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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


POSIDONIUS

(c. 135 — c. 51 B.C.)

 

MIDDLE STOICISM

Posidonius was born at Apamaea in Syria and was a pupil of Panaetius the Stoic in Athens. He visited Egypt and Spain and opened a school at Rhodes in 97, where he also became active in politics. He was teacher and friend of Cicero. As none of his works has survived, we learn about his philosophy from others influenced by him, especially Cicero and Seneca. He taught a modified Stoicism informed by an encyclopaedic knowledge; and he showed particular interest in a philosophical consideration of the natural sciences and the concept of historical progress.

 

COSMOLOGY/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] Both monistic and dualistic tendencies are to be found in Posidonius's philosophy. The universe, he says, is one great system consisting of a hierarchy of beings [a] ranging from material things, through plants, animals, and man, and beyond to 'daimons', who are spiritual beings superior to man in the hierarchy, and ultimately to God. God or Absolute Reason is rational fiery breath, the organizing principle or activity of the cosmos [b] and universal providence, manifested through natural law [c]. Posidonius maintained the doctrine of universal conflagration (ekpyrosis) [d], the return to the primeval fire, but he also held that the cosmos is divisible into two realms, an earthly, perishable world (the infralunar microcosm), and a higher, imperishable world (the supralunar macrocosm). Man, as body and spirit, is the bond (desmos) between the two [e]. At the bottom of the hierarchy, matter is supposed to process its own forms and qualities, which are the remodelled by God. He also considered there to be mathematical forms existing as real entities and as bridging the two realms [f]. His explanation of Nature is essentially teleological; he regarded the final cause as primary [g].

 

KNOWLEDGE

[2] Sense perception and the body are regarded by Posidonius as hindrances to knowledge, which is to be attained only through the activity of reason [a]. Thus man can have direct intuitive knowledge of God as Absolute Reason [a] and of both the heavenly and earthly regions permeated by the divine spirit. We also have knowledge of the mathematical forms [b]. As for 'science', he regarded this as involving hypotheses which could be tested by philosophical thinking [c]. And he put forward the theory of a rational progressive development in knowledge and human history [d].

 

PSYCHOLOGY

[3] All organic things including plants possess a soul — the principle of life. To souls of plants Posidonius attributed desire and the capacity for nutrition and growth. Animal souls also have the capacity for passion, sense perception and locomotion [a]. Man, uniquely, by virtue of his embodied rational soul, has the capacity for deliberation (logistikon), thought (logos) [b], and is free to choose his course of action, albeit hindered by the body [b]. Nevertheless, as Posidonius still held to the Stoic view that the soul, like God, is made of fiery matter [c], any immortality must be temporary [d] (given the doctrine of ekpyrosis). But he also said that the soul, during sleep and 'ecstatic' states, can escape from the body and can 'intuit' the nature of the universe, foretell the future, and communicate with the 'daimons'.

 

ETHICS

[4] Unlike the earlier Stoics, Posidonius accorded a central role to emotions and passions. Under the guidance of contemplative reason they enable man to 'sympathize' with the order of the cosmos; and he saw this as man's ultimate function and responsibility [a]. Similarly it is man's social duty to have regard for all humanity [b].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Posidonius's introduction of the notion of hierarchies in his psychology and general philosophy of Nature, which lies at the heart of his synthesis of Stoic monism with a dualism derived from Plato and Aristotle, made for a rich and influential philosophical system. Likewise his assigning of a role to the passions as well as to reason in ethics represents a more balanced position than was achieved in traditional Stoic rationalism. But, understandably, because of his eclecticism scholars differ in their interpretations of his philosophy. Some stress its monist tendencies, because they see the inner structure of his thought as emphasizing the unity of the cosmos, and the capacity of human passion to sympathize with the totality. Others, however, see him as fundamentally a dualist, largely because of what is seen as an opposition between reason and matter, and between reason and the passions. The question therefore remains whether the concept of a hierarchy or degrees of being can genuinely reconcile the two positions. There is also the problem whether individual freedom is compatible with divine providence. Nevertheless, Posidonius's thought marks a definite advance in Hellenistic philosophy. His view concerning hypotheses is also of interest — although the notion that they are testable by reason is at odds with the empiricism of the hypothetico-deductive method of modern science. His account of rational progress anticipates the eighteenth century concept but lacks any suggestion of dialectic or levels associated with the idea as presented by some nineteenth century thinkers.

 

READING

[Posidonius:] Long and Sedley, op. cit., chs 26-67 passim.

General

T. Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties and Fate.

J. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy.

Collections of Articles

B. Inwood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics.

A. Long (ed.), Problems in Stoicism

J. M. Rist (ed.), The Stoics.

 

CONNECTIONS

Posidonius

 

[1a] The universe — monistic-dualistic hierarchy; the chorismos

   Heraclitus

   Plato

   Chrysippus

Philo

Seneca

Plutarch

[1c]

[1c 2a b 3a 5f]

[3a b]

[1f]

[1a]

[1a]

 

[1b] God: Absolute Reason (and fiery breath)

   Heraclitus

   Plato

   Chrysippus

Philo

Seneca

[1h]

[5b]

[3c]

[1b d]

[1a]

 

[1c] God as providence; natural law

   Chrysippus

Cicero

Philo

[3b g]

[1d 2f]

[1g 4a]

 

[1d] Universal conflagration (ekpyrosis)

   Heraclitus

   Chrysippus

[1h]

[3f]

 

[1e] Microcosm-macrocosm (Man as bond)

   Anaximenes

   Democritus

   Plato

   Nicholas of Cusa

[1c]

[1c]

[1c 2a 3a c]

[2h]

 

[1f 2b] Matter and forms, remodelled by God; mathematical forms and knowledge

   Plato

   Plotinus

[1d 5a-c]

[1g]

 

[1g] Final causes: teleology    Aristotle [9c 10d 11a]

 

[2a] Knowledge: sense-perception and reason

   Plato

   Chrysippus

[6b 7b]

[2a]

 

[2a] Knowledge of God's existence

   Plato

   Chrysippus

   Cicero

Philo

[4b 7e]

[3h]

[1d]

[3b]

 

[2c] Hypotheses tested by reason

   Grosseteste

   Hobbes

[3a]

[2b]

 

[2d] Rational progress of mankind in history

   Herder

   Comte

   Spencer

[2d]

[2a]

[1g]

 

[3a b]

Soul: principle of life and reason (logos); dualism

   Heraclitus

   Plato

   Aristotle

Seneca

Plutarch

[1f 2a]

[9a d]

[15 a-c]

[1b]

[2a]

 

[3b] Freedom

   Chrysippus

   Carneades

Cicero

Philo

Seneca

[4a]

[2c]

[1b]

[2c 1g]

[2a]

 

[3c] Soul as fiery matter

   Heraclitus

   Chrysippus

Cicero

Seneca

Plutarch

[2b]

[5a]

[1e]

[1b]

[2a]

 

[3d] Immortality of the soul

   Heraclitus

   Plato

   Chrysippus

Cicero

   Philo

Plutarch

[2b]

[9b sec. 10]

[5b]

[1e]

[2b]

[2b]

 

[4a] Moral action: feelings and reason; function

   Plato

   Chrysippus

Cicero

Philo

Seneca

Plutarch

[11a b d g]

[6a]

[2b c]

[4c]

[2b]

[3b]

 

[4b] Cosmopolitanism

   Chrysippus

Cicero

Seneca

Plutarch

[6f]

[2e]

[2c]

[3c]