Episode 45: Stoic Physics and Esoteric Metaphysics

Stoic physical theory is a fascinating subject in its own right, but in this episode we try to do the right thing and concentrate on the key concepts of the Stoa’s thoughts about how the world works which have strong resonances in western esotericism. We break down the basics of three key points of reference – pneuma, sympatheia, and logos – giving a simplified explanation of how they work in Stoic theory and then adumbrating how they developed and mutated in various esoteric traditions of antiquity and down the centuries thereafter.

Special thanks to Dr Paul Scade for his insights into Stoic Physics and related subjects (because, for the Stoics, it’s all related!), and for the cracking bibliography.

Works Discussed in this Episode:


  • Anaximines DK B2.
  • Brown, James (1970). Super Bad (King Records 6329).
  • John: the famous opening lines of the Gospel of John: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
  • Praxagoras of Cos: his work survives only in Galen and other ancient medical writers. I haven’t bothered to dig up the original references, but the wikipedia article pretty much tells you what you need to know.
  • Sinistrari, Ludovico Maria, Demoniality (De daemonialitate et incubis et succubis, MS 1680, printed 1875. The original Latin with English translation (1875) can be found online.


  • Kirk, G., 1954. Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Mortley, R., 1986. From Word to Silence. Hanstein, Bonn. Two vols. We quote Volume I, p. 16.
  • Sambursky, S., 1959. Physics of the Stoics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. Suggests that the Stoic theory of pneumatic tonos might be considered the first ‘field theory’ in western physics.

Recommended Reading:

Our surviving evidence for Stoic physics and metaphysics is limited and often extremely difficult to access. No complete Stoic text survives from the hand of the first three heads of the Stoa. Unfortunately, while the major Roman Stoics were very interested in ethics, they wrote very little on the physical side of the philosophy. As a consequence, the technical details often have to be reconstructed from highly fragmentary evidence transmitted by later writers who often had agendas of their own.

The community of scholars working on Stoic physics and metaphysics is relatively small, in part due to the difficulty of the source material and of the theories themselves, and in part due to a much greater modern interest in the ethics of the school. As such, scholarly developments move relatively slowly and the range of literature available is narrower than that for many other major philosophical schools.

Starting Points

The most valuable starting points for reading about the Stoics, and about their physics in particular, are two works published in the 80s and 90s that were important milestones in the study of Hellenistic philosophy more broadly.

  • Long, A.A., & Sedley, D.N., 1986, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vol., Cambridge.

Long and Sedley, as it is known, marked a seminal jumping off point for the modern study of the Stoics. Volume I, p. 266-343 devotes a chapter to each major topic related to Stoic physics. Each chapter collects together the most important primary sources and then discusses them in a short interpretative essay (normally 2-3 pages). These essays have provided the foundations for most subsequent scholarly discussions.

  • Algra, K.A., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J. and Schofield, M. (eds.), 1999, The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge.

The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy brings together important discussions from the major figures working on the subject, summarising the state of scholarly play at the end of the ’90s and is the most recent comprehensive treatment of the topic. David Sedley provides a wide-ranging analysis of Stoic physics at p. 382-411, while David Furley discusses Stoic cosmology at p. 432-451. Jaap Mansfeld’s chapter on theology (p. 452-478) does not divide itself by schools, rather treating the various Hellenistic theories alongside each other, but the reflections on Stoicism here are no less valuable for that.

More Broadly

  • Algra, K., 1995, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought, Leiden.
  • ————, 2009, “Stoic Philosophical Theology and Graeco-Roman Religion”, in Ricardo Salles (ed.), God and Cosmos in Stoicism. Oxford University Press (2009).
  • Bailey, D. T. J., 2014, “The Structure of Stoic Metaphysics”, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 46 : 253–309 (2014).
  • Barnes, J., 1988, “Bits and Pieces”, in Barnes and Mignucci (eds.) 1988: 223-94.
  • Barnes, J., & Mignucci, M. (eds.), 1988, Matter and Metaphysics, Naples.
  • Betegh, G., 2003, “Cosmological Ethics in the Timaeus and Early Stoicism”, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy.
  • Bobzien, Susanne, 1998, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, New York, NY.
  • Boeri, M., 2001, “The Stoics on Bodies and Incorporeals”, Review of Metaphysics 54 : 723-752.
  • Brunschwig, 1988, “La théorie stoïcienne du genre supreme et l’ontologie platonicienne”, in Barnes and Mignucci (eds.) 1988: 19-127. English translation in Brunschwig 1994: 92-157.
  • ———————–, 1994, Papers in Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge.
  • ———————–, 2003, “Stoic Metaphysics”, in Inwood (ed.) 2003: 206-232.
  • Eunyoung Ju, A., 2009, “The Stoic Ontology of Geometrical Limits”, Phronesis 54 : 371-389.
  • Gill, C., 2003, “The School in the Roman Imperial Period”, in Inwood (ed.) 2003: 33-58.
  • ———, 2004b, “The Stoic Theory of Ethical Development: In What Sense is Nature a Norm?” in F. Szaif and M. Lutz-Bachman (eds.).
  • Hahm, D., 1977, The Origins of Stoic Cosmology, Ohio.
  • Ierodiakonou, K. (ed.), 1999, Topics in Stoic Philosophy, Cambridge.
  • Inwood, B. (ed.), 2003, The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, Cambridge.
  • Kidd, I.G., 1978, “Philosophy and Science in Posidonius”, in Antike und Abendland XXIV: 7-15.
  • Lapidge, M., 1973, “Archai and Stoicheia: a Problem in Stoic Cosmology”, in Phronesis 18: 240-78.
  • Lokke, H., 2014, “The Active Principle in Stoic Philosophy”, in Juhani Pietarinen & Valtteri Viljanen (eds.), The World as Active Power: Studies in the History of European Reason. Leiden.
  • Long, A.A., (ed.), 1971, Problems in Stoicism, London.
  • ————–, 1996, Stoic Studies, Berkeley.
  • Mansfeld, J., 2003, “Zeno on the Unity of Philosophy”, Phronesis 48 : 116-131.
  • Menn, S., 1999, “The Stoic Theory of Categories”, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 17, Oxford, 215-248.
  • Papazian, M., 1999, “Stoic Ontology and the Reality of Time”, Ancient Philosophy 19 : 105-119.
  • Mueller, I., 2004, “Remarks on Physics and Mathematical Astronomy and Optics in Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus, and Some Stoics”, in Apeiron vol. 37, no. 4 : 57-87.
  • Reydams-Schils, G., 1999, Demiurge and Providence: Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato’s Timaeus, Turnhout.
  • Sambursky, S., 1959, The Physics of the Stoics, London.
  • Sedley, D.N., 1982, “The Stoic Criterion of Identity”, in Phronesis 27: 255-275.
  • —————, 1985, “The Stoic Theory of Universals”, in The Southern Journal of Philosophy 23 Suppl., Memphis, TN, 87-92.
  • —————, 1993, “Chrysippus on Psychophysical Causality”, in Brunschwig and Nussbaum (eds.) 1993: 313-31
  • —————, 2002, “The Origins of Stoic God”, in Frede and Laks (eds.) 2002: 41-83.
  • —————, 2003, “The School, from Zeno to Arius Didymus”, in Inwood (ed.) 2003: 7-32.
  • —————, 2008, “Stoic Metaphysics at Rome”, In Metaphysics, Soul, and Ethics in Ancient Thought. Themes from the Work of Richard Sorabji, edited by Salles, Ricardo, 117-142. Oxford.
  • Szaif, F. and Lutz-Bachman, M. (eds.), 2004, Was ist fuer den Menschen Gute?/What is Good for a Human Being?, Berlin/New York, NY.
  • White, N., 1985, “The Role of Physics in Stoic Ethics”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 23, Supplement (Proceedings of the Spindel Conference), 54-74.
  • White, M., 1992, The Continuous and the Discrete: Ancient Physical Theories from a Contemporary Perspective, Oxford.
  • ————, 2003, “Stoic Natural Philosophy (Physics and Cosmology)”, in Inwood (ed.) 2003: 124-152.


, , , , , , , , , ,