Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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7. Space and time
After their heroic defence of corporealism (see §3), it may come as a disappointment that the Stoics do nevertheless admit four kinds of incorporeal: place, void, time and the lekton or ‘sayable’. These do not have actual being, because none of them possesses any causal powers to act or be acted upon. Nevertheless, an account of the world is incomplete without them, and they are therefore proper subjects of discourse. This entitles them to be described, with a lesser label, as having ‘subsistence’.
A thing’s ‘place’ is conceived by the Stoics as a portion of three-dimensional (geometrical) space, coextensive with its own occupant. This is given in the Stoic definition of place as ‘that which (i) is able to be occupied by what-is and (ii) is occupied throughout, (iii) whether by some thing or by some things’. Here (i) gives place its genus – roughly, space; (ii) adds its differentia, namely that its capacity to be occupied must be being exercised; (iii) specifies that the ‘being’, that is, body, which occupies it may be comprised of one or more discrete individuals. Put non-technically, a place is a fully occupied portion of space, whether occupied by a single entity or by a collection of entities.
When on the other hand some space’s capacity to be occupied is not being exercised, it is called ‘void’ (or ‘vacuum’). Void is defined as ‘that which is able to be occupied by what-is, but which is not occupied’. As a matter of fact, this failure to be occupied is held to be a possibility only for the infinite space surrounding the world, since the world itself is an absolute plenum, containing no vacuum at all. The extra-cosmic void comes to be occupied – at least, some of it does – only during the ‘conflagration’ (see §5), when the world in its pure fiery state is said to expand into it.
The whole universe, called the ‘all’ in the sense of ‘sum total’, consists of the world body plus the infinite surrounding void. But of this combination, it is only the world body which is called the ‘whole’. A whole, to qualify as such, must have a single unifying pneuma (see §3), something with which the void, being altogether empty, could not possibly be imbued. Thus the terminological distinction captures the Stoic thesis that the void is not any interacting part of the cosmic organism. It provides the conditions for one special kind of cosmic change, but it is not itself a participant in any change.
Since void is undeniably an incorporeal, and since void and place are both generically the same, it is hardly imaginable that the Stoics could have found a way of re-analysing place as a body. In any case, an adequate account of place must make sense of motion, that is, of a place being entered or vacated by a body. If the place were itself identified with the occupying body, no such account would be feasible.
The third incorporeal on the Stoic list is ‘time’. Yet, curiously, in our sources individual parts of time are often analysed, in typical Stoic fashion, as corporeal. For instance, days and nights are simply the world’s atmosphere in such and such a condition, and hence both they and the longer periods of time composed of them are said to be bodies. And reasonably so, one may think, since these temporal items could easily be deemed to have active or passive causal powers – for example, to be caused by the movement of the sun, and in turn to cause the progression of life cycles, and so on.
It seems to be only time as a whole which is conceded to be an incorporeal. Why so? Time (in this sense) is defined as ‘the dimension of the world’s motion’. Probably then the idea is as follows. The regularity of a body’s motion – including the rotation of the heaven, which paradigmatically displays the progress of time – presupposes fixed spatial and temporal intervals through which it takes place. If either of those intervals were (in the usual Stoic corporealizing fashion) identified with the moving body itself, its motion would be left altogether without objective coordinates. This consideration may be what motivates the thesis that not only the spatial interval – ‘place’ – but also the temporal interval – ‘time’ – subsists independently of the moving bodies which pass through it.
Sedley, David. Space and time. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/space-and-time-1.
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