BMCR 2005.07.54

The Roman Stoics. Self, Responsibility, and Affection

, The Roman Stoics : self, responsibility, and affection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. x, 210 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226308375 $35.00.

In this clear and well-argued book, Reydams-Schils (hereafter RS) studies the philosophical basis that underpins the way Roman Stoics integrated philosophy into the social practice of living, above all friendship, political community, parenting and marriage. By “Roman Stoics”, RS means only a group of thinkers (Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and to a less extent Hierocles) who have in common a methodological and, in a way, a thematic, approach. Therefore, one is entitled to study this group of thinkers as a whole; that doesn’t mean one ignores their differences, only that one doesn’t focus on them. According to RS, “the Roman adaptation of originally Greek Stoic doctrine shows a distinctive pattern of emphasizing social responsibility” (p. 3). This supposes that the Roman Stoics were not pale copies of their Greek predecessors and had something interesting to say on their own. On the whole, RS is, to my mind, perfectly right to think so. The position of Roman Stoics, as pictured by her study, deserves wide consideration, both for philosophical and historical reasons (it has much to say for it, and it significantly influenced the history of Western thought). Classicists, philosophers, and a wider public interested in the issues discussed here will no doubt benefit from the reading of this excellent book.

First of all, RS has to defend Roman Stoics against two criticisms, which are in fact two faces of the same coin. These objections concern the way Roman Stoics adapted, or (according to their critics) failed to accept, Early Greek Stoicism. There was in the political philosophy of Zeno and Chrysippus a utopian and radical facet absent from Roman Stoic works. One may think, therefore, that the Roman Stoics waver between evasiveness and conformism. Indeed, it seems that they lead something like a double life: they are psychologically in a kind of inner fortress, while continuing, at the same time, to live outwardly like other people. Such an attitude implies coldness and detachment (a blame Stoics of all times faced).1 Furthermore, this kind of (alleged) reciprocal insulation of philosophy and social behaviour is unsatisfying: the Roman Stoics should live according to their principles. Severing the connection between their philosophy and their outward and social behaviour means, in a way, giving up Stoicism, at least if one remains faithful to what appears as the core of Stoicism. Moreover, precisely because they live like other people and do not set out a radical critique of existing society, Roman Stoics seem to have given up the project of the original Zenonian Republic (a utopian city unified by love, concord and wisdom among its citizens). There is here a kind of mildness that critics of Stoicism have been prompt to blame — see, for example, Paul Veyne, who sees in Roman Stoicism “little more than a sophisticated version of prevailing morality: a man’s duties to himself and others were identified with institutions, which this bastard doctrine ingeniously sought to internalize as moral precepts”.2 RS’ overall project can be described as a rehabilitation of Roman Stoicism, paying special attention to these issues. RS shows that there is no tension between the Stoic inner fortress and the way they cope with existing conventions. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics urge us to mediate with social norms from the vantage point of the good as defined by philosophy (p. 8). In a word, the book’s main thesis is that the Roman Stoics “successfully established a connection between a philosophical ideal and ordinary, everyday-life circumstances, and between a community shaped by Stoic wisdom and society as it is” (p. 1). The whole book may be seen as a development and vindication of this assertion. To put things briefly, Roman Stoicism argues for a transformation of traditional modes of engaging with others from within and for a subtle balance between self-care and involvement with others, between detachment and engagement in the political life, between acceptance and challenge of existing social conventions.

Chapter 1 (“The Self as a Mediator”, pp. 15-52) studies the nature of the “self”, according to the Stoics. It provides the conceptual tools for the analyses that follow in the subsequent chapters. What is striking in Roman Stoics is the importance of a self-reflexive language (see the omnipresence of reflexive pronouns). RS sets out the main tenets of Stoic psychology and carefully examines their consequences for the Stoic notion of selfhood. Borrowing a happy formula from Christopher Gill,3 RS characterizes the Stoic self as “objective-participant” (p. 37): it is objective in as much as it presents a view of human nature as part of the nature of this universe that holds independently of individual preferences; it is participant in as much as it locates the self in a network of relationships. For example, Panaetius posited four factors that shape the identity of each individual human being (see Cicero, De Officiis 1.107-17; the text is discussed by RS on pp. 27-29): first, rationality, which all human beings have in common (all human beings are endowed with a hêgemonikon capable of reason; it is the governing principle of the soul, whose proper functioning is virtue); second, the individual dispositions (bodily, temperamental, and mental); third, the circumstances that govern one’s position in life; and fourth, individual choices having to do with how to lead one’s life. In other words, and to borrow now RS’ expression, the Stoic self is “fundamentally embedded” (p. 17): the self is anchored both in a body and in a rational order structured by an immanent divine principle. This rational order has a social aspect: the self is connected to others in a network of relationships, with its set of social and moral duties. Thus, even if Roman Stoics display an increased interest in interiority, that doesn’t mean they promote an egoist or detached self — quite the contrary: the Stoic self has a true altruistic outlook.

Whereas the first chapter had focused on the relationship between human and divine reason, chapter 2 (“From Self-Sufficiency to Human Bonding”, pp. 53-82) addresses more directly the topic of human sociability, since it deals with the connection between individual people in local communities and universal humanity in the community of gods and men. Roman Stoics are not always very clear on this point, notably Epictetus, who sometimes employs formulas that may give the impression that the Stoics escape affective bonds. But RS shows convincingly that human affection and social affective bonds are very significant for Roman Stoics (as they were for Early Stoics). Indeed, human sociability is directly anchored in reason and divine will (p. 57). In other words, the Stoic sage doesn’t want to dismiss all kinds of attachment: Stoic love, for example, comes from its willingness to sacrifice everything except virtue (that is, the excellence in the exercise of rational agency) for love, not from its lack of attachment. As Epictetus tells us, unless we make the right kind of value judgments, we will not be able to love other people truly (see Epictetus, Diss. 2.22).

Chapter 3 (“Politics, the Philosophical Life, and Leisure”, pp. 83-113) focuses on the question of political responsibility, most notably the circumstances and manner in which the philosopher should become involved in the state. Roman Stoics argue for equilibrium between involvement and detachment. The value of political office is not an absolute good, and the correctness of one’s choice to engage depends on circumstances. However, political responsibilities belong to the social duties that require a special reason for dispensing with them (p. 104).

With chapters 4 (pp. 115-141) and 5 (pp. 143-176), which examine respectively parenthood and marriage, we now turn to the domain of close relationships. RS examines how Stoic philosophical discourse responds and at times challenges accepted cultural standards of affection. The relational aspect of reason is no longer limited to the friendship among the wise but opens up to embrace more traditional relationships such as marriage and parenthood, as long as they are transformed in order to meet the conditions of the shared life of reason (p. 116). Chapter 4 sets out the high opinion Roman Stoics have of the relationship between parents and children, showing how it is based on their views on procreation and embryology. Chapter 5, relying heavily on Musonius Rufus’ famous reflections on marriage, shows how marriage can achieve the philosophical way of life, since (unlike parenthood) it is a relationship between two human beings equal in their capacity for wisdom.

In sum, RS proposes a fine treatment of Roman Stoicism. For achieving her defence of Roman Stoics, she draws on nearly all aspects of Stoic philosophy: that makes her book hard to summarize, and the present review has passed many things over silence. I have only minor points of disagreements with RS, as well as some reservations (but that may look like splitting hairs): when confronting Stoicism and Platonism, RS could perhaps have been more sympathetic to Platonic political philosophy, and the brief discussion of time and memory (pp. 29-34) may have included at least a brief reference to Victor Goldschmidt’s classic book.4 Anyway, this book, which follows the footsteps of recent works, such as those of Christopher Gill, Brad Inwood, and Pierre Hadot, is a very valuable (and enjoyable) contribution to Stoic scholarship.


1. For a recent defence of the Stoics on this point, see Lawrence Becker, “Stoic Emotion”, in Stoicism. Traditions and Transformations, edited by Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 250-275.

2. Paul Veyne, “The Roman Empire”, in A History of Private Life, vol. 1, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, edited by P. Veyne, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 45, cited p. 5 by RS. It is fair to say that Veyne is often much more sympathetic to Roman Stoicism.

3. See Christopher Gill, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 10.

4. Victor Goldschmidt, Le système stoïcien et l’idée de temps, quatrième édition revue et augmentée, Paris, Vrin, 1979.