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What Is and Is Not in Our Power: A Response to Christian Coseru.

1. Introduction

The ancient Stoics were known for putting forth a number of "paradoxes," so much so that Cicero wrote a whole treatise to explore them, aptly entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum. (1) Of course, the term "paradox," in that context, did not have anything to do with logical contradictions, but rather with para doxan, that is, uncommon opinions. Certainly, two of the most uncommon opinions put forth by the Stoics are that we should live "according to nature" and that things in general can neatly be divided into those that are "up to us" and those that are "not up to us." In my previous article for this two-part symposium, (2) I proposed that these are two cardinal pillars of both ancient and modern Stoicism.

The first notion is famously summarized by Diogenes Laertius:
This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man)
to designate as the end "life in agreement with nature" (or living
agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue
being the goal towards which nature guides us. So too Cleanthes in his
treatise On Pleasure, as also Posidonius, and Hecato in his work On
Ends. Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance
with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in
the first book of his De finibus; for our individual natures are parts
of the nature of the whole universe. (3)

The second notion memorably opens Epictetus's Enchiridion:
Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature
dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be
hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault
both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is
your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no
one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault
with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your
will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you
suffer any harm. (4)

In his response to my earlier article, Christian Coseru questions the notion that these two principles of ancient Stoicism are defensible today. He argues that therefore other crucial notions of Stoic philosophy--from our conception of agency to the nature of virtue--also ought to be discarded or seriously curtailed. (5) I believe, however, that Coseru's objections miss the mark. In part, this is because of some common misunderstandings of what Stoics actually say, and in part, because modern science--from evolutionary biology to neuroscience--not only, contra Coseru's opinion, does not invalidate the broad Stoic view of humans and human agency, but in fact confirms it to an extent more than sufficient to retain intact the core of Stoic philosophy.

2. Living According to Nature and Modern Human Biology

Let me start with the notion that we should "live according to nature." The ancient Stoics understood this in the context of a providential universe, not in the Christian sense of the word, but instead as part of their view of the cosmos as a living organism endowed with the capacity for reason, the Logos. As Epictetus puts it, quoting Chrysippus:
If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment
by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had
understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud. (6)

Modern Stoics, however, are not pantheists, which is why Lawrence Becker, in his A New Stoicism, rephrased the principle as "follow the facts." (7) The Stoic, under this interpretation, has an attitude of empirically informed rationalism and so acts on our most comprehensive understanding of the nature of the universe and of human nature. In practice, however, both the ancient and the modern versions boil down to applying reason to improve social living, because "the facts" of evolutionary biology tell us that two of the fundamental characteristics of human nature are precisely that we are capable of reason (to an extraordinarily larger extent than any other species on the planet) and that we are irreducibly social (meaning that we thrive only when embedded in a social network, though we can, if need be, survive as individuals).

Coseru, however, objects that
by interpreting the Stoic concept of nature to mean follow the facts,
and the concept of human nature to mean our sociality and capacity to
reason.... we assume an unproblematic assimilation of (the Stoic
conception of) nature to facts about our biology and psychology, in
particular of biological nature to the findings of evolutionary biology
and behavioral genetics and of moral nature to the empirical facts and
hypotheses of moral psychology. (8)

Indeed, we do. However, we are never told in any detail by Coseru why this is supposed to be problematic. Kevin Laland, for instance, in his superlative Darwin's Unfinished Symphony, one of the most comprehensive recent books on human nature and bio-cultural evolution, sketches an image of Homo sapiens with which modern Stoics find themselves at home. (9) Laland clearly shows how the human capacity for language and intelligence, coupled with our prosociality, have characterized the evolution and differentiation of our species (and a number of others, now extinct, closely related to us) from other primate lineages. No specific moral injunctions follow from this observation, nor would a virtue ethical approach like Stoicism require them, but the general nature of our biology and morality, as described by evolutionary biology, behavioral genetics, and moral psychology, are, in fact, congruent with the Stoic picture of the world. Stoics are "following the facts" in this sense, just like Becker argued on the basis of a larger survey of the pertinent modern scientific literature.

Coseru continues:
moral agency is a type of achievement that comes with learning the
norms of ethical conduct. The norms themselves are not traceable to
specifically neurobiological mechanisms and processes, although, once
learned, they would have their neural correlates when enacted. (10)

This is true, but I honestly fail to see why it represents a problem for Stoicism. Yes, we refine our moral agency by learning norms of ethical conduct, but we do start--according to modern scientific literature--with an innate sense of prosociality and even a sense of fairness without which no such learning of norms could possibly take place. (11) The existence of specific neural correlates for our behavior, however, is not relevant to the discussion at hand. Of course, any human behavior will have a neural correlate, since we don't do anything without our brain circuitry being involved. However, nothing in Stoic philosophy hinges on the specifics of such neural circuitry.

That said, and to reiterate the high degree of compatibility between Stoicism and modern science, the ancient concept of a "ruling faculty" (hegemonikon, as Marcus Aurelius calls it) finds close parallels in the biology of the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes (but, interestingly, not so in lesser apes and monkeys). They are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. (12) They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and to assess similarities and differences between things and events.

Coseru asks: "[B]eyond the broadly shared idea that, as Pigliucci puts it, 'we thrive in social groups and... are capable of reason'... how do we know when our employ of reason has improved social living and engendered our flourishing?" (13) I am more than a bit puzzled by this sort of question. I take it that many advances in the human condition, from the material ones (sanitation, food production, airplanes, computers) to the moral ones (abolition of slavery, expansion of women's rights, gay rights) are the result of people applying their reasoning faculty to the solution of practical or moral problems. I doubt that Coseru is arguing that there is too much reason in the world, or that a society in thrall to irrational emotions would somehow be better. Notice also that "reason," for the Stoics, has an inherently moral component. They are not talking about simple logic, but rather about what is reasonable to do for biological beings like us to survive and thrive. As Seneca famously states: "Virtue is nothing else than right reason." (14)

Coseru says:
The new sciences of human nature where the modern Stoic seeks, and
claims to find, grounds for action, also tell us, among other things,
that human behavioral traits are heritable, that the effects of nurture
are smaller than those of our genes, and that much of the variation in
human behavior is accountable in terms of neither genetic inheritance
nor family rearing conditions. Neither my genetic programming nor my
family upbringing is within my power. The evidence from behavioral
genetic research also suggests, though, that much of who we are (and
are capable of) is determined by our unique experiences. (15)

There is a confusion of different issues here, and Coseru, in part, gets the science wrong. To begin with, it is not at all clear just how genetics and environment interact to yield cognitive human traits. Also, the concept of heritability is misleading, since it is a statistical construct designed to yield estimates of correlations between different sources of variation under highly controlled conditions. It tells us next to nothing about the complex causal web underlying human intelligence. (16) That said, of course both genetics and early environmental causes influence subsequent behavior. However, this does not represent a problem for Stoicism in particular: any account of human moral agency has to deal with it. Moreover, even the ancient Stoics were clear that externals like one's family and upbringing are not under our control. While they obviously did not have a concept of genetic inheritance, they grasped that people come into the world in all sorts and shapes and with all sorts of tendencies.

As for the importance of our unique experiences, yes, very much so, but that's the whole point of Stoic training: to equip us to deal as best as we can with the variety of experiences that continuously influence and shape us. Indeed, the Stoics were materialists and determinists. Chrysippus famously explained their notion of agency by invoking the image of a rolling cylinder: If we push a cylinder and it starts to roll, intuitively we want to say that it is the external push that caused the movement. In fact, though, it is a combination of external and internal causes: it is in the nature of cylinders, but not, say, of cubes, to roll when pushed. The analogy is with the complexity of the causal web that underpins every human judgment and action: parts of the web are external, part internal, and the internal parts--our own behavioral propensities--can in turn be altered and improved through time. Again, short of denying human agency altogether, Coseru is not raising issues that are specific to Stoicism. If one is a Christian or a Buddhist, one still has to deal with the same facts from behavioral genetics and moral psychology, and yet somehow retain that degree of autonomous judgment that makes us human.

Coseru adds:
The implication of a conception of virtue as rooted in nature is that
vice becomes in some sense unnatural, a product of unreason rather than
a natural inclination. If this is the case, then prudence and virtue
are no longer within our power since we could not in principle have
done otherwise. This picture of human agency, which pitted classical
Stoicism against the Greek tragedians, is now also at odds with a great
deal of empirical research that regards traditional views of human
rationality as flawed. (17)

This betrays a misunderstanding of the Stoic position. Vice is not unnatural; it is just unreasonable. Seneca clearly states in De Ira that anger is a natural response to certain situations. However, he also warns us that it is destructive, which is why we should train ourselves to counter it. "Living according to nature" is not a simplistic appeal to nature, an elementary logical fallacy that would hardly be congruent with the fact that the Stoics were preeminent logicians. The notion that "we could not in principle have done otherwise" is irrelevant in this context, since the Stoics were compatibilists in terms of free will, a position, again, congruent with their materialism and determinism.

It is also not clear why Coseru thinks that the picture of human agency inherent in Stoicism is at odds with modern empirical research. Just to take one example, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux's analysis of emotions relies on precisely the same concept of emotions as defined by a significant cognitive component that Seneca articulated and Epictetus deployed when counseling his students. (18)

According to LeDoux, there is a crucial distinction between an emotion in the neuroscientific sense of a particular nonconscious process underpinned by specific neural correlates, on the one hand, and the psychological, conscious state of experiencing an emotion, on the other hand. This, I maintain, is pretty much the Stoic distinction between "impressions" (which are unavoidable) and "assent" (which is the result of our conscious judgment), as explained by Margaret Graver. (19)

To be more specific, LeDoux points out that when neuroscientists talk about, say, fear (which is the major focus of his book), they refer to the evolved, presumably adaptive, nonconscious neural system that allows us to detect threats and to react to them. The classical fight-or-flight response is an obvious example, and the neural machinery that makes it possible is located in the amygdala. The amygdala does, of course, create the basis for the conscious feeling of the emotion we call fear. It is important, though, not to confuse the two (as, according to LeDoux, even a number of neuroscientists tend to do). Emotions are better understood as cognitively assembled conscious feelings, which means that they are the result of an active, conscious, construction of the human mind--just like Stoics maintain. It is because of this cognitive assembly of emotions that it makes sense to take seriously Epictetus's advice:
So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: "An
impression is all you are, not the source of the impression." Then test
and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, "Is this
something that is, or is not, in my control?" (20)

3. The Dichotomy of Control and What Is and Is Not in Our Power

Coseru's second major issue with Stoicism concerns the dichotomy of control. Like many, he thinks that a dichotomy is too strict (after all, aren't there things we can influence, though only partially?) and that it is not in sync, again, with modern research in cognitive science (which has uncovered that much of our thinking takes place below the conscious level). He is incorrect on both points.

Coseru says:
[M]y opinions reflect ways of seeing and habits of mind that I can
reflect on, but also whose underlying mechanisms I don't fully
understand, let alone control. Similarly, while I may not be able to
control the weather, my ability to find shelter, build a campfire, or
adjust the thermostat represent ways in which I can wrest some measure
of control over my immediate environment. (21)

There are two entirely separate points here, misleadingly connected by the "similarly" in between. First, Coseru acknowledges that we have a capacity to reflect on our values, judgments, and habits. He immediately adds, though, that we are unaware of the underlying (presumably, neurological) mechanisms. This reference to neurological mechanisms is a bit of a distraction. I may not be aware, for instance, of the physiological mechanisms underlying my breathing, and yet I can control it. Even better, I don't need to know anything about how muscles and connected neurons work in order to be able to raise my arm.

The question is thus whether we can alter our judgments and opinions by way of sustained critical reflection or not, independently of which neuro-biological mechanisms make such alteration possible. The answer to that question is clearly, "Yes." Not all the time, and not necessarily in a single sitting, but the existence (and empirical success) of cognitive behavioral therapy--which is based on Stoic principles--clearly shows that of course we can alter our thoughts and feelings about things. (22)

The basic notion is that feelings (or, more properly, emotions) have a cognitive component, as discussed in the previous section. We can address and alter that component by way of critical reflection on whatever issue happens to be at hand (a reflection that may be aided by others, including a therapist). This then leads to behavioral changes that are initially deliberate and that gradually become second nature. The behavioral changes, constantly reinforced by reflection at the cognitive level, eventually lead to the alteration of the emotion itself. In this way, people can and do learn to overcome phobias, depression, and addictions (again, not one hundred percent of the time; this is science, not magic). The Stoic approach applies the same techniques not just to pathologies or extreme behaviors, but to everything of importance that affects the moral dimension of our lives.

While it is fashionable, in this context, to bring up Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky's concept of "thinking fast and slow," these researchers have not shown that we are incapable of altering our thoughts in a deliberate fashion or that all of our thinking is subconscious, but rather that the human brain constantly functions in one of two modes: one fast and subconscious, the other slow and deliberate. (23) This is probably adaptive: we wouldn't want to have to think carefully about everything that we do. There isn't enough time nor brain resources to do so and still live our lives (or, in some cases, simply survive). The distinguishing characteristic of the human species is precisely that we can, if need be, and if time and resources allow it, slow down and consider more carefully what we are doing, why, and how. If we deny this, it isn't just Stoicism that runs into a problem, but our understanding of any complex human activity, including writing philosophical papers.

It is the second part in the above quotation that is most revealing, though, as Coseru falls into a classic misunderstanding of the dichotomy of control. Do we really want to defend the notion that the ancient Stoics, let alone modern ones, don't know that seeking shelter from bad weather is an effective way to avoid or minimize its consequences? Surely, Epictetus was aware of such basic precautions of ordinary human life. Why, then, did he so blatantly ignore them?

The dichotomy of control is universally read as making a distinction between things we completely control and those we don't completely control. Clearly, the weather falls squarely under the latter, even if we are equipped with umbrellas, thermostats, and so forth. (Incidentally, the availability of such devices is also not under our complete control, as anyone who found himself in the middle of a sudden thunderstorm with no umbrella vendor in sight can readily testify.)

It is important to understand the reason why the Stoics make such a sharp distinction. It is perhaps best explained, again, by Epictetus:
If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what
does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will
never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done
willingly. (24)

That is, if we focus on what we completely control, then our eudaimonia is, in an important sense, entirely up to us. Nobody can force us to change our judgments, not even by pointing a gun to our head. If we find ourselves in such a predicament, we may prudently pretend that we changed our mind, but we haven't. We have simply decided that to insist on putting forth our opinion when our life is threatened by violence may not be the best course of action.

To attempt to undermine Stoicism by suggesting that we should think in terms of a trichotomy (what we control, what we influence, and what we don't control) misses the point by a wide mark. Still, one could marshal the evidence that our judgments are affected by cognitive biases of which we are not aware or influenced by factors such as our ideological commitments, other people's opinions, and even corporate advertisement.

This is all true, of course, but "influenced" doesn't mean determined. Ultimately, the buck stops with us. I may be led by others' opinions to think that racism is a good thing, but if I "assent," as the Stoics say, to such a notion, I am the racist. The Stoics were aware, and refreshingly forgiving, of the fact that people arrive at incorrect conclusions about how to act in the world. Importantly, though, people can always be corrected, because we always have the potential to change our mind and do the right thing:
Consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a man
like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you
have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice,
or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from
such faults.

If you are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong; but if you
cannot, remember that indulgence is given to you for this purpose. (25)

Even cognitive biases, as strong and subtle as they may be, are certainly not an insuperable obstacle. Christian Miller provides evidence, for instance, that the negative consequences of the bystander effect can be overcome by knowledge of the effect combined with self-reflection. (26) The "bystander effect" refers to situations where someone is in distress but we tend not to act if there are other inactive people around us, likely because we don't want to misread the situation and embarrass ourselves. One study discussed by Miller shows that people help in only 27% of the cases when the bystander effect is at play. However, if they are educated beforehand about the effect and if they pay attention to the situations they are in, the helpful response jumps to 67%. (27) Teach those who do wrong, indeed.

It may well be that, as Coseru says, "the findings of contemporary cognitive science seem... to limit the range of things that are... 'up to us,'" (28) but my reading of the relevant scientific literature is that they don't restrict it in ways that undermine Stoicism. Unless, again, one simply gives up on the notion of human agency altogether, which does not seem to be what Coseru is suggesting. Of course, a full discussion of human agency, moral responsibility, and so forth, is well beyond the scope of the current article, but I think--with Wilfrid Sellars--that talk of values and prescriptive judgments is both unavoidable in a human society and uneliminable by any kind of scientific advance. For example, see his concept of philosophizing as the development of a "stereoscopic vision," taking on simultaneously the scientific and manifest images of the world. (29)

4. Final Thoughts: Stoicism Evolving

Coseru raises a number of other points in his critique, for instance, that the "new sciences of human nature... cannot tell us why we find it reasonable to care for things seemingly beyond our control, such as the health of the environment, far-away political conflicts, or the welfare of seniors." (30) He seems to think that this is a problem for Stoicism, without considering that Stoic virtue cannot be exercised on its own, outside of specific contexts. Stoics care about the sort of things Coseru lists because we think that we should be concerned with the welfare of others, and indeed of the entire human cosmopolis. The environment, conflicts nearby or far away, and the welfare of seniors (and the rights of women, minorities, and so forth) are very much to the point.

We are told:
The starting point for Stoic ethics may have been the concept of
"familiarization" (oikeiosis), which captures the sense of
self-preservation and sociability that is indispensable to living well.
It should be obvious that this capacity to be at home in the world,
which for the Stoic is not merely a function of survival and
sociability, but a guiding principle of reasoned agency, cannot be
easily reconciled, if at all, with the disenchanting picture of the
world advanced by modern science. (31)

But why not, exactly? Here, Coseru not only does not advance any argument, limiting himself to stating his opinion as if it were factual, but plainly contradicts himself. Just a few paragraphs earlier he attempted to convince his readers that it is a limitation of Stoic philosophy that it, allegedly, has no tools to trigger concern for a variety of moral issues. He now identifies that tool, the process of oikeiosis, but dismisses it as somehow incompatible with the "disenchanting" view of the world that emerges from science. Which is it? And why is the scientific image of the world disenchanting anyway? It isn't the business of science to tell us about values, which squarely belong to the manifest image. We are perfectly free to accept scientific findings ("follow the facts") and still think that we have a duty to improve the human cosmopolis. We are just going to exercise that duty without a woolly eyed view of things.

Ultimately, however, Coseru has a point, and it is an important one. Stoicism originated in the fourth century B.C.E., and quite a bit has happened both in philosophy and especially in science since then. It is necessary for the philosophy to evolve accordingly, adjusting things, or even rejecting some notions, in order to stay current and useful. That was precisely Becker's project in A New Stoicism; it was also the motivation that led me to write my initial article, which, after all, was entitled "Toward the Fifth Stoa," not "Let's Go Back to the First Stoa."

This kind of project, it turns out, was an integral part of Stoicism from the beginning. Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, disagreed on a number of points with Cleanthes, the second head. Posidonius, from the middle Stoa, developed a reputation for eclecticism when compared to his predecessors. Most importantly, the Stoics themselves have explicitly embraced the spirit in which this exchange between myself, Christian Coseru, and Brian Johnson (32) has been conducted:
Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use
the ancient road--but if I find another route that is more direct and
has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced
these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth
lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for
those yet to come. (33)

Massimo Pigliucci

City College of New York

(1) Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum ad M. Brutum, ed. J. G. Baiter and C. L. Kayser, accessed online at:,0474,047:1.

(2) Massimo Pigliucci, "Toward the Fifth Stoa: The Return of Virtue Ethics," Reason Papers 40, no. 1 (Summer 2018), pp.14-30.

(3) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.87, accessed online at: of the Eminent Philosophers.

(4) Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.3.

(5) Christian Coseru, "More or Less within My Power: Nature, Virtue, and the Modern Stoic," Reason Papers 40, no. 2 (Winter 2018), pp. 8-17.

(6) Epictetus, Discourses, II.6.9-10.

(7) Lawrence Becker, A New Stoicism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

(8) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 10.

(9) Kevin Laland, Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

(10) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 11.

(11) Franz de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage, 1995).

(12) K. Semendeferi, A. Lu, N. Schenker, and H. Damasio, "Humans and Great Apes Share a Large Frontal Cortex," Nature Neuroscience 5, no. 3 (2002), pp. 272-76; D. Y. Kimberg and M. J. Farah, "A Unified Account of Cognitive Impairments Following Frontal Lobe Damage: The Role of Working Memory in Complex, Organized Behavior," Journal of Experimental Psychology 122, no. 4 (1993), pp. 411-28.

(13) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 11.

(14) Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXVI.32.

(15) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 12.

(16) Massimo Pigliucci, Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

(17) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 13.

(18) Joseph LeDoux, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety (New York: Viking, 2015).

(19) Margaret Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(20) Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.5.

(21) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 14.

(22) Judith S. Beck, Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond, 2nd ed., (New York: The Guilford Press, 2011).

(23) Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

(24) Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.3.

(25) Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI. 18 and IX.11.

(26) Christian Miller, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), chap. 9.

(27) Ibid., p. 211.

(28) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," pp. 14-15.

(29) Wilfrid Sellars, "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man," in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy, ed. Robert Colodny (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), pp. 35-78.

(30) Coseru, "More or Less within My Power," p. 16.

(31) Ibid., p. 17.

(32) Brian Johnson, "Can the Modern Stoic Grieve?" Reason Papers 40, no. 1 (Summer 2018), pp. 31-36.

(33) Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII. 11.
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Author:Pigliucci, Massimo
Publication:Reason Papers
Date:Dec 22, 2018
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