Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism

Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism

Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism

Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism


This book reconstructs in detail the older Stoic theory of the psychology of action, discussing it in relation to Aristotelian, Epicurean, Platonic, and some of the more influential modern theories. Important Greek terms are transliterated and explained; no knowledge of Greek is required.


This book is about the Stoic concept of human nature, and in parti? cular about those characteristics which, according to the Stoics, make humans different from other mortal animals. There are many such characteristics; but the scope will be limited by concen? trating on the definition of man as a rational animal, and by starting from what Zeno of Citium, the school's founder, selected as his own starting-point for a consideration of human nature. This is the question of the difference between human and animal action.

Unfortunately we no longer possess Zeno's discussion of the question in his own words, nor even in an extensive summary by someone who read it. But we do know that his essay On Human Nature was given the alternate title On Impulse, either by Zeno him? self or by someone who read the book. Hormê--the Greek tern which I translate as 'impulse'--is the central concept in the old Stoic analysis of human and animal action. By giving his treatise on human nature this title, Zeno or some later Stoic indicated that one of the central differences between human and animal nature lies precisely in the difference between human and animal action.

The two factors I shall concentrate on converge. One aim of this book is to demonstrate how rational actions, actions performed by rational agents, differ from irrational actions, which are performed by animals and are not really actions in the same full-blooded sense word. It might in fact be preferable to reserve the term 'action' for what is done by humans and to use the term 'behaviour' for what animals do. But that terminological restriction would be awkward, so I shall not bind myself by it. When, however, I use 'action' of animals it should be understood that the term is being applied in a weakened sense.

Thus the consideration of human nature in the doctrine of the older Stoics will be conducted through a study of hormê in the relevant fragments and testimony. Such a study is inevitably an exercise in reconstruction and depends on conjecture and hypo? thesis as well as on hard evidence. The reconstruction of the Stoic psychology of action which I offer cannot pretend to certainty; it . . .

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