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Is Universal Nature
Foundational for Stoic Ethics?

 Prof. Christopher Gill

University of Exeter

January 27, 2022

Starts in New York 12.00 pm / Exeter 5.00 pm / Budapest 6.00 pm / Athens 7.00 pm

In this paper, I re-examine the much-debated question whether universal or cosmic nature physics (specifically, theology) is or is not foundational for Stoic ethics. I point out, first, that the scholarly divergence of view on this question reflects competing features of the ancient evidence. I then discuss what criteria should be used to determine what counts as foundational for ethics, drawing especially on criteria suggested by Philippe Brüllmann. I also question whether Stoic thinking on branches of knowledge is compatible with the claim that an idea (universal nature) in one area (physics, especially theology) is foundational for another area (ethics). I propose as more credible the idea that the different branches of knowledge inform each other, in certain respects, without either area being treated as foundational or authoritative. I explore, first, the idea that Stoic ethics informs theology, in specific ways, focusing on the presentation of god (or universal nature shaped by god) as good in this context. Next, I explore ways in which, on certain key points, theology informs ethics, in particular in bringing out the significance of (universal) nature for ethical concepts. I suggest that this picture of the relationship between Stoic theology and ethics provides a better explanation for some of the ancient evidence often taken to support the view that universal nature is foundational for ethics.  

            The passages discussed are mostly well-known in this context: e.g. Plu. Sto. Rep. 1035 C-D (= LS 60 A), Cic. Fin. 3.73; also D. L. 7.88 (= LS 63 C(3-4)), Epict. 2.6.9 (= LS 58 J). On theology and good, I refer to S.E. M. 9.88-90 (trans. Inwood and Gerson, Stoics Reader, pp. 82-3) and, more generally, Cic. N. D. Book 2.