BMCR 2006.05.45

The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate

Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life : Emotions, Duties, and Fate. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. xi, 340 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199256268 $45.00.

This book is primarily about Stoic ethics or rather, as the title indicates, the Stoic way of life. Ted Brennan is anxious to work out with his reader just what it was to be a Stoic and to discover the sophistication of their analysis of human conduct. But just because his concern is not with ethics in a narrow sense but with a whole lifestyle he has written a book which would serve as an excellent introduction to Stoicism for the uninitiated. And although it is not a comprehensive introduction to Stoicism (nor is it intended as such), it nevertheless partly fulfils that role by its concentration on the core concerns of the Stoics which inevitably touch on most of the important aspects of the Stoic system as a whole. The lively style and presentation make it very suitable for students, but the specialist will also benefit from the many relentless analyses of important issues, refreshingly corrective interpretations and some provocative ideas.

The title clearly indicates the thrust of the work. The book is divided into four parts followed by a brief conclusion. The first part serves as a general introduction. TB begins by raising a number of popular misconceptions about Stoicism. This is a good starting point, particularly for students whose interest would be engaged by ideas which they may have already encountered, e.g., that the true Stoic repressed his emotions or had no emotions at all or had a morbidly melancholic predisposition to suicide. This is followed by two chapters outlining the main personalities of Stoicism (picking out Chrysippus and Epictetus as the best examples of Stoic intellectualism and practical genius respectively), the sources and a masterly and stimulating survey of the philosophical background. Particularly useful in this section is a brief comparison of Stoic and modern ethical theories in which the differences as well as the similarities are presented. It is a merit of the whole book that the author never gets lost in a purely historical discussion but constantly keeps our sights on real concerns about moral personality. The presentation is throughout lively, even racy at times (perhaps a little too harsh in this chapter on Diogenes Laertius who is described as ‘merely a nitwit’!). This section ends with a well judged overview of Stoic ethics, thus providing a provisional foothold before launching the reader into the sort of more detailed and nuanced discussions whose complexity would otherwise confuse. Part two, entitled Psychology, deals with the epistemological concepts fundamental to ethical conduct, part three directly with ethics and part four with the problems posed by the Stoic concept of Fate.

Part two rightly begins with a successful attempt to clarify the nature of impressions and assent. This naturally leads to a discussion of the cataleptic impression and knowledge in the Stoic sage and the debate as to whether all such impressions are derived from sense-perception. TB inclines to think not, that there are non-sensual impressions and therefore items of knowledge which are purely prepositional, and cites Sextus Empiricus as evidence. In this chapter, as elsewhere, his treatment often broadens out to place Stoic theories in a wider context. Whilst one doesn’t always agree with every aspect of these more general comments they are always thought provoking. In his treatment of belief and knowledge, for example, he compares Platonic and Stoic epistemology, the former based on a systematic structure (e.g. the geometrical model in the Republic, the latter on individual epistemic acts or objects of knowledge. But he then goes on to observe that in the last resort there is a similarity in that the knowledge of the Stoic sage is as total and unassailable as that of the Platonic philosopher-ruler. The final chapter of this part, which deals with impulses and emotions, contains a rigorous analysis of the way in which the Stoics thought that action was produced from belief (and desires) through impulse. Here TB enters into disputed ground, but does not disguise the fact that others disagree with his analysis of impulses as containing a rational element (they can be true or false). On Stoic emotions, too, he defends the controversial view that they regarded them as beliefs leading to action rather than as feelings. Here as throughout the book the notes at the end of each chapter give full references to the relevant texts and to modern discussions, including those that give a view at variance with that of the author. Each Part also ends with a useful summary of further reading which is set out in a discursive way which makes clear the particular contribution of the items mentioned.

In Part 3 on Ethics the author launches into the topic of goods and indifferents by stressing the extreme nature of the Stoic formulation of what might seem no more than a form of Socratic asceticism. The question is then how persuasive is this stance or is it a meaningless faade? It is only at this point that the different Stoic formulations of the end of life are introduced. I think it works well to introduce this topic only at this stage of the exposition. The account of oikeiosis which follows is relatively straightforward but is then developed to show how it broadens the ethical concern of the individual to embrace his concern for others and his role in society. I found two comments particularly productive here. Firstly in the context of altruism, a useful distinction is made between the self seeking aspect of the sage as something restricted to the question of virtue alone, whilst his real indifference to promoted indifferents, because they can add nothing to his virtue, allows them to be performed in the interests of others. The second is the extension of oikeiosis to embrace the brotherhood of all men which is in turn identified with our being parts of Zeus. The author comes back at the end of the book to the value of the system as a whole, something which relies on arguments different from those establishing the sort of ethical conduct which is the main topic of this book. This part concludes with two chapters on the ‘Befitting’ which is JB’s translation of kathekon/officium. Although the sphere of ‘befitting’ or ‘non-befitting’ actions is the one to which most people (if not all) people will belong, TB’s discussion also helps us to understand the role of the sage and to make meaningful the sometimes bewildering extremism of Stoic statements about the sage and the normal man. What comes out of these chapters neatly ties in with the author’s earlier discussions of the autonomous nature of virtue; for at the level of ‘befitting actions’ the virtue of the agent is not involved but what is just for other agents and society is. Thus agents are never required to abandon their own ‘interests’ (indifferents) for the sake of virtue, though they are frequently asked to forgo them for the sake of the community. And so although the range of the ‘befitting’ covers all actions it has a particular application to other-respecting actions. This is an analysis which goes a long way to explaining the importance of ‘officia’ for Cicero and the general compatibility of Stoicism with a life of social engagement.

Although the Stoic doctrine of Fate might seem to belong more properly to theology than to ethics it also impinges on the problem of conduct in a very forceful way that did not escape the ancient critics of Stoicism. To begin with, in a chapter on God and Fate, the author gives full force to the Stoic doctrine of indifferents by drawing the obvious conclusion that the world is not in any strict sense ‘good’. Later he notes that in a sense the doctrine of Fate is relatively unimportant since the Stoics denied that Fate effected our freedom. But surely the existence of a rationally ordered universe, as opposed to a morally good one for the category of virtue would be strictly inapplicable, is a pre-requisite for a rational response from man. For this reason the Stoics had to uphold both Fate and freedom. TB admits that he has learnt a great deal from Susanne Bobzien’s work on Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford 1998); but he has certainly performed a service in presenting the results of her work in a succinct and easily digestible form. In a chapter on Necessity and Responsibility he explicates the subtlety of Chrysippus’s defence of freewill whilst maintaining the scope of fate. Another aspect is raised by the ‘lazy argument’: if everything you do is fated, then nothing you do really matters. In the end TB decides that Chrysippus’s clever response that all actions are co-fated (external and internal factors) does not work and rests on his misunderstanding of the initial criticism. One of the more challenging judgements in this issue is the acceptance in a strong sense of the inclusion of the soul’s or mind’s own operations within the nexus of fate. This leads to a rejection of the kind of picture presented by, for example, Pierre Hadot, of a Platonic dichotomy of soul and body, of an inner ‘citadel’ insulated from external forces, though I am inclined to think that Marcus Aurelius (from whom the term ‘citadel’ comes) may have sometimes veered in the direction of such a Platonic commonplace. The same Platonic dichotomy occurs in the final chapter on the Evolution of the Will’ in which he sees a sharp distinction between Stoic and modern concepts of the will. For the Stoic the central agent of decision making is an amalgam of reason and desire whereas the modern view presents a more etiolated concept of the self as distinct from and capable of controlling the beliefs and desires of the individual. Intriguing then is TB’s suggestion that this idea finds its source in the Platonic and particularly Neo-Platonic doctrine of the separable irrational soul. In fact Plotinus seems to go even further in sometimes dissociating the self even from the higher soul. He also sees another source in a possible misunderstanding of Epictetus’s often Platonic sounding warnings to keep our own desires at bay.

This book is written in a clear and engaging manner which will hold the attention of both beginners and those well acquainted with the subject. It is never short of learning but neither does that become an obstacle to following the train of thought. What comes out most strongly, and refreshingly, is a feel for the real philosophical significance of those extreme formulations and paradoxes which accepted at face value, rather than argued away, reveal a complex and subtle basis on which to build a meaningful and rational life.