Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Jordi Pià Comella, Une piété de la raison. Philosophie et religion dans le stoïcisme imperial: Des Lettres à Lucilius de Sénèque aux Pensées de Marc Aurèle. Philosophie hellénistique et romaine, 3. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014. Pp. 564. ISBN 9782503554358. €70.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Bart Van Wassenhove, National University of Singapore (bvw@nus.edu.sg)

Version at BMCR home site

In this monograph, based on a 2011 dissertation, Jordi Pià Comella offers a comprehensive and detailed study of religious elements in Imperial Stoicism. The key question throughout the work is how the Stoics of the Imperial period addressed the ongoing tension in Stoic thought between a rationalized philosophical theology and a respect for traditional religious beliefs and practices. This review will focus on the major strands of Pià Comella's exhaustive chapters, each of which (with the exception of the first) focuses on an individual Stoic author.

The introductory chapter offers a synthesis of early Stoic theological thought. Pià Comella traces the divergent attitudes toward religious concepts and practices among the school's founding fathers. Among other topics, Pià Comella contrasts Zeno's lack of interest in prayer and worship with the devotional spirit of Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus and argues that Panaetius' skepticism about divinatory practices was opposed by Posidonius, who believed that divination offers a privileged form of epistemic access. He further argues that the notion of a δαίμων evolved from Chrysippus, for whom it represents the rational soul, to Posidonius, who identifies it with the superior part of the soul.1 Chapter 2 focuses on Seneca's Letters to Lucilius. Pià Comella rightly argues that, while Seneca rarely discusses religious praxis, religious imagery occupies an important strategic and motivational position in his ethical arguments. Among other topics, he discusses how Seneca rationalizes the notion of pietas by redefining it as "knowing and imitating God" and how he encourages his readers to pay heed to reason by metaphorically representing it as a δαίμων. He further argues that Seneca invokes the notion of Fortuna, which at first blush seems at odds with Stoic providentialism, in order to exhort his readers to withstand the lure of external goods. In the second half of the chapter, Pià Comella demonstrates how Seneca appropriates Platonic terminology and poetic quotations in order to spark his readers' enthusiasm for philosophy and their veneration for the moral ideal represented by the Stoic sage. Pià Comella follows a growing consensus that Seneca's appropriation of Platonic vocabulary does not entail a form of eclecticism. However, his argument that the religious emotions Seneca aims to elicit in his readers are not proper emotions (adfectus) but rather principia proludentia adfectibus (Seneca's Latin rendering of the Greek προπάθειαι) is somewhat problematic. Stoic προπάθειαι, after all, are involuntary impulses, which cannot bring about any substantial or lasting effect on the mind until reason gives its assent. In the chapter's final section, Pià Comella discusses Seneca's allusions to the Imperial cult, arguing that he simultaneously presents Nero as the gods' representative on earth and as a Stoic proficiens, who still needs to convert his God-given penchant for virtuous behavior into a firm commitment by engaging in self-examination. As such, Pià Comella argues, the emperor is overshadowed in godlikeness by the Stoic sage, whom Seneca represents as having equaled the gods through his own heroic efforts.

In Chapter 3, Pià Comella argues that Cornutus' Compendium of Theology should be read as a work of "abbreviated allegory," using myth as a way of retracing the original meaning of religious concepts, as they were used in uncorrupted primeval societies. Pià Comella particularly emphasizes the pedagogical dimensions of the Compendium, designed to gradually lead the young pupil to whom the work is addressed from a common mythological ground toward an abstract understanding of Stoic theology. He takes aim at A. A. Long's argument that Cornutus was not so much an allegorist as an etymologist who largely dismissed the storylines and details of the myths he discussed. The distinction between Long's conception of etymology and Pià Comella's "abbreviated allegory" may seem largely terminological, but Pià Comella rightly points out that Cornutus' lack of attention to the narrative dimension of myths can be read as the result of his focus on offering an initiation to Stoic theology, rather than an indication of deliberate lack of interest. In Pià Comella's reading, Cornutus is first and foremost an educator and a grammarian, who is less concerned with articulating theological theories of his own than with elucidating the meaning of religious concepts, invoking the theories of the early Stoics whenever they allow him to gloss a particular term. Still, Pià Comella emphasizes that, over the course of the work, Cornutus guides his young pupil towards an increasingly rationalized and interiorized Stoic theology, without ever firmly breaking with traditional religious beliefs and practices.

Chapter 4 consists of a discussion of Stoic elements in Persius' Satires 2 and 5. Even as he concedes that Persius' attacks against superstition borrow topoi widely used in the moralistic tradition, Pià Comella argues that Persius introduces specifically Stoic elements by baring the inner workings of his soul to his teacher Cornutus, and by closing with a prayer in which he offers his purified soul to his master as a kind of religious offering. This specifically Stoic, interiorized form of parrhēsia, speaking the truth about oneself to a teacher rather than speaking truth to power, might seem safely apolitical, but Pià Comella goes on to argue that Satire 5, with its introductory hymn to Cornutus and its closing section condemning the spread of exotic cults in Rome, takes direct aim at Nero. Here, however, the argument comes under a bit of strain. Pià Comella argues that Persius represents Cornutus as rivaling the emperor in godlikeness, but goes on to point out that Persius' depiction of his teacher focuses on the intimacy of their pedagogical relationship and notes that Persius ultimately shies away from presenting Cornutus as a godlike figure (the comparison with Lucretius' hymn to Epicurus here is instructive). In addition, Pià Comella's claim that Nero was "profoundly attached" to the cults of Isis and Cybele and used them for political purposes (p. 316) may be said to overlook the Emperor's somewhat more complicated religious sentiments.2

In Chapter 5, Pià Comella shows how Epictetus believed piety to consist in conforming one's will to the providential cosmic order and in fulfilling one's social duties. He points out that Epictetus frequently encourages his students to pray and express thanks to the Stoic god, or even to ask god for help in their efforts to attain wisdom. Such prayers, Pià Comella argues, are psychagogic tools, supporting the internalization of Stoic theological principles while simultaneously responding to the psychological needs of Epictetus' students. From prayer, Pià Comella moves on to divination, arguing that Epictetus, even as he discourages his students from relying on oracles, repeatedly describes Stoic and Cynic sages as messengers of the gods. He even speculates that Epictetus' portrait of the Cynic Diogenes, which contains many similarities with that of the ideal Stoic ruler, is held up as a mirror to the emperor Nero. In the final section, Pià Comella argues that Epictetus appropriates the Platonic concept of ὁμοίωσις θεῷ in order to express the essential unity of the individual soul and the cosmic Logos, and uses the notion of a δαίμων as a way of responding to his students' need for direct, personalized access to the Stoic god. As Pià Comella rightly points out, however, Epictetus simultaneously tries to wean his students off their dependence on external manifestations of the divine, arguing that they should worship their own souls with even greater devotion than when they worship images of the gods.

The final chapter focuses on Marcus Aurelius' theological speculations, as well as on his understanding of pietas and divine beneficence. Following Pierre Hadot and others, Pià Comella argues that Marcus' dialectical engagements with Epicurean atomism reveal not so much fundamental doubt about the truth of Stoic theology as a recognition of the limitations of his own grasp of it as a proficiens. As Pià Comella demonstrates, Marcus, lacking this full understanding, supports his commitment to the Stoic worldview by focusing on his ethical duties as an emperor and as rational being. Marcus achieves this by considering the purposefulness of apparent flaws in god's plans, and by contemplating the unappealing moral consequences of the Epicurean worldview. From atomism, Pià Comella moves on to a discussion of Marcus' conception of pietas in Book I of the Meditations. He argues that Marcus' discussion of his mother Domitia's piety indicates her affinity for Stoicism, whereas Antoninus' piety is "irreducible to the conceptual categories of Stoicism." To my mind, this attempt to pin down distinct types of pietas downplays the polysemy of this term and the porous boundary between what is "Roman" and what is "Stoic." (p. 465).3 I was also not entirely convinced by the claim that Marcus' references to his experiences of divine beneficence are "discreet references" to the notion of Imperial Felicitas, the gods' favor directed towards the reigning emperor.4 The chapter concludes with a section on Marcus' conception of the δαίμων, in which Pià Comella argues that Marcus' δαίμων is largely interiorized, supporting his ongoing inner dialogue, but retains an element of alterity that allows it to act as a focus for Marcus' piety.

Pià Comella's simultaneously wide-ranging and fine-grained study will be a bountiful and thought-provoking resource for scholars working on any of the authors discussed in this book. Readers primarily interested in the evolution of religious concepts and theories throughout the history of the Stoic school might have preferred a more thematic approach rather than what reads like a series of single-author studies, but they too will find their efforts to link together the book's arguments amply rewarded.5


1.   Pià Comella briefly acknowledges the increasingly prevalent view that Posidonius did not fundamentally reject Chrysippus' psychological monism, but does not fully consider the implications of the ongoing debates about this question for his argument.
2.   Suetonius (Nero 56) mentions that Nero "utterly despised all cults, with the sole exception of that of the Syrian Goddess" (Atargatis, identified with the Magna Mater / Cybele), but he does not mention the cult of Isis and notes that, later on, Nero "acquired such a contempt for [the Syrian goddess] that he made water on her image, after he was enamored of another superstition" (a little image of a girl, given to him as a protection against plots).
3.   As a virtue, pietas straddles the social, religious, and philosophical spheres. On the porous boundary between Roman and Stoic values, cf. Gretchen Reydams-Schils' The Roman Stoics. Self, Responsibility, and Affection (University of Chicago Press, 2005). I fail to see a clear allusion to Stoic interiority in Marcus' passing mention of Domitia's pietas in Meditations I.3, or any specifically non-Stoic elements in his description of Antoninus' imperial piety.
4.   In support of this claim, Pià Comella cites Marcus' references to his τύχη, including uses of the verb-form ἔτυχε, which – as he acknowledges – can simply mean "it happened" in its most neutral form. Even though Marcus frequently comments on his good fortune and the gods' role in securing it, there is, in my view, no clear implication that this favor is specific to his role as emperor.
5.   The volume is almost entirely free of typographical errors. The only significant error I noticed was on p. 314, where either Lucrèce should be Sénèque, or n. 48 should refer to DRN II.600 ff. instead of Sen. Ep. 108.7.

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