Forthcoming in Apeiron 2021, pp. 1-27
Published online Feb. 11, 2021
The Metaphysics of Stoic Corporealism
Vanessa de Harven, UMass Amherst
Abstract: The Stoics are famously committed to the thesis that only bodies are, and for this reason
they are rightly called “corporealists.” They are also famously compared to Plato’s earthborn Giants
in the Sophist, and rightly so given their steadfast commitment to body as being. But the Stoics also
notoriously turn the tables on Plato and coopt his “dunamis proposal” that being is whatever can act or
be acted upon to underwrite their commitment to body rather than shrink from it as the Giants do.
The substance of Stoic corporealism, however, has not been fully appreciated. This paper argues that
Stoic corporealism goes beyond the dunamis proposal, which is simply an ontological criterion for
being, to the metaphysics of body. This involves, first, an account of body as metaphysically simple and
hence fundamental; second, an account of body as malleable and continuous, hence fit for blending
(krasis di’ holou) and composition. In addition, the metaphysics of body involves a distinction between
this composition relation seen in the cosmology, and the constitution relation by which the four-fold
schema called the Stoic Categories proceeds, e.g. the relation between a statue and its clay, or a fist
and its underlying hand. It has not been appreciated that the cosmology and the Categories are distinct
— and complementary — explanatory enterprises, the one accounting for generation and unity, the
other taking those individuals once generated, and giving a mereological analysis of their identity and
persistence conditions, kinds, and qualities. The result is an elegant division of Plato’s labor from the
Battle of Gods and Giants. On the one hand, the Stoics rehabilitate the crude cosmology of the
Presocratics to deliver generation and unity in completely corporeal terms, and that work is found in
their Physics. On the other hand, they reform the Giants and “dare to corporealize,” delivering all
manner of predication (from identity to the virtues), and that work is found in Stoic Logic.
Recognizing the distinctness of these explanatory enterprises helps dissolve scholarly puzzles, and
harmonizes the Stoics with themselves.
Stoic metaphysics is a thorny topic. It corresponds to no formal branch of Stoic Philosophy (which
is divided into the topics of Physics, Logic, and Ethics), and it is not entirely clear what Stoic
metaphysics consists in, or even whether there is such a thing. On the other hand, there is no
branch of Stoic Philosophy corresponding to theology either, and yet there clearly is such a thing as
Stoic theology; indeed, it is clear that theology is everywhere in Stoicism, pervading all aspects of their
Likewise, I suggest, metaphysics is everywhere in Stoic Philosophy, pervading their
innovations in Physics, Logic, and Ethics. The absence of “Stoic Metaphysics” in the Stoic
curriculum does not indicate that there is no such study, only that it is not to be sought as an
isolated topic within one of the formal divisions.
Stoic corporealism is also a thorny topic. It, too, corresponds to no formal branch of Stoic
philosophy, and it is not entirely clear what Stoic corporealism consists in, or even how their various
corporealist commitments hang together (if indeed they do). The Stoics are famous for saying that
only bodies are, or have being; also for making soul and even the virtues corporeal by the schema that
has come to be called their Categories.
And Stoic cosmology famously finds its starting point in
two corporeal principles, or archai: divine, active logos (reason) and passive hulē (matter). But there is
little agreement on how these commitments are to be understood, either on their own terms or in
relation to each other. As above, however, the absence of “Stoic Corporealism” in the curriculum
and disagreement about the details also does not indicate that there is no such study, only that it
does not correspond to a formal topic or division in Stoic Philosophy.
A more fruitful approach than seeking some one branch with which to identify these
subjects is to think of Stoic metaphysics as a considered response to Plato’s Sophist. I am hardly the
first to notice an affinity between the Stoics and the Sophist, particularly in the Battle of Gods and
Giants between the “immaterialist” Friends of the Forms (Gods) and the “materialist” Sons of the
On which see Algra (2003)
Thus attempts to identify Stoic metaphysics with either the specific or the generic topics of Physics as described in DL
7.132 (43B) are at odds with each other and do not harmonize with the textual evidence, e.g. Brunschwig (2003), Long &
Sedley (1987, hereon LS), and Mansfeld (2005), but it does not follow that the Stoics are not engaged in metaphysics at
all, as Vogt (2009) argues, or that there must be a separate science of being in the manner of Aristotle, for the Stoics to be
engaged in metaphysics. Parenthetical citations like (43B) refer to chapter and order of the passage in LS.
The Stoics themselves do not call their four-fold schema “Categories,” and the schema is not clearly developed in
response to Aristotle’s Categories; for the sake of convenience and convention, I will continue to refer to them as
Categories, but always with this important caveat.
However, it has been less appreciated that the Stoic response to Plato’s Sophist
reaches beyond the Battle of Gods and Giants to the patricide of Parmenides, by rejecting the very
dichotomy of being and non-being that generates all the intractable puzzles in the Sophist, including the
never-ending battle over whether being is corporeal or incorporeal.
I will begin with an overview of
Stoic metaphysics as a response to the patricide, then I will carve off the central topic and argue that
Stoic corporealism consists in a division of labor from the Battle of Gods and Giants, which assigns
the cosmological work of Forms to physics, and their explanatory work as the identity conditions,
kinds, and qualities of individual bodies to logic.
As I will argue, the metaphysics of Stoic
corporealism consists not only in this division of Plato’s labor (which explains both the absence of
Stoic corporealism as a formal topic in the curriculum and scholarly disagreement about what it
consists in), but also in their subtle and sophisticated approach to what it is to be a body in each of
Stoic corporealism takes its start from the Giants’ earthborn commitment to being (ousia) as
body (sōma) ((DL 7.150, Clement, Strom 2.436 (SVF 2.359)), but proceeds with an entirely new
conception of body, which stands apart in being neither hylomorphic (taking body to be composed
of matter and form) nor atomistic (taking body to be rigid and full absolutely, and, of course,
terminating in minima).
Stoic body is metaphysically simple (non-composite) and fundamental, in
contrast to the hylomorphic conception, and it is entirely malleable and continuous, in contrast to
This sensitivity to the metaphysics of being a body (namely, its
fundamentality and continuous nature) underwrites the Stoics’ equally innovative corporealist
cosmology, enabling them to build a single, unified cosmos (and all the individuals in it) out of two
Long (1974, 153) identifies the affinity with Plato’s “materialists,” Brunschwig (1988) pursues the comparison with the
Gods and Giants in depth and systematically. For the view that the Stoic response to the Sophist is to turn away from
questions of being and non-being altogether, see Vogt (2009). For recent skepticism about any influence of the Sophist on
the Stoics, see Sellars (2010); note that by framing the topic around the Sophist as I do, I am not saying that the Stoics
thought only about the Sophist, or only about Plato; for an instructive intellectual biography that shows the breadth of
influences on Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, see Sedley (2003). I put scare quotes around
“materialism” because this is a term not used by Plato or the Stoics, who work in terms of bodies and incorporeals; the
Stoics are not, properly speaking, materialists but rather corporealists, in support of which see Brunschwig (1988, 72),
though many persist in terms of “materialism” so when I describe their views I will use (but not endorse) that language.
For a notable exception, see Aubenque (1991).
Note that I am not making “meta” claims about the parts of Philosophy and their relative primacy, but claims about
the way in which the Stoics divide Plato’s labor between different explanatory enterprises.
By “hylomorphic” I do not mean to invoke Aristotle, or any other particular thinker or school; I mean, generically, the
twin presuppositions that where there is body there is matter, and that where there is reason or quality there is an
For a defense of this view in greater detail in the context of Stoic blending, see de Harven (2018b).
fundamental bodies, the active and passive principles (archai), blended through and through (krasis di’
holou)… with no Form of Unity required!
The Stoic Categories, by contrast, take individual bodies, once built, as their starting point, or
inputs and offer a corporealist analysis of their identity conditions, kinds, and qualities — daring to
say (as Plato’s Giants would not) that even the virtues are bodies. This schema does the logical (as
opposed to cosmological) work of Forms: to explain what it is to be a body of a certain kind, i.e.
what makes something F. Not only do the Categories have a different explanandum, they proceed by a
different explanans as well. The Categories proceed not in terms of the composition of one thing out
of many as in the cosmology, but in terms of constitution, on the model of clay that constitutes a
statue, and a hand that constitutes a fist. What makes this thing a statue is its being clay in a certain
condition or arrangement; what makes this thing a fist, is that it is a hand arranged a certain way; and
what makes Socrates wise, is that his soul (a body, namely pneuma (fiery breath) in a certain state of
rarity and tension) is itself in a certain further condition or state, like a leather glove in the further
state of being broken in and supple.
Crucially, this explanatory schema is not a part of Stoic cosmology or an account of how it is
possible for many things to compose one, indeed, it is not a part of Physics at all. Rather, the
analysis that “makes each of us four” is a self-consciously mereological account of what makes a
given individual be human (a commonly qualified individual) and be Socrates (a uniquely qualified
individual) through a lifetime of growth and change, and yet, at the same time, be a lump of body
that never remains the same, i.e. never persisting through addition and subtraction (growth and
diminution). The Categories also explain what makes Socrates be wise and walking, and how his
wisdom and his walking are each a body conditioned or disposed in certain way; even what makes
Socrates be the husband of Xanthippe and southwest of the agora, and how each of these is also a
body in a certain state or condition. This is how the Stoics “dare to corporealize” all that the Giants
could not, forging what Jacques Brunschwig has called their “inflationist somatology.”
addressing puzzles about growth and diminution, persistence, and individuation, the Categories are
clearly a part of Logic, alongside studies of the Ship of Theseus, the Sorites paradox, the Lying
Argument, the Master Argument, and many more metaphysical puzzles.
Brunschwig (1988, 72)
The division of Philosophy called “Logic” includes not only the Stoics’ sophisticated propositional logic (logic proper),
but also dialectic generally, the science of speaking well, i.e. saying what is true and fitting, hence, the science of
yardsticks and criteria, definition, fallacy, sophism, ambiguity, and signification, which is to say, epistemology broadly
speaking, as well as ontology. See LS26 for texts and discussion; see Ierodiakonou (1993) for an illuminating analysis of
The metaphysics of Stoic corporealism consists, then, in the division of Plato’s labor
between a corporealist cosmology and an inflationist somatology, and their metaphysically
innovative accounts of body: on the one hand, as a matter of cosmology and hence Physics, body is
fundamental and continuous rather than hylomorphic or atomistic, and on the other hand, as a
matter of mereology and hence Logic, a qualified body is simply a corporeal substrate in a certain
condition, as clay to statue, or hand to fist. It consists in a metaphysical distinction between the
composition of one thing out of many and the constitution of one thing by another. Stoic
corporealism is thus no separate topic, but part of a thoroughgoing reply to the Battle of Gods and
Giants that distributes Plato’s labor across the formal divisions of Philosophy, and metaphysics is
everywhere in that reply.
Some Lessons from the Sophist
The Stoics famously make Something (ti) their highest ontological genus, set over bodies (sōmata),
which have being, and incorporeals (asōmata), which do not (see Alexander quotation below). This
move can be traced to the Parmenidean puzzles over non-being in Plato’s Sophist.
The question of
being and non-being (or, equivalently, what is and what is not) arises in the Sophist (at 237A) out of
discussion of the sophist as a copy-maker: how can there be copies, if these are other than what is
and anything other than what is, i.e. what is not, is nothing at all? It does seem that there really are
copies, and, generally, that candidates on both (or all) sides of the debate over being and non-being
have a reasonable claim to be real (and hence among what is). But if what is something (ti) must be
what is or else nothing at all (237C-D), then however one delimits or defines what is will automatically
banish all other candidates, real as they may seem, to the dustbin of nothing at all (or, with the Gods,
to becoming). Hence the debate is immediately intractable, a stalemate with nowhere for either side to
go in the face of entities with a legitimate claim to what is but that do not fit the chosen mold.
The Stoic solution is to reject the being-nothing dichotomy as exhaustive: to embrace (all and
only) body as being, and to recognize in addition a kind of non-being that is something more than
nothing at all (239D-240C). The Stoics prise apart something from being (rejecting the Visitor’s
the interpretive difficulties concerning the division of Stoic philosophy, and Ierodiakonou (2005) on the status of these
puzzles as thought experiments.
Again, for welcome support of this point, particularly in the detailed exposition of the Sophist, see Aubenque (1991).