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Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life : Emotions, Duties, and Fate

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, 340 p.
Vladimír Mikes
p. 286-289
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Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life : Emotions, Duties, and Fate, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, 340 p.

Texte intégral

1The acuity of T.B.’s shorter contributions to Stoic ethics in the last decade was certainly sufficient reason to greet with satisfaction the book in which he finally offers his overall interpretation of the subject. His previously published arguments were evidently based on a thorough general view without which it was sometimes difficult to appreciate their full strength. The extent to which T.B. is generous this time in giving his general view is obvious from the title of the book. T.B. attempts no less than to show what it means to live life as a Stoic. This not only determines the scope of his subject but also his approach to it. T.B. intends to present an original scholarly work in the form of an introduc­tory philosophical essay which might be read by anybody interesded in grasping the real meaning of Stoicism (through a set of popular misconceptions which need to be dissolved). No doubt T.B. succeeds in so far as the form is con­cerned. Unfortunately, the need to speak to a broader audience allows him to make his task as the interpreter of Stoicism sometimes easier than he should.

2The scope of the book covers Stoic psychology, ethics and fate which cor­respond roughly to the three items in the subtitle of the book and are discussed in the three central parts (II-IV), inserted between rather a long general intro­duction (I) and a conclusion (V). This vast project is managed with exemplary clarity of language in all its particular issues, often representing points of contro­versy in modern literature.

3The three main topics, however, are not equally important. As the intro­duction makes already clear (p. 35-45) and the outcome of the whole work con­firms, T.B.’s main argument comes in the third, ethical part. The second part on psychology, including the interpretation of epistemology, has thus a double, but still minor goal : first, to explain the basic notions of impression, assent, belief, knowledge, impulse and emotion ; secondly, to sketch the first outline of the Stoic life as an endeavour in which irrational emotions are transformed into another kind of impulse, namely selection, on the basis of the proper under­standing of values. Some points of T.B.’s analysis are interesting in its own right, apart from the ethical context. As for what is probably the most important of these, I believe he is right in showing that the Stoics might have spoken of assenting to impression as well as to proposition without contradicting them­selves. I am, however, not convinced by his claim that they approved of “kata­leptic impressions of non-corporeal propositions” (p. 79, 108). The fragment which he uses (SVF II, 85) proves only the existence of “non-perceptual kataleptic impressions” as he says himself when introducing it (p. 78).

4One of the reasons why T.B.’s main contribution – the interpretation of Stoic ethics in the third part of the book – deserves close attention, is that it is an attempt to solve a problem. Though this problem has haunted some inter­preters for a long time, it was probably most recently and most clearly stated by R. Barney (A Puzzle in Stoic Ethics, OSAP, 24 [2003]). She pointed out that the Stoic concept of virtue as pure rationality, which is potentially present in every particular action while being detached from its particular content, makes it dif­ficult to explain how virtue may play any role in motivation for an action (which is something that the Stoics apparently presupposed given their verbal approval of just and – in today’s terminology – altruistic behaviour). R. Barney concludes that Stoic theory manifests indeterminacy and (constructive) ambiguity at this point. This conclusion amounts, however, to a charge of incoherence and T.B. takes up the Stoic’s case to prove that their theory is coherent and applicable to the above-mentioned type of action.

5Before he arrives at his solution, he sets to a thorough investigation of basic components of Stoic ethics to indicate exactly where the problem lies. It is in these chapters, dealing with the Stoic notions of good, indifferents (ch. 8), telos (ch. 9), oikeiosis (ch. 10) and kathekon (ch. 11), that the most interesting analyses of this work are to be found. T.B. studies fundamental Stoic distinctions in the context of the controversies with their opponents in order to develop the full-blown picture of ethics according to which virtue is the only good. On the one hand, the good makes all other things indifferent, while on the other it allows for their differentiation (promoted (proegmena) and demoted indifferents) since virtue as pure rationality may manifest itself only in rational selection among indifferents. This basic structure, which sets apparently two targets for each action (its rationality per se and promoted indifferents) of which only one is a real goal, makes it indeed puzzling how we can conceive of virtue. T.B. makes this even clearer by his critical assessment of the model of game used in some ancient sources and in modern literature : it is right that in games we rationally pursue things which we do not believe to have a real value, but this does not make clear what establishes the exclusive value of virtue in the real “game” of life nor how this value functions in our decisions. Facing this unsettled question, T.B. presents the structure of human deliberations as entirely focused on befitting action (kathekon) oriented only towards acquisition of indifferents. His answer to the puzzle is thus as follows : virtue as such, i.e. as a separate motivating force, is not present in human action at all. This claim he supports by reference to the famous Stoic sharp division between virtue and vice manifested by a figure of “progressor” (person advanced in virtue) who apparently can do exactly the same things as the sage without being in the least virtuous (p. 176-180). This shows, according to T.B., that not only the mind of the “progressor”, but even the mind of the sage does not know virtue as a motivational force. If there are some expressions of Cicero (De off. 3, 13) which suggest the opposite – a “Salva virtute” model of behaviour according to which virtuous action is on particular occasions an alternative to simple pursuit of our profit – we should not be misled : the more accurate model is that of “Indifferents only”.

6At this point T.B. finally encounters Barney’s problem of how to explain Cicero’s stoical encouragement to just behaviour and altruism, and, not least, how to understand the love for virtue and “noble unconcern for everything indifferent” of the Stoic sage (p. 203-204). T.B.’s solution consists in showing that the world of indifferents is more structured than we thought. In every action we are supposed not only to pursue the promoted indifferents for our­selves, but we must make sure that in doing so we do not hurt others and that we have regard for communal welfare (p. 211, 225). This three-level model of “No Shoving” deals still exclusively with the indifferents – and this is the core of T.B.’s ingenuity. Cicero’s hints at justice (and at virtue once, by a slip of the tongue, p. 211) do not refer to real virtue but only to a particular “arrangement of indifferents” (p. 210). It remains to say what real Stoic virtue is : it is but a fixity of the sage’s mind (p. 177-179) and in order to become virtuous it is suf­ficient to select promoted indifferents consistently and without any mistakes (p. 223).

7So, do we now understand what the Stoic life and Stoic virtue are ? I doubt it. In light of the Stoic’s insistence that virtue is mere rationality, it is under­standable that T.B. tries to exclude it as a motivational force. But can he really do it consistently ? To start with, his exclusion of virtue is somewhat unclear : are explicit thoughts about virtue excluded from motivation (p. 223), or thoughts about one’s own virtue (p. 216), or virtuous thoughts ? He is perhaps right to refuse the first two possibilities, but not the last. In fact, for more reasons than one, he cannot do this. First, virtue is knowledge, as the Stoics make clear, and as such it is not a mere fixity of knowing : it is knowing of something – this conclusion cannot be avoided and the Stoics certainly do not try to do it. From what T.B. himself says when he explains what he means by fixity (p. 177-179), it is clear that virtue has a certain substance, as it were : it is a system of knowledge, completeness of which brings about the character of stability to all of its parts and particular manifestations. This doesn’t mean that a virtuous person has yet some particular knowledge not accessible to non-virtuous, it shows that we may well think of virtue as becoming itself the very thoughts which previously were not virtuous.

8Secondly, we may see a different sense in which we have virtuous thoughts when we consider T.B.’s admission of “eupathic desire for the good”, under­stood by him as a second impulse ratifying the first impulse of selection of indifferents and reserved only to the sage (p. 223). However, so far as he speaks about desire for good, not only he admits that virtue does involve more than a mere fixity of disposition, but he casts doubt also on his argument, repeated several times, that virtue does not play any role in deliberations of non-virtuous, because they do not ex definitione have virtue (e.g. p. 222). Nobody making progress has virtue, but one may have a desire for good in the sense that one strives to complete one’s system of knowledge and to perform kathekonta perfectly. Virtue in this sense does play a motivating role in everybody’s actions. And it is also this last silent presupposition which makes T.B.’s “No Shoving” model work. How else could we find any hierarchical structure amongst mere indifferents ? That is, how else could we conclude that the welfare of many is more valuable than ours, unless we have access to a criterion which is not an indifferent ?

9This last point touches finally the core of the problem : the Stoics are natura­list in the sense that they believe that virtue emerges in the course of our natural development, or more precisely, that we learn it somehow from our actions, from kathekonta. This aspect of their doctrine urges us to complement our idea of the detachedness of Stoic virtue with the idea of its gradual apprehension (which indeed from one point of view does not deserve the name of virtue before fully perfected). The perspective of virtue naturally learned is well repre­sented in the sources and it is interesting to notice that the key text for this view, Cicero’s De finibus, 3, 21, is missing in T.B.’s interpretation.

10If one reads Cicero’s passage, one can see finally not only that the virtue, far from being mere fixity, is knowledge, but that this knowledge has even some particular subject distinguished from indifferents, namely the homologia present in our own action. We are virtuous in so far as we perceive and desire this homo­logia, which in turn, we should suppose, requires some awareness of our parti­cipation in the universal nature (as Diogenes Laertios points out ; cf. VII, 86-87).

11The relation of virtue and universal nature is traditionally seen also in certain claims falling within the Stoic doctrine of fate. Given his interpretation of virtue, it is not very surprising that T.B. looks at the subject rather as an appendix. If we leave aside undoubtedly important observations about the Stoic’s role in the development of the concept of the will (ch. 17), the first two chapters of the fourth part (ch. 15, 16) should be principally a demonstration that the Stoic doc­trine of fate did not have, nor was envisaged to have, any crucial impact on their ethics (p. 288). T.B. just concentrates therefore on the Stoic’s defence of their doctrine against the opponents in antiquity. This is an occasion for him to launch his own criticism which, again, is telling in the light of his previous inter­pretation. In the end of his analysis of the so-called “Lazy argument” (ch. 16) he accuses Chrysippus of missing the real point of the attacks against him when responding with his theory of confatalia. I tend to think that it is rather T.B. who, thanks to his several reformulations of the original objection against the Stoics, misses the real point of the whole exchange. Chrysippus’ answer that our efforts are co-fated with certain events points out that in reality we are not in the posi­tion of deciding whether to call a doctor or not because we realize that the result is given. We decide to do what we believe we should and by this we fulfil the fate. Our actions are ours and fated in the same time. This is what puzzled his opponents and indeed constitutes the very core of the Stoic paradox. Whatever we think about the possibility of solving this paradox, we should not try to get rid of it by saying that it is not what Chrysippus should have wanted to answer. After all there are good reasons to think that it is just another way to express the general thesis that we are parts of the whole, which may be also a key to the Stoic notion of virtue as partial rationality in the rational universe.

12In this connection it is rather strange when at the very end of the book (p. 316-320) T.B. criticises interpretations of those Stoic fragments which express the concept of following fate, without giving his own view on them. This is unfortunately not the only time that he does not give an answer to ques­tions which he himself raised. Did he really explain, given his own interpretation of justice, the sage’s “noble unconcern for everything indifferent” (p. 204) ? Or did he make clear how virtue, the real Stoic virtue this time, presented by him as a pure form external to any selection of indifferents, determines “why we should have any interest in playing that game [with indifferents]” (p. 224) ? It is reason­able to suppose that if T.B. pursued these questions he would have to change his view on virtue and perhaps even reconsider whether his preliminary formula of the Stoic life as a substitution of passions by mere selection does not tell, after all, only half of the whole story.

13To sum up, when R. Barney diagnosed an incongruity in the Stoic doctrine, she put her finger on the real paradox which touches something essential of this teaching and which indeed needs a solution. I do not think that we have got it in this book. Given this view, perhaps it may be surprising, but no less sincere for that matter, if I say that T.B.’s book is an important contribution to the subject and it should not be missed by anybody with an interest in Stoic ethics. It is ob­vious that its main merits lie in its particular arguments and in their capacity to engage in a real dialogue – if one is ready, of course, to approach them as such, and is not content merely listening. There can be no doubt that a great deal of Socratic dialogue is still needed if we are to move forward in our understanding of Stoicism.

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Vladimír Mikes, « Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life : Emotions, Duties, and Fate »Philosophie antique, 8 | 2008, 286-289.

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Vladimír Mikes, « Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life : Emotions, Duties, and Fate »Philosophie antique [En ligne], 8 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2021, consulté le 10 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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