in any other way incapable of performing to his usual intellectual standard, B. stresses that use of excellence presupposes the presence of reason--excellence ensuring that every mental movement happens in perfect manner (163-9)--and nothing else but reason; this is why even during sleep, when the senses but not reason are impaired, excellence is active, perfectly controlling the use reason makes of itself (169-74).

After having thus discussed excellence as an activity internal to the mind, B. turns to the external aspects of using one's excellences. First he suggests that the definition of prudence as knowledge of what to do and what not to do allows us to read a difficult passage (Stob. 2, p. 66 Wachsmuth) as asserting that the sage does well even what he does not do, something which characterizes his art as an universal art, different from all other specialized arts: the sage is also an expert in the art of deciding in which specialized arts he should become an expert and in which not (175-80). For the rest of this part, B. then discusses two different ways in which Stoics conceived of excellence as a "méta-compétence" (181), distinguishing two basic manifestations of excellence as B. finds them described by Philo (Ebr. 88-92): excellence as something that impresses its style or form on every single activity or work it produces and wisdom as an incarnation of practice, as constituting itself the activity that occurs in different domains as different specialized arts or sciences (182-3). B. fleshes out the first description as an abridged version of Aristo's conception of wisdom and the goal (discussed 183-98), while he associates the second with Chrysippus' opposing views (198-215).

According to B.'s interpretation, Aristo does not insist on indifference as a primary goal; Aristo's stressing of indifference is rather a consequence of a more basic insistence on moral principles that are both universal and useful because, for Aristo, only a universal rule that abstracts from particular circumstances would be applicable in all situations that may occur throughout a life (183-91). Knowledge of what is good and bad--Aristo's definition of wisdom--must be trained and develop into a particular disposition, mental "health" (195). Once this disposition has been acquired, a sage will not and cannot think, want, or do anything bad. This is so, B. stresses, because a healthy mind has acquired the ability no longer to opine but only to grasp and to know. Another vital element of this reading is the assumption that, because of the absolute indifference of everything that is neither bad nor good, there are always several options for the sage to choose from. As he would not even think of anything that would not be good, it makes no difference which of many possible courses of action he chooses (195-6).

Thus, for Aristo, all actions of an individual and its relationship to the world outside are dissolved within the unifying principle of use, or rather uses, of one excellence in different particular situations and circumstances (198-9); however, in the statement that is to be explained in this part of the book, Zeno and other Stoics assert that the sage uses a plurality of excellences, stressing at the same time that these many excellences are not used separately but always together. B. presents two basic points in which Chrysippus contradicted Aristo in order to re-introduce morally meaningful particular action and retain excellence as a practically, not only morally, competent and powerful disposition. [a] Excellences are not defined by the external objects they deal with, but as a co-operating system of faculties that simultaneously deal with particular aspects of every human action, which is thus seen as a much more multifaceted and systematic achievement than the arbitrary choices between equivalent possibilities of Aristo's sage (202-7). [b] The epistemic basis on which excellences perform their function is, accordingly, different as well: while Aristo's excellence more or less functions as a filter that rejects the wrong kinds of input, Chrysippus' excellences are equivalent to proper and systematic uses of experiences, including experiences that lead to specialist knowledge (207-15).

[4] In the last part of his book (219-320), B. discusses the use of indifferents as an idea that is "directed against" (242) both those who hold external goods to be necessary for happiness and those who regard them as completely irrelevant: external things are relevant as objects of good use but not necessary because the sage can make good use of absolutely everything (237, see also 248-54). Use of indifferents is understood by B. as something that includes or presupposes selection (ἐκλογή; 241) and is to be distinguished from fruition (ἀπόλαυσις, for example in Antiochus' definition of the goal; 223-35), use being an autonomous activity with regard to certain objects while enjoyment (fruitio), on the other hand, is "a passivity of the subject that allows itself to be affected in a positive manner by the qualities of an object external to itself" (230-1).

B. then distinguishes three "models of good use"--the technical (245-54), the cosmological (254-69) and the relationship with other human beings (270-8)--and concludes this part with a discussion of "parameters of good use", taking as an example the use of wine (279-320).

According to the technical model, use of indifferents is the practice of an art; B. highlights the peculiarities of this model, according to which the indifferents are neither instruments nor products of the art but, in some sense, its material (249), while art, instrument and product coincide in the person of the artist, who "is defined solely by his internalized technical capacity" (248), viz. his excellence, and not by any external success.

"Cosmological model of use" is B.'s expression for the manner in which the principle "god", the universal artisan, is an exemplar to the sage in his use of the other principle, matter (ὕλη), to form the cosmos; god demonstrates in this way that an immanent artist can create a perfect work of art out of something passive, undifferentiated and external to himself (255-62). The cosmos is, however, exemplary also because of the excellence of each of its movements: assenting to this providential order and thus also to the indifferent events that happen to him, constitutes for the sage a "use of the physical world as an excellence" (263) which requires a corresponding knowledge about the workings of nature (264-7).

By looking at the relationships the sage entertains to other human beings, i.e. his use of, say, wife, children, friends, or enemies, B. underlines that it is never the indifferent itself, not even if it is one's own wise child, that affords any good in itself: other people are of value only as objects of proper social interaction (271), which is a general attitude and a way of behavior rather than a series of single instances of kindness (273); it is "reason's continuous use of a natural relationship with someone else that one has had the lucky opportunity to acquire" (275).

B. discusses the use of wine in the final chapter of his argument because this is one of the few cases in which we have considerable fragments of a detailed Stoic discussion. (B. regards Philo's argumentation in De ebrietate as deriving mainly from the early Stoics). In addition, B. sees in the use of wine a good example to illustrate the sage's striking, practically unlimited scope of behavior. For example, B. believes that Zeno took pains not to prescribe any particular course of action in his famous syllogism why the sage would not get drunk (283-4); and in the end it turns out that, according to B., even drinking himself into insensibility, i.e. temporarily sacrificing his excellence with the rest of his mental faculties, might be, under particular circumstances, one of the sage's excellent choices (314-5).

B.'s argument is persuasive and fascinating, and no serious student of Stoicism can afford to ignore it. With his surprising and original approach, B. offers us nothing less than a glimpse of the philosopher's stone that may help us solve all those vexing riddles which are the source of endless scholarly debates: the relation between internalist and externalist explanations of οἰκείωσις and the acquisition of a concept of what is good; the mysterious transitions from irrational animal to rational human, from fool to sage, and from first things according to nature to something good; determinism and independent agency; and, above all, the question of how to flesh out and give material meaning to all those recursive definitions of reason, excellence, goodness, and the goal.

Unfortunately, however, B. tries to achieve too much and not enough at the same time: on the one hand, B. wants to do more than just register and classify the meaning and usage of certain words in a limited class of texts; he expects to gain insights into the connections between difficult conceptions central to Stoic ethics, and this he achieves. So, being a philosopher and not a linguist, he does not offer a proper investigation of a lexical or semantic field, and does not even clearly distinguish the two.3 From the viewpoint of the student of language, the book is therefore not as helpful as it could have been.

On the other hand, B. restricts his aim as a philosopher as well: he does not claim to have discovered a technical use of the words in question. But if "use" is not a technical term, or at least a technical concept, whatever the actual Greek or Latin words, it becomes difficult to justify why an occurrence of a word for "use" in one text should have any explanatory force for the understanding of an occurrence of the word in a different source from a different context. A critical reader will not always wish to make the connections B. makes, at least partly, on the basis of the occurrence of a word for use in the texts in question; he may doubt whether these sources are really talking about the same thing (e.g. 132-8) and sometimes have the uneasy feeling that a connection or distinction might be rather the product of B.'s acute intellect than something conceived of in ancient Stoic discourse.

Yet even if that may be the case in some instances, B. certainly has achieved his aim of highlighting a central problem of Stoicism and opening a new avenue of thought for solving it--in addition to offering his readers a good introduction to Stoic ethics and a host of valuable distinctions, clarifications, and ingenious comparisons.4


1.   B. does, of course, discuss Chrysippus' famous terminological distinction between needing and lacking, according to which only the sage needs things because only he is able to make use them (269). I have translated all literal quotes into English.
2.   Usually, B. assumes some sort of influence or ongoing debate (see, e.g., 152 or 238), with Socrates as the foundation and Plato and Aristotle as the major stepping stones, on which the Stoics build their own arguments. Yet, most of the comparisons are illuminating even if one disagrees on questions of dependence.
3.   As far as I can see, B. specifies neither the exact corpus of texts he has examined nor the precise range of words taken into account; there is no list with all occurrences, and we do not learn whether all, or only some, of the occurrences are being discussed in the book. B. describes the "lexique de 'l'usage'" as the "fil directeur" of his enquiry (9), a description that rather points to a selective approach on a lexical basis (see also 136, where the use of a synonym is remarked upon). Quotes are usually given in French, with only some terms indicated in Greek. B. sometimes discusses the extent or authenticity of a fragment, but he rarely refers to such philological problems like the bilingual nature of the sources, the delimitation and definition of "Stoic discourse", or the difficulties of distinguishing paraphrase from literal quote. As concerns secondary reading, apart from French authors, B. seems most at ease with English and Italian publications, although there are some omissions, one striking example being Richard Sorabji's Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate, Ithaca 1993. Literature in German seems to have been accessed, if at all, only through other authors.
4.   My favorite example is the comparison of Aristo's excellence with a simple, well sharpened blade in contrast to Chrysippus' excellence that resembles a multifunctional Swiss army knife.

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