BMCR 2012.03.04

Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments and Excerpts. Writings from the Greco-Roman World

, , Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments and Excerpts. Writings from the Greco-Roman World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009. ixxxix, 179. ISBN9781589834187 $32.95 (pb).

Ilaria Ramelli’s edition of Hierocles the Stoic’s Elements of Ethics, Fragments and Excerpts is the 28 th volume in the Society of Biblical Literature’s ‘Writings from the Greco-Roman World’ series. The book contains a translation and commentary on all existing fragments of Hierocles, a Stoic philosopher who lived most probably in the first half of the 2 nd century AD; his work comprises a treatise with the title Elements of Ethics (ἠθικὴ στοιχείωσις), whose fragments survive on a single papyrus roll (PBerol 9780), and some chapters from a work On Appropriate Acts (περὶ καθηκόντων) surviving in the Byzantine Anthology of Stobaeus. The translation and commentary has been rendered into English by David Konstan; the volume also contains the Greek text, an introduction and extensive bibliography.

The opening introductory essay traces the history of the scholarship on Hierocles’ surviving fragments from the first edition of his most important work, the Elements of Ethics by H. von Arnim1 down to its latest edition by G. Bastianini and A. A. Long.2 This latter edition forms the basis of Ramelli’s own edition of the ‘Elements of Ethics’ by providing the Greek text that is reproduced in the volume, as also many interpretative points in the accompanying notes. In the introductory note, Ramelli further analyses the structure of Hierocles’ ‘Elements of Ethics’ and Stobaean fragments and places the ‘Neo-Stoic’ Hierocles (pp. lviii-lxxxix) within the history of the Stoic school as a whole by tracing similarities and differences between his views and those of the Old, Middle and Roman Stoa. In terms of his philosophical interests (confined to ethics, if we judge from the surviving fragments) and the ‘literary’ and didactic style of the fragments found in the Anthology of Stobaeus, Hierocles’ work is shown to have clear affinities with Roman Stoicism; however, his major work, the ‘Elements of Ethics’ seems to pick up on earlier debates reminiscent of the more ‘academic’ phase of Stoicism. Ramelli, following Bastianini/Long, regards the two works as distinct (p. xxx). Throughout the introductory essay and in the accompanying notes Ramelli brings an impressive amount of bibliographical source material to bear on questions raised in Hierocles’ texts, attempting in many cases to identify a link between Hierocles and Christian texts.

Without doubt, the value of the ‘Elements of Ethics’ lies in the fact that it can serve as the best and most lengthy Stoic testimony on the notions of οἰκείωσις (translated in the volume as ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarization’) and συναίσθησις or αἴσθησις ἑαυτοῦ (translated variously as ‘conscious perception’ and ‘perception of oneself’); these ideas were incorporated into Stoicism in its Chrysippean phase3 to describe the way nature, through the faculty of (self-)perception, establishes a relationship of every organism towards his or her constitution rendering thereby the latter something which is ‘one’s own’ (οἰκεῖον). In the surviving fragments, Hierocles develops the Stoic positions on these issues against unnamed dialectical opponents (col. I.40-50) by defending συναίσθησις, i.e. the awareness of oneself, as a continuous psycho-physical phenomenon and the primary (both in the logical and the temporal sense) expression of οἰκείωσις in animals. There are, however, some striking innovations in the Hieroclean account in comparison with the ‘canonical’ account of Stoic οἰκείωσις in Diogenes Laertius’ 7. 854 with reference to Chrysippus’ work περὶ τελῶν: Hierocles proves συναίσθησις empirically through the extensive use of examples of animals, and of the way they use the parts of their bodies in order to defend themselves (e.g. bulls use their horns as weapons in order to protect themselves in col. II.5ff.). Although, as Ramelli notes, the only Stoic parallel for this is Seneca’s Ep. 121, which evokes the names of Archedemus and Posidonius as probable sources,5 one could add that a keen interest in animals is also shown by the rival Peripatetic theory of οἰκείωσις, as developed in Cicero’s De Finibus 5.6 Suggestive of the influence of Peripatetic ideas on Hierocles could also be the reference to four kinds of οἰκείωσις in col. IX.1-10, as also the defence of the social orientation of human beings by reference, in Aristotelian fashion, to them as ‘sociable’ (συναγελαστικόν) animals (col. XI.14-19).7

The fragments from Hierocles’ work ‘On Appropriate Acts’ treat one’s duties towards the gods, one’s country, spouse, parents, siblings and relatives, and are characteristic of the interests of Middle and Roman Stoicism, and especially Panaetius.8 Here the emphasis lies less on συναίσθησις and more on the value of external things as an outcome of οἰκείωσις, and on the appropriate behaviour prescribed by reason towards others. The famous image of the concentric circles (in Stobaeus’ Anthology 4.27.23=4.671.3-673.18 Wachsmuth and Hense), which illustrates the progressive remoteness and intensity of our ties and corresponding duties towards others, constitutes perhaps the most influential innovation of Hierocles to the Stoic ideas he had inherited, although here again it is tempting to posit non-Stoic influences: Hierocles recognizes the claims of relations based on blood irrespective of our reasoning faculty— even if by the use of the latter one can (and should) attempt to bridge the distance created by objective relations with others for the sake of fairness.9 Although R. acknowledges that Hierocles adopts in the Stobaean fragments ‘a somewhat milder or attenuated position in regard to ethics inspired by Middle Stoicism’ (p. lviii), and furthermore argues that ‘it is possible that Hierocles was the first Stoic to connect primary oikeiôsis with the social kind’ (p. lxiv), there is no further attempt in the commentary to explain his innovations by assuming any specific philosophical influences upon him.

There are only a few typographical errors in the volume;10 the English translation is both flowing and accurate, although one could object to the translation of συναίσθησις as ‘conscious perception’ (col. II.3) or ‘self-conscious perception’ (col. VII.48), since according to Hierocles the term refers to a phenomenon that takes place even during sleep and is present from the very beginning of an animal’s life, without thus carrying any modern connotations of ‘consciousness’ (in accordance with what R. notes on p.55, n. 44). Further, one should count among the drawbacks of the edition the reproduction of the Greek text of the Bastianini/Long edition without critical signs and the apparatus criticus (the same applies for the reproduction of the Stobaean fragments from von Arnim’s edition).

All in all, the volume does a great service by offering for the first time an accessible English translation of and commentary on all of Hierocles’ surviving fragments, prompting thereby new interest in the Stoicism of the Imperial period. The volume will also be valuable to all those interested in the notions of οἰκείωσις, καθῆκον and selfhood in Stoicism, and in ancient philosophy in general.


1. Ethische Elementarlehre: Nebst den bei Stobaios erhaltenen ethischen Exzerpten aus Hierokles. Berlin (1906) Weidmann.

2. ‘Ierocle: Elementi di Etica’, in Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini (CPF). Florence (1992) Olschki. 1.1.2:268-362.

3. Ramelli (p. xxxv) suggests that the term was used already by Zeno, but the Ciceronian evidence that she adduces is doubtful due to Cicero’s Antiochean leanings.

4. Vit. Phil. 7.85.

5. ibid. 121.1.

6. See especially Fin. 5.42.

7. As Ramelli notes (p. lxxxi): ‘even though Hierocles treats interpersonal relationships in detail and theorizes them, he does not emphasize the bond that obtains among the wise themselves, which, on the contrary, played such an important role in the thinking of the Old Stoa’.

8. See especially the impact of his lost work περὶ καθηκόντων on Cicero’s De Officiis and Musonius.

9. Stob. Anth. ἀφαιρήσεται μὲν γάρ τι τῆς εὐνοίας τὸ καθ’ αἷμα διάστημα πλέον ὄν· ἡμῖν δ’ ὅμως σπουδαστέα περὶ τὴν ἐξομοίωσίν ἐστιν. [ I note the following: ‘pereception’ (pp. xlii; 5;11), ‘attributed Hierocles’ [‘to’ is missing] (p. lxxxviii), ‘offpring’ (p. 3), the repetition of the Greek text ‘διαφερόντως, ὁπότε κατεπείγοι τὸ φεύγειν’ in col. II.57-58 (p. 6), ‘onself’ (p. 50), ‘Chrysipus’ (p.101).