BMCR 2022.03.04

Natura aut voluntas? Recherches sur la pensée politique et éthique hellénistique et romaine et son influence

, Natura aut voluntas? Recherches sur la pensée politique et éthique hellénistique et romaine et son influence. Philosophie hellénistique et romaine, 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 394. ISBN 9782503589459 €75,00.

[Articles are listed below.]

This volume brings together thirteen of Mitsis’ articles, which collectively are testimony to his important contribution to the scholarship on Hellenistic and Roman ethical and political thought not only in terms of the nature of those beliefs but also their reception and enduring influence.

Mitsis’ own French introduction is beautifully clear and lucidly sets out the underlying themes and principles of the volume and its structure. Chapters 1-6 focus on the Stoics and their reception, 7-10 on the Epicureans, with Appendices on Zeno, the assumption that free will is a modern concept, and whether Cicero’s de Officiis (‘Tully’s Offices’ as Locke refers to the work) was a significant influence on Locke’s ethical thought. Jolivet and Walbecq’s translation of the remainder of the text is excellent. Mitsis pays a fitting tribute to their achievement commenting that the French version has rendered his own arguments ‘more clear and forceful.’

The key threads of Mitsis’ main argument are that:

i) The nature of Stoic and Epicurean beliefs needs reassessing.
ii) The question of their later influence and impact is far more significant than recognised and have been all too easily dismissed and need a fresh assessment.
iii) Ancient philosophy’s influence did not suddenly ‘cease’ in a dramatic break with the past.

Evaluation of Stoic and Epicurean beliefs and their place in the history of western philosophy has, Mitsis argues, come to be rather neglected in scholarship. Certainly, the highly fragmentary nature of the surviving works from the Hellenistic period has not helped (some consist only in quotations attributed to Stoic and Epicurean thinkers, and not always reliably so). Mitis also addresses the flawed approaches of scholars when addressing the following: what the original Stoics and Epicureans actually believed, the influence of earlier philosophers on their theories, and their own influence and impact on later thinkers.

Scholars have come to rely on the discussions and descriptions of later authors, such as Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, and Plutarch, and in Mitsis’ opinion, they have done so too uncritically. Different historical contexts, and, in the case of Seneca and Plutarch, clear dislike of particular schools make them highly problematic evidence for Stoic and Epicurean beliefs. Plutarch is visibly hostile to the Stoics and Seneca to the Epicureans, being highly critical of what he considers to be their ‘instrumental approach to friendship (Chapter 8: 244-245). Equally, even where an author is not being actively critical, the aim and purpose of a work, in this case Cicero’s de Finibus and the discussion of Epicurean friendship 1.65-70, may be obviously slanted against a particular school of thought.

Another reason to be cautious when assessing past philosophical schools and their views, is that some modern scholars have overemphasized the similarity between the tenet of an ancient school and a more modern concept. The more recent belief is then retrojectively attributed to the ancient system of beliefs. For example, a view often associated with the Stoic school is the notion of a cosmopolitan society, where people are citizens of the world. Mitsis takes the view that this is mistaken and that modern ideals of a ‘world society’ have been wrongly imputed to the Stoics. A comparison between this idea and Stoic notions of natural universal moral law is interesting and valid, but this does not make them the same. The argument has become circular. A comparison has led wrongly to a complete ‘equation’ of these ideas and the Stoics have in turn been used to support arguments for a cosmopolitan society (see especially, chapter 6, p.185 contra Nussbaum).

Regarding (ii), their later influence, Mitsis throughout the volume addresses the thorny issue of how to assess the influence of one author or school of beliefs on another author or movement. He successfully shows that:
a) One cannot decisively dismiss the possibility of intellectual influence simply because an author is not mentioned.
b) Assumptions that ancient philosophy ‘went out of fashion’ as it were, have led to their influence upon early modern thinkers being downplayed or even ignored.

Appendix III is an excellent illustration of point (a). Mitsis takes as his starting point what might at first glance appear to be a passing remark by Locke about the importance of reading ‘Tully’s Offices’ (Cicero’s de Officiis) as part of the young man’s education (in his essay, Some Thoughts Concerning Education). Cicero is generally not viewed as a significant influence upon Locke and is not mentioned at all in the Cambridge Companion to Locke (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Furthermore, Cicero’s view of natural law as correct reason might seem irreconcilably different from Locke’s view of natural law as God’s law. However, this difference does not, as Mitsis points out, rule out the influence of the former on the latter. It is clear that Locke found great value in Cicero (p.361-362). He could recite a great deal of Cicero from memory and even worked on a commentary on de Officiis.

Likewise, Chapter 1 reassesses the Stoics’ relationship to Socrates. Mitsis shows that Aristotle’s remark in his Metaphysics, namely that Socrates was not concerned with ‘nature as a whole’ has wrongly led to Socrates being viewed as at odd with the Stoics. In fact, the Stoics seem to have regarded Socrates as a very important predecessor. There are passages on Socrates’ views which can be interpreted as expounding a theory of natural theology (p.22-23), particularly in the Memorabilia of Xenophon (1.4.8-9). Socrates’ argument is that, given that humans are physically composed of little pieces of every element that also make up the natural world, then our own rationality must reflect a similar rational component in nature. His advocacy of obedience to divine injunction (as represented perhaps by his daimonion adviser) also offers a striking analogy to Stoic thought (p.23-33).

Chapter 10 on Locke exemplifies point (b), that the influence of ancient philosophy endured. A major debate in scholarship on Locke has revolved around the perceived incompatibility between his theory of moral law and his views on hedonism, as illustrated in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The result has been arguments proposing a clear change in his thinking that reflect the influence of Hobbes or attempts to reconcile the two. Mitsis points out that the conflict is only apparent and has emerged in part from the hindsight of later thinkers and scholars approaching the issue with preconceived notions of the gulf between moral law and pleasure. Re-examination of these two aspects of Locke’s philosophy in light of Stoic and Epicurean views on moral law and pleasure (or perhaps even Aristotelian notions of happiness, integral to his views on moral conduct), suggests Locke was influenced by schools where there was no such contradiction.

A further flaw that Mitsis observes when assessing the influence of past thinkers is the tendency to dismiss influence on a particular theory where a precise parallel term does not exist. This has happened with theories of natural rights. Because the Greeks did not have a word that precisely matches our notion of personal or human rights, they could not possibly have ideas that were comparable. In chapter four, ‘The Stoic Origins of Natural Rights’, Mitsis shows that the absence of an equivalent term does not = no equivalent idea. He argues convincingly that Stoic notions of moral autonomy and the need for a person to enjoy full control over their own body stand at the start of the evolution of the notion of ‘natural’ or human rights.

One should be equally wary of assuming the modernity of concepts that are so prominent in our own society. Appendix II, ‘How Modern is Freedom of the Will’ nicely deconstructs the dangers of making such an assumption. Mistis questions the accepted radical discontinuity between ancient and modern concepts of the will, as argued for by Mayer and Bobzien and generally accepted (p.333) and he offers a striking comparison between the theory contained in Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura and Locke. Scholars have also been guilty of the reverse, namely over-reading the presence of modern concepts in ancient thinkers. In chapter 5, he argues against A. A Long’s contention that the concept of private property was integral to Stoic thought.

This volume is refreshing in its call to question assumptions made about Epicurean and Stoic beliefs, to reconsider the lasting influence of the Hellenistic philosophy, and to be more critical in approaching the issue of intellectual engagement and the intellectual relationships between different individual thinkers and schools.

Chapter titles

(The original English titles and references for the articles which make up this volume are listed under the relevant chapters.)
Chapitre 1. La loi naturelle chez les Stoïciens.
(“Natural Law and Natural Rights in Post-Aristotelian Philosophy: The Stoics and Their Critics”, in Wolfgang Haase and Hildegaard Temporini (eds.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der Rӧmischen Welt II, 36.7, Berlin-NewYork, 1992 : p.4812-4850).

Chapitre 2. Les Stoïciens et Thomas d’Aquin sur la vertu et la loi naturelle
(“The Stoics and Aquinas on Virtue and Natural Law”, in David T. Runia, Gregory E. Sterling, Hindy Najman, and David Winston (eds.), Laws Stamped with the Seal of Nature: Law and Nature in Hellenistic Philosophy and Philo of Alexandria. Studia Philonica,  15, 2003, p.35-53).

Chapitre 3. La raison, les règles et le développement moral chez Sénèque.
(“Seneca on Reason, Rules, and Moral Development” in Jacques Brunschwig and Martha C. Nussbaum (eds), Passions and Perceptions, Cambridge 1995: 285-312.)

Chapitre 4. L’origine stoïcienne des droits naturels.
(“The Stoic Origins of Natural Rights”, in Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed), Topics in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford 1999: 153-177.)

Chapitre 5. La conception stoïcienne de la propriété et de la politique.
(“The Stoics on Property and Politics”, in Timothy Roche (ed.), Ancient Greek Ethics and Political Philosophy, Southern Journal of Philosophy 43, 2005 (suppl.): 230-249.)

Chapitre 6. Théorie politique stoïcienne.
(“Hellenistic Political Thought”, in George Klosko (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Thought, Oxford 2011: 120-141, with passages from “A Stoic Critique of Cosmopolitanism”, in Bruce Robbins and Paulo Lemos Horta (eds.), Cosmopolitanisms, New York 2017: 171-188.)

Chapitre 7. Épicure : liberté, mort et, hédonisme.
(“Epicurus: Freedom, Death, and Hedonism”, in Roger Crisp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Ethics, Oxford 2013: 73-92.)

Chapitre 8. L’amitié selon Épicure.
(“Friendship”, in Philip Mitsis (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism, Oxford 2020.)

Chapitre 9. La liberté, le plaisir, et le terme de la vie. Montaigne et les Épicuriens
(“Life as Play, Life as a Play: Montaigne and the Epicureans”, in Stephen J. Heyworth (ed.) Classical Constructions: Papers in Memory of Don Fowler, Classicist and Epicurean, Oxford 2007: 18-38.)

Chapitre 10. Locke sur le plaisir, la loi et le libre arbitre.
(“Locke on pleasure, law, and moral motivation”, in Iakovos Vasiliou (ed.), Moral Motivation: A History (Oxford Philosophical Concepts), Oxford 2016: 153-178.)

Appendice 1. Kαὶ μηδὲν μόριον ἀποκεκρύφθαι: la vie nue du sage stoïcien.
(“Kαὶ μηδὲν μόριον ἀποκεκρύφθαι: Zeno and the Bare Life of the Sage”, “, in Peter Goodrich and Thanos Zartaloudis (eds.), The Cabinet of Imaginary Laws, Routledge 2021: 129-134.)

Appendice 2. Le libre arbitre est-il moderne ?
“How Modern is Freedom of the Will?” in Jacques Lezra and Liza Blake (eds.), Lucretius and Modernity. Epicurean Encounters across Times and Disciplines, New York 2016: 105-123.)

Appendice 3. Les devoirs de Locke
(“Locke’s Offices”, in Jon Miller and Brad Inwood (eds), Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy, Cambridge 2003: 45-61.)