Logic and the Imperial Stoa (review)
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Reviewed by
Jonathan Barnes. Logic and the Imperial Stoa. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp xi + 165. Cloth, $66.00.

The author’s aim in this quirky monograph is not to reconstruct all that can be surmised about Stoic logic in the first two centuries A.D. of the Roman Empire, but rather to concentrate on the three Stoic authors whose extant texts contain remarks on logic. These imperial Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, are known for their emphasis on ethics and not for their contributions in either logic or physics. So it comes as some surprise that Barnes can find much to say about what these philosophers thought about logic. As Barnes presents it (defying chronology), “Marcus [End Page 357] introduces the comedy; Seneca features in the second act; and Epictetus is the hero” (ix).

In Chapter One, “The Decline of Logic,” Barnes concedes that Marcus had no interest in logic whatsoever, and that Seneca and Epictetus cannot be claimed to have advanced Chrysippus’ work in logic. Yet he refuses to concede that the ethical part of philosophy was the only part which was of any account in the social and intellectual debates of the time. Nor does he grant that after the second century B.C. Stoic logic was abandoned, neglected, or regarded as fossilized. Barnes concludes his short introduction by explaining that the Stoics divided ‘logic’ (λογιϰή) into rhetoric and ‘dialectic’ (διαλϵϰτιϰή). The latter was customarily divided into the study of ‘signifiers’ (including sound and voice) and the study of ‘things signified,’ which included sense impressions (ϕαντασίαι) and ‘sayables’ (λ´ϵϰτα). Consequently, Barnes observes that when an ancient philosopher is said to have rejected ‘logic,’ it is unclear whether that philosopher was rejecting what we moderns understand as logic, or psychological and physiological matters, epistemological entities, or items of linguistic theory.

In the second chapter, Barnes reasonably interprets texts in which Seneca cautions his friend Lucilius against mere sophistical quibbling about logical trivialities as evidence of Lucilius’ passion for logic. Seneca’s reservations about logic prove to be more nuanced than a cursory reading of his letters and essays might reveal. Barnes shows that Seneca does not urge us to abstain from logic pure and simple, but to abjure “a petty interest in piffling puzzles” (14). Moreover, Barnes argues, Seneca sees logic in itself as neutral. He scorns treating syllogisms as playthings or pompously parading them, since these frivolous uses have no beneficial ethical effect. Used as concise expressions of philosophical insight or elements within protreptic sermons, however, they are serious, valuable tools. Readers of Seneca are often tempted to brand his scattered remarks on various topics as ultimately inconsistent, so Barnes’ discernment of consistency in Seneca’s comments on logic is appealing. Yet to label Seneca a logical utilitarian and so a philistine (21) is only to fault him for not being a philosopher Barnes happens to like.

The chapter on Epictetus, divided into ten sections, comprises seven tenths of the book. Yet Epictetus figures as a strange sort of hero here. Barnes tendentiously characterizes Epictetus as offering the world “a pin-striped cynicism, Diogenes without the barrel” (25). This judgment is at odds with his bold claim, based on very fragile evidence, that “Epictetus was a devotee of the physical part of philosophy” (27). If Epictetus were a ‘pin-striped Cynic,’ why would he bother with physics at all? Barnes discusses how fashionable interest in logic was at the time and Epictetus’ objection to the widespread practice of exalting pure exegesis rather than discovering the truth and applying it to one’s life. Treatment of Epictetus’ view that, as rational beings, we are morally required to do logic, is followed by sections on logical analysis, hypothetical arguments, and changing arguments (λόγοι μϵταπίπτοντϵς). Unfortunately, offhand quips pepper this generally meticulous study. For example, Barnes sympathizes with the view that non-philosophers have greater practical wisdom than philosophers (40). This seems to reflect his low regard for philosophers who are serious about ethics, which may help explain why he finds it “difficult to avoid the thought that the attitudes [End Page 358] which he [Epictetus] recommended are both humanly impossible and morally disgusting” (25). Barnes avoids explaining why this thought is difficult...