Episode 43: Christopher Gill on Stoicism

The influence of Stoicism on western esotericism is an interesting and complex one, which we shall be examining over the course of several episodes. But we here at the SHWEP always like to understand the background, so in this episode we get expert help from Professor Christopher Gill, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, in delineating the basics of who the Stoics were and what they were doing.

We concentrate first on drawing an outline of the bare historical story of Stoicism as a movement:

  • The general chronological outline of the birth, rise, and eventual disappearance of Stoicism from the third century BCE to the third century CE,
  • The (rather poor) state of the documentary sources for Stoicism,
  • The background of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, in the post-Socratic philosophical schools at Athens, and his philosophic career teaching in the Painted Stoa at Athens,
  • The spread of Stoicism to the Roman world, beginning in the Republican period, and the milieu of philosophy in the post-Hellenistic (that is, Roman) period, in which period we find:
  • The Latin-language Stoic writers Seneca, Epictetus, and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius,
  • Followed by the eclipse of Stoicism in the third century, when the school, as far as we can tell, dried up.

We then turn to Stoic ideas:

  • A naturalistic material universe in which there is nevertheless an indwelling, rational, divine principle ordering the whole for the best,
  • This principle, which goes under a bewildering number of titles in Stoicism (including god, active cause, fate, pneuma, fire, and logos), is immanent within material reality. The Stoics reject the idea of transcendence.
  • The Stoic idea of providence, and how it is understood to work,
  • Stoic ethics: Virtue is knowledge, virtue is unified, and no one does wrong willingly. Virtue is the only good, and is potentially achievable by all human beings, though in practice it is rare.
  • Some insights into the class of knowledge which the Stoics called logic or dialectics: formal logic, the nature of material things and their actions, the nature of knowledge and sense-perception, and so on.

This episode gives us a perfect jumping-off point for discussing the ‘esotericisation’ of Stoic materials which occurs in Platonist philosophy and esoteric religious currents of later antiquity, the subject of the next two episodes.

Interview Bio:

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. His earlier academic appointments were at Yale, Bristol and Aberystwyth universities. He has written a number of academic books, especially on ancient ethics and psychology: the best known are Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue (Oxford, 1996) and The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006). He is currently writing a book on Stoic ethics and its potential contribution to modern debate in moral philosophy. He is also actively involved in a movement presenting Stoic ethical ideas to a broad public audience especially through the online course, ‘Live like a Stoic for a Week’ (as discussed in the members’ episode following this one). He is a widower, with four adult sons, and lives in a peaceful house near the University of Exeter campus, where this podcast was recorded.

Works Discussed in this Episode:

The standard edition of the fragments of the earlier Stoics remains Arnim, J. (Ed.), 1905-24. Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta. Teubner, Leipzig. Its thematic arrangement makes it somewhat of a hassle to use, but it is nevertheless the place to go to follow up on the Greek authors discussed in this episode.

  • ‘Lumpers and splitters’:  Isaiah Berlin did not coin this phrase but Prof Gill associates it with the central contrast in his famous essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ (first published 1953, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London). The intended contrast was between those who think in holistic or unified terms (the Stoics) and those who subdivide reality into two or more clearly defined parts (Plato, and followers of Plato such as Galen). The contrast is developed more fully in C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (2006), pp. 14-29, and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism (2010), pp. 14-17.
  • In John Betjeman’s poem ‘In Westminster’, a prayer satirically placed in the mouth of a rich, fashionable lady, includes the lines: ‘Lord, put beneath thy special care/ One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square’. This is very much not what the Stoics mean by divine or universal providence.

Recommended Reading:

Professor Gill has published a translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations ( Marcus Aurelius : Meditations, Books 1-6, Oxford, the University Press 2013) which is highly recommended. Also good on the Stoics are his

  • The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006).
  • Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism (2010).

On the Stoics more generally, the ever-helpful Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good introductory article.

Essential reading for anyone wanting to grapple with the Stoics themselves is:

  • Long, A. and Sedley, D., 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vol.1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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