Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.21

P. A. Brunt, Studies in Stoicism.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. vi, 521.  ISBN 9780199695850.  $199.00.  

Contributors: Edited by Miriam Griffin and Alison Samuels, with the assistance of Michael Crawford.

Reviewed by Margaret Graver, Dartmouth College (


This substantial volume makes available a series of thirteen studies from various points in Peter Brunt’s career, treating various important problems in the history of Stoic practical philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Although marked by the difficulties that necessarily attend posthumous publication, the work is distinguished throughout by the depth of knowledge and skill in argumentation we expect from Brunt, and will be a necessary addition to any collection in either Roman history or classical philosophy.

Brunt had been interested in Roman Stoicism since the 1940s and had delivered a series of lectures on that subject at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1963. At the time he was appointed to the Camden Chair of Ancient History at Oxford, he intended to produce a book on the relation between Stoic thought and Roman imperial policy. He sketched his aims for that project in his inaugural lecture for the chair in 1971; this was subsequently published in Papers of the British School at Rome and is reprinted in the present volume. Four articles related to this project were published during the 1970s and are also included here. The bulk of the research completed at that time remained unpublished, however, as did much of the work carried out during the fertile years of Brunt’s retirement. Feeling late in life that he would be unable to complete his project in the form he had intended, Brunt as an alternative suggested to Miriam Griffin that she might put together a collection of his unpublished writings on Stoicism accompanied by reprints of certain of his published works. The title Studies in Stoicism was his suggestion, as was the list of works to be included. One can fairly say, then, that the plan of the present volume was essentially Brunt’s own, a final and fully comparable installment in the series of collected essays volumes begun in the 1980s.1

In assembling the material for publication, Griffin and Alison Samuels, aided by Brunt’s literary executor Michael Crawford, have made every effort to present the material in a form as near as possible to what the author intended. Their own interventions are kept to a minimum: a brief editorial introduction, occasional editorial footnotes, and in a very few places some minimal supplementation as necessitated by gaps in the typescripts. The effort required must nonetheless have been formidable, for it was necessary not only to locate all the items Brunt had mentioned for inclusion but in some cases to select among several stages of revision. In addition, Griffin was charged with incorporating revisions into five of the previously published articles, working from Brunt’s annotated copies. A bibliography of Brunt’s lifetime publications rounds out the volume, together with a separate bibliography for the previously unpublished essays, an index locorum, and a general index.

Ever the historian, Brunt was interested from the start in the way Stoics and persons influenced by Stoicism interacted with the world they actually lived in: what behaviors they adopted and recommended to others in their political lives, their social relations, their handling of money and other possessions, and even the fine details of their dress, grooming, and deportment. The doctrines concerning the kathēkonta, the actions that are appropriate to ordinary persons as well as the sage, were always at the heart of his project, and the text to which he returned over and over was Cicero’s De Officiis, corresponding by title and at least to some extent in content with the Peri Tou Kathēkontos of Panaetius. He could scarcely have proceeded, therefore, had he not made some determination concerning two preliminary questions of fundamental importance for the handling of this evidence: (a) to what extent does Cicero faithfully reproduce the views expressed in Panaetius’ treatise; and (b) to what extent does Panaetius himself take positions that are characteristically Stoic; i.e., that are consonant with those of the earliest and most widely influential Stoic authors?

Concerning (a), Brunt was consistent in maintaining that even those sections of De Officiis 1 and 2 which have a distinctively Roman coloring do in fact represent positions taken by Panaetius. His reasoning on this point is presented in an extensive study which he had originally intended to use as Chapter 1 of a monograph on Panaetius’ thought. Brunt’s view, the editors remark, “is generally unfashionable now, when scholars are laying more emphasis on Cicero’s independence” (180), and he could not take account of some important recent studies, including A. R. Dyck’s 1996 commentary and the 2001 monograph by Eckard Lefèvre. This is not to say, however, that Brunt was necessarily mistaken: his arguments must be taken on their own terms and will be found to have considerable force. The essence of his position is as follows. First, while Cicero might easily have added exempla from Roman history to illustrate theoretical points made already by Panaetius, he is quite unlikely to have chosen on his own to present a Roman audience with such Greek examples as Jason of Pherae (1.108), Callicratidas (1.109), and Bardylis (2.40). The presence of such less-familiar Greek exempla, then, should be taken to signify that both the examples and the points they illustrate are Panaetian even where Roman examples are also provided. That many of the points made are ones to which Cicero is himself strongly committed does not mean that they must originate with him: the coincidence of Panaetius’ views with his own is the very reason Cicero favors his work. Even those claims which are more apposite to the concerns of Roman aristocrats than of the Hellenistic city-states—the honors accruing to military victory, for instance—might easily belong to Panaetius, who was himself writing in a Roman context under the protection of Scipio Aemilianus. When these and related considerations are given full weight, on the basis of a paragraph-by- paragraph analysis of the evidence, the role of Cicero in generating the arguments is greatly reduced and that of Panaetius augmented. Thus while Van Straaten was justified on procedural grounds for including in his edition of Panaetius fragments only what Cicero explicitly labels with Panaetius’ name, the true extent of the Panaetian material must be much greater, so much greater in fact that Panaetius’ treatise on the kathēkon emerges as the best preserved of all Stoic treatises, better even than Chrysippus’ books on the passions (219).

This brings us to point (b), the extent to which Panaetius’ views coincide with those of earlier Stoics. The editors remark in their introduction that Brunt “was not impressed by the notion of chronological phases” within Stoicism (4), i.e. that Panaetius and Posidonius made substantive modifications in the teachings of the founders to render them more compatible with those of Plato and/or to make their ethics more applicable to the lives of ordinary persons. And indeed, Brunt states in one of the later essays, “I do not subscribe to the once fashionable view that Panaetius and his successors in the next two generations constituted a ‘middle Stoa’ … or that they deviated widely in outlook from the earlier thinkers” (95). In some of the earlier pieces, however, he does speak of Stoics in the “middle period” as holding significantly different views from the founders.2 In 1975 he had actually remarked that Panaetius and his successors “advanced ‘heretical’ opinions (in particular they rejected the view that nothing but virtue contributed to εὐδαιμονία)” (305). Readers need to be aware of this evolution in his view (and the editors might have done more to alert them to it), for the widespread influence Brunt attributes to Panaetius’ writings takes on quite a different significance if Panaetius did not, after all, take Stoicism in a new direction. For the mature Brunt, Panaetius was quite clear that only what is morally good is expedient (194), while the founders themselves engaged in the project of providing moral guidance for ordinary persons. The striking resemblance between Epictetus’ treatment of social “roles” and that of Panaetius in De Officiis does not, then, signal any major shift in the nature of Stoic doctrine. Individual Stoics may favor certain themes, or indeed diverge from others on some issues, while the societal meaning of a Stoic commitment remains roughly the same. It is that societal meaning that is Brunt’s ultimate objective and that he pursues tirelessly over these essays of many years and many periods, from the Hellenistic kingdoms to Cicero’s agonized decision-making in the civil war, to the roster of Roman aristocrats like Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus, to the private reflections and public policies of Marcus Aurelius. Conclusions tend overall toward the negative. In contrast to the Cynics, who scarcely count as philosophers at all but whose countercultural credentials remain unchallenged, the Stoics were on the whole inclined to uphold existing social standards and governmental policies. This was for reasons internal to their philosophy, which although it had no brief for any particular form of government did have a general presumption in favor of the rules a providential deity had assigned. Stoic axiology in any case justified reasonable efforts to acquire such ‘preferred indifferents’ as financial security, reputation, and influence, while declining to regard those who might not be successful in such efforts—notably slaves—as disadvantaged in any real sense. What Stoicism did provide in all periods was not so much an argument for changing the system as encouragement, in some cases very powerful, to observe accepted standards of conduct with moral seriousness and rigorous discipline. “[A] Helvidius or a Marcus was inspired by his beliefs not to revalue or reform the established order, but to fulfil his place within that order, in conformity with notions that men of their time and class usually accepted, at least in name, but with unusual resolution, zeal, and fortitude” (304).

No large-scale summary can do justice to an author whose most precious gift is the gift of specificity. While capable of crisp formulations of broad issues, philosophical as well as historical, Brunt is at his best in the reading of particular passages and in the clarity of the positions he articulates on that basis. A consequence is that one may find points of definite disagreement. I disagree with him, for instance, on the English rendering of Cicero’s term honestus in the sense of Greek kalon: he is correct that for Cicero, the honestum remains honestum even if it is not in fact well regarded, but mistaken in believing that English “honorable” necessarily implies “well regarded” (227). On a related point, he misreads the Lactantius fragment at De Re Publica 3.35 to say that nature “seeks no reward except honor” in the sense of popular acclaim (239). In fact Cicero distinguishes such acclaim from the due esteem of the wise. But that one can find clear disagreement with Brunt on matters of this kind does not diminish the value of his book; on the contrary, it increases it.

The volume is well-produced and cleanly edited with very few typographical errors.3 It would have been preferable, however, to present Brunt’s frequent and invariably important appendices in the same size type as the main text. A small point, but for me a frequent annoyance, is the practice of setting off restrictive as well as non- restrictive relatives with commas. To take but one example, from p. 310, editors’ note b: “. . . the volumes of PIR2, which Brunt had not seen.” The clause is restrictive, as Brunt had certainly seen the first five volumes of that work—but the comma implies otherwise. ​


1.   The Fall of the Roman Republic (1988), Roman Imperial Themes (1990), Studies in Greek History and Thought (1993), all from Oxford University Press.
2.   Examples are found in Chapter 4 (from 1973) and in Chapter 3 (for which no date is given, but which cites no scholarship after 1979).
3.   I did notice “Meditiations” (328) and “supples” (447).

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