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The Limits of Nature in Hellenistic and Roman Thought

International Workshop

17th-18th of May 2024, Rethymno Crete



What are the limits of the limits of nature? Stoic ethics meets the Euthyphro Dilemma

Philipp Brüllmann, Heidelberg

Many of our sources on Stoicism indicate that nature is a standard of ethics. This might be taken to mean that ethical limits (e.g., the limit between value and disvalue) are set by nature. But what about nature itself? Is nature unlimited, according to the Stoics, i.e. can it define as valuable whatever it wants? On the one hand, it seems so. For Stoic ethics entails revisionist claims which are defended as being in accordance with nature. Such claims might be described as cases in which nature redefines the limits of ethics at will. On the other hand, it is not clear that Stoic nature could, e.g., will the impossible. What is more, the Stoics describe nature as perfectly rational and good. From this perspective, it looks like reason and goodness set a limit to what is natural. It seems, hence, that Stoic ethics confronts us with a version of the Euthyphro Dilemma. In my talk, I will spell out this idea and suggest a solution to it, explaining how both ethics sets a limit to nature and nature to ethics.


The limits of pleasure and technological progress in Lucretius

Georgia Tsouni, Crete

The invention and development of technai, both ‘necessary’ and ‘recreational’ ones, forms an important part of Lucretius’ account of human social and cultural development in the second part of Book 5 of De Rerum Natura. The paper will examine how Lucretius weaves into his account a key theme of Epicurean ethics, and one that distinguishes it from other forms of hedonism, namely the idea of that all pleasures have a limit, beyond which they only variate. This corresponds to the distinction between natural and necessary desires, on the one hand, and natural and non-necessary desires (and corresponding pleasures) on the other,  which is found in Epicurean sources (e.g. Ep. Men. 127). I shall argue that by drawing on this distinction Lucretius is able to steer a middle course with regard to the value of technological progress: on the one hand he celebrates the inventiveness of the human mind and its capacity to find new sources of pleasure but, on the other hand, he warns against the potential of ever-increasing ‘technological’ sophistication to ‘destabilise’ the achievement of human eudaimonia, if dissociated from the criterion of real pleasure.


The Stoic position in Philo of Alexandria’s ‘On the Indestructibility of the World’

Gretchen Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame


In this paper I would like to reassess how the reports on Stoic views fit into the overall doxography of this unusual work, and whether these reports are accurate or represent a discernible polemical distortion.

The Epicurean notion of time as limit

Attila Németh, Budapest

Epicurus’ conception of nature is predicated on his atomist metaphysics and hence, it faces the following worry: if atoms move ceaselessly in void, they continuously generate change. Nature, nevertheless, displays apparent regularities. Consequently, there need to be some limits to the constant changes in Epicurus’ atomism. What are these deeply set boundary stones – to use Lucretian metaphor (alte terminus haerens DRN 1.76-77 = 1.595-596; 5.89-90; 6.65-66) – that underwrite these consistencies? Epicurus introduced many limits to his version of atomism, such as the limited variety of atoms (Ep. Hdt. 42; DRN 2.478-521), the limited size of the atoms (Ep. Hdt. 55-56; DRN 2.498-499) or the minima that are only theoretically distinguishable, but not even theoretically further divisible limits of the atoms (Ep. Hdt. 56-59; DRN 1. 599-634 & 1.749-52). Since the theory of minima has been viewed as a response to Aristotle’s criticism of early atomism (Phys. 6.1-4), in which Aristotle connected atoms of magnitude, motion and time, on many influential (but not all) interpretations, Epicurus’ notion of time has been also understood as quantized by minimal units or time-atoms. In my paper, first, I wish to investigate, how we acquire the conception of time according to Epicurus in light of his major work, On Nature (P. Herc. 1413); next I shall focus on its underlying metaphysics in order to see what sort of limit time may constitute in his physics and ethics. I will address, therefore, the following three major questions: (1) ‘How do we conceive time?’ (2) ‘What is the nature of time?’ and (3) ‘How does Epicurus’ conception of time as limit applies to his natural philosophy and ethics?’

Chrysippus on the nature of harm 

Simon Shogry, Oxford


The Stoics accept that all bad things are harmful: the bad is such as to harm (τὸ οἷον βλάπτειν), or is that from which or by which it results that one is harmed (τὸ μὲν οὖν ἀφ’ οὗ συμβαίνει βλάπτεσθαι ἢ ὑφ’ οὗ: Stob. 2.70.5-7). The Stoics also defend a distinctive account of which things actually harm us and count as bad: items which rival schools consider "external bads", such as poverty, disease, and social isolation, are neither harmful nor beneficial, on the Stoic account, and thus neither good nor bad. Rather, the Stoics restrict the bad to "everything which either is vice or participates in vice" (Stob. 2.58.1), and they claim that "to harm is to change or maintain something in accordance with vice" (DL 7.104). Furthermore, they deny that there are degrees of vice and so hold that every activity of vice is equally harmful and equally bad. Given these Stoic views, it is surprising to find Chrysippus drawing a distinction between two kinds of bad thing: one that harms us and makes us worse, and another that harms us without making us worse (Plutarch, Com. Not. 1070e-f). In this talk, I will try to unpack this Chrysippean distinction and to make progress toward a more general Stoic account of the nature of harm.


Human nature or every human’s particular nature - what difference does it make for Stoic ethics? 

Jula Wildberger, Paris


Zeno defined the end as a life in agreement with nature. What "nature" was supposed to be in his definition was a matter of continued debate. Some claimed that Zeno's formula did not even contain the word "nature," while Cleanthes is said to have thought it was cosmic nature. Chrysippus, in turn, argued that it was both our own and cosmic nature. Some later accounts seem to suggest that what matters is one's own nature, while cosmic nature recedes into the background, such that Stoic ethics began to be received and continue to be practiced also by people who do not subscribe to Stoic cosmology and a single common Nature of all. A further uncertainty concerns the individual nature itself. There is evidence that it was described as each person's particular nature, e.g. by Chrysippus in his work On Ends, while elsewhere it appears as human nature, most clearly in Panaetius' ethics as they are presented to us by Cicero. I will argue that doxographers and later Stoics themselves as well as readers of Stoicism up to our day do not sufficiently address the conceptual difference, often not even noticing it. Understandably so: human nature occurs in particular humans, and thus a human being living in agreement with its own nature lives in agreement with a human nature. Still, I will argue, the difference between "a human nature" and "human nature" is fundamental and relevant both dogmatically and for a critical assessment of Stoicism. For example, if the end is agreement with human nature, then it makes sense for Panaetius to introduce one's particular nature as one of the four personae that orient the individual agent in his choices. Virtue as a disposition to agree with human nature can be interpreted as a perfection of human nature, and thus Stoicism can be understood as a virtue ethics of species-specific flourishing. Agreement with one's particular nature, on the other hand, requires a more complex account to make sense, an account that did involve cosmic nature and cannot be understood as a self-standing virtue ethic. Also in its socio-political relevance agreement with oneself differs from agreement with a universal human standard of excellence. The latter theory can be integrated into the world view of the ruling elite in a hierarchical, heteronomous, closed society. The first may resist such a move.


Natural limits and moral character traits. Seneca’s understanding of the telos

Stefan Röttig, Würzburg


Like his Stoic predecessors, Seneca draws a connection between consistency and nature in its different aspects, encompassing cosmic nature and human nature. Concerning cosmic nature, he closely aligns with the Stoic tradition by positing that it is rationally structured by a divine principle. In terms of human nature, he also devotes considerable attention to reason (ratio), which one must consistently live by to develop it into virtue (virtus/ratio perfecta). However, as I aim to demonstrate, Seneca delves more deeply into the non-rational dimension of human nature, assigning it its own normativity. From his viewpoint, living according to nature always involves living in harmony with one’s individual character and the inherent limits of one’s natural desires.

Nature, agriculture and Roman self-image in Varro’s De Re Rustica 

Gernot Michael Müller, Bonn


Its rural origins were an essential coordinate for the self-image of the Roman people. In Augustan literature, the simplicity that was to be overcome by Hellenistic influence is ultimately also emphasised in the perspective that the greatness and significance of the Roman people, particularly in social and moral terms, can be derived from its rural origins. Against this background, it is not surprising that references to rural life are ubiquitous in Roman literature, although it is otherwise constitutively related to the city of Rome and remained so until the high imperial period. This is especially true for texts that deal with agriculture. Even if these are not alien to Greek literature and even exceed the corresponding Roman works in terms of quantity, the latter in particular combine the discussion of agricultural knowledge and expertise with an insight into its relevance for Roman identity and cultural self-image. A central example of this is Varro’s dialogue De Re Rustica in three books, which reflects the close relationship between city and countryside indicated above through its setting. Against this backdrop, this paper aims to analyse the central areas of tension in the work: between the aesthetic view of the Italian landscape, which follows on from the tradition of the laudes Italiae, and its economic exploitation, between living in harmony with natural resources and the endeavour to increase their yield through agricultural techniques, but also between the pursuit of profit and an intolerable exploitation resulting from an exaggerated pursuit of luxury. In this way, nature appears as an economic factor, but one in which a certain measure must be maintained. This finding will ultimately lead to demonstrate that the work closely links this specific agrarian concept of nature via the dialogue figures and their interaction with Roman mentality and relates both to each other. This includes respect for the ancestors and their achievements, which is equally recognisable as a reservoir of agricultural knowledge, as well as a characteristic basic tone of the conversation, which is located between friendly affection and ironic satire, which is constitutively associated with rural mentality.

Living according to which nature? Plutarch on Platonic, Epicurean, and Stoic physis

Bram Demulder, Leiden

The Platonist Plutarch did not hesitate to voice his disagreement with Stoics and Epicureans on any number of topics. He admitted, however, that they all agreed that we should live ‘according to nature’ (kata physin). This paper looks at the vastly different conceptions of physis hiding behind the agreed-upon formula of living kata physin. I will argue that Plutarch uses physis (and the related normative expressions kata physin and para physin) as a flexible polemical tool, both in explicitly polemical works (against Stoics and Epicureans) and in works where he develops his own brand of Platonism (e.g. in the theological work On Isis and Osiris and in the ethical work On Tranquillity of Mind). The analysis of Plutarch’s use of physis will show that, in Plutarch’s view, the key differences between Platonic, Stoic, and Epicurean ethics are based on different understandings of physis.

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