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In the late nineteenth century J.L.G. Mowat published a short note in the Journal of Philology pointing out that in the Bodleian's MS of the Dissertationes of Epictetus there is an ink smudge (on fol. 25r) where all the other MSS have lacunae in several lines, leading to the conclusion that the Bodleian MS is the archetype for all other surviving copies.
For the Stoics, physics is that part of philosophical discourse that deals with all questions concerning the physical world, from foundational ontology to the empirical sciences such as astronomy and meteorology. The fundamental assertion underpinning all of Stoic physics is the claim that only bodies exist, a claim that dates back to Zeno himself. This may be seen as a direct challenge to the Platonic claim that the material world that we experience is merely a shadow of another realm where real existence lies. Indeed, it echoes a position attributed to one of the parties in the discussion of the nature of existence in Plato's dialogue the Sophist (on this see Brunschwig 1988).
In the Sophist Plato mounts a famous attack on materialism as an ontological position (245e–249d). He refers to a battle between giants and gods over whether “being” pertains only to physical objects or whether it pertains to non-physical entities. The materialist giants insist that being is “the same as body”. Anything that they cannot touch or squeeze in their hands, as they can with bodies, does not exist at all. Thus they must deny the existence of non-bodily entities such as soul, intelligence, justice and virtue. For Plato, these conclusions are not only unpalatable but also probably disingenuous, for no one seriously denies the reality of these things. This extreme position is tempered, Plato suggests, by more moderate materialists who claim that the soul does exist but that in order to exist it must be a special kind of body.
Stoicism persisted as a living philosophical movement in antiquity for some 500 years. Its impact did not end there, however. Ever since the decline of Stoicism some time during the third century CE, Stoic ideas and texts have continued to exert their influence. In what follows I shall offer a brief sketch of the later impact of Stoicism, focusing on the transmission and influence of Stoic texts, along with their impact on later philosophers. I shall not attempt to consider all of the ways in which Stoic ideas have implicitly contributed to later philosophical developments. Rather, I shall focus on explicit engagements with Stoicism or Stoic authors. I shall not comment on the impact of Stoicism on later European literature and culture more generally, although this is an interesting topic in its own right and there has been much written on the subject.
Late antiquity and the Middle Ages
The last Stoic of note, Marcus Aurelius, died in 180 CE. Although there are a few reports of Stoics after that date – the third-century Neoplatonist Porphyry mentions a Stoic in his Life of Plotinus (§17) and the sixth-century Neoplatonist Damascius mentions someone of the “school of Epictetus” in his Philosophical History (46d) – it seems that Stoicism was no longer a vital force. Alexander of Aphrodisias' polemics against Stoicism, written in Athens around 200 CE, suggest that Stoicism remained part of the intellectual scene at that time (Marcus Aurelius had created a chair in Stoicism not long earlier, alongside the chair in Peripatetic philosophy occupied by Alexander), but probably not much later.
“Stoicism” is a word with which we are all familiar; the Oxford English Dictionary cites austerity, repression of feeling and fortitude as characteristics of a Stoical attitude towards life. This popular image of Stoicism has developed over the past four or five centuries as readers have encountered descriptions of ancient Stoic philosophy by Classical authors such as Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch. Like so many other popular conceptions, it contains an element of truth but, as we shall see, it hardly tells us the whole truth.
In antiquity “Stoicism” referred to a philosophical school founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. This school met informally at the Painted Stoa, a covered colonnade on the northern edge of the Agora (marketplace) in Athens, and this is how the “Stoics” gained their name. This was a period of intense philosophical activity in Athens; Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum were still strong, while Zeno's contemporary Epicurus was setting up his own school just outside the city walls. Other philosophers inspired by the example of Socrates – by this time dead for around a hundred years – also flourished, notably the Cynics. Like the Cynics – and in contrast to those in the Academy, Lyceum and Epicurean Garden – the Stoics did not possess any formal school property, instead meeting at a public location right in the heart of the city.
Stoicism was one of the most influential schools of philosophy in antiquity and its influence has persisted to the present day. Originating in Athens around 300 BCE, Stoicism flourished for some five hundred years and has remained a constant presence throughout the history of Western philosophy. As one of the most popular philosophies of the Roman world, its doctrines appealed to people from all strata of ancient society - from the slave Epictetus to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. This book provides a comprehensive introduction to this great philosophical school. As well as outlining the central philosophical ideas of Stoicism, it aims to introduce readers to the different ancient authors and sources that they will encounter when exploring Stoicism. The book begins by introducing the ancient Stoics and their works. It then considers how the Stoics themselves conceived philosophy and how they formulated their own philosophical system. The core chapters examine Stoic philosophical doctrines in depth, taking each division of Stoic theory in turn: logic, physics, and ethics. The final chapter provides a fascinating account of the Stoic legacy from later antiquity to the present. The book includes a glossary, chronology and guide to further reading, which, together with its accessible yet authoritative approach, make it an ideal introduction for students and general readers.
Material about Stoic ethics is reported in a wide range of ancient sources, not to mention in the surviving works of the late Stoics Seneca and Epictetus. But perhaps the most important accounts of Stoic ethics that survive are those in Diogenes Laertius (esp. 7.84–131), Arius Didymus and Cicero's On Ends (esp. 3.16–76).
The foundation for Stoic ethics is a doctrine that has its own basis in physics, that is, in the nature of living beings. This is the doctrine of oikeiōsis (but for some doubts about this as the beginning of Stoic ethics see Schofield 2003: 237–8). This term is especially difficult to translate with a single English equivalent. It has generally been rendered as “orientation” and “appropriation”. This doctrine opens Diogenes Laertius' account of Stoic ethics (DL 7.85), and it appears at the beginning of the account of Stoic ethics in Cicero's On Ends as well (Fin. 3.16). Here is part of Diogenes' version, in which he quotes from Chrysippus:
An animal's first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self-preservation, because Nature from the outset endears it (oikeiousēs) to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends; his own words are, “The dearest thing (prōton oikeion) to every animal is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof “.
Following the Stoic division of philosophical discourse into logic, physics and ethics, we shall begin by looking at Stoic logic. By the term “logic” today we usually mean the formal analysis of arguments. While this sort of abstract reasoning was an important part of logic in antiquity, ancient logic was much broader than its modern counterpart. “Logic” translates logikē, and logikē is that part of philosophy that examines logos – reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology). The formal abstract reasoning that now constitutes logic was known in antiquity as one part of dialectic, and dialectic was just one part of logikē.
For the Stoics, logic comprised dialectic and rhetoric as two principal divisions. Other Stoics added definition and canonic (epistemology) as further parts, and some added canonic but not definition (see DL 7.41–3). In what follows I shall look first at Stoic dialectic, then what we might call their philosophy of language and finally their epistemology. But I shall leave to one side their discussions of rhetoric and their important work on grammar.
Stoic logic did not fare well in subsequent history. It is fair to say that its significance was not really comprehended until fairly recently by the Polish logician Łukasiewicz in the early twentieth century (Bocheński 1951: 80).