When one thinks of Gilles Deleuze, Stoicism might not be the first thing that comes to mind. The French philosopher is famous for his highly original theory of ‘transcendental empiricism’ first laid out in his 1968 work Difference and Repetition, and his seminal Capitalism and Schizophrenia collaborations with Felix Guattari which have become classics of postmodern philosophy and critical theory. However, in perhaps the most overlooked of his major works, The Logic of Sense, Deleuze engages in an extended dialogue with ancient Stoicism. In honour of this year’s Stoic week, and the 25th anniversary Deleuze’s death, it will be the purpose of this essay to draw attention to Deleuze’s Stoicism and its influence on his wider philosophy.
In the months following Deleuze’s death in 1995, writer Andre Bernold published an interesting tribute to Deleuze, the opening paragraph of which began in a curious manner:
Deleuze, philosopher, son of Diogenes and Hypatia, sojourned at Lyon. Nothing is known of his life. He lived to be very old, even though he was often very ill. This illustrated what he himself had said: there are lives in which the difficulties verge on the prodigious. He defined as active any force that goes to the end of its power. This, he said, is the opposite of a law. Thus he lived, always going further than he had believed he could. Even though he had explicated Chrysippus, it is above all his steadfastness that earned him the name of Stoic (Bernold, 1995, 8-9)
Bernold based his tribute on the philosophical biographies found in ancient encyclopaedias such as the Byzantine Suidas. Here Deleuze, a key figure in twentieth century post-modernism is reimagined as entirely pre-modern, and perhaps most curiously, as a Stoic.
In The Logic of Sense Deleuze is concerned with giving an account of meaning or sense as a non-existent entity. Here he utilises the ancient Stoic theory of incorporeals. Stoicism scholar John Sellars describes that to the Stoics “linguistic meaning is classified as one of the four incorporeal entities outside the category of ‘being’ but within the broader category of ‘something’” (Sellars, 2006, 1). And Deleuze also delves deeper into Stoic ontology, addressing the Stoic idea of time as a dual theory comprised of aion and chronos (which we shall explore in a later article), and the Stoic ‘image of the philosopher’ (LS, 127-133).
However, is this engagement truly enough to characterise Deleuze as a Stoic in his own right? Although Deleuze might have engaged substantially with Stoicism in the Logic of Sense, this is not what Bernold is referring to. The truly Stoic characteristic of Deleuze’s life is defined by his ‘steadfastness.’ And it is this steadfastness (constantia in Latin) which permeates his philosophy and runs through all of his works. Deleuze places the Stoics alongside his philosophical heroes such as Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson who, on Deleuze’s reading, reject the rationalist Platonic view of metaphysics in favour of an empiricist philosophy which affirms the primacy action, creation, and life itself. In fact, it should be no surprise that Deleuze draws this comparison when it was precisely the Stoic school who were some of the first in antiquity to turn away from Platonism.
To Deleuze, what this means is that the Stoics mark the beginning of a philosophy of immanence which he sees as a crucial theme in all of his key influences. As John Sellars continues:
The Stoic reversal of Platonism involves switching the ontological order of priority between ideas and matter. For Plato, ideas have ontological priority while the world of appearances is merely in a state of becoming. For the Stoics, by contrast, only material bodies exist. The contents of ideas are reduced to mere incorporeal effects in the form of what the Stoics call lekta or “sayables,” while universal concepts are dismissed as not even this, being figments of the imagination on a par with dreams and hallucinations (Sellars, 2006, 2).
Thus, for the Stoics, all that exists, exists immanently, on the surface of reality, or Deleuze puts it “with the … Stoics, we have the beginning of a new philosopher and a new kind of anecdote … This is a reorientation of all thought and of what it means to think: there is no longer depth or height” (LS, 155). Here Stoicism is portrayed (in the same light as Spinoza and Nietzsche) as ‘practical philosophy.’ The aim of philosophy is not simply to elucidate the theory behind the praxis, but is to provide a true understanding of living according to one’s own conception of life. It is precisely the reflexive relationship between theory and practice that constitutes what philosophy is. Understood in this way, philosophy becomes simply the transformation of one’s way of life in accordance with the immanent reality of nature. Or put simply, in order to live a good life, the Stoic argues, we must live in accordance with nature.
One of the crucial ways in which the Stoics, especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, advocated living according to nature was through utilising a form of ‘cosmic perspective.’ They claimed that to truly understand oneself and to live life to the fullest extent one must breakdown the barrier between the self and the cosmos. Each individual object will always act in accordance with its nature, but these natures may come into contact and hinder the actions of the other. Nonetheless, nature itself can never be limited by any individual as each individual exists merely as part of the whole. As Cicero summarises “The various limited modes of being may encounter many external obstacles to hinder their perfect realization, but there can be nothing that can frustrate Nature as a whole, since she embraces and contains within herself all modes of being” (Cicero, 2.35).
To take this into account is to understand that the distinction between internal and external causes is always relative to a particular mode of being, but from the perspective of the cosmos all is in order, for it would be impossible for nature to be anything other than what it is. As Marcus Aurelius notes in his Meditations: “You came into the world as a part. You will vanish in that which gave you birth, or rather you will be taken up into its generative principle by the process of change.” (Marcus, 4.14). In other words, to look at reality from a cosmic perspective is to attempt to break away from the arbitrary distinction between the individual and its place in nature.
In summary, we can see the influence of the Stoics in the most unusual places, even in the thought of one of the most radical thinkers of the twentieth century. To Deleuze, Stoicism was a philosophy that emphasised the importance of life. A life is made up of intensive moments and events, but it can never be separated from the immanence of nature itself. Stoicism teaches us more than just self control and self mastery, it teaches us to live in accordance with nature. It is for these reasons the wisdom of the Stoics will never be exhausted and will continue to inspire philosophers and others for many years. As Deleuze states in the Logic of Sense “How much we have yet to learn from Stoicism…” (LS, 158).
(Thanks to Dr. John Sellars who provided most of the original research this article is based on).
Aurelius, M. (2014) Meditations. London: Penguin.
Bernold, A, (1995) Suidas. Trans. Timothoy Murphy. 8-9.
Deleuze, G. (1969) The Logic of Sense. London: Bloomsbury.
Sellars, J. (2006) An Ethics of the Event: Deleuze’s Stoicism. Angelkai. 157-171.
Seneca (2004) Letter from a Stoic. London: Penguin.