BMCR 2004.01.32

The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics

, The Cambridge companion to the Stoics. Cambridge companions to philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ix, 438 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 052177005X. $70.00.

The new Companion to the Stoics that Cambridge University Press presents us with is worthy of its series. Its editor, Brad Inwood, has succeeded in compiling a volume that fully achieves its aim. This, as stated in the introduction, written by Inwood himself, amounts to providing readers of various kinds with a resource on Stoicism, whether they approach it for the first time or after considerable experience. In other words, the book is meant to be both an accessible guide to and an authoritative account of (a) the historical trajectory of the Stoic school, (b) its philosophical system, and (c) the influence of Stoicism inside and outside philosophy. The intended readers of the volume are novices as well as specialists in any of the three subjects named. In the opinion of the present reviewer all of them will be served well. The aim of the book is reflected in its structure. The first two chapters describe the history of the school in the ancient world. The Hellenistic period from Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, to Athenodorus and Arius Didymus, court philosophers of Augustus, is covered by Sedley. The Roman Imperial period, in which well-known Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius were active, is treated by Gill. Both scholars draw together a wealth of material and thereby present an illuminating picture of the various phases Stoicism went through, its changing institutional aspects, its relations with other schools, and the interplay between its need for creativity and its will to orthodoxy over the centuries. This picture serves as a most welcome background for the discussions of many of the central themes of Stoic philosophy in chapters 3 to 10, but also for the subsequent explorations of Stoic influence on ancient medicine, grammar and astronomy in chapters 11 to 13 and on some medieval and early modern philosophers in chapters 14 and 15.

Chapters 3 to 10 are arranged according to the Stoic division of philosophy into logic, physics and ethics. In chapter 3 Hankinson starts with an exposition of Stoic epistemology, which was part of Stoic logic. Bobzien in chapter 4 deals with another part of Stoic logic: its propositional calculus. A third part, the Stoics’ philosophical study of language, which covered both the things said ( λεκτά) by meaningful speech and the vocal sounds ( φωναί) uttered as their linguistic signs, at first seems to be neglected. However, parts of the theory of ‘things said’ are discussed by Brunschwig in his exploration of Stoic ‘metaphysics’ in chapter 8, while the linguistic sign duly appears in chapter 12, in the course of the examination of Stoic contributions to traditional grammar by Blank & Atherton. Obviously, occasional overlap between chapters on connected subjects cannot be avoided, and Inwood may simply have chosen to avoid the repetition which would have resulted from assigning a separate chapter to the Stoic philosophical study of language.

As for physics, there are four chapters. Natural philosophy, including cosmology, is dealt with by White in chapter 5. In his account however, two major items are deliberately passed over, the first of them being Stoic theology. Although strictly speaking this was part of physics, it is reserved for a separate discussion by Algra in chapter 6. The second item is the Stoic theory of fate and determinism, which is the subject of Frede’s contribution in chapter 7. Finally, in chapter 8, Brunschwig explores an area of Stoic philosophy which he calls ‘metaphysics’, and which is not to be understood as some sort of ‘metaphysica specialis’, directed at primary entities such as the Stoic principles ( ἀρχαί) — which are discussed by White and Algra — , but as a kind of ‘metaphysica generalis’, the purpose of which, according to Brunschwig, is ‘to study any and every object from a certain point of view (‘ qua being’, and also qua such and such a type of being’, p. 209). As a matter of fact Brunschwig does two things. First, he inquires into the Stoic classification of all entities into somethings ( τινά) — which are subdivided into bodies ( σώματα) and incorporeals ( ἀσώματα) — , quasi-somethings ( ὡσανεὶ τινά), and not-somethings ( οὐτινά). Second, he deals with the so-called Stoic ‘categories’, which he takes to provide a stratification of all bodies into four ‘highest genera’. Both discussions are thoughtful, important and, in the opinion of the present reviewer, promising, even though they will not, of course, command universal assent. Particularly concerning the Stoic theory of λεκτά, which are standard examples of incorporeals, Brunschwig — concurring with earlier work of Frede1 — seems to open up new directions for research by interpreting them as a type of incorporeal but objective conditions for the interaction of bodies (p. 219).2 In any case, as Brunschwig himself makes clear, his explorations move away from the domain of physics proper and extend to the fields of logic and ethics. In this sense therefore they may certainly be called metaphysical.

Of all the important themes of Stoic physical theory the only one that is not really addressed in the chapters on physics seems to be psychology. However, psychology too is not neglected. It forms a major subject in the inquiry into the interrelation of Stoicism and ancient medicine by Hankinson in chapter 11. Furthermore it underlies Brennan’s discussion in chapter 10 of Stoic moral psychology, which enters into the naturalistic foundations of their ethics. Ethical theory itself, which has often been regarded as the heart and soul of Stoicism, is treated in chapter 9 by Schofield, whose contribution, however, is not a general overview of the topic, but a discussion of the Stoic conception of the project of ethics — which may be summarized as ‘Following nature’ — and of its defense against competing schools. In this discussion many important themes are dealt with. Yet one cannot avoid the impression that ethics would have come off badly, had it not been for the contributions of Irwin and Long in chapters 14 and 15, which properly speaking are directed at exploring, in the case of Irwin, medieval and early modern reactions to such Stoic doctrines as eudaimonism or naturalism in ethics and, in the case of Long, possible Stoic influences on philosophers such as Spinoza, Justus Lipsius, and Joseph Butler. In both contributions ethical themes are treated amply.

Apart from these chapters on the influence of Stoicism inside philosophy there are three chapters on its influence outside philosophy. In chapter 11 Hankinson inquires into the cross-fertilization of ideas between Stoic philosophers and ancient physicians, focussing mainly on four topics: the soul, pneuma, causes and signs. In chapter 12 Blank & Atherton discuss Stoic influence on the ancient tradition of ‘technical’ grammar, and question the usual opposition between a Stoic, philosophical, anomalist grammar of the Pergamene school and a philological, analogist grammar of the Alexandrian school, on the basis of an investigation into three areas: syntax, the parts of speech, and cases and morphosyntactic properties. Finally, in chapter 13, Jones examines as possible domains of Stoic influence the ancient sciences of astronomy, astrology and geography.

All of these contributions are lucidly written, of expert quality, and proceed on a certain level of abstraction. That is to say, they largely abstain from detailed interpretations of individual and often problematic sources in order to give a clear view of the broad outlines of the system. Sources are referred to, of course; they are usually presented in English translations, and to some extent they are even examined. But more often than not they have an expository function within a larger story that is conceived as — and in fact succeeds in providing — an authoritative guide to some aspect of Stoicism. Most contributors abstain from new interpretations that need to be argued for in detail. Discussions of interpretations are rare. And, when a statement cannot be easily justified because of the controversial nature of the evidence, the reader is duly referred to the relevant items in the scholarly literature. As a consequence, no knowledge of Greek or Latin is required: Greek words are transliterated and all quotations are translated explicitly or implicitly. Furthermore the reader need not be steeped in the numerous and diverse sources for Stoicism, nor in the scholarly discussions about them — the list of important primary works and the substantial bibliography which are included will certainly facilitate further study. For these reasons the book may justly lay claim to the title of the best first reading for everyone newly interested in Stoic philosophy.3

At the same time, however, it also has a lot to offer to specialists in the field. In most of the chapters known materials are drawn together and fitted into the whole of an exposition that is based on an approach which in each case has been conducted from a particular and often different angle. As a result, the expositions amount to overall interpretations that touch on topics covered in other chapters, and the interpretation of a topic propounded in one chapter may conflict with the interpretation of the same topic propounded in another chapter. Which of these interpretations are right or wrong remains up to the reader to judge, as is also the case concerning the adequacy and the fertility of the underlying approaches. In his introduction Inwood expresses his hope that this variety of approaches will serve the reader well. Here it may be added: it certainly will.


1. M. Frede, The stoic notion of a lekton, in: S. Everson (ed.), Companions to ancient thought 3: Language, Cambridge 1994, pp. 109-128.

2. Compare the interpretation in J. Lukoschus, Gesetz und Glück. Untersuchungen zum Naturalismus der stoischen Ethik, Frankfurt a.M. 1999, pp. 218-227, which in some important respects is very similar.

3. Further excellent first readings, although perhaps less accessible, are the relevant chapters in the Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, K. Algra, J. Barnes, J. Mansfeld, and M. Schofield (eds.), Cambridge 1999 and in Die Philosophie des Altertums, Band 4: Hellenistische Philosophie, H. Flashar (ed.), Basel/Stuttgart 1994.