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The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 3, July 2007
pp. 490-491 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0053

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Gretchen Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. xi + 210. Cloth, $35.00.

In The Roman Stoics, Gretchen Reydams-Schils draws broadly from Cicero, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Hierocles, Marcus Aurelius, and a couple of others, but her purpose is neither comprehensive nor introductory. Rather, she focuses on issues in their work that are less prominent in what survives from earlier Greek Stoics. Musonius Rufus, Hierocles, and an Antipater (possibly Antipater of Tarsus, as Reydams-Schils assumes) all leave works on marriage, and Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus give extended attention to personal relationships. Reydams-Schils asks how Stoics integrate personal relationships into their apparently impersonal philosophical outlook.

Drawing on Foucault's and Hadot's picture of ancient philosophy as care for the self, Reydams-Schils argues that the Roman Stoics cultivate the self to mediate between their philosophical ideals and their particular social situation. This mediating self, Reydams-Schils believes, allows the Stoics to put their ideals into practice without—as many have charged—simply conforming to their society.

After a brief introduction, The Roman Stoics divides into five chapters. The first chapter develops the idea of the self as a mediator. The second addresses Stoic thoughts about social relationships generally. The third through fifth concern relationships with fellow-citizens, children, and spouses, respectively.

The book is ambitious in its scope, clear in its prose, and filled with perceptive, judicious readings of well-chosen passages. Reydams-Schils has her finger on a central question about the practice of Stoicism, and offers a plausible way of addressing it. Anyone who still believes that Stoics were impersonal, or doubts that the Roman Stoics offer anything worth philosophical attention, should read this book.

Still, I have some quibbles. Reydams-Schils speaks broadly of "the Roman Stoics" and usually gives the impression of general agreement among them, but I doubt that the figures she treats agree deeply on all the issues she addresses. More attention to their varying responses to the Cynic side of Stoicism would bring this out. She also, at least occasionally (e.g., 81–82), suggests that the Roman Stoics' attachment to personal relationships surpasses that of the earlier Greek Stoics, but I doubt this. She does not treat enough evidence to sustain such a sweeping claim, and I do not think that there is enough evidence for it.

These quibbles are not heavy news—certainly not to Reydams-Schils, who knows that the details are messy. But some of the messy details that are offstage in The Roman Stoics concern the metaphor that characterizes how to put Stoic ideals into social practice. Here my historical quibbles ride tandem with some philosophical worries that go to the heart of Reydams-Schils' project.

The metaphor of mediation suggests that the Stoic has two sets of commitments between which he or she needs to negotiate. Some of the texts suggest this picture, such as the account of duties that correspond to different roles (personae) (see esp. Cicero, de Officiis, I, 93–151). As a human being, I have a role to play and a corresponding set of duties. As a person in a particular social situation, I have another role to play and another corresponding set of duties. To live well, I need to negotiate between these sets of duties. Perhaps this means that we must mediate between ideals and ordinary social practices. [End Page 490]

This idea might be useful for advising others who are far from Stoic sagacity, and for coming to grips with our own dilemmas. But the metaphor of mediation unfortunately suggests that philosophical ideals and our social situation call independently for distinct practices between which one must negotiate. There are other, more promising strands of Stoic thinking about the relation between general preferences and particular commitments, including a suggestive strand about responding to one's particular circumstances.

On one way of understanding these suggestions, the Stoic recognizes that her nature expresses itself in a wide range of general attitudes—for health, against pain, for sharing with her spouse, for helping human beings as such, etc.—that do not directly compete because they do not...