Book Review: Stoicism, A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism by Brad Inwood CoverBrad Inwood is professor of philosophy and classics at Yale University.  He is the author, or co-author, of several academic works on Stoicism and other forms of Hellenistic philosophy, including The Stoics Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (2008), an invaluable resource for anyone interested in early Stoicism.

His latest book, though, applies his scholarly credentials to the task of providing a short layman’s introduction to the subject of Stoicism.  First of all, I’d like to say that I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about Stoicism.  It’s a great little introduction.  There are more books and articles appearing on Stoicism now, many of which can be quite unreliable.  However, this is an authoritative introduction written by an academic philosopher and classicist specializing in the subject.  Inwood gives a balanced overview of Stoic Ethics, Physics and Logic.  As he describes, Physics and Logic are areas of Stoicism often neglected by modern students of Stoicism.  It does perhaps become slightly more “academic” in places, which might not suit everyone’s tastes.  This is inevitable to some extent, though, especially where he’s attempting to explain concepts  in ancient logic.  Nevertheless, overall, I think most intelligent readers will follow this book and benefit from it as an introduction.

Because he’s writing for a wider audience, Inwood also discusses the current resurgence of interest in Stoicism.  He mentions my writing and the work of the Modern Stoicism organization, of which I’m a member, as well as others who have been involved with our work on Stoicism or who are part of the wider movement, such as Ryan Holiday and Lawrence Becker.  For example, referring to the modern-day growth of interest in Stoicism as a guide to self-improvement he writes:

Some relatively recent books underline the point: Elen Buzaré’s Stoic Spiritual Exercises (explicitly building on the work of Pierre Hadot) and Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the author is a psychotherapist specializing in cognitive-behavioural therapy and has published an essay in Stoicism Today: ‘Providence or Atoms? Atoms! A Defence of Being a Modern Stoic Atheist’). Add to that The Daily Stoic website and the book of the same title by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman offering sage advice for every day of the year and it seems that Stoicism is all around us.

That brings me to one of the central questions that Inwood raises in the book.  The vast majority of people today who embrace Stoic ethics as a guide to life have little or no interest in ancient Stoc Physics and Logic.  These are topics still being researched by academic philosophers like Inwood but they’re largely neglected by modern followers of Stoicism and the self-improvement literature in this area.

What About Stoic Physics and Logic?

In Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, I stated my belief that Stoic Ethics can be of value today without belief in the dogmas of ancient Stoic Physics or studying Stoic Logic.  Inwood points out that some of the earliest and most influential authors to have influenced the modern resurgence of interest in Stoicism as a guide to life also placed more emphasis on the practical applications of Stoicism than upon the ancient theories underlying it:

[Pierre] Hadot is at times quite frank about his belief that the underlying theories don’t matter to philosophy as a way of life, claiming that the spiritual exercises come first and the doctrines are worked up later to support them (Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 282). [James] Stockdale doesn’t even mention underlying doctrines in physics, logic, and ethics—he wouldn’t have found any in the Handbook and it served his purpose well just as he remembered it.

Inwood notes that the early Greek Stoics appear to have stated that Ethics, Physics and Logic were closely  interconnected.  (At least some of them, that is, but we can’t say for certain that all Stoics would have agreed with this.)  However, the bulk of the surviving Stoic texts come from the Roman Imperial period, several centuries after the school was originally founded.   The “Big Three” Stoic authors most people are familiar with today are Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.  Their works focus primarily on applying Stoic ethics as a guide to life.  They do mention other aspects of Stoicism – Seneca wrote about Stoic Physics to some extent – but most of their surviving writings focus on applying ethics.  That has perhaps contributed to the modern perception of Stoicism as primarily an ethical discipline, and the closely-related conception of it as a psychological therapy.  These writings also represent the most accessible aspects of Stoicism. By contrast, most of the evidence relating to ancient Stoic Physics and Logic is fragmentary and more abstract or technical in nature, requiring greater scholarly effort to interpret.

Inwood notes that even these three Stoics appear to place varying degrees of importance on the more theoretical aspects of philosophy:

Marcus that technical expertise in logic and metaphysics is dispensable for the true Stoic. In general, where Marcus encourages the idea, adopted enthusiastically by Pierre Hadot, that the fundamental message of Stoicism, a moral creed, is somehow independent of physics and seriously argued theoretical enquiry, Seneca does just the opposite.

Inwood notes that although scholars are still fascinated by the fragments on Stoic Physics and Logic, for most people today “it would be hard to make the case that learning the details of ancient Stoic cosmology or mastering Chrysippus’ syllogistic theory would be part of a plan for living a better life, for achieving happiness or balance or contentment.”

Large Stoicism versus Minimal Stoicism

Inwood argues in this book that even early Greek Stoicism, in a sense, accommodated this sidelining of Physics and Logic.  From the time of Zeno, the founder of the school, Stoicism appears to have been divided into at least two distinct strands.  Zeno taught a threefold curriculum based on Ethics, Physics and Logic but one of his most famous students, Aristo of Chios, rejected the value of studying Physics and Logic.  Inwood calls this the Minimal Stoicism strand.  About a generation later, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school argued for a broader and more scholarly approach, which came to exemplify the reinvigorated Large Stoicism branch of the school, as Inwood calls it.

Modern Stoics aiming primarily to improve human lives through moral betterment, setting aside physics and logic, can see themselves as the heirs of Aristo’s tradition, one that goes back to the early days of the school. It’s not just our modern reliance on Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca that feeds this movement; a narrow focus on ethical improvement is also an authentic component of ancient Stoicism.

So modern Stoics, according to Inwood, are in good company in this respect and stand in a tradition that formed an important part of the early Greek Stoa before the time of Chrysippus.  However, as Inwood observes, although Aristo’s Minimal Stoicism was somewhat eclipsed in popularity by Chrysippus’ Large Stoicism, it certainly didn’t disappear without a trace.  His influence was felt throughout the entire history of the ancient Stoic school, right down to the time of Marcus Aurelius, almost five centuries later.  Indeed, one of Marcus Aurelius’ private letters suggests that he became fully converted to the life of a Stoic philosopher after reading Aristo’s writings.  If that’s correct, it would help to explain his relative lack of interest in Stoic Physics and Logic.

Nevertheless, Inwood wrestles somewhat with this question as to whether or not philosophers who insist that the goal of life is to live according to nature could ignore the study of nature.  How else, he asks, can we know what to follow?  And how can we embrace reason and philosophy as a way of life without studying logic?

A modern Stoic, then, might well be missing something if they are too steadfastly devoted to Minimal Stoicism or to practical ethics alone. Here, then, there are interesting questions to ask about the relationship between our two ways of engaging with Stoicism. How much of ancient Stoic logic does the modern Stoic need? Arguably none, as long as they are dedicated to living a fully rational life and have embraced today’s current best canons for reasoning as a guide and constraint. To the extent that Stoic logic played a supporting role in the ancient school we should be able to replace it with modern theories and practices of reasoning—as indeed many modern Stoics in practice do.

Things are more complicated, he admits, when it comes to the question of Stoic Physics.

Ancient Stoics, from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, thought of ethical progress within the context of a natural philosophy that rested on a kind of cosmic holism, deterministic and providential, guided by a divine intelligence with which human beings need to align themselves. Stoic physics claimed that humans have access to a godlike rationality which mirrors the reason that runs the world, that as a species we are superior to everything else in nature, that all other animals exist to serve our interests. All of nature is made of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and consists of a unique and finite cosmos with our earth at the centre. And so on. Ancient Stoic physics, then, is clearly obsolete and no reasonable person can believe in it any more. (italics added)

Modern Stoics, he says, surely cannot aspire to follow ancient Stoic Physics and theology in their daily lives!  Inwood thinks “no reasonable person” today would endorse ancient Stoic Physics as he concludes that it provides “no fit guide for modern rational life”.  Nevertheless, there are certainly a handful  of people around who claim to do so.  (Perhaps he’s unaware of them.)  So I’d qualify that slightly by saying that the vast majority of people today probably don’t agree with the whole of ancient Stoic Physics, or even its most prominent doctrines.  Those today who do believe that the universe is governed by a benign Provident being don’t usually refer to him as Zeus, don’t sing hymns to him like Cleanthes’ and don’t normally practice divination rituals.  Clearly even they feel the need to modify ancient Stoic Physics and theology quite substantially to adapt them to modern tastes.

So modern Stoics may be understood as heirs of Aristo and his ancient followers, who adhered to Minimal Stoicism.  However, Inwood wonders whether there’s still a possibility of salvaging Large Stoicism for an agnostic or atheistic worldview by replacing Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus’ belief in a universe ordered by Zeus, the divine father of mankind, with a modern scientific view of nature.  He refers readers to the work of the philosopher Lawrence Becker whose A New Stoicism (1998) attempts to provide a contemporary reworking of Stoic Ethics founded on modern logic and scientific psychology rather than ancient theological Physics.

If the fulfilment of a rational human being is to be found in using our reason to understand the world and to navigate our way within that world, then many if not most of us could embrace that aim. The Stoic ‘life according to nature’ could still be with us after all; it’s just that our modern conception of the natural world, our sense of what ‘the facts’ really are, has matured. Perhaps we don’t have to abandon natural philosophy to connect with Stoicism today; perhaps we just have to live according to our current understanding of nature rather than the obsolete cosmology that gave such comfort to Marcus Aurelius.

As Inwood points out, if we did retain the notion of following nature as an adherence to science and facts, we might retain determinism but we’d lose the ancient world’s comforting belief in Providence, the notion that we have a place assigned to us in the universe organized by a benevolent divine plan.  “But would the result still be Stoicism?” he asks.  His answer is that Becker’s version of Large Stoicism is certainly very different from that of Chrysippus but he leaves it up to the reader to decide if his philosophical project is successful or not.

We could, he says, just accept ancient Minimal Stoicism and just embrace Stoic Ethics without worrying too much about the other parts of the Stoic curriculum.  However, Inwood thinks it’s still worth striving for an updated version of Large Stoicism, like Becker attempted, which finds some role, albeit a fundamentally transformed and modernized one, for Physics and Logic.

Even if Stoicism for the modern world were significantly transformed by swapping out an obsolete understanding of the natural world for one based on our current best science, it would, I contend, still be worth doing. The intellectual attraction of ancient Stoicism as we’ve come to understand it in modern academic study lies above all in its integration, in its vision of a way of life rooted in the use of reason to navigate life and fulfil our nature as human beings, in the context of the best available understanding of our place in the world. Ancient Stoics believed, and so perhaps may some of us, that the good life is better to the extent that it encompasses everything that we can know about our place in the world. That, of course, is the vision of Large Stoicism, the vision of Cleanthes and Chrysippus, not of the Minimal Stoicism we discover in the philosophy of Aristo. Even for those of us who limit our exploration of Stoicism to Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca, this should still be the vision that inspires. For despite their apparently lop-sided focus on ethics they were nevertheless all adherents of Large Stoicism, believers in the providentially organized world that passed for the best science of their own day. It would be a lost opportunity if we were to respond to the obsolescence of ancient Stoic physics by pulling in our horns and settling for Minimal Stoicism. If there is any value in the arcane reconstructions of the ancient school for the modern thinker intrigued by Stoicism, it lies in this grand, integrative vision of a good human life, guided by the relentless and unsentimental use of reason in a quest for the best available understanding of the orderly world around us.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Stoicism, A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood”

  1. Thank you for this informative post!

    I have a question related to this: How do we know for certainly (with the ancient works) that the Ethics branch was the most important field for all the Stoics, and that Physics and Logic depends on it?
    In your book “Stoicism and the art of happiness” (page XXV and 220) you mention that Chrysippus (the most important Stoic and the philosopher that rejected Aristo’s Minimalism) said that the only reason to study Physics was for the sake of Ethics and that was studied mainly to progress in Ethics.
    Where can I find this quotation? (Cicero maybe?).
    I asking this because I think that if Ethics is the center and the most important ‘topoi’ for the ancient Stoics, then Stoicism undoubtedly works as a philosophy of life. But it is? Or some stoics disagree and thinks that Physics, or maybe Logic, is the center?

    Thank you very much for the answer! And for all your work (together with Brad Inwood, William B Irvine, Massimo Pigliucci)

    1. Plutarch says in On Stoic Self-Contradictions that in Chrysippus’ Propositions in Physics he writes “For the discussions of good and bd things must be linked to them since there is no better starting point or reference point and since the study of physics is not to be taken up for any other reason than to distinguish good from bad.” Wisdom itself is defined by the Stoics as the knowledge of this distnction between good and bad. We can’t really say for sure whether other Stoics thought physics or logic were more important than ethics because less than 1% of the literature survives. But from what does survive I’d say that we get the impression that most, perhaps all, Stoics make ethics the central focus of their philosophy.

  2. You are very unwilling to defend a modern version of Stoicism under the pretext that most people are not interested in Stoic logic and physics. Is it too much to study the whole of this philosophy and make the effort to understand it? It is obviously good to stay away from what one does not understand, especially if the Stoic concepts do not agree with current materialism and positivist science. I hesitated to answer your blog telling me that its content is out of my control, but I still let you know that one of your readers does not share your views. This does not mean that I do not appreciate your work, but the emphasis on a modern version seems exaggerated to me.

    1. This is a book review. Is it the author, Brad Inwood, that you’re talking about? I’ve spent most of my adult life writing about and teaching modern approaches to Stoicism. That doesn’t usually include a lot of emphasis on the Logic or Physics, mainly because few people today, as Inwood notes, are very interested in those aspects but that doesn’t mean that I’m not myself. Inwood is also personally interested in the whole subject.

  3. Experimentally I’d certainly agree, but where does purpose fit into the theories of modern physics? The trend among modern analytic philosophers is to propose that what we experience as purpose is the consequence of some non-purposive process. That our purpose doesn’t have any causative effect. Surely, a problem for Stoicism.

    1. I don’t really see the problem. What difference does it make if the cosmos lacks purpose as long as we have a purpose? Other ethical systems don’t necessarily worry about trying to ground ethics in theology or cosmology so why should the Stoics?

  4. Even in ancient times Stoics were admired for their insights into human thought and behavior. The only problem I didn’t see mentioned was the relation of human nature to the rest of nature. E.G. If there is no purpose in Nature then how can human nature act with purpose?

  5. Thank you for the review! Yes, it would be really interesting to get an update of the Large view. I personally would find it rather unsatisfying if we actually just choose our ethical beliefs instead of them being firmly rooted into reality/nature of things.

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