On the nature of the Sage: I. Two definitions of wisdom

Let’s start a series of commentaries on a book by René Brouwer, an assistant professor at the School of Law at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, entitled The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press). It’s a bit technical, and not cheap at $56 for the Kindle edition and a whopping $90 for the hardcover, but it’s worth discussing a number of chapters from it, beginning with the first one, where Brouwer introduces two definitions of wisdom.

The Stoics thought of wisdom as (i) “knowledge of human and divine matters,” and (ii) as “fitting expertise.” The first definition actually became commonplace in the ancient world, but Brouwer says that the Stoics were the first ones to use that particular articulation, and he begins his discussion with it: “the three elements in it — i.e. knowledge, human matters and divine matters — can be connected to the three parts of philosophical discourse as distinguished by the Stoics — i.e. logic, ethics and physics.” In other words, there is a direct connection between the Stoic concept of wisdom and the three fields of Stoic philosophy.

A major source for attributing the first definition of wisdom to the Stoics is Plutarch, and it’s a near perfect summary of the basic Stoic ideas about wisdom, the nature of philosophy, and the topoi:

“The Stoics said that wisdom is knowledge of human and divine matters, and philosophy exercise of fitting expertise; the single and supremely fitting expertise is excellence, and excellences at their most general are three: in nature, in behavior, in reasoning. For this reason philosophy is also divided into three parts: physical, ethical and logical. Physical is when we investigate the world and the matters in the world, ethical is that which is occupied with human life, logical is that concerned with reasoning — the last they also call dialectical.” (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 2.35)

The division of philosophy in the three topoi is also quintessentially Stoic, according to Brouwer, and is found especially in Diogenes Laertius’ commentary:

“They say that philosophical discourse has three parts: the physical, the ethical and the logical part.” (SVF 2.37)

As is well known, physics is concerned with the study of how the world is, logic with the study of reason, and ethics with the study of how to live. But how, exactly, are the three topoi related to the first Stoic definition of wisdom?

Here is Brouwer: “With ethics as the part concerned with life and the things that relate to us, human matters [in the definition] can easily be understood as a reference to ethics. With regard to physics as ‘the part concerned with [the] cosmos and the things in it’, the link with the divine matters in the definition of wisdom may at first seem more obscure than in the case of ethics. This is not so, though: according to standard Stoic doctrine nature or the cosmos is divine or even identified with god. Dialectic and knowledge are perhaps at first sight less easy to connect [but] the Stoics included the theory of knowledge in dialectic, even agreeing among themselves that the theory of knowledge should be ‘placed first.’”

So to recap: knowledge [logic] of human [ethics] and divine [physics] matters.

Brouwer then engages in an interesting discussion concerning the relationship between Stoic physics and ethics, dissecting the available sources about the famous Stoic dictum, “live according to nature.”

Diogenes Laertius, in this regard, says that:

“Zeno in his On the Nature of Man was the first to say that the end was to live in consistency with nature.” (SVF 1.179)

The book title itself clearly singles out human nature, though Epictetus later on said that Zeno was talking about universal nature. Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor as the head of the Stoa, spoke of living “in consistency with nature,” by which he seems to have understood cosmic nature. As for Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, DL says that:

“By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord Chrysippus understands both common nature and in a special sense human nature.” (SVF 3.4)

Either way, Stoic physics is obviously relevant to its ethics, because at a minimum the idea is that in order to figure out the best way to live one has to have some understanding of how the world works, including a good comprehension of human nature. The emperor Julian the Apostate wrote about this:

“That [the students of the man from Citium] made ‘know thyself’ into the main point of their philosophy, you may believe, if you will, not only from the things which they brought up in their writings, but even more so by the end of their philosophy: for they made the end living in consistency with nature, which cannot be achieved if one does not know who one is, and of what nature one is; for someone who does not know who he is, will surely not know what he ought to do.” (Orations 6.6)

Or, as modern Stoic Larry Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism, living according to nature can simply be understood in modern terms as “follow the facts [about the world and humanity].”

I find what Brouwer says immediately afterwards rather interesting, and departing from what I think is common understanding among most modern Stoics: “As with knowledge, the Stoics understood excellence both in cognitional and in dispositional terms, and they furthermore placed human excellence, as a character, in the wider context of the nature of the whole. … The standard modern translation of arete as ‘(moral) virtue’ is often less appropriate, as it suggests a restriction of its usage to ethics. The Stoics also used the term in a broader sense, and did not restrict its usage to the moral virtues.”

This being the case, then, Stoic excellence is to be understood both in the specific moral sense and in the broader human sense, outside the moral sphere. Brouwer elaborates: “Logic as an excellence, according to Cicero, provides a method of reasoning that guards against assenting to incorrect impressions. … Physics is an excellence, too: without an explanation of the natural world justice towards other human beings and piety towards the gods is impossible.” So a good Stoic does not want to excel only at the moral virtues, or in the practice of ethics, but also in the other two topoi, if nothing else because those are instrumental for the pursuit of the third one.

Brouwer then shifts to considering more in detail the second definition of wisdom given above: fitting expertise. He begins by citing Galen:

“Others defined philosophy as the exercise of fitting expertise of the best life for human beings, saying that philosophy is exercise, and calling wisdom fitting expertise, which is also a cognition of human and divine matters.” (On the History of Philosophy, 5, 602.19-3.2)

It is interesting, as Brouwer notes, to recall that early definitions of philosophy, as in Herodotus and Heraclitus, framed it as loving wisdom, whereby the “lover” (i.e., the philosopher) already possess it. It is Plato that shifts to what then became the standard take, philosophy understood more modestly as striving toward wisdom.

Going back to the (second) definition of wisdom itself, Brouwer goes along with Long and Sedley’s interpretation, that it is a shorthand for “expertise of what is really useful.” A further elaboration is found in Seneca (Letter 88.26.7) where he presents a picture of different types of expertise as instances of “knowing how” (to play an instrument, to solve a geometrical problem, etc.), with wisdom being a superior type of “knowing why,” that is, knowing when and how to use every other kind of knowledge.

A further explanation of what “fitting expertise” means is given by Olympiodorus:

“Cleanthes, then, says that an expertise is ‘a tenor that accomplishes everything methodically.’ But this definition is considered to be incomplete, for nature is also a tenor that does methodically all it does. Accordingly Chrysippus, after adding the phrase ‘with impressions,’ said ‘an expertise is a tenor that proceeds methodically with impressions’.” (SVF 1.490)

“Tenor,” explains Brouwer, is a technical term that refers to an enduring disposition. What Chrysippus is saying, then, is that wisdom is the ability to correctly interpret impressions. That is why, centuries later, Epictetus insisted that the most important thing to do for a student of Stoicism is to improve her faculty of judgment (prohairesis), i.e., the very faculty by which we assess (and give or refuse assent to) impressions:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

By the end of the chapter, Brouwer concludes that the two Stoic definitions of wisdom are remarkably convergent, and that “the activity that goes with the exercise of (or the search for) this expertise is called physics when we investigate the world and the things in the world, ethics when we occupy ourselves with human life, and logic (or dialectic) when we deal with reason as such.”

4 thoughts on “On the nature of the Sage: I. Two definitions of wisdom

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    “follow the facts”. Does this mean anything more than ” follow the truth” with all the attendant problems of that concept. Living according to human nature and/or cosmic nature seems to have a lot more content.


  2. cmplxadsys

    Interesting that in SVF 1.490, the Stoics apply hexis (tenor) in describing how one deals with impressions in a similar way to how Aristotle uses it in Nichomachean Ethics in reference to moral virtue. However, the Stoics insisted that virtue was instead diathesis (disposition), and not hexis (See DL 7.98). See LS 47S/SVF 2.393 for Simplicius’ take on why this disagreement occurred.

    If Simplicius’ take is right, this means that Cleanthes and Chrysippus were emphasizing that working with impressions can be relaxed and intensified, whereas virtue is all or nothing.

    Either way, it’s a good reason to not read Stoic ethics from Aristotle, since the two use key Greek terms quite differently!

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  3. Massimo Post author


    Becker expands on what “follow the facts” means, and it has to do with a cautious update of one’s philosophy so that it does not grind against the findings of science.

    Cautious because we don’t want to alter our philosophy in response to the latest article in a psychology journal, say, since recent findings have a way of eventually being discomfirmed or overturned.

    And I don’t really think the ancient version had a lot more content, since the early Stoics too relied on what the best science of their day told them, see for instance Seneca Naturales Questiones.


  4. Valerius

    “‘Brouwer elaborates: “Logic as an excellence, according to Cicero, provides a method of reasoning that guards against assenting to incorrect impressions. … Physics is an excellence, too: without an explanation of the natural world justice towards other human beings and piety towards the gods is impossible.” So a good Stoic does not want to excel only at the moral virtues, or in the practice of ethics, but also in the other two topoi, if nothing else because those are instrumental for the pursuit of the third one.”‘


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