Transcript: 64 - David Sedley on Stoicism

David Sedley of Cambridge University chats with Peter about the development of the Stoic school, from the early days to the imperial age.
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.

Additional note: Prof Sedley kindly offered to revise this transcript so it includes some variations from the audio version.

Peter Adamson: Well, we're going to be talking about Stoicism now, and this is obviously one of the schools of Hellenistic philosophy, which I've been covering in the podcast. One of the striking things about Hellenistic philosophy is that it develops into several different schools: Epicureanism, Skepticism, Stoicism. But in the case of Stoicism, it seems there's disagreement within the school, at least in terms of emphasis and to some extent in terms of doctrine. So what actually allows us to say that this is a single school as opposed to just a bunch of different people who we retrospectively call Stoics? 

David Sedley: Right, well that's actually quite a complex question, because there are certain features which we think of as characteristic of the Stoics, but which they in fact share with all the schools in their own day. One example is that by contrast with Plato, for whom the ultimate reality is at an immaterial and transcendent level, the Stoics think that fundamentally what there is is body, and they've got that in common – barring a few adjustments – with the Epicureans.  it wasn’t really in dispute. So that's not a defining feature, or if you like it's a defining feature of the age rather than of the school. Then equally, and you were implying this in your question, there are some things on which the Stoics didn't even agree with each other. For example, some Stoics thought that the world ended in a periodic conflagration and started again… 

Peter Adamson: Where everything turns into fire. 

David Sedley: Exactly, that's right There were other Stoics who denied that. So there were points which weren't really at stake when it came to school membership or school orthodoxy. But there were defining points of agreement, there were points on which you really had to sign on the dotted line if you were going to be a Stoic. And let's just think of some of those. Well in physics, to be a Stoic was to believe that the world is a supremely rational, good, and indeed divine organism. That is a theory held by no other school at the time, and it's a point on which there's no significant disagreement. 

Peter Adamson: Even though that is something they would agree with Plato about. 

David Sedley: That's right. Indeed, in a sense it's a development out of their reading of Plato's Timaeus. So it's not an entirely novel doctrine, but in their day, they are the champions of that position and they’re in direct opposition to the Epicureans, who take the absolutely opposite position that the world is an unorganized, or self-organizing but irrationally structured, collection of atoms, and any values are ones which have come out of it in an unplanned way. So one of the ways that their belief in the rationality of the world marks the Stoics off as a distinctive school is that it puts them in perfect antithesis to the main rival school, the Epicureans. In epistemology, all Stoics agreed that there is a kind of infallible grasp which they call the cognitive or cataleptic impression. Although there were many variations on how that could best be defended against skeptical attacks, it remained an article of faith. And most important of all, and this really was the defining feature for any Stoic, in ethics, you could not be a Stoic without holding that only one thing is good, namely virtue, and so-called goods, conventional goods like wealth and health, are in fact morally indifferent. They don't make your life any better or happier when you've got them. Although, according to most Stoics, there are still reasons for pursuing them, these are instrumental reasons rather than ways of actually achieving your real goal, happiness. So that really is ultimately, in all ages, the indispensable component of Stoicism. 

Peter Adamson: That last example is an interesting one, I think, because there's kind of the overarching view which is that only virtue is good, and you're not allowed to disagree about that as it were, if you want to be a card-carrying Stoic, but you are allowed to disagree about the status of the indifferents. Some Stoics think there are preferred indifferents and some don't, although the standard view is that there are preferred indifferents. 

David Sedley: That's right. Having preferred indifferents, saying that there are prudential reasons for pursuing wealth and health, is a way of making the Stoic look outwardly pretty much like anybody else. The Stoic holds down a job, goes to the doctor, and generally pursues normal family values. There were, admittedly, one or two Stoics, but only in the first generation, who disagreed on that and took the more extreme line, that there's literally no preferability of health over disease. It depends entirely on what you do with them. You might lead a much better life ill than somebody else could lead healthy. So that initially was a point of disagreement, but one of the things that may emerge as we go on is that actually there was more free thought in the first generation of the school than there was in subsequent generations. 

Peter Adamson: Is that partially because there develops some kind of feeling of allegiance to the school's founders? 

David Sedley: I think it is. It's a pattern you see not just in the Stoa, but in most of the major philosophical schools: that there's a huge difference between the first generation when the doctrine is forming and subsequent generations. In the first generation, let's take Plato's school, the Academy: we have pretty good evidence that Plato's leading colleagues, who included, by the way, Aristotle, disagreed with him pretty fundamentally on issues like ‘Are there Forms?’ It was after Plato's death that his thought became canonised. Once the founder of the school is dead, followers in subsequent generations feel a commitment to studying his texts, interpreting them in the best possible light, and developing his ideas. It happened in the Academy, it happened in the Epicurean school, and it happened in the Stoa. We've got lots of evidence that first-generation Stoics disagreed on many issues, including the one you mentioned, because in particular one leading Stoic, probably in his own day as important as Zeno, called Ariston of Chios, did defend the view you mentioned that there's literally no difference of value between so-called indifferents. And he was a very independent thinker. It was only after Zeno's death that it became quite clear that Zeno had really won. History is written by the winners, so subsequent generations really made Zeno the fountainhead of Stoicism. It might very well have gone the other way; the Stoics might have been known as the Aristonians. 

Peter Adamson: I guess one thing that's unusual, though, about the Stoics is that even though they have this allegiance to a school founder like the Platonists and the Epicureans, in the case of the Stoics we actually credit someone else with systematizing Stoicism in its full glory, namely Chrysippus. So to what extent is the core of Stoic doctrine really Zeno's work, and to what extent is it, as it were, Chrysippus's interpretation of Zeno? I know that's a pretty difficult question, given the set of the sources. 

David Sedley: It's difficult, but it's the key question. Well, there's no doubt – I don't think anybody disputes – that Chrysippus was the Stoic who really turned Stoicism into the major philosophy of the age, as it came to be. Partly because Chrysippus wrote a huge amount: 705 scrolls, his works were said to amount to. 

Peter Adamson: All of which are lost. 

David Sedley: All of which are lost. A huge tragedy. Well there was an eminent scholar, F.M. Cornford, who said that if the excavators of Herculaneum were to turn up the entire 705 scrolls of Chrysippus, any student would gladly swap them for one scroll of Heraclitus. This has caused shock in more recent generations, and I don't think many of us would accept it today. But these scrolls included many, many works on logic, and although Chrysippus didn't invent Stoic logic out of nothing, he was clearly the Stoic who turned it into a major system, one which could actually rival Aristotelian logic. It's a different kind of logic based on relations between propositions rather than individual terms. It has won enormous admiration in recent generations. So there's no doubt that Chrysippus was the major figure, and you could repeat that point for other areas of philosophy too. But still, we just need to ask the question, how did this relate to Zeno's original input? And I think the answer is roughly as follows: that Zeno didn't write a lot, and he wrote with more flair than rigor. So there was lots of daring stuff in Zeno's writings, but he hadn't really worked out the system in a very rigorous way. Once Zeno was dead, his successor Cleanthes, and then subsequent Stoics, including Chrysippus, the next Stoic head, had the task of debating exactly what the meaning of Zeno's philosophy was. Now they never, as far as we know, said Zeno got this or that bit wrong. It was a primary assumption that Zeno got it right. In this respect, philosophical schools are a little bit more like religious movements than we tend to think philosophy departments ought to be. Zeno must turn out to have been right, but there was a lot of scope for reinterpreting what he'd said, and there were many debates between Cleanthes and Chrysippus as to what was actually the right way to interpret Zeno’s legacy. And although they're cast in these terms, which are more reminiscent of biblical scholarship perhaps than of philosophy as we know it, they did turn into very valuable philosophical debates. So just to give you one example: the unity of virtue. This was a thesis which in one form or another had been held by every major philosopher since Socrates, it would seem. If you've got one virtue, you've got all of them. Now what had Zeno said about this? Well, he'd said that any virtue you like is simply wisdom in a certain relation. So courage is wisdom in the face of danger, justice is wisdom in the face of matters of distribution, and so on. But what did that mean? Well, according to Cleanthes, it meant that there's really only one virtue, namely wisdom. And when you put it into this situation, it's called courage, when you put it into i situation, it's called justice. 'Oh no,' said Chrysippus. 'Zeno doesn't mean that. What he means is that there are several different kinds of wisdom, and each of them specializes in one area of conduct.' A Perfectly legitimate debate. And I think probably it was Chrysippus's view that eventually prevailed. But the terms in which it was cast were, “What does Zeno really mean?” That was the way the game was played. 

Peter Adamson: But when they talk about that, is what they're doing more of an exegetical task, or is it more like, this is the true view, so it must be the one Zeno had, because they have a principle of charity, or fidelity to their school founders, so whatever the truth is must be what Zeno said. 

David Sedley: It's not quite as bad as that, because that would mean they could invent anything they liked and attribute it to Zeno. They had to go by the letter of the text. Many important questions Zeno had simply left open, in the sense that his text didn't fully determine his answer. Sometimes however Zeno had said something quite explicit that there was no way they could get out of, and they were left with the task of defending it. And sometimes that caused embarrassment. The most embarrassing case is that in Zeno's own day medical opinion tended to favor the view that the rational mind is in the chest rather than the head. And Zeno was so confident of this that he produced a syllogism to confirm it where your voice comes from is where reason is; your voice comes from your chest; so reason is in your chest. Unfortunately, within a generation or two, medical science had proved that that was false, and that actually the rational mind was in the head. But even after that, even the most scientific of Stoics felt committed to defending Zeno's view against all the medical evidence. So deference to Zeno’s authority could have its downside. Again reminiscent of later battles over biblical exegesis. 

Peter Adamson: And I guess that one of the ways that Stoics develop the ideas of their founder is not merely in internal debate about the meaning of Zeno’s words and writings, but also external debate, and particularly with the Skeptics. So that Skeptical attack on Stoic positions seems to have had a lot of influence on the way that Stoicism itself develops. 

David Sedley: That’s right. I mean, earlier I mentioned the Epicureans as the natural enemy, but there was another enemy as well, these Skeptics you reminded us of. Although  they are indeed often referred to by scholars as the Skeptics, one should use that name with some care. It was only in the first or possibly second century AD that the name “Sceptics” was coined, and that was as an altemative title for a quite separate, rival school, the Pyrronists. Those whom we talk about as Skeptics in the Hellenistic period do not call themselves by that name. Used of them, the word ”skeptic” is properly written with a lowercase s, and is simply our word, meaning somebody who subjects every proposition to systematic doubt. The people we can call the skeptics (with lowercase s) in the Hellenistic period are in fact the Academics. 

   So who are the Academics? They are the philosophers of the school founded by Plato, a school that had started out, as I've already said, trying to develop Platonic doctrine out of a close study of Plato's dialogues. But in the early to mid third century BC, there was a complete change of direction: the current head of the Academy, Arcesilaus, took the view (which many would share today) that the real spirit of Plato's dialogues doesn't lie in the doctrines you can extract from them. It lies in the way that Socrates is shown challenging every philosophical conceit that he's presented with; and this is what we should be doing as philosophers, said these New Academics: we should be challenging every claim of certainty. Thus a systematic attack on Stoic convictions started in the Academy. And over the next two centuries, that's what philosophical debate was largely about. 

Peter Adamson: And this picture of inter-school debate and the entrenchment of positions among the schools, I think is nicely symbolized for us by this famous story of the embassy of the philosophers to Rome in 155 BC. So can you sort of tell us about that? 

David Sedley: Yes, it does illustrate the point in a way. Of course, it's also a famous occasion because it marks a transition, as philosophy moves out of the Greek world and into the Roman. The event was as follows. In 155 BC the Athenians had been subjected to an enormous penalty for sacking the town of Oropos, a fine of 500 talents. This was a huge sum, and they had the idea of sending to Rome, to appeal against the fine before the Senate, none other than the three heads of the major philosophical schools, the head of the Stoa, the head of the Academy, and the head of the Peripatetic school. They didn't send an Epicurean, probably because the Epicureans were notoriously anti-political. The three heads of school went off to Rome as ambassadors, and did a pretty good job, getting the fine reduced from 500 to 100 talents. But they also did something with much greater historical significance: while they were there, they took the opportunity to gather Roman audiences and present their philosophical wares to them. Although it wasn't literally true that no philosopher had ever been in Rome before, this was the first time that philosophers had a real impact there. The great Carneades, head of the sceptical New Academy, particularly shocked the Roman public. One day he gathered an audience and launched a passionate defense of justice. Audience goes away satisfied. Next day he calls another meeting and makes a speech denouncing justice. Well, the Romans really had no idea what to make of this. No doubt arguing both sides of a case was part of Carneades’ sceptical methodology, aimed at producing suspension of judgement. But although Carneades’ performance may have had the greatest shock value, that of Diogenes of Babylon, head of the Stoa at the time, made a terrifically positive impact as well. And it's really from that date that Stoicism enters the Roman intellectual bloodstream. 

Peter Adamson: Sort of like the Beatles going to America and kicking off rock and roll. 

David Sedley: Exactly so. 

Peter Adamson: So what happened then in the following generations? I mean, as you said, this event symbolizes the transition of the Hellenistic schools into the Roman world. Is there in fact an immediate kind of knock-on effect where Stoicism and the other schools develop within Roman society? 

David Sedley: Not an immediate effect, but an educational trend, first of all. Romans sending their sons to Greece to be educated will from now on want to include philosophy in their curriculum. Roman politicians and other kinds of dynasts and generals like to have a philosopher, usually a Stoic, in their own household as a kind of personal counsellor. Cicero, though he himself belonged to the Academy, had a resident Stoic in his household. Augustus, the future emperor, had a Stoic called Athenodorus in his entourage. And so on. The trend culminates in the second century AD with the accession of Marcus Aurelius as Roman emperor. Marcus was a Stoic, and in effect recruited himself as his own philosophical counsellor, a doubling of roles that we can witness at first hand in his surviving book, entitled To Himself

Peter Adamson: Right, so we’re heading towards this period, which is sometimes referred to as Roman Stoicism, with Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. But there are major Stoics in the period and the time running up to Cicero as well, right? So what’s distinctive about Stoicism of that period which is sometimes called “middle Stoicism?” 

David Sedley: Yes, we do have this term middle Stoicism. 

Peter Adamson: Do you like that? 

David Sedley: I don’t like it very much, but I am sometimes forced to use it. There were two Stoics in particular who earned this label, Panaetius, who was head of the school until his death in 110 BC,, and his pupil, Posidonius, who never became head of the school in Athens. Indeed, the Athenian school was more or less inoperative by that date. But he moved to the island of Rhodes where he ran a highly successful school. This was part of the decentralization of philosophy its drift away from Athens. Now, there are ways in which Panaetius and Posidonius are importantly innovative, and ways in which they are not. By and large, the amount of variety they bring to Stoicism is no different from the sort of differences that had been rife in the earlier history of the school before that. But one thing that's very well known about them is that they took a new and very close look at the writings of Plato. They really tried to bring Plato into the Stoic fold in a way that nobody had done before. This wasn't a radical break, however, because even before Panaetius his own predecessor, Antipater, had written a book arguing that all the major Stoic theses were ones that they shared with Plato. In other words, the idea of forming an alliance with Platonism was already present in the school. But Panaetius took that further, and Posidonius further still. Indeed, there’s one famous, or some would say notorious, fact about Posidonius, which is that he actually abandoned Chrysippus's main thesis in psychology and replaced it with a Platonic one. What was this? Well, according to Chrysippus, and he claimed that he was developing the views of Zeno here, passions, strongly emotive states, are in fact intellectual states. They're states of judgment. So let's say you're celebrating a lottery win. You're jumping for joy or doing things that lottery winners do, such as spraying champagne over everybody. This either is, or is a function of, the belief that having a lot of money is a good thing, which is false, and also that this kind of behavior is appropriate to somebody who's had that happen to them. And Chrysippus had developed an impressive and very successful psychological theory of that same intellectualist kind, which was derived ultimately, I suppose, from Socrates. But Posidonius took the view that this theory was quite inadequate, because actually our emotions don't always keep pace with our judgment. So it may be that a year down the road you still think it was a good thing to win the lottery, but you no longer feel elated. So the emotion has some degree of psychological independence. And there were various illustrations of that kind to show that it's much better to treat emotion and reason as having some degree of separation. So what did Posidonius do? He reverted to Plato's theory. Plato had in the Republic, and also in the Timaeus, maintained that the soul in fact has three parts, two of which are non-rational. And Posidonius reverted to a version of that Platonic doctrine. 

Peter Adamson: So it sounds like one thing that marks this period of Stoicism then is a kind of syncretism, maybe even an aggressive move against other schools, where you try to claim that all of their insights can kind of fit under the teaching of your own school. Is that part of the motivation for what they're doing? 

David Sedley: I don't think I t's a case of aggression, but rather forming an alliance. And syncretism can be seen as a kind of alliance. I like the word syncretism better than another one that's sometimes used, eclecticism. Eclecticism is a kind of mix-and-match idea, suggesting that you might pick ideas at random and put them together. But actually the kind of move Posidonius was making in bringing Plato back into the Stoic fold was a kind of dynasty building. Its concern was philosophical ancestry and pedigree, because a question the Stoics had to ask themselves was “Whose insights are we trying to uncover, develop, and embody in our own lives?” The usual, certainly the early Stoic view, and I think the favourite one, was Socrates. Socrates was the one person who was known to have lived a genuinely philosophical life. Stoicism is, more than anything else, an attempt to discover the theories that will enable us all to be like Socrates. So when it is said that early Stoics had an interest in Plato, what this really means is two things. One is that they're reading Plato in order to understand Socrates better. And another is, as came up a little earlier, that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had studied in the Academy, so he'd actually absorbed quite a lot of ideas from the Timaeus. And these became part of Stoicism, whether or not all Stoics recognised their Platonic pedigree. Now Posidonius was seeking to go one step further than this. His idea was that not Plato but Plato’s earliest forerunner would be the ultimate authority. When in the Timaeus Plato described the tripartite soul, with its two irrational parts,  his main speaker Timaeus was in Posidonius’ eyes a Pythagorean. And the real reason why Plato was important was that through him one might hope to work one’s way back towards that ancient and very august authority, Pythagoras himself – a legendary sage and cult-figure of the sixth century BC, who had left no writings, if indeed he ever wrote anything, which is doubtful. The only way you could learn his insights was via writers you believed to have been strongly influenced by him. And Plato was one such conduit. 

Peter Adamson: To some extent that carries on through to the so-called Roman Stoics, in other words, the Stoics who work after the fall of the Republic, right? Because Seneca takes Plato as a kind of inspiration in some discussion about Socrates's influence on Epictetus and so on. So, well, I guess two questions: One is whether that's right. And the other is, if that is right, then is there anything really distinctive about these later Roman Stoics? Or do they take Stoicism in a new direction at all? Or do they just kind of keep doing what Posidonius had been doing? 

David Sedley: Well the answer to that is going to be quite a complicated one. Certainly, Platonism is in the background to Seneca's writing. But I think the figure of Socrates is the more important one. Although these Roman writers had plenty of interest in other areas of Stoicism, their greatest contribution to philosophy was undoubtedly ethical. Practical ethics was the area in which Stoicism continued to have influence even when Stoicism as such had ceased to be taught. Stoics like Epictetus, Seneca, and even Cicero (whose De Officiis can be classed as a  Stoic work) were the leaders in this field. So even when Stoicism ceased to be a live movement, as it seemingly did  by the end of the second century AD, Stoic ethical writing - notably the Handbook of Epictetus – survived as a component  of the Platonist curriculum. Now where did that come from? Well, more than anything else from their own particular evaluation of Socrates. So Socrates remains an extremely important figure. To give you just one illustration, the Romans had a long tradition of honourable suicide, and that Roman Stoic hero, the younger Cato, committed a very Stoic and very Socratic suicide during the Civil War. To preserve his integrity it seemed to him better to die than to accept Caesar’s pardon. And in the build-up to his suicide, he did two significant things. One of them was to discourse on the theme, “Only the wise man is free”. The availability of suicide as an alternative to moral compromise is a Stoic’s ultimate guarantee of freedom. That's a very Roman use of Stoicism. They didn't call it suicide, but a “rational departure” from life. And that means that the reason you're free is that you can always choose to die rather than accept a compromise with a tyrant, or perform some other immoral act. That may require suicide, but it may, as in the case of Socrates, involve simply not avoiding an impending death. The other thing that Cato did, and this is the second thing I was going to mention, was to spend his last hours reading and rereading Plato's description of Socrates' death in the Phaedo. So here's the point: the freedom to choose your own moment of death, and to preserve your integrity by doing so, is a thoroughly Socratic ideal. It was, of course, how Socrates had made his own “rational departure"  – not by suicide, but by refusing to break the law in order to avoid execution. Perhaps it took a Roman Stoic to appreciate to the full just how potent a weapon this freedom can be.


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