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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.2 (2006) 317-318
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This book is the best introductory survey of Stoic moral psychology and ethics currently available. It is divided into four main sections: (i) a general introduction to the ancient Stoics, our historical sources, and the philosophical presuppositions of ancient ethics; (ii) a chapter on psychology and epistemology; (iii) a chapter on deeper issues in Stoic ethics; and (iv), a chapter on fate, compatibilism, and the historical development of the will. This structure reflects Brennan's distinctive approach to the topic. His recent articles have made significant contributions to our understanding of Stoic psychology, especially their doctrines of emotion, volition, reasonable impressions, and the practice of reservation. In this book, Brennan marshals this understanding to explain some of the most challenging aspects of Stoic ethics and dispel many of its popular misconceptions.
Unlike his previous work, this book is written for non-specialists. Commentary on the secondary literature is minimal and mostly confined to endnotes, although each section is accompanied by suggestions for further reading. The chapters are peppered with contemporary examples intended to make the concerns of ancient Stoicism intelligible to an undergraduate philosophy student or interested layperson: the Muller-Lyer lines are used to illustrate the distinction between impression and assent; consideration of Newcomb's paradox introduces the Lazy Argument; 'Fred' and 'Sally' replace the traditional 'Dion' and 'Theon.' Of course, even a non-technical book must take a stand on certain controversial issues. Those familiar with debates in the secondary literature will find a wealth of insights and arguments just below the surface of Brennan's plainspoken style. Perhaps the most important are his responses to Rachel Barney's analysis of the game analogy in Stoic ethics (see "A Puzzle in Stoic Ethics," Phronesis 43 (2003), 303–40) and to Suzanne Bobzien's work on Stoic compatibilism (see Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford, 1998). But the book's most valuable contribution is the clear and systematic way that Brennan lays out the psychological foundation of the Stoic system in the second chapter. Brennan offers a number of excellent definitions for key Stoic terms and subtly detaches them from misleading and anachronistic associations. The result is a systematic explanation of Stoicism that makes some of its most paradoxical aspects at least intelligible, if not entirely convincing. Indeed, this is characteristic of Brennan's overall approach to the Stoics: he expresses admiration for the philosophical rigor of Chrysippus's systematic philosophy, but does not hesitate to criticize those points that he finds indefensible. In the final chapter, for example, he finds Chrysippus's arguments in favor of compatibilism ingenious, but fatally flawed. The more interesting question, he asserts, is why the Stoics felt compelled to defend such a position. The answer is found in commitments stemming from other areas of Stoic philosophy. "Sometimes the features most worth preserving," Brennan writes in conclusion, "are exactly the broad outlines, the structural and architectonic connections between parts.…In studying Stoicism, we can find all sorts of small phrases and images that are attractive and easily taken away. But we can also learn from the interconnectedness of the whole system, even when we can no longer support or embrace the system as a whole" (320). It is in moral psychology that these parts all come together, both in Stoicism and (I think Brennan would agree) in contemporary philosophy. Brennan's analysis of the Stoics' contributions will make fascinating reading for anyone interested in this topic. [End Page 317]
My only complaints about the book concern the quality of the formatting. The chapter headings and page numbers are on the bottom of the page, the subheadings within the chapter are not in bold and so difficult to distinguish from the text, and the table on page 72 seems to be misaligned. These aspects unfortunately combine to give the hardback edition a disappointing, draft-like appearance uncharacteristic of the Oxford...