Transcript: 68 - John Sellars on the Roman Stoics

Peter chats about Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus with John Sellars, an expert on Roman Stoicism and the reception of Stoicism in the early modern era.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson:  On the podcast so far, I've already devoted episodes to the three main Roman Stoics, namely Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, and that's really who we're mostly going to be talking about. Would you say that these three figures represent a widespread enthusiasm for Stoicism in this early period of the Roman Empire?

John Sellars:  Well, I think there was a wide interest in Stoicism in that period, and those three figures are the three we most associate with that period because we have substantial texts for them. But there are a number of other Roman Stoics, minor figures that we know a little less about that we might also mention to kind of flesh out the picture of Roman interest in Stoicism at that time. So if we go back a little earlier to the first century BC, a very famous Roman, Cato the Younger, an associate of Cicero, was a very keen advocate of Stoicism, and the later Roman Stoics are great admirers of him as a figure. And around the turn of the millennium, we have information about a school of Stoicism based in Rome run by a philosopher called Quintus Sextius, two of whose pupils went on to teach Seneca. And a little later, we have another Roman Stoic, Musonius Rufus, an Etruscan aristocrat who lectured on Stoicism in Rome and whose lectures Epictetus attended. So there are quite a few other Roman Stoics in this period, and what's interesting about some of these figures, some of the lesser known figures, Cato, Sextius, and Musonius, is that they were all very traditional Roman figures who were admirers of the traditional Roman values of sort of courage and heroism and austerity and these sorts of things. And there's a sense in which Stoicism chimed with those traditional Roman values in a way that seems to have made it very attractive to a Roman audience in particular.

Peter Adamson: More so than, say, the Epicurean tradition, right, because the Epicureans aren't going to tell you to go out and be heroic and be engaged in politics, for example.

John Sellars: That's right. Although here's something quite interesting happens. We have quite a lot of information about Epicureanism flourishing in a Roman context slightly earlier. So in the first century BC, we can think of Lucretius, of course, we can think of Philodemus and other Epicurean philosophers associated with him in Herculaneum. And I believe the earliest Latin philosophical text is an Epicurean text predating Lucretius. So we have this group of Romans interested in Epicureanism as well in a slightly earlier period. What might be going on then? Well, I mean, this is slightly speculative, but perhaps in the first century BC under the Roman Republic, where those traditional Roman values were very strong, people were perhaps attracted to Epicureanism as offering some kind of alternative. In the first century AD, when we find Epictetus and Seneca and the Roman Empire is really establishing itself and we have the decadence of Nero and a very different kind of cultural context, it may well be that suddenly Stoicism started to seem a lot more attractive as it harked back to a traditional set of values that perhaps people were beginning to feel were slightly lost.

Peter Adamson: And in fact, that would just make this interest in Stoicism a manifestation of a broader cultural phenomenon in the early Empire, which is people moaning about how much better things were in the Republic before everything became so debauched with the imperial period coming in.

John Sellars: Absolutely. I mean, you could imagine a very austere society finding discussion about pleasure being something part of a good life to be very attractive. And you can imagine in a society in which pleasure is out of control, a lot of very noble discussion about virtue suddenly seeming very attractive. And perhaps another feature as well is with the decline of a sense of active engagement in politics when you have an Emperor who decides everything, a philosophy that tries to accommodate individuals in a world in which they don't really have any control over what's going on. Stoicism presents its readers, particularly the Roman Stoic authors present their readers, a deterministic world in which the individual has no control over and which they have to try to find the best way to survive within. And that's kind of mirrored perhaps by the political situation in the first century AD.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting because I think a cliche, but maybe a true cliche about neo-Platonism, which is the next big movement to come along starting in the third century, is that when the Roman Empire started to fall apart in the crisis years, in the later imperial period, maybe people went for neo-Platonism because it was this otherworldly philosophy to escape the bad things that were happening in the political arena.

John Sellars: That's right. The great anomaly in all of this of course is Marcus Aurelius, who as emperor of the known world has all the power he could possibly want. And yet in the Meditations we find him... 'complaining' might be too strong a word, but reflecting on all of the burdens and responsibilities that he has and the fact that his role means that he actually doesn't have the power that he would like, that one might like, because he himself is constrained by a world that's basically out of his control. The role that he's in, although seemingly giving him unlimited power creates a whole set of duties and burdens and he's as powerless as the rest of us.

Peter Adamson: Right, well I think everything you've said so far tends to support a general view that's taken about the Roman Stoics, which is that they focus a great deal on ethics and practical philosophy, maybe to the exclusion of the other areas of Stoic philosophy, which traditionally would be logic and physics as well as ethics. To what extent is that true? Is that a real departure in the Roman Stoics from earlier Stoicism?

John Sellars: Well I think that's a really interesting question and a really big one. I mean as you say, the earlier Stoics, Chrysippus and the others that we know about, clearly wrote a lot about physics and logic in a very technical, theoretical way that we would easily recognise today as philosophy. And the Roman Stoics aren't quite so interested in addressing those topics in the same way. But it's not entirely clear to me that they're particularly interested in addressing ethical theory in quite the same way either. What we find in our three Roman authors isn't an ethical theory in the way that we might expect the earlier Stoics like Chrysippus to have written or like we find in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. We find something quite different. I mean let me give you an example. So Epictetus in the Discourses, which as your listeners will know were written down by one of his pupils as a series of lecture notes, we find him addressing ethical issues but we don't find him doing ethics in the sense of giving us a series of arguments about why virtue is valuable, why we should and shouldn't do this or that. We find him trying to put ethical theory into practice, trying to extrapolate out the practical consequences of what it would be like to follow Stoic ethics. But he doesn't just do it with ethics, he also does it with physics and with logic. So there are a number of chapters in the Discourses where Epictetus talks directly about logic. He will talk about why it's important that we don't neglect logic, that logic is essential. There's a very entertaining exchange with one of his students, a student who's obviously tempted towards Cynicism, who says 'well why are we bothering with all this theory altogether if we want the good life, let's just get on with practical precepts, why do we have to do our logic exercises?' And Epictetus chides him for this and says 'well how on earth do you think you're going to be able to live rationally and think straight and analyse all of the situations in which you find yourself in in your daily life if you haven't done your logic?'

Peter Adamson: It's a good message for all the undergraduates out there who are aggrieved at having to take introductory logic today.

John Sellars: Absolutely. So Epictetus is as concerned with logic as he is with ethics I would say and physics also in terms of his reflections about fate and about the providential order of nature. But in each case he's not doing ethical theory or logical theory, he's doing something quite different. So to sum up I think I'd want to say that our three Roman stoic authors are perhaps more concerned with something we might call practical philosophy rather than emphasising ethics at the expense of physics or logic.

Peter Adamson: And that would mean something like not just setting out a theory and explaining why it's preferable to other theories, but almost assuming the stoic theory and then asking what would it be like to take that really seriously and live like that?

John Sellars: Absolutely. There's a sense in which the theories that found the philosophical schools that are popular in this period have already been established. If you're an Epicurean you read Epicurus and you either find it attractive or you don't and you might make some tweaks but broadly speaking if you've made the existential decision to become an Epicurean you buy the theory. And the same for the Stoics. So once you've, if you like, done your philosophical shopping around, you've looked at the different schools that are available, you've picked the one that you think is most plausible, then the big question is how do I put this into practice given that I've already decided that I think it's very attractive.

Peter Adamson: I think that chimes really well with some things Epictetus says in the Discourses because he's often complaining about people who say they want to be Stoics but aren't really walking the walk as it were. It chimes with something else which is a phrase that we find in Marcus which is the idea that philosophy is what he calls an 'art of living,' which also happens to be the title of a book that you wrote about Roman stoicism available in all good bookstores. So can you tell us what this phrase means, the art of living? What does it mean to be pursuing philosophy as an art of living?

John Sellars: Yes, I mean we find this phrase in all three of our Roman stoic authors but interestingly we also find it in the fragments for the earlier Stoics as well. So we also find Chrysippus in a fragment also referring to an art of living. In order to flesh out this idea I'd like to make two connections with medicine and both of these ideas will involve us thinking back to Socrates for a moment. So Socrates in the Apology and in some of the other early Platonic dialogues draws an analogy between philosophy and various other arts and crafts, and in particular medicine crops up again and again, and the kind of bland way of putting it is that medicine is an art or craft that looks after the body and philosophy is the art or craft that looks after the soul. And Socrates of course in the Apology exhorts people to take care of their souls or take care of themselves conceived as their soul. And that's one part of the idea that philosophy might be an art of living, an art of taking care of the soul and by transforming one's soul you transform how you live because your soul contains all of the values and judgments that shape how you act and interact with the world. Now that sounds a bit glib, and to a kind of a modern hardline analytic philosopher it sounds like some kind of Chicken Soup for the Soul idea that isn't particularly attractive, and if that same modern philosopher would go into a bookstore and see the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the mind-body-spirit section of the bookstore, that would just confirm all of their prejudices. Now I want to kind of challenge that prejudice and say what actually taking care of one's soul would involve? I take it it would involve learning how to think rationally, learning how to analyse one's beliefs, doing all the things that Socrates encourages people to do in the Apology to examine one's assumptions and preconceptions and the beliefs that we inherit from the wider culture around us. And for the Stoics in particular and for our later Stoics in Epictetus and in Marcus Aurelius we see this very clearly. It also involves analysing our perceptions or impressions to test them to see whether they're accurate or reliable or not. So the art of taking care of one's soul, philosophy, basically involves logic and epistemology. So it's something very rigorous, it's something very tough, it's something that has this Socratic ancestry and it's not just something slightly glib that we might want to dismiss as not really philosophy in the modern sense. So that's one big part I think of what the art of living is about. The second element that I've written about in my book that you mentioned is: how does that help us to understand our late Stoic authors? I mean I take it that all of the texts that we have from our three Stoics are slightly unusual as philosophical texts. They're not treatises in the way that we find treatises written by Aristotle, or the way that we assume that the early Stoics wrote treatises, presumably not that dissimilar to Aristotle's. They're doing something slightly different and again as I touched on a moment ago it'd be very easy for a modern philosopher to encounter a book like Marcus' Meditations and not really think that's a philosophical text. Now the argument that I flesh out in the book is that if philosophy is like medicine then maybe the way that we develop skill in philosophy is also analogous to the way in which someone might learn medicine and become a doctor. And the ancient accounts we have of learning the techne, learning the art or craft of medicine is that it involves two distinct stages. So your doctor will go to medical school, he'll learn all the theory, he'll sit in class, he'll master all of the technical theoretical details - but on its own that's not enough. He's then got to go into hospital and engage in a long practical training to show that he can actually put all of that theoretical knowledge into practice and do it well and successfully and we want our doctors to be trained both after a long apprenticeship in the hospital under close supervision and not when they've just come out of the classroom. Now my thought is that well maybe this is what is going on with these slightly unusual texts that we get from our late Roman Stoics. The Meditations that Marcus writes are perhaps his attempt to engage in that kind of philosophical apprenticeship after he's done the theoretical work so that he can digest all of the philosophical ideas that he's already learnt so that he can transform himself and put the philosophy into practice.

Peter Adamson: And maybe it's inevitable that you have to as it were be an apprentice to yourself because that's such a demanding theory that you're supposed to be constantly monitoring how well you're doing, so there can't be a teacher following you around to see whether you're behaving like a Stoic, you actually have to be checking yourself all the time to see whether you're managing it.

John Sellars: Absolutely, I mean this picks up an idea that again we find with Socrates in the Apology that only each individual can take care of their own souls and for very obvious reasons. If what you're doing is trying to test your impressions and to examine your beliefs you have privileged access to that world and no one else does.

Peter Adamson: It seems to me though that this really brings up an objection which is that the ethical demands that the Roman Stoics are placing on themselves and also on us are just too demanding, they're too rigorous. You said before that it's a very tough, rigorous regime in terms of learning how to become a Stoic but also what they're expecting us to do as Stoics seems to be extremely demanding. Do you think that that's a general problem with their view?

John Sellars: Well I mean I agree with you, that's very much a broad view of these Roman Stoic authors that they are very demanding. I mean I suppose I would want to qualify that with a couple of thoughts. One would be to say that I don't think the Roman Stoics are any more demanding than the earlier Stoics, it's just that the types of text we have are concerned with really fleshing out the practical consequences of believing the doctrine. So we can read a theoretical account of early Stoic ethics and say that makes perfect sense, only virtue has value, everything else is indifferent and then when we see Epictetus cache that out and say 'well if you really believe that these are the consequences, even your children and your close family members have no real value if only virtue has value.' So I'm not sure if the late Roman Stoics are much more demanding than the earlier Stoics would have been, they just make it plain how demanding Stoicism as a whole is. And secondly I would say again to touch on Socrates, I take it the Socrates we find in the Apology is offering a pretty demanding ethical model for us and what I find quite interesting is that while most of us might not be inclined to take the hemlock for the sake of philosophy, we can still admire the portrait of Socrates that we get of Socrates without thinking that we're necessarily going to go that extra mile. I don't see any reason why we can't read the late Roman Stoics in the same spirit, that they are demanding but we needn't dismiss them because they're demanding, we can still gain a lot from them.

Peter Adamson: Sure but I suppose that if someone says to me well here's this ethical ideal, I don't necessarily expect you to live up to it all the time but you should be shooting for this, it still seems to me that if that ethical ideal involves for example not thinking that my children have intrinsic value, that would be a deal breaker. So it seems like that in itself shows that the ideal that they're presenting me with has some kind of fatal flaw.

John Sellars: Sure and when we do encounter those sorts of passages in Epictetus in particular they seem very harsh and very demanding, and as someone who's gained a baby boy in the last 12 months, I've had to read these passages with a fresh pair of eyes so to speak. But if we take those thoughts within the context of Stoic ethics as a whole I think we can soften them a little bit. So for instance the Stoics will also argue that it's natural and so right and proper for us to have a certain affinity for other human beings in general and in particular to our close family members around us. This is a natural part of human nature and so if we read those comments that Epictetus makes within the context of the wider Stoic theory that I take it he is presupposing, we've got no evidence to say that he's rejecting a lot of that other theory, then we can if you like soften the perspective if we read him in context. And perhaps it's worth briefly mentioning another Stoic text from this period that deals precisely with this notion of a sense of affinity with other human beings from the period by Hierocles, a text called The Elements of Ethics, which interestingly comes from this period is another Stoic text but isn't like our three Roman Stoic authors in the sense that it is just a theoretical treatise. And that tells us something interesting as well: It tells us that Stoics in this period were still continuing that tradition of writing theoretical philosophical texts that we assume the early Stoics were writing too.

Peter Adamson: Going back to that issue about valuing one's children or thinking that they have intrinsic value, I guess a lot of what they're thinking about is how should you respond if your child dies, which of course would have been a very common occurrence at that period, and what they're saying is that whatever attitude you take towards your child should be consistent with the thought that your happiness could somehow survive the death of a child. And so in this sense they're actually doing something a little bit like what the Epicureans do, which is they're trying to persuade you to have an attitude towards death which is rational and which allows you to have a successful life despite the fact of death, both your own death and the death of those you love.

John Sellars: Absolutely, although I would say that it's even broader than that. I mean if we wanted to try to characterise what the Roman Stoics are doing in a single idea I would want to say that it's something like training us to cope with all external events that nature throws at us, whether it be the death of a loved one, the death of a child, any other unwanted external event that might come our way. There's a sense in which our Roman Stoic texts are trying to train us to cope with any eventuality, and in particular to try to buy the claim that all of those unwanted events that happen A. don't really hurt us because it's our virtue that's the only thing that's really important to us, and that's inside us, that's safe, that's secure, no matter what happens to us externally, and secondly that B. that these external events that happen to us are the product of a providential ordering within nature, and therefore part of some wider rational plan.

Peter Adamson: Before I let you go I should ask you about something else that you've worked on quite a bit, which is the reception of Stoicism not immediately following the Stoics, so in later antiquity, but much, much later in the early modern period, and I guess that they were actually very influential in that period despite having been very non-influential throughout the entire Middle Ages. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

John Sellars: Sure. I mean, I've looked at the reception of Stoicism in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it's very interesting to see what happens in this period. Obviously this is just after the Renaissance where a huge number of ancient texts have been rediscovered and are in circulation again for the first time after a very long gap, and we really find two distinct stages in the reception of Stoicism which touches very neatly with what we've been saying about our Roman Stoics. The first stage is the reception and reading of the Roman Stoic authors, in particular the reading of Seneca, but also Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. And what we find is, at this period of course, Christian readers reading Roman Stoic authors and finding discussion of virtue, a very austere ethic that rejects material wealth, that talks about God's will and providence, and a whole series of things that seem quite attractive superficially to a Christian reader. So we see the Roman Stoic authors embraced in the 16th century. We see Erasmus and Calvin both edit texts by Seneca for instance. But then something really interesting happens. As scholars start to do more work on ancient texts and gather together all of the fragments for the earlier Stoics and start to get a clearer picture of the Stoic philosophical system as a whole, people begin to realise that in fact there's a rigorous determinism at play within Stoic philosophy, a determinism that seemingly denies the freedom of will, that denies the possibility of miracles, that identifies God's will with a natural order of causes within nature. And suddenly this doesn't look very attractive to a Christian reader at all. So we see the Stoics transform from pious theists in the 16th century to notorious atheists by the early 18th century. And that mirrors a shift from reading our Roman Stoic authors to trying to reconstruct the details of the early Stoic system. And the key figure in all of this is a humanist in the late 16th century called Justus Lipsius. And he's an interesting figure because he stands right in the middle of this transformation. On the one hand we might say he's a pious theist, he edits the text of Seneca and admires Seneca enormously. But then he's the first person to gather together all of the fragments for the Stoic system and therefore inadvertently lays the foundations for the later atheistic reading by giving people all of the information they need to find out what the early Stoics really believed, which was a thoroughgoing naturalism, materialism and determinism. So he would have been horrified by the consequences of his work I suspect.

Peter Adamson: The dangers of scholarship. And I guess it's maybe worth noting here that it's not only the Stoics but all three of the main Hellenistic schools, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Skeptics were influential during this period.

John Sellars: That's right. So of course in the Middle Ages it's Aristotle who dominates as an ancient philosophical influence and then in the Renaissance Plato becomes very important. And then in the early modern period, particularly in the 17th century, we see a revival of interest in all three of the Hellenistic schools. So as well as the Stoics we have a revival of interest in Epicurus associated with Gassendi and the Skeptics. The rediscovery of the text of Sextus Empiricus are a huge influence on Montaigne and then Descartes and of course Hume. So skepticism in a sense as the third of the Hellenistic schools really shaped the development of early modern philosophy. 


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