Reviews of

Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind

In Ethics, Graeco-Roman Backgrounds, J. Andrew Cowan, Max J. Lee, Mohr Siebeck, Paul, Paul's ethics, Philosophy, Stoicism on January 11, 2021 at 3:00 pm
Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind

2021.1.3 | Max J. Lee. Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind: Mapping the Moral Milieu of the Apostle Pau and His Diaspora Jewish Contemporaries. WUNT II 515. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. ISBN 978-3-16-149660-8.

Review by J. Andrew Cowan, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind originated as a part of Max J. Lee’s doctoral dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary. Although he originally intended to publish his project on “Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind and Paul” as one book, the editor of WUNT suggested that he make a few additions and reserve the portion on Paul for a future work, and the material on Greco-Roman and Jewish Diaspora literature then expanded beyond the reasonable confines of one volume. Consequently, the present book focuses on philosophy of mind in Middle Platonism and Stoicism, Lee plans to publish material on Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism in a future volume, and he describes these two works together as the foundation for a career-long research agenda on “how the Apostle Paul appropriates the language of philosophical discourse in his moral exhortations to Gentile churches” (p. VI).

The book consists of four main sections and two appendices. The first section begins with an introduction to the topic of philosophy of mind. Lee explains that the Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureans all “claimed to possess the wisdom that would help transform the common barbarian, sick with vice, into a leading citizen of the Roman Empire, capable of virtue” (pp. 4–5). In each case, this wisdom entailed particular views of the human soul and corresponding philosophies of moral transformation. In the second chapter, Lee proposes that the model of coherence and contingency, famously used by J. Christiaan Beker to explore the core of Paul’s theology, serves as a helpful paradigm for grasping an individual philosophical school’s central tenets on philosophy of mind, and he then lays out the main elements that belong to this topic.

The second section is devoted to Middle Platonism. Here, Lee explains that Plato understood the human to consist of body and soul. Body and soul, however contained three components: reason, irrational parts, and bodily impulses. Passions come from the non-rational parts of the human, and error occurs when the rational part of the soul makes a wrong choice in response to a passion. This can develop into a cycle of bad actions and bad character reinforcing one another. In order to counter the disease of vicious character, Platonists recommended a three-fold treatment whose goal was the moderation of the passions: behavior modification, debilitating one’s desires, and empowering the rational soul. Through these treatments, they sought to inculcate a cycle of virtue that would overcome the cycle of vice. The Middle Platonists supplemented older understandings of the human by adding the category of mind, which overlapped with but was not limited to reason and had the additional ability of contemplating the divine. The idea of becoming like God enabled the integration of moral transformation and theology in Middle Platonism. Plato, however, had written of two very different conceptions of becoming like God: (1) escaping the material world through meditation; (2) assimilating to God through living virtuously within the world. The Middle Platonists sought to harmonize these ideas by giving priority to one or the other. They also added to Plato a strong emphasis on mentorship, and they pessimistically taught that some are incapable of moral transformation.

The third and longest section of the book examines Stoic philosophy of mind. Lee explains that, for the Stoics, the goal of moral transformation was not the moderation of the passions but their total eradication. The original teachers of the Stoa, Lee writes, held that the soul consists exclusively of reason, and passions emerge due to a mistake within a four-step rational process: (1) the mind experiences an appearance, which is an encounter that suggests a proposition to the mind; (2) the mind judges the proposition suggested by the appearance to be true or false; (3) the mind’s judgment produces an impulse to act; and (4) the impulse actually moves the human agent to action. Passions are thus entirely cognitive, and they can be eradicated through reason’s exercise of right judgment. The virtues, the Stoics taught, are mutually entailing, and hence people are either wise sages who make no errors, or they are fools. Because one’s status is either one or the other, there are no graded levels of moral progress, and transformation into a sage is instantaneous and total. This perfection, although attained by very few, is potentially achievable by anyone. In order to pursue moral transformation, one must learn the right theorems that train one’s reason to make right judgments. The Middle Stoics introduced a few innovations to this paradigm. Several introduced innovations in order to account for the role of physical and sensorial experiences in the process of moral judgment, and they recommended corresponding non-cognitive means like listening to music or physical conditioning to combat the influence of such factors. Neostoics maintained the earlier emphasis on the sage/fool binary, but they placed more value on moral progress and recommended the use of a moral mentor as well as mental exercises that prepare one to respond to events appropriately. Lee goes on to explain how Stoic notions of selfhood are rooted in the idea of οἰκείωσις, which he defines as “the development of self-awareness when an animal or human being, over time, determines what ‘belongs’ to itself (οἰκεῖον; in Latin conciliata)” (375–376). Against the majority view in recent scholarship, Lee argues that the Stoics understood reason not as an interruption to ὀικείωσις but rather as a continuation of the process of self-realization. Finally, Lee addresses the importance of imitation of God in Stoic philosophy. According to the Stoics, to live in accordance with reason is to be like God, and controlling one’s body through reason can be likened to God’s control of the body of the cosmos. 

The fourth section of the book begins with helpful summaries of the paradigms for moral transformation in Middle Platonism and Stoicism, and Lee then locates these philosophies and a few of their most important advocates on a scale addressing the degree to which they understood the passions to be cognitive or non-cognitive, with a hypothetically 50/50 componential understanding of the passions in the middle of the scale. In the final numbered chapter, Lee presents a taxonomy of the types of interactions that occur between different philosophical schools, and he suggests that this taxonomy will prove useful in investigating the interactions with Greco-Roman philosophy (and other traditions) within the writings of the New Testament. The main text of the book then concludes with some brief comments about Lee’s projected volume on Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism. He notes that Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism both understood the passions in more componential terms than the Platonist and Stoic traditions, and he suggests that his future book will enable him to determine which features of the philosophies belong to a common ethical tradition and which features are distinctive to particular schools.

The two appendices then provide a more detailed look at the philosophers and writings cited throughout the volume. In the introduction, Lee recommends reading this material before delving into the main chapters, and this is good advice for those less familiar with the development and major figures of Platonism and Stoicism.

This book is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in the topic of moral transformation in Greco-Roman philosophy. The subject matter is at times quite dense, but Lee proves himself time and again to be an expert guide, highlighting the important features and providing clear and careful explanations. Although specialists are sure to disagree on matters of detail, the book is amply documented with both primary and secondary sources, and Lee flags the relevant literature for disputed issues. Lee’s aim of determining what belongs to a common ethical tradition on the basis of this book and a future volume on Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism is an ambitious undertaking, but he appears to have the competence to pull it off. The only major drawback of the present volume is that the book’s great length all but ensures that it will have a limited readership. The information thus far is so valuable that one hopes that after he has completed his work on Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism, Lee may be persuaded to produce a more compact volume distilling his research for a broader audience. In any case, this work is a significant accomplishment and an auspicious beginning for Lee’s research agenda. Although it provides only glimpses of the relevance of this material for New Testament studies, Lee’s promise of future work along these lines is most welcome, and the present volume should be consulted by scholars in both Classics and New Testament for years to come.

J. Andrew Cowan
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
johnandrew.cowan [at]

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