Continental Stoicisms: Beyond Reason and Wellbeing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


Ancient Stoic philosophy provides rich theoretical resources for answering many of modernity's big questions, just three of which might be sketched as follows. First, what are the relations of human language and thought to "objective" reality? In other words, to what extent can we know the world as it really is? Second, how can human desires and drives find satisfaction, health, and integrity in this reality? In other words, how can we "belong" in the world? Third, what room do nature and society leave for genuinely autonomous desires and drives anyway? In other words, how can we be "free?" Thinkers working in the so-called continental tradition have done a great deal to highlight Stoicism's value for answering these questions. Yet the breadth and profundity of their interpretations have never been surveyed, and remain largely unknown to mainstream experts on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, especially in the English-speaking world. At the same time, both mainstream scholarship and parts of the ancient evidence remain unknown to most experts on continental philosophy. We aim to bring these experts together in order to understand and disseminate the value of this interpretive tradition.

A few examples may help to convey the tone and richness of the interplay between Stoic and continental philosophies. With regard to metaphysics and epistemology, Gilles Deleuze's Logic of Sense (1969) announces its provocative intentions with the claim that "as a general rule, only little girls understand Stoicism." While the role of Stoic metaphysics and linguistics in Deleuze's theories has received some attention, his ironic claims about Stoic paradoxes, ethics, humor and tragedy merit further meditation. Moreover, his work is unknown to many experts in Stoicism. Even more neglected is Hans Blumenberg's erudite and poetic Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960). Stoic epistemology, physics, and astronomy play exemplary roles in Blumenberg's argument that "absolute metaphors" are prior to conceptual thought and establish its emotional and investigative horizon.

With regard to ethics one might point to Peter Sloterdijk's You Must Change Your Life (2009). Stoicism mingles with Buddhist and Indian traditions in Sloterdijk's post-Nietzschean manifesto for individual and communal self-cultivation. In this Sloterdijk develops Michel Foucault's comparatively better known handling of Stoic "technologies of the self" (1984, 2001). However, interpreters of Stoicism generally downplay Foucault's bold arguments about how truth, power, and selfhood define one another. At the root of these arguments is an interrogation of the possibility of freedom. In this Foucault reprises and implicitly challenges Jean-Paul Sartre's discussions of Stoic determinism in Being and Nothingess (1943) and his posthumously published notebooks.

The foregoing authors are not only leading philosophers, but also widely-read critics of contemporary lifestyles, economics, and politics. The aim of this project is to appreciate how Stoicism continues to inspire this enormous range of philosophizing, from the metaphysics of meaning to critiques of digital technologies.

The logistical core of our project will be two international colloquia, one in Bristol (UK) and the other in Miami (USA). For practical reasons the first will focus on French reception, which is by far the most elaborate. The second will focus on the German tradition. We will invite young researchers, established scholars, and contemporary philosophers to contribute papers. There will also be a number of public-facing events.

Planned Impact

The PI and CI have already taken steps to contact many potential collaborators in order to spread the impact of Continental Stoicisms. The French Embassy in the United Kingdom has indicated that they prefer to support the academic side of the project, particularly by defraying the expenses of some of the French speakers participating in the Bristol conference. They will make a final decision about that after we deliver the final conference program, which we will do after receiving the abstracts and making our selections. We intend also to approach the German Consulate General in Miami about both funding support and a public-facing event after plans for the second conference shape up.

In order to share our ideas with the public we have identified a number of events and venues, including the Bristol Festival of Ideas (, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (, and Foyles' bookstore in Bristol. Through these partners we will be able to effectively publicize events and attract significant audiences, whose feedback we will solicit and collect. The blog, which launched when this application first began taking shape, has already been viewed over 700 times ( It is addressed to both academic and public readers, and already counts a number of non-academic bloggers among its followers. Later it will host a repository of research. Along with the Facebook page, which will launch at the time of the project's official commencement, it will serve as a point of orientation and continuing interaction for those interested in these topics.

Finally, the PI will host a number of "philosophy cafés" in Bristol in order to discuss the ideas of both ancient Stoicism and its modern continental reception. For this we aim to partner with an existing local Meetup group, Café Philo ( It may also be possible to coordinate one of these with the Festival of Ide.


10 25 50
Description The first objective of this project was "to gather, compare, and assess the contemporary relevance" of ancient Stoic texts and ideas in current so-called "continental" philosophy. This we have done very effectively, bringing together experts on Greek and Roman literature and cultural history, ancient philosophy, and modern European philosophy in order to illuminate what the fine details of Stoic doctrine and even Stoic political and poetic expressions have come to mean from the late ninenteenth century until the present. At the same time, we have also used European receptions of these texts in order to look afresh at their meanings in classical antiquity.

Though it is hard to draw firm boundaries in continental philosophy, our first area of concentration was French philosophy. It is well known that Stoic texts and ideas strongly influenced the late 20thC philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. Our project has not only offered bold new interpretations of the significance of Foucault's and Deleuze's respective neo-Stoicisms, it has also elevated the early 20thC philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to a significant player in this dialogue. Sartre was one of the most influential of French philosophers and public intellectuals in the mid-20th century. Three of our collaborators argued that both Sartre's metaphysics and his ethics can profitably be approached as ambivalent reactions to Stoicism. We've also expanded our understanding of the permutations and ramifications of Stoic metaphysics and philosophy of language in French philosophy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Here the focus has traditionally been on Deleuze. To this we've added a study of how Alain Badiou, in his polemic against Deleuze, resurrects the Platonist polemics against Stoicism of antiquity; a study of Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic reception of these same themes; and, most surprisingly, a study of how the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's extremely influential work in this same area draws nourishment from these same Stoic sources. Finally, we have drawn into the conversation the prominent philosopher Barbara Cassin, whose detailed chapter on an obscure Stoic text in this area has received no attention hitherto. We intend to translate this and add further commentary by both Barbara Cassin herself and the principal investigator. All in all, these texts illustrate how a recondite and difficult area of Stoic doctrine, often little-known even by experts on ancient philosophy, has permeated continental philosophes with major ethical, psychological, and political stakes.

Our second area of concentration was German philosophy. If, in French (and Italian) philosophy, we often found the same elements of the Stoic tradition ramifying into a fascinating and far-reaching dialogues, in German philosophy the picture so far looks more fragmentary. Different philosophers reacted to different aspects of the Stoic system. For instance, while we explored how Hans Blumenburg, Günter Abel, and Wilhelm Dilthey refined and critiqued each other's claims about the intellectual historical significance of some Stoic doctrines, or how Peter Sloterdijk responds to both Nietzsche and(at least implicitly) Gilles Deleuze, we found it best to treat Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Hans Jonas more or less independently. Whether a more coherent historical and philosophical reception can be mapped here remains to be seen, as the research develops toward publication. But it is clear that we have greatly expanded our understanding of the breadth and diversity of German philosophical responses to Stoicism in the last century.

It is already clear from the foregoing that we also met our third objective, namely to trace some of the lines of personal and institutional influence. The greatest discoveries here were on the French side. For example, two researchers confirmed a hunch we discussed at the project's inception, that the groundbreaking scholarship of Émile Bréhier had reached Sartre's attention. In fact, Suzanne and Laurent Husson found archival material on Sartre's library borrowing and education that clarified this, as well as illuminating the philosophical significance of this connection. Moreover, we were able to follow lines from Bréhier and his pupil Victor Goldschmidt to almost all the philosophers on the Francophone side. On the German side, just as the thematic focus is more centrifugal, so too the intellectual lineages appear to be more tenuous insofar as reception of Stoicism is concerned.

Our second and fourth objectives were closely related: we aimed to build on existing impulses in relevant fields and bring together researchers who had not yet met. In this the project was a resounding success. The two three-day international colloquia, at Bristol and Miami, included speakers from America, France, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, and the United Kingdom. The colloquium at Bristol was robustly bilingual (French-English), which played an important part in making new connections. We were also resolutely non-hierarchial, and in fact included among invited papers at both conferences scholars ranging from PhD students to full professors. (We also chose more than half our papers from open calls for abstracts, on the assumption that no one was acquainted with all the scholars who might offer excellent contributions.) We have all formed important new working relationships through this project. For example, the principal investigator (Kurt Lampe) had never before met or spoken with either of the co-editors for the two major proposed publication outputs, Janae Sholtz and Andrew Benjamin. He had also never met or spoken with Valéry Laurand, at whose seminar on philosophy and psychoanalysis (in Bordeaux) he has since spoken twice. The P-I now has strong interdisciplinary relationships with all three of these researchers, and has even spoken with Valéry about a visiting professorship in the future.
Exploitation Route Academic philosophers and intellectual historians will find new avenues for research throughout our findings. We have two monographs now under contract with Bloomsbury Press, which are due to be published simultaneously as a complementary pair: this was always our gold standard publication outcome, and should make a significant splash. At the same time, this topical field is so big that our results tend rather to start than to finish conversations.

In this project we have explored distinctive formulations in continental neo-Stoicism of theoretical problems and practical exercises concerning freedom and dignity, wellbeing and vitality, and their relations to language, politics, and intellectual inquiry. These topics should be of interest to critically-minded people in many fields.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The two principal impact vehicles during the first year were the principal investigator's talk at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (see further under Engagement Activities), which had modest financial consequences, and a project at the Borderlands charity for refugees and asylum seekers. The latter arose adventitiously, because the principal investigator (Kurt Lampe) already had a strong working relationship at Borderlands. One of the refugees expressed an interest in Stoicism one day, and it occured to the PI that Stoic arts of self-cultivation might be of interest to people whose avenues to aspiration and achievement were, by British standards, unusually curtailed. Unfortunately the refugee in question soon transferred to another area, and few had the English-language skills to participate. Moreover, the PI knew very well that personal circumstances would make it difficult for people in this constituency to participate with the regularity that would be optimal. But since about eight people were enthusiastic, he raised it with the Director of the centre, and ran the project for five weeks. For this project he took inspiration from the Stoic Week project previously run by the University of Exeter, but inflected it toward modern continental neo-Stoicisms. (Thus daily exercises might be based on Foucault, Sloterdijk, Blumenberg, and even contemporary art rather than ancient Greek and Roman texts.) Another striking difference was that all the participants were devoutly religious, making the theological aspect of Stoicism -- often marginalized in Anglo-American neo-Stoicism -- extremely prominent. Four of the participants were particularly reliably and enthusiastically engaged with the material. Results in terms of changed attitudes about freedom, vitality, or wellbeing, based on self-reporting surveys taken by participants before and after, were modest. The research undertaken during this grant and the interdisciplinary relationships formed have continued to be important. In both March 2016 and February 2018 the P-I was invited to deliver address a multidisciplinary seminar of psychiatrists, philosophers, and cultural historians at the University of Bordeaux, drawing on research begun during this project. The research also underpinned a talk and guided discussion by the P-I at a Limmud (Jewish Study Day) in June 2018.
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Description Interactive Lecture at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave an interactive lecture at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute on ancient Stoic exercises of self-cultivation and their reception in the 20th century by Michel Foucault and Bernard Stiegler. Fifty-one audience members paid (£4 full, £2 student), and some entered after they stopped taking tickets. I spoke for 20 minutes, then moderated a very lively discusison for 20 minutes, then spoke for another 20 minutes. Several overlapping groups were reached: the Bristol-Bath public philosophy group; the regular audience of the BRLSI; local school and university students interested in philosophy or classical antiquity.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Jewish Study Day Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk about Jewish responses to Stoic philosophy and then moderated a discussion at a Jewish educational festival organised on June 10 2018 in Bristol by Limmud, an international charity. The teaching room was filled to capacity, or about 30-40 attendees. I led a discussion about the practice of self-mastery and the meaning of faith. Many participants spoke to me afterward to communicate how much they enjoyed the talk about the intersection of Jewish and Stoic philosophy. At least one rabbi also bought one of my books at the festival bookstore!
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description School Visit (Colston School) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I was invited to address a group of students doing an A level in Religious Studies: Philosophy and Ethics. On the A level syllabus is the ethics of lying. Rather than organizing a debate around the topics addressed in the A level curriculum, which would be tediously predictable and simply recapitulate what the students' teacher had done, I instead organized a short presentation and debate around different detailed examples of "misrepresenting reality," helping the students to relate each example to internal psychology and interpersonal relationships. In all cases the horizon of debate was a flourishing life -- in other words, virtue. In this I took Stoicism as my primary point of reference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017