The Invention of Duty: Stoicism as Deontology. By Jack Visnjic [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Philosophy 60 (4):690-692 (2022)
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This provocative study presents philological, philosophical, and historical arguments that with the Greek term καθῆκον and its Latin equivalent officium the ancient Stoics invented a new concept that anticipated the modern notion of moral duty, for example, Pflicht in Kant. Scholars began to shift from translating kathēkon as "duty" to translating it as "appropriate or fitting action" in the late 1800s, according to Visnjic. The usage of the verb kathēkein in Greek literature prior to the Stoics suggests to him that it described something prescribed by law, tradition, or decree. Visnjic argues that the Stoics did not conceive of kathekonta as rules of conduct but as prescriptions specific to situations. They held that there are some universal duties, like believing in the gods, believing that the gods are benevolent guardians of humanity, and being a good person, but that such duties offer no concrete, practical guidance for determining how to act. The most innovative contribution of this work is the collection and collation of pieces of practical advice scattered throughout extant sources to devise a four-stage process of deliberation. The two chapters on Kant seem comparatively cursory. On the whole, this book, at times daringly inventive, is occasionally unapologetically speculative.

Author's Profile

William O. Stephens
Creighton University


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