Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations

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Steven K. Strange, Jack Zupko
Cambridge University Press, Jun 21, 2004 - Philosophy - 295 pages
Stoicism is now widely recognised as one of the most important philosophical schools of ancient Greece and Rome. But how did it influence Western thought after Greek and Roman antiquity? The question is a difficult one to answer because the most important Stoic texts have been lost since the end of the classical period, though not before early Christian thinkers had borrowed their ideas and applied them to discussions ranging from dialectic to moral theology. Later philosophers became familiar with Stoic teachings only indirectly, often without knowing that an idea came from the Stoics. The contributors recruited for this volume, first published in 2004, include some of the leading international scholars of Stoicism as well as experts in later periods of philosophy. They trace the impact of Stoicism and Stoic ideas from late antiquity through the medieval and modern periods.

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My one liner: A collection of articles which traces the development of the Stoic school from its origins through to it contemporary application. The early articles are seriously heavy going, but there are some real gems in here for the lay reader who perseveres.
Since I come to most of my reading as a non-specialist, I feel comfortable suggesting this book to the lay reader, even though some of the articles (particularly the first few) will be 75% impenetrable (although those with some school level Latin or Greek may be able to get that down to 50%). Indeed it gave me comfort when I read the opening paragraphs of the introduction, which says that in compiling the book there was a possible “High Road” approach and a “Low Road” approach, the latter “would focus less on questions that interested ancient Stoics and more on broader tendencies and trends, looking at the way Stoic doctrines were employed in new settings and against different competitors.” The editors have decided to take the low road. And therefore the reader can equally do likewise.
To that end, if you need a primer on Stoic philosophy, start, as always, with the Wikipedia entry on Stoicism. No shame there.
How can these be translated into our contemporary lifestyles, if at all ? The final essay in the collection is by Lawrence E. Becker on Stoic Emotion”. Becker takes us through contemporary developments and attempts to demonstrate that ancient Stoic principles can be applied to our modern lifestyles, with a few “adjustments to the ancient doctrines”. To take a concrete example, Becker tells us that “Neurophysiologists have identified at least four anatomically distinct structures in the “ancient” or subcortical portion of the human brain that generate affective senses –fear, rage, panic, and goal oriented desire”. But if these are neurologically generated, how can one then apply a Stoic discipline to controlling these ? The answer is broadly that the neurological response is a “raw” one. The cognitive content that turns it into full-fledged emotion can still be controlled and tamed.
Becker’s essay is interesting because it also forces us to answer some difficult questions about the “good” or value to society of emotions. The modern world seems to feed us with the view that expressing and feeling emotion is a good thing in its own right. But this is potentially problematic, as human emotion is arguably good only insofar as humans are emotional creatures and expressing emotion allows us to communicate with other humans using emotional gestures. In other words the argument is“frustratingly circular”. Stoics, on the other hand place much less value on emotion, valuing instead the cognitive response which allows us to control our emotions so as to reduce our material attachments. In turn this also makes us think about the nature of attachment, in particular attachment to others. A Stoic sage will love another person in a way that many would not recognise. In other words “she would not for example, become so attached to others that she literally cannot bear the prospect of losing them, any more than she would be attached to her own life in a way that made the prospect of her own death unbearable. Nor would she wish others to love her in that way – to be desolate and helpless when she is gone, unable to bear the loss. What Stoics wish for others is what we wish for ourselves: good lives; virtuous lives; including the ability to cope with loss.”
What this means in practice however is that a Stoic will not fit in many of the commonly prescribed behavioural norms, and will come across as aloof and detached and unemotional.
Another interesting article in the book deals with contemporary approaches to foreign aid from developed to developing countries (Martha Nussbaum: Duties of Justice, Duties of Material Aid – Cicero’s Problematic Legacy). Its central tenet is ….Continue reading this review at


The Socratic Imprint on Epictetus Philosophy
The Stoics on the Voluntariness of the Passions
Stoicism in the Apostle Paul A Philosophical Reading
Moral Judgment in Seneca
Stoic First Movements in Christianity
Where Were the Stoics in the Late Middle Ages?
Abelards Stoicism and Its Consequences
Constancy and Coherence
On the Happy Life Descartes visavis Seneca
Psychotherapy and Moral Perfection Spinoza and the Stoics on the Prospect of Happiness
Duties of Justice Duties of Material Aid Ciceros Problematic Legacy
Stoic Emotion
Works Cited
Name Index
Subject Index

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About the author (2004)

Steven K. Strange was Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

Jack Zupko is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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