BMCR 2007.05.42

From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy

, From Epicurus to Epictetus : studies in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiv, 439 pages). ISBN 9781435619395 $45.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This volume collects 18 essays by Professor A. A. Long. All but one were previously published in a journal or multi-author volume between 1978 and 2003, but they have been revised for this collection and most of the older pieces have received a postscript that takes notice of more recent literature on the topic in question and (in some cases) replies to objections raised since the original publication. As its title indicates, the book’s subject-matter is much broader in scope than that of Long’s previous collection, Stoic Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1996). In addition to essays on a variety of topics in both Greek and Roman Stoicism, there are papers on Greek scepticism (in both its earlier and later phases), Epicurean physics and ethics, and the philosophy of Cicero. The collection is given a certain degree of unity by the author’s emphasis on the commonalities shared by the different philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period, by the careful attention paid throughout to the cultural and literary contexts of ancient philosophy, and by an interest (displayed especially in the more recent essays) in Hellenistic theories of selfhood and personhood. It is also worth noting that, while some of these pieces are pitched towards specialists in ancient philosophy, others are intended primarily for non-specialist classicists and philosophers or for the simply curious. This produces some shifts in tone from essay to essay and has the inevitable result that no particular reader will find every part of the collection equally interesting. But it also makes it possible to recommend this well-produced book to anyone who is interested in Hellenistic or Roman intellectual life.1

The book begins with two general essays on Hellenistic ethics. The remaining papers are organized into sections by school or period: scepticism; Epicureanism; early Stoicism; and finally Roman philosophy, including both Cicero and the Roman Stoics. I shall comment on each of the papers below, preserving the order of the sections (but not the order of the papers within each section).

The volume’s first general essay, “Hellenistic Ethics and Philosophical Power,” asks what lies behind one of the most striking features of Hellenistic philosophy: that its prevailing schools of thought represented themselves as each being a hairesis, a choice or commitment to a distinctive way of life. To answer this question properly, Long argues, it is necessary to clear out of the way the long-standing but misleading view that Hellenistic ethical thought was essentially a response to social crisis in the Greek world after Alexander the Great, as the traditional institutions of the Greek city-state failed to give individuals sufficient guidance or satisfaction in their lives. What has helped to make that misleading view seem plausible is the looming presence of Aristotle in the background. It is easy to draw a contrast between the “individualism” of the Hellenistic schools and the traditional, aristocratic virtues codified in Aristotle’s ethical theory. But Aristotle is in many respects a conservative outlier in the history of Greek ethics, and so should not be allowed to obscure the fundamental continuities between the Hellenistic schools and the Socratic/Platonic ethical project. Long characterizes that project as being above all concerned with achieving self-mastery through the radical questioning of conventional values and the eradication of desires and fears that have no rational basis. Hellenistic philosophical leaders offered self-mastery as the prize of philosophy; and, as Long emphasizes, the biographical tradition also presents them as public models of self-mastery, ascribing to Zeno, Pyrrho, and Epicurus a remarkable freedom from conventional sources of anxiety.

“Hellenistic Ethics as the Art of Life” argues that modern ethical theory could profit from attending to the ancient conception of philosophy as “the art of life,” a phrase coined by the Stoics. Somewhat confusingly, however, Long does not use this phrase to signify what the Stoics (and their ancient opponents) mean by it: to wit, a secure and systematic grasp of the principles of conduct applicable to life (cf. SVF 2.94 and 3.560). Rather, by his own avowal he means something akin to what Michel Foucault calls “technology of the self,” that is, an approach to ethics that centers on self-monitoring and disciplined self-transformation. He goes on to describe a number of features common to Stoic and Epicurean ethical “technologies” so understood: for example, both schools are committed to a comprehensive world-view, both seek to establish criteria for action that are tied to the long-term objective of achieving eudaimonia or happiness, and both strongly promote self-sufficiency as a value. These observations seem to me to be too general to capture what is distinctive and interesting about either Stoic or Epicurean ethics, but they may help to orient the newcomer to Hellenistic philosophy.

The volume’s second section contains five essays on scepticism. “Aristotle and the History of Greek Scepticism” sets the stage by investigating the extent to which Aristotle was aware of possible sceptical challenges to knowledge and what resources he could draw upon to meet those challenges. The essay focuses primarily on Posterior Analytics 1.3 and Book Gamma of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle registers his awareness of (and objects to) certain lines of argument that bear at least a family resemblance to arguments that came to be of central importance to Greek scepticism after Aristotle’s lifetime. Long is careful throughout to avoid claiming that Aristotle directly influenced later debates between sceptics and dogmatists, preferring to leave that question open.

“Scepticism About Gods” focuses on an interesting puzzle about the strategy pursued by the sceptical Academy in arguments against Stoic theology. The puzzle is as follows. The standard Stoic argument for the existence of the gods begins from the assumption that “gods” are animate, sentient, and supremely virtuous beings. The Stoics then seek to demonstrate that the cosmos taken as a whole, and also certain privileged parts of the world (such as the stars), possess these divine attributes, and therefore are gods. Now, one line of sceptical response to such demonstrations is to argue that no body is everlasting, which precludes any body’s being divine (on the assumption that the gods are immortal). But the Stoics do not claim that immortality is essential to the gods; why then should the sceptics attack them on precisely this point? Long suggests that our sources reflect a compression of several stages of a long-running debate. Early Stoics believed that the world was of finite duration, and therefore did not hold the gods (or at least, the gods who are parts of the world) to be immortal. These sceptical arguments may then be targeting certain later Stoics, starting with Diogenes of Babylon, who admitted at least the possibility that the world is everlasting. The suggestion is plausible, although it seems possible to me that sceptics could have advanced such arguments against early Stoics precisely with the intention of highlighting or making more explicit their opponents’ view that the gods are not immortal, which most philosophical and non-philosophical Greeks alike would have found quite unpalatable.2

“Astrology: pro and contra” is a concise scholarly gem and should be read by anyone with an interest in how exactly astrology fits into the story of ancient philosophy. Horoscopic astrology became a subject of philosophical discussion starting in the second century BC, when the practice received some support from the Stoics (although, as Long convincingly argues, that support was more limited than has often been supposed), and thereafter it became a topic of great controversy. The technique of casting horoscopes underwent considerable development over time, in parallel with advances in astronomy; the philosophical discussion, however, was not centered on technical objections to astrology, but rather on a group of more general dialectical objections, the core set of which was influentially promulgated by Cicero in his De divinatione. Long traces the stages in the controversy after Cicero, paying attention especially to Ptolemy’s sophisticated defense of horoscopes in the opening chapters of his Tetrabiblos, and ending with developments in later antiquity, when figures such as Plotinus and Augustine weigh in against astrology.

Two valuable studies of individual sceptics round out this section. “Timon of Phlius: Pyrrhonist and Satirist” is the oldest paper in the volume, but it remains the most comprehensive general study of this enigmatic figure, to whom we ultimately owe most or all of our information about the founding father of Greek scepticism, Pyrrho of Elis—including, Long argues, the biographical information in Diogenes Laertius’ life of Pyrrho (9.61-9). “Arcesilaus in His Time and Place” examines Diogenes Laertius’ life of Arcesilaus, the extremely influential opponent of the early Stoics who was responsible for leading Plato’s Academy in a sceptical direction. Most of what we know about Arcesilaus’ sceptical methodology comes from late and indirect accounts. Long shows that, if Diogenes draws on witnesses contemporary to Arcesilaus (perhaps Antigonus of Carystus), then it is possible to use his text to corroborate certain aspects of those later accounts and so to increase our confidence in them. The book’s third section consists of three studies on Epicureanism. “Chance and Laws of Nature in Epicureanism” asks how well Epicureans meet the challenge of accounting for regularities in the physical world, given that in explaining physical phenomena they cannot appeal (as their rivals can) to purposes inherent in nature. Long draws an important distinction between events that are due to “chance” in the sense that they are aimless and events that are due to “chance” in the sense of being contingent or indeterminate. For the Epicureans, all events are “chance” events in the first sense: nature is utterly aimless, all the way down. But only a tiny proportion of events are due to “chance” in the second sense: by and large, every event is completely determined by the state of affairs antecedent to it. The notorious exception is that, according to Epicurus, occasionally an atom will “swerve” from its course, breaking the chain of deterministic causes that otherwise prevails throughout the universe. What Long draws attention to is the fact that the Epicureans invoke the swerve only in the contexts of cosmogony and psychology. Our sources never suggest that the swerve can disrupt ongoing causal processes outside of these contexts, and even the Epicureans’ ancient opponents never criticize them for introducing a wayward cause of non-psychological events in the natural world. Long plausibly speculates that that the swerve was thought of as having sufficient impact to disrupt deterministic motions only among the finest, smallest atoms—the atoms from which souls are constituted. As for why natural regularities occur, the Epicureans appeal to “seeds,” which are conceived of as aggregates of atoms of such a sort as will conduce to the formation of bodies that behave in a regular, world-constituting way. On this basis they could speak of the natural world as governed by reliable “laws.” I agree with Long that this was in fact the Epicurean view, but I do not share his confidence that it is a philosophically promising view. If we ask the Epicureans why they think such “seeds” exist, they can only point to the fact of regularity (e.g., biological reproduction) in the world around us: regularity is found throughout nature, and therefore there must be “seeds.” But that answer seems to beg the question. What we want to know is precisely why we should think that intricately ordered and self-regulating systems can arise from nothing other than bits of matter bumping into one another.

“Pleasure and Social Utility: The Virtues of Being Epicurean” is a provocative exploration of the social and political dimensions of Epicurean ethics. Long defends the staunchly quietist Epicureans from the charge of being complacent or irresponsible citizens by emphasizing that they view peaceful social cooperation (fostered by states with functioning legal systems) as a necessary condition for the attainment of the tranquility that constitutes the human good. He also opts for the controversial view that Epicureans regard friendship as possessing intrinsic value and not just instrumental value. “Lucretius on Nature and the Epicurean Self” addresses a tendency among modern scholars to downplay the importance of natural science to the Epicureans by viewing Epicurean ethics either as a project of finding refuge from a purposeless “objective” world in a world of immediate “subjective” value, or as a primitivist project of paring down one’s desires to match those of the pre-social, uncorrupted human being. Long argues by contrast for a view of Epicurean science that leaves room for the understanding of causes in nature to be both a major source of pleasure in itself and an indispensable aid to ordering one’s priorities in life.

In the fourth section there are three studies of early Stoicism. “The Stoics on World-Conflagration and Everlasting Recurrence” is one of the volume’s outstanding papers and is moreover the best study of its subject to date. Scholars have long been deeply puzzled by the early Stoics’ insistence that our world will end in an all-consuming blaze of fire and that after this “conflagration” the same world (containing the very same persons and events) will come about again, and so on over and over. If our world is providentially arranged so as to be the best possible world, as the Stoics believe, why does their god destroy it? And can it even be coherent to claim that the same world recurs over and over again? Long’s argument has two parts. First, he points out that the “fact” of conflagration is a more or less straightforward consequence of other Stoic views. Cosmologically speaking, the Stoics view the world as undergoing rarefaction—in effect, heating up—over time, as a result of the way in which the cosmos was formed in the first place. But Long avoids the mistake often made by past scholars of attributing the demise of the cosmos to unfortunate but inevitable physical processes: the Stoic god has complete control over the world, and made a choice that it would be the sort of world that ended in conflagration. The right way to look at the conflagration is as a manifestation of divine rationality: divine reason periodically sloughs off its material body (which is our world) and grows into its fullest state. And it is in precisely this condition that god is most completely realized as a providential agent, planning out the good order of the world that will unfold in its (re)creation. Long then makes an elegant proposal about how to make sense of the claim that the world is identical in every successive instantiation. After considering several rival interpretations of this claim intended to soften it (and their drawbacks), and after rejecting the proposal that the Stoic world runs in a circular time-loop (such that every moment is both before and after every other moment), he suggests that the world runs along a single finite timeline, which is reiterated. He offers the analogy of a VCR tape being played over and over: whenever it is played, each event on the tape occurs in exactly the same time relative to the order (or history) of events on the tape; but successive iterations of the entire history can be easily distinguished from the viewpoint of the person playing the tape (which, in the case of the world, would be god).

In “Zeno’s Epistemology and Plato’s Theaetetus” Long maintains that the founder of the Stoics drew heavily on Plato in formulating his doctrine of the “kataleptic” (or “cognitive”) impression. This doctrine, according to which humans experience mental impressions of items or facts in the world that are of such a sort that they could not represent their contents falsely, is crucial to Stoic epistemology. Long’s idea is not that a direct precursor to the cognitive impression is to be found in Plato’s Theaetetus, but rather that Zeno found a great deal of material in the dialogue that was fruitfully suggestive for his own thinking about knowledge. There is, for example, the very notion of a perceptual criterion of truth, which is made explicit for the first time in Socrates’ discussion of Protagorean relativism (178b); the metaphor of impressions being “stamped on” the soul by external objects (191d-e); the metaphor of knowing something as being a matter of “holding” it ( lambanein, 199b); and the idea that knowledge (as opposed to mere belief) requires an account that distinguishes its object from anything else (208c-d). Although the connections Long discovers are mostly (as he recognizes) at the level of verbal echoes, the cumulative case he builds for Zeno as a close reader of the Theaetetus is persuasive.

“Stoic Psychology and the Elucidation of Language” is a helpful study of the Stoic theory of discourse, focusing mainly on parts of Diogenes Laertius’ doxography of Stoic dialectic (7.41-83). The Stoics required an account of language that made it a fit instrument for human rationality, but they also needed an account compatible with their metaphysical corporealism, which entails that words and sentences are, taken by themselves, simply bodies (shaped air). Working within these constraints, the Stoics made clear distinctions among the phonetic, grammatical, and semantic levels of the structure of language, and articulated a sophisticated theory about the relationships that obtain among these levels. In doing so, they developed what we from the modern perspective can recognize as the first proper philosophy of language.

The book’s final section contains five essays on Roman philosophy. Particularly rich in its implications is “Stoic Philosophers on Persons, Property-Ownership, and Community.” This paper argues (drawing on a great deal of evidence from the Roman period) that Stoicism prefigures the early modern concept of “person” in significant ways—most importantly, in making self-consciousness the crucial attribute of a “person.” Persons are rational beings, and rational beings are conscious of themselves in a particular way, as possessing a power to assent to (or to withhold assent from) the impressions they receive. This power of assent lies at the core of a rational self and is for the Stoics the paradigm case of property-ownership: every person owns his or her self inalienably. For the Stoics the idea of ownership is, then, grounded in human nature and tied closely to personal identity; Long examines these connections and considers their consequences for Stoic political philosophy.

“Epictetus on Understanding and Managing Emotions” begins with a brief introduction to the Stoic theory of emotions and then makes a number of observations about the particular (and sometimes peculiar) ways in which Epictetus applies the theory in his Discourses.

Two fine papers on Cicero consider the Roman orator not merely as a source of information about earlier thought but as engaged in a serious philosophical project of his own. “Cicero’s Plato and Aristotle” shows that Cicero carefully deploys those two famous figures in his philosophical writings in such a way as to bolster his claims about the importance of combining the practice of philosophy with rhetoric. “Cicero’s Politics in De officiis” argues that in his final major philosophical work Cicero gauges his presentation of Stoic moral theory so as to send a timely message to his fellow-citizens during the ongoing crisis of civil war. Cicero believes that tensions in Roman ideology (particularly the problematic ideal of gloria, which motivates citizens simultaneously to pursue the common good of the community and to seek their own “glorification”) threaten the social fabric of the republic and that Stoic ethics holds the promise of diagnosing and mitigating these tensions.

“Seneca on the Self: Why Now?” is perhaps the least successful piece in the collection. In exploring what lies behind the recent resurgence of scholarly interest in Seneca, Long makes the surprising assertion that “Seneca’s value as a theorist of selfhood is not vitiated … if we completely reject his Stoic commitment to the divinity of human rationality, for instance, or the moral indifference of all values except virtue and vice” (p. 363). To illustrate what he finds interesting about Seneca’s theory, Long relies heavily on a distinction he draws between a person’s “normative identity” and “occurrent subjectivity,” that is, between what a person should aspire to be and what a person’s particular mindset is right now. Long identifies a variety of rhetorical strategies that Seneca uses in his Letters to encourage the reader to reflect on the gap between his or her occurrent subjectivity and normative identity and to make progress towards closing that gap. The problem here is that for Seneca, the content of a person’s normative identity will surely be nothing other than the perfected (and indeed divine) rationality that orthodox Stoicism attributes to the virtuous person. Without the edifice of Stoicism to support it, Seneca’s rhetorical scaffolding (skillful as it is) would collapse.

But this is a minor complaint about a collection that is generally excellent. I conclude by again recommending this book to anyone who is interested in the thought of Hellenistic and Roman times. Those who are already familiar with Professor Long’s work will find here a useful compendium; those who are not will discover why several generations of scholars of ancient philosophy are indebted to him.


1. I noticed very few typos in the volume, and only a couple that might mislead the reader: on p. 55, final paragraph, “the beginning of Metaphysics Gamma” should read “the beginning of Chapter 6 of Metaphysics Gamma”; and on p. 231, second paragraph, the reference to “n. 16” should be to “n. 18”.

2. It is worth bearing in mind that the Greeks, from Homer onwards, often referred to the gods simply as “the immortal ones” ( hoi athanatoi).