30 Jan 2018

Goldschmidt ( Le système stoïcien et l'idée de temps, “Connaissance et action”, summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. Bracketed commentary is my own, as is any boldface. Proofreading is incomplete, which means typos are present, especially in the quotations. So consult the original text. Also, I welcome corrections to my interpretations, because I am not good enough with French or Greek to make accurate translations of the texts.]




Summary of


Victor Goldschmidt


Le système stoïcien et l'idée de temps


Deuxième partie:

Aspects temporels de la morale stoïcienne



La Connaissance


Chapitre IV

L’interprétation des événements



[Introductory Material to Ch.4]

Connaissance et action




Brief summary:

( For the Stoics, we should live our lives according to nature. But this does not mean in a Platonic sense to see nature as providing a model for particular actions that our will can either copy or not copy. Rather, for the Stoics, the distance between model and copy must be eliminated as much as possible, such that what we will is not something that may or may not accord with nature, rather, what we will should be no different than what Destiny’s laws have mandated and thus what Nature is doing.







[Living According to Nature by Willing According to Nature]










[Living According to Nature by Willing According to Nature]


(p. 77-79, “L’enveloppement de la morale par la physique s’exprime...”)


[In sum: For the Stoics, we should live our lives according to nature. But this does not mean in a Platonic sense to see nature as providing a model for particular actions that our will can either copy or not copy. Rather, for the Stoics, the distance between model and copy must be eliminated as much as possible, such that what we will is not something that may or may not accord with nature, rather, what we will should be no different than what Destiny’s laws have mandated and thus what Nature is doing.]



The idea of developing morality in accord with physics is captured in Zeno’s saying, “live according to nature.” This saying may have undergone slight variation as it was written from scholar to scholar. Yet, it seems to imply two different attitudes regarding moral life that nonetheless must be made to overlap. Living is an activity, but it must conform to nature, which as well acts, and moreover is the sole, true agent of activity. (I am not certain, but maybe here an idea could be that any of our own actions are actions of nature too, as we are a part of nature. And also, nature is fundamentally the unique agent of activity.) So in order for human action to conform to nature’s activity, we first need to know what nature’s activity is. In the history of philosophy, there is nothing radically new in this idea of giving priority to knowledge or contemplation over action. Consider for example how all of Platonism subordinates such activities to a prerequisite knowledge of Models/Forms. The novelty of this Stoic doctrine is that here, on the one hand, knowledge is no longer conceived as a purely theoretical attitude, while on the other hand, knowledge completely changes its object. [I probably have this next point wrong, but I am guessing: This knowledge is no longer about realities in the basis of which we derive precepts, and then secondarily our action would be free to conform or to not conform to those precepts. Rather,nature’s activity must conform to Destiny’s laws, and it does so whether or not we act with good will. (I am guessing that the idea here is the following. Nature will act the way it does in its conformity to Destiny, and we, as part of nature and Destiny, likewise act in such a way. In other words, it is not about us seeing that in nature there are certain ideals of goodness etc. that we should strive to make our actions conform to, rather, there are certain laws of nature, dictated by Destiny, and we should make our ethical life conform to these laws, which have nothing to do with good will. They rather have more to do with causality and fatality.) Knowing nature is less a matter of knowing what must be done as much as it is a matter of understanding that what nature does is what is done (maybe: to know nature (for the sake of knowing how to act) does not mean understanding what sorts of actions we need to be taking, it rather involves understanding that whatever happens (in nature) was such by Destiny (and thus we are not to develop a sense that we must try to do better to make our free will conform to certain precepts but rather that we must submit our will to that of destiny. So it is not about having a moral sort of free will. It is about willing what destiny wills.)) Thus, as Diogenes Laertius says regarding this, “living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature” (Hicks trans. at Perseus.) The experience of the ways things happen naturally is not a theorization that precedes action; between theory and action, there is no longer the same distance that we see between model and copy and between the norm that is known and the norm that is obeyed. (In other words, we do not model our behavior after nature; we simply make our behavior be natural or at least move with the flow of nature’s way and activity.) Just as nature does not wait for our free initiative in order to reduce this distance (between the way that things happen and the way we choose for things to happen), the only difference is then between nature’s will which is being achieved and our will which, having understood nature’s will, consents to it. It is the difference between “being driven” (or “being dragged along”) and “following willingly”. In the footnote here, Goldschmidt cites Seneca, and I will take more of the quotation to give context and elaboration:

I have just been following Cicero’s example:

11 Guide me, o father, lord of the lofty firmament,

wherever you decide; I hasten to obey;

I am here and ready. But if I be reluctant,

groaning, I still must go; in wretchedness must suffer,

what might have been my own act, were I virtuous.

Fate guides the man who’s willing, drags the unwilling.

12 That’s how we should live and speak, with fate finding us ready and prepared. This is the strong character that has surrendered himself to fate. In contrast we have the puny degenerate, struggling, thinking ill of the world order, and preferring to correct the gods rather than himself.

(Seneca 2015: 425, boldface mine)

Also cited are these lines from Seneca’s The Happy Life [with some context]:

Follow god. (6) On the other hand, whoever complains and laments and groans is compelled by force to follow orders, and though he is unwilling, he is nonetheless seized away to do what has been commanded. Yet what insanity it is to be dragged rather than to follow!

(Seneca 2014: 253, boldface mine)

We say that our will has as its object what should be done. But under this Stoic view, this is because our knowledge has indicated to our will that regardless, what should be done has been done (or maybe, what we should will do be done is that which has already been done or that which is already now being done): “wish the things which happen to be as they are” (Epictetus Enchiridion 8, Long trans., Perseus.)]

L’enveloppement de la morale par la physique s’exprime dans le célèbre adage de Zénon : « Vivre conformément à la nature »1. Cette formule, malgré les légères variations qu’elle a pu subir d’un scolarque à l’autre2, implique, semble-t-il, deux attitudes dans la vie morale, encore qu’elle exige de les amener à se recouvrir. Vivre, c’est bien une activité, mais qui doit se conformer à la nature, laquelle, elle aussi, agit et même, est l’unique agent véritable3. C’est [77 | 78] donc l’action de la nature qu’il faut connaître, avant de pouvoir y conformer l’action humaine. Cette priorité donnée à la connaissance ou, si l’on préfère, à la contemplation sur l’action, n’aurait, en soi, rien d’original ; tout le platonisme, par exemple, subordonne les conduites d’action ou de création à la connaissance préalable des Formes-Modèles. La nouveauté de cette doctrine stoïcienne1 vient de ce que la connaissance n’est plus conçue comme une attitude purement théorique et que, d’autre part, elle change complètement d’objet. Elle ne porte plus sur des réalités dont il s’agirait de faire dériver des préceptes2, auxquelles, ensuite, l’action serait libre de se conformer ou non. Elle porte sur la nature qui, dans le Destin, conforme elle-même son action à ses lois3, sans rien demander à notre bonne volonté. Connaître la nature, c’est bien moins comprendre ce qu’il faut faire, que comprendre ce qu’elle fait, ce qui se fait : « Vivre selon la vertu équivaut à vivre conformément à l’expérience des choses qui arrivent naturellement4. » Cette expérience n’est pas une theoria précédant l’action ; il n’y a plus, entre l’une et l’autre, la distance du modèle à la copie, de la norme connue à la norme obéie. Comme la nature n’attend pas notre libre initiative, pour réduire elle-même cette distance, le seul écart est entre sa volonté qui s’accomplit et la nôtre qui, ayant compris cette volonté, y consent. C’est la distance, indiscernable en apparence, entre « être entraîné » et « suivre de bon gré »5. Si l’on peut dire que la volonté prend pour objet ce qu’il faut faire, c’est parce que la connais- [78 | 79] sance lui indique que, de toutes manières, cela se fait : « Vouloir les événements comme ils se produisent »1.


1. Selon Pohlenz (Stoa, II, 67) après M. Schafer (cf. note suiv.), il conviendrait d’accepter le témoignage de Stobée (II, 75, II = S.V.F., I, 179), selon lequel la formule de Zénon était seulement : ὁμολογουμένως ζῆν. Nous préférons, avec E. Bréhier (Chrysippe, p. 220, n. 2), attribuer déjà à Zénon l’adjonction : τῇ φύσει. 1) Il ne suffit pas, pour invalider la témoignage de Diogène Laërce (VII, 87), de le déclarer « faux », avec Pohlenz, qui, d’autre part, ne commente ni ne réfute le texte concordant de Cicéron (de fin., IV, VI, 14) ; 2) nous ne tenons pas pour résolu le problème des antécédents académiciens (Polémon) et péripatéticiens (Théophraste) de la morale stoïcienne, eu général, et de la formule en question, en particulier (cf. p. 56, n. 2et l’article de von Arnim, cité à la p. 56, n. 3). Pohlenz lui-même doit concéder que « Zénon a dû sans doute en avoir reçu plusieurs suggestions » (Stoa, I, 118.) Le problème (comme, d’ailleurs celui des antécédents pythagoriciens du platonisme) est parfois obscurci par l’ardeur des auteurs à sauvegarder la pleine originalité des Stoïciens (ou de Platon). Mais cette originalité subsiste dans tous les cas (parce qu’un système n’est pas une mosaïque de doctrines ; cf. p. 202, n. 2), et sans qu’il soit besoin, pour la soutenir, de nier de parti pris les emprunts de certaines formules. On risque, autrement, d’imiter, en sens inverse, l’attitude de Cicéron (de fin., IV) qui ressortit à la polémique plutôt qu’à la science historique.

2. Cf., p. ex. Cic., de fin., IV, VI, 14-15; citons l’historique donné par Pohlenz, Stoa, 116-118, et par Max. Schäfer, Ein frühstoisches System d. Ethik bei Cicero, Munich, 1934 (qui propose, aux pp. 10-11 et 127, n. 2, une interprétation, reprise par Pohlenz, de la formule zénorienne : ζῆν ὁμολογουμένως, sans datif complémentaire). – Notons enfin qu’un des derniers commentateurs de Zénon rétablit, dans cette formule, l’adjonction : τῇ φύσει (A. Jagu, Zénon de Cittium, Paris, 1946, p. 18).

3. Sénèque, Ep., 65, 12 (cf. p. 35) ; de benef., IV, VII, I : « quid... aliud est natura quam deus et diuina ratio toti mundo et partibus eius inserta ? » ; le Destin conçu comme αἰτία unique (S.V.F., II, 934- 938).


1 Cela sans préjudice des « deux idées neuves » qu’y signale, à un autre point de vue, E. Bréhier, Crysippe, p. 221.

2. Que ces réalités soient transcendantes (Formes platoniciennes) ou à la portée de tous (« nature », au sens que ce terme pouvait avoir chez Théophraste ou Polémon) ; les impératifs auxquels elles donnent lieu étant toujours, dans une certaine mesure, dépendants de l’initiative humaine, pour être obéis.

3. Sén., de prou,. V, 8: « Irreuocabilis humana pariter ac diuina cursus uehit. Ille ipse omnium conditor et rector scripsit quidem fata, sed sequitur. Semper parit, semel iussit. »

4. Diog. Laërt., VII, 87: Ἴσον ἐστὶ τὸ κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ζῆν τῷ κατ᾽ ἐμπειρίαν τῶν φύσει συμβαινόντων ζῆν, ὥς φησι Χρύσιππος. Cf. Cie., de fin.., IV, VI, 14: (secuudum naturam uiuere summum esse bonum) « His uerbis tria significari Stoici dicunt, unum eius modi, uiuere adhibentem scientiam earum rerum quae natura euenirent ; hune Zenonis aiunt esse finem. »

5. Voir entre autres, Sén., Ep., 107, II: « Ducunt uolentem fata, nolentem trahunt » (citation de Cléanthe, cf. Epict., Man., 53) ; de uita beata, XV, 5 : « a Deum sequere ! … quae autem dementia est potius trahi quam sequi. »


1. Epict., Man., 8: θέλε τὰ γινόμενα ὡς γίνεται καὶ εὐροήσεις.









Goldschmidt, Victor. 1953. Le système stoïcien et l'idée de temps. Paris: Vrin.




Also cited:


Diogenes Laertius: Lives of eminent philosophers. Translated by Robert D. Hicks. 2 vols. London: William Heinemann / Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1950.

The Perseus Greek page for the Diogenes’ passages:





The Perseus English page for the Diogenes’ passages:






Seneca. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium.

Available at:



Seneca. 2014. On the Happy Life. In Hardship and Happiness, pp. 235-273. Translated by James Ker [other texts in this edition are translated by others]. Chicago: University of Chicago.


Seneca. 2015. Letters on Ethics. To Lucilius. Translated by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long. Chicago and London: University of Chicago.





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