BMCR 2001.06.20

La philosophie stoïcienne de l’art

, La philosophie stoïcienne de l'art. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2000. 308 p. ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2271058120 FF 160.

Greek philosophy of art, particularly the Stoics, has received some attention in recent years,1 but a general study of the problem of art in the whole Stoic philosophy has been lacking. So it is time, perhaps, for a synthesis. This is precisely the opinion of Mary-Anne Zagdoun (hereafter abbreviated Z.). In this book, she tries to demonstrate the existence of an authentic Stoic philosophy of art (9): “le nombre, l’intérêt et la diversité des fragments stoïciens se rapportant à l’art et aux beaux-arts montraient qu’il existait bien une philosophie stoïcienne de l’art et que la méthode la plus fructueuse pour l’étudier consiste à l’articuler autour des concepts les plus importants du stoïcisme” (37). This thesis gives form to her whole book.

First, the scope: this book is not an exhaustive study of the Stoic concept of τέχνη : Z. examines Art only in relation to cosmological concepts such as the craftsman fire, and of course with the notion of Beauty. In a word, she studies the place and the role of the beaux-arts in Stoicism (9-10)—an anachronistic notion, to be used with caution, as Z. knows (18-19, 43). Accordingly, she doesn’t discuss rhetoric, but focuses on poetry and music, with a few words on architecture, painting and sculpture (31-34).

Then, the method: according to Z., our meager evidence forbids a study of Stoic philosophy of art organized philosopher by philosopher. She opts for a study by concepts, showing how the various fragments related to art focus on central concepts of Stoicism: her first part is about physics, the second about logic, and the third about ethics. Z. thinks this is a good way to sketch the evolution of Stoic philosophy of art (38).

In the introduction (9-43), Z. sets out an overview of the aim of the book (9-10) and clarifies some key concepts ( τέχνη, φύσις, ἐπιστήμη) (10-17). She also studies the “notion des beaux-arts” (18-34) and “la problématique du beau” (35-43). Her discussion is well-informed, but it is not always easy to find one’s way in it (in fact, this remark holds for the whole book): some discussions are suggestive (for example on elements, senses and art, 20-21), but Z. is often allusive (her digression on Bonaventura, 21) or unclear (24, Z. doesn’t explain this mysterious sentence (to me, at least): “mais la poésie est aussi langage, c’est-à-dire dévoilement de l’art” (my italics)).

The first part (“Les fondements physiques de l’art”, 45-116) is divided into three chapters. The first chapter (“Art et nature”, 47-78) studies the basic elements of Stoic cosmology and their relation to art (the craftsman fire, 48-53, the pneuma, 53-56, gods, 56-59, emanation, 60-61, the thermon, 61-62, substance and the two ἀρχαί, 62-69). In the second one (“Le beau”, 79-102), Z. discusses some problems related to the notion of beauty, among which the beauty of the cosmos (81-90, a quite good synthesis) and of human body (90-95, an excellent discussion). In the third one (“Art divin, art humain”, 103-16″), she examines, among other things, the divine origin of art. Z. rightly thinks that a study of Stoic philosophy of art in the context of Stoic cosmology is needed, but her discussion of Stoic cosmology is, broadly speaking, excessively far-reaching, and then sometimes too cursory, for example on Diogenes Laertius VII, 156 (= SVF I, 171) (49-50). Following G. Romeyer Dherbey, she translates τὴν μὲν φύσιν εἶναι πῦρ τεχνικὸν ὁδῷ βαδίζον εἰς γένεσιν by “La nature est en effet un feu artiste qui chemine dans le devenir” (“Nature is indeed a craftsman fire making its way in the becoming”). This unorthodox translation (the orthodox one would be “nature is a craftsman fire proceeding methodically towards generation”) needs more than a hasty justification, all the more so since it plays a rather large role in her whole argumentation. To tell the truth, it seems impossible to study in detail such a large amount of material (the basics of Stoic cosmology and their relations to art) in a few pages. Finally, I’m afraid that her examination of the influence of Stoic philosophy of art in the modern era (75-78) is too brief and allusive to be of any use.

The second part (“Représentation artistique et langage”, 117-83) is also divided into three chapters. In the fourth chapter (“Arts et sensations”, 119-46), Z. focuses on the importance of sensation in the Stoic theories of art. She is thus led to study the role of sounds and colors in perception and art. Her discussion ends with an examination of Diogenes of Babylon’s “cognitive sensation” ( ἐπιστημονική). Roughly speaking, this chapter manifests almost all the good and bad points of the book. The presentation of the role of colors and sounds in perception (a problem not directly related to art) contains nothing new but is quite good and well-informed. However, it takes eleven pages (120-30)—too long compared with the remaining sections. The following section (“Sons et couleurs dans la théorie artistique des Stoïciens”, 131-38) is thus reduced to a bare minimum. Idem for the cognitive sensation in Diogenes of Babylon (138-46). For example, Z. writes that it is tempting to assimilate the cognitive sensation and the φαντασία καταληπτική (145): she proposes this hypothesis rather tentatively, and a well-argued discussion of its reasons and shortcomings is lacking. Chapter five (“Arts, μίμησις et langage, 147-70) centers on the concepts of μίμησις (showing Aristotle’s legacy (148-54) and the specific role the Stoics give to it (155-59)) and φαντασία (160-70). Once again, Z. wavers between a rather general overview of Stoic doctrines and their context and a more thorough study; not surprisingly, she doesn’t achieve either of the projects. The sixth chapter (“Les définitions stoïciennes de l’art”, 171-83) is a forceful discussion, perhaps too brief given the purpose of the book, of the Stoic definitions of τέχνη. Z. makes good use of Jaap Mansfeld’s excellent, but very dense, article on the subject2 and has some judicious remarks, for example on (έξις (174, 179-80). However, this chapter doesn’t fit very well here: it should obviously have been placed at the beginning of the book.

Like the two first parts, the third part (“Arts et sagesse”, 185-250) is divided into three chapters. Chapter seven (“Les arts, source de plaisir et d’émotion”, 187-213) focuses on aesthetic pleasure, passions and emotions: Z.’s discussion is not without merits, but it is less precise and informative than Richard Sorabji’s recent treatment of this topic.3 The same holds true of some passages in chapter eight (“La valeur éthique de l’art”, 215-37), where Z. studies the influence of art on the psychic life of man. Just one example: her connection between the Aristotelian catharsis and Stoicism (217, 221-22) is ill-founded, or at least very questionable—at any rate, she leaves in the dark her understanding of catharsis (152-53). Indeed if we stick to something reasonably close to Aristotle’s idea, and refuse to consider as catharsis any relief of emotion gained by arousing it, then we cannot find many references to catharsis in Stoicism, except perhaps one by Diogenes of Babylon.4 This comparative silence of the Stoics about catharsis needs explaining. The explanation, at least for later Stoicism, lies in the view which Seneca presents that the theatre, and the arts in general, do not stir up emotions at all but only first movements ( de ira 2. 2. 3-6): if the theatre cannot produce Aristotelian catharsis, then Aristotle’s theory needs no further discussion.5 This chapter suffers also from a compositional defect: Z. goes back over the notions of μίμησις, ἕξις and διάθεσις (221-25), already discussed in the book—not in the same context, of course, but these comings and goings do not make Z.’s argumentation easy to follow.6 However, it is fair to say that the last section (“L’utile vu par Panaitios”, 231-37) is a good synthesis on this topic. Finally, chapter nine (“Au seuil de la sagesse”, 239-50) contains a brief but pertinent treatment of the relations between art and wisdom.

The book ends with a conclusion (251-47) which resumes the main arguments of the work, a full bibliography (259-77) and some indices (279-304).

In certain respects, this book is disappointing. Though it contains almost nothing new on the Stoics, this is not at all a criticism: truth can be more important than originality, and Z.’s aim is to draw on her knowledge of a vast corpus of texts (ancient and secondary literature) to present a synthesis on Stoic philosophy of art. The problem lies elsewhere: it seems that Z. has not really dealt with her subject. Of course, her book makes clear that the Stoics had many things to say on Art, and that this topic deserves attention, but she doesn’t manage to show clearly and precisely the unity and evolution of the Stoic philosophy of art. What is really at stake in the Stoic philosophy of art remains often touched on, and not really explained in detail. I suspect her plan, which I find a bit schoolish, to be the source of this problem: her study embraces so many themes that it becomes impossible to deepen our understanding of the (often obscure) Stoic fragments related to art while accounting for almost all the basics of Stoicism. Z.’s discussions are then sometimes unsatisfactory, because her book is full of “self-censorship”: after some reminders, not necessarily unjustified, but often too long, of the basic principles of Stoicism, she stops her study before going into details, precisely when the readers wants more information. Two examples, among many others: 176, on potestas and ἕξις, and 197, an extremely obscure and allusive paragraph on impulses.

Self-censorship applies also at another level. Z. has written very insightful studies of Greek art,7 but in this book, she very rarely links her reflections on Stoicism with the ancient works of art. According to her, too much uncertainty surrounds the confrontation of works of art with philosophical texts. Therefore, “le retour aux textes philosophiques s’impose comme un préalable indispensable à une connaissance complète de l’oeuvre antique, qui pourrait alors reposer sur une confrontation des données archéologiques et des textes philosophiques” (10). This is an amazing claim. It is obviously impossible to understand works of art without a certain knowledge of the cultural context in which they are made—the philosophical ideas on art belonging to this context. But it is also true that one cannot understand philosophical texts about art without knowing what they are about—in this case, “Greek and Roman Art” (as far as this expression makes sense). There is a circularity here, but not necessarily vicious. Z.’s discretion on Greek art is thus surprising and unfortunate, because her few remarks on the relations between Stoic theories and Greek Art are probably the most interesting and original aspects of her book: the section on human body and beauty (90-95) is excellent, as well as her reflections on πνεῦμα, Plutarch, and Delphes (55),8 on the relations between Pergamene art and Stoicism (72-73, 247-49), on φαντασία in art (169-70), on the usefulness of poetry (235-36), and finally on the Stoic interpretation of works of art (166-68, 244-50).

In a word, this book has its good points and its bad. I don’t think it achieves convincingly the synthesis promised by Z., but it contains some excellent discussions which deserve attention. Misprints and careless mistakes:

13, l. 26, ἐπιστήμη should be read for ἐπιστή μη 39, l. 18 (see also 86, l. 9), Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are described as “eclectics”, a label of doubtful value here 49, last line, “un feu artiste” should be read for “le feu artiste” 51, l. 11, Cicero is wrongly bracketed with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius as a writer of the Imperial era 53, n. 43, J. B. Gould, The Philosophy of Chrysippus, should be read for F. Gould 54, l. 20, “n’ayant pas de forme, se transformant”, instead of “n’ayant pas de forme, et se transformant” 60, l. 24, “de hiérarchie” should be read for “d’hiérarchie” 69, n. 158, “réellement” should be read for “rééllement” 71, n. 171 (see also 72, n. 179 and 271, l. 19), M. L. Gill, Aristotle on Substance, 1989, should be read for M. L. Gill, Aristotle on Substance, (1950), 1989 104, l. 12, “se divise” should be read for “se divisent” 147, n. 2, Sextus Empiricus, Esquisses (or Hypotyposes) pyrrhoniennes should be read for for Sextus Empiricus, Questions pyrrhoniennes 173, l. 6, instead of ὁδοποιητική, one should perhaps read, following Mansfeld, ὁδῷ ποιητική 9 182, l. 6, “énoncée” should be read for “énoncé” 255, l. 25, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius again labeled as eclectics 259, l. 16, Alesse, Fr. for Alessi, Fr.


1. Cf. for example M. Isnardi Parente, Techne. Momenti del pensiero greco da Platone ad Epicuro, Firenze, 1966, p. 287ff; F. E. Sparshott, “Zeno on Art: Anatomy of a Definition”, in J. Rist (ed.), The Stoics, Berkeley, 1978, p. 273-95; Cl. Imbert, “Stoic Logic and Alexandrian Poetics”, in M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat and J. Barnes (eds), Doubt and Dogmatism. Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, Oxford, 1980, p. 183-216; Jaap Mansfeld, ” Techne : A New Fragment of Chrysippus”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 24, 1984, p. 57-65; H.-J. Horn, “Stoische Symmetrie und Theorie des Schönen in der Kaiserzeit” ANRW II.36.3, 1989, p. 1454-72; E. Asmis, “The Poetic Theory of the Stoic “Aristo””, Apeiron 23, 1990, p. 147-202; M. Nussbaum, “Poetry and the Passions: two Stoic views”, in J. Brunschwig and M. Nussbaum (eds), Passions and Perceptions. Studies in Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge, 1993, p. 97-149. One should also mention the innovative editorial work on Philodemus’ περὶ μουσικῆς (a very useful source on the subject), by D. Delattre (a work rightly praised by Z.). Cf. D. Delattre, “Philodème. De la musique : livre IV, colonnes 40* à 109*”, Cronache Ercolanesi 19, 1989, p. 49-143; and ibid., “Philodème. De la musique, livre IV. Etude des correspondances”, Thèse présentée pour le doctorat ès lettres, Université Paris IV, 1992.

2. Jaap Mansfeld, art. cit..

3. Cf. Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind. From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, Oxford, 2000, especially ch. 5.

4. Cf. Richard Janko, “A First Join between P. Herc. 411+1583 (Philodemus On Music 4): Diogenes of Babylon on Natural Affinity and Music”, Cronache Ercolanesi 22, 1992, p. 123-9, on the account of Diogenes of Babylon in Philodemus De musica col. 69*, lines 1-12 Delattre.

5. Cf. Sorabji, op. cit., p. 294.

6. Another example: a sub-section in chapter five (166-68) and a section in chapter nine (242-50) are both entitled “L’interprétation stoïcienne de l’oeuvre d’art”.

7. Cf. Mary-Anne Zagdoun, Reliefs ( Fouilles de Delphes IV, 6), Paris, Diffusion de Boccard, 1977, La sculpture archaïsante dans l’art hellénistique et dans l’art romain du Haut-Empire, Paris, Athènes, Diffusion de Boccard, 1989.

8. Cf. also Mary-Anne Zagdoun, “Plutarque à Delphes”, Revue des études grecques 108, 1995, p. 586-92.

9. Cf. Mansfeld, art. cit., p. 62.