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Why Stoicism Is Being Updated

In a previous interview with the APA Blog, Lawrence Becker spoke about what sparked his interest in academic philosophy, what he is currently doing, and what directions his future work might take. He postponed mention of something he had recently completed, but which had not yet been published–namely a significantly revised edition of his 1998 book A New Stoicism. The new edition has just been released with Princeton University Press. In what follows, he responds to questions about his Stoicism project overall, which began in the 1990s and, he implies, has ended with this revised edition.

Why do we need a “new” Stoicism?  

We need a new one because the old Stoicism, unless it is seriously reconsidered and modified where necessary, cannot be a plausible candidate for use in contemporary ethical theory. And it should be a plausible candidate. It is a rigorous form of ethical naturalism in the eudaimonistic tradition. It has a remarkable developmental account of moral agency, virtue, and happiness – one that connects these things to psychological health. It is cosmopolitan rather than parochial. It recommends a form of life in which virtue and happiness are available to all, in survivable environments, in both hardship and luxury. Its goals and ideals are inspiring. But the old Stoicism didn’t survive in philosophy to the extent that it should have.

(I’m talking about Stoicism as a systematic philosophy that yields an ethical theory, here, and not about the ethical precepts and practices one finds in Epictetus, for example. Those have been in continuous circulation from his day to the present, and are justly admired. Without the underlying theory, however, there is nothing especially Stoic about them, other than that Epictetus was a Stoic.)

In its time, the old Stoicism was taken very seriously as a comprehensive philosophical theory and a worthy rival to its major predecessors–Plato and Aristotle, for example–and its major contemporaries, the Epicureans and the Academic Skeptics. Some of those predecessors and contemporaries have been reassessed again and again over the centuries in ways that help them remain useful for ethical theorists. That hasn’t been true for Stoicism.

So the point of my Stoicism book was to show that if the old Stoicism is charitably reassessed, then a new version of it could once again be a worthy rival to other forms of ethical theory. Specifically, it would be a strong version of contemporary virtue ethics.

A New Stoicism by Lawrence Becker
A New Stoicism by Lawrence Becker

So that is why the main trajectory of the book is to imagine: “What would Stoic ethics be like today if Stoicism had had a continuous history from its origins in Hellenistic Athens to the present?” 

Yes. If you are going to try to construct a version of Stoicism that could be as useful for contemporary philosophy as the original version was for Hellenistic and Roman philosophy it seemed to me that you would have to do that thought experiment.

The Stoics were philosophers. They argued with each other as well as their critics during the 500 years during which they were a prominent school of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome, which was roughly 300 BCE to 200 CE. They changed their views–even some of their original ones–in response to criticism and new circumstances. Stoic philosophers, like philosophers generally, would have taken account of the major intellectual developments relevant to their projects. So we need to think about how Stoicism would be different now if it had had a continuous history from its beginnings to now–rather than having had only one significant but relatively brief and heavily Christianized revival in the late Renaissance. Surely, for one thing, Stoics would have participated in the transformative events of the growth of human scientific knowledge, social and political structures, and intellectual life generally over the last 1800 years.

When I thought about that carefully, I found, much to my surprise, that although their natural and biological science would obviously have undergone large changes, and their logic would certainly have been supplemented, their ethical theory could have remained very much the same. They could still argue that virtue is the only good, everything else being but a “preferred indifferent.” They could still argue that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. They could still argue that virtue is acquired through a natural developmental process, the culmination of which in the sage–a rare but humanly possible development–is the perfection of human agency in the exercise of practical wisdom, which is itself necessary and sufficient for virtue. They could still argue that such virtue is an all or nothing thing, but that we can make progress toward it, and that is not a trivial matter. And for a contemporary audience they could have given a much more elaborate account of the role played by emotion, love, and tranquility in their ethical theory. At least that is my argument in the book.

The first edition of A New Stoicism was published in 1998 – what’s happened in the last 20 years that calls for revision? 

A bunch of things. And I go to some lengths in the preface to the new edition to make it easy for readers of the first edition to find them. The basic argument of the first edition remains the same, and the changes are localized, but some of them are substantial. I’ll mention a number of them here very briefly, with apologies for breaking away from a conversational form to offer up something like a checked-off to-do list.

First, there has been a great deal of work since 1998 on the ancient Stoic texts and their interpretation. There are new translations, new assessments, new biographies of ancient Stoics and so forth. This work needed to be appropriately incorporated into the bibliographic commentaries attached to major chapters of the book.

Second, there has been important work since 1998 on the details of the history of ancient Stoicism and its sometimes covert influence on philosophy since 200 CE. That also needed to be incorporated into the commentaries.

Third, some reviewers of the first edition noticed an unexplained omission–namely the ancient Stoic endorsement of suicide. This was corrected in the revised edition by supplying, in the chapter on happiness, a swift outline of what counts as a good birth, life, and death in stoic terms. There is also some additional material on tranquility and love in the commentary to the same chapter.

Fourth, the revised edition improves the description of the relation between agency, virtue, and happiness. This makes clearer how Stoicism is a form of eudaimonism even though, as the ancient Stoics insisted, virtue was the only good, and eudaimonia was the final goal. Cicero scathingly presses this “two final goods” problem against the Stoics. The first edition could have done better in resolving this problem, and the revised edition does so by elaborating on a suggestion in some of the ancient sources.

Fifth, and finally, this edition adds a Postscript to raise some issues outside the scope of the main argument. These include references to the remarkable growth of interest in Stoic practices reflected in the various aspects of modern Stoicism–the tens of thousands of people who in the last 10 or 12 years have participated in annual editions of Stoic Week, STOICON, and related activities. The Postscript also includes some remarks about the relevance of Stoic ethics to social and political philosophy, and its usefulness as a framework for philosophical ethics generally.

Why do you think there has been a resurgence in thinking and writing about Stoicism recently?

That’s a tough question. There are at least two categories of that resurgence–textual scholarship, and practical applications–and I don’t have a satisfactory explanation for either one.

On the scholarly and historical side of things, this resurgence (at least in English) seems to have started in the late 1960s among specialists in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. You would have to ask those folks for an explanation of the timing, but I suspect it had to do with new opportunities in the recovery of relevant texts, along with the leadership of some eminent scholars in the field, for example Tony Long, Gisela Striker, Malcolm Schofield, Brad Inwood, and others. I was ignorant of it until the publication in 1987 of Long and Sedley’s massive collection and commentary The Hellenistic Philosophers.

The stream of work from many hands has been growing at an increasing rate for nearly half a century now. Its existence finally got through to me fully with the publication in 1993 of Julia Annas’s The Morality of Happiness, and the 1994 publication of Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire. At that point, the decision to work on a book about a new Stoicism seemed an obvious choice. And the continuation of the scholarly work on the texts and the history of Stoicism is something that continues to nourish my thinking – especially when, intentionally or not, it amounts to rehabilitating parts of ancient Stoicism for use in contemporary ethics. An example is Margaret Graver’s important book Stoicism and Emotion (2007).

On the stoic practices side of things, the resurgence was perhaps somewhat later in starting. It had certainly started, however, by the early 1990s, with Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and a remarkable autobiographical book by James Stockdale, Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. Again, there was leadership from philosophically oriented specialists in ancient philosophy (e.g., Christopher Gill; John Sellars) as well as philosophers interested in a wide range of practical aspects of ethical theory (e.g., Massimo Pigliucci), but also from practitioners of cognitive psychology and psychotherapy–some of which traces its roots to ancient Stoicism. And now, of course, we have the enterprise known as modern Stoicism, which is all over social media as well as in books and conferences devoted to Stoicism as a guide to life.

My book doesn’t quite fit into either category. It’s about ethical theory. I am not a specialist in ancient philosophy, nor do I write about being a practicing Stoic. (Though my version of stoic ethics is my choice for a framework for ethical theory, and some see me as a practicing Stoic.) Some people have suggested that because neo-Stoicism arose in the 16th century during the religious wars in Europe, Stoicism may be most attractive to people living in troubled times. Perhaps. But then again, times are always troubled.

So I really have no useful explanation for why Stoicism is now resurgent. My book can no doubt be listed as a part of this resurgence, but that is a nice illustration of the way these things are beyond one’s control. I was aiming for an impact on ethical theory in philosophy generally. Outside my own more encompassing philosophical projects, however, I don’t appear to have hit that target yet. (But it is a distant target. So maybe my arrow is still in flight.)

Do you want to say more about those encompassing philosophical projects in ethical theory?

Yes, if I can be very brief. My fundamental objective in ethical theory has always been to integrate virtue ethics more or less seamlessly into contemporary philosophical debates about the right and the good. When I started publishing on these matters, in the early 1970s, those debates were dominated by various forms of utilitarianism, deontological ethics, and wholesale skepticism about naturalistic ethics in general. In response, I argued that matters of character and virtue were of equal importance to those of the right and the good, and that naturalism in ethics could be understood in a way that bridged the so-called gap between is and ought and didn’t reduce to a form of intuitionism. But then I found myself in a situation in which virtue ethics was beginning to be treated as a competitor to consequentialist and deontological theories, rather than a part of an integrated, comprehensive theory. That wasn’t what I wanted either.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, when I began to read my way into the literature on Stoicism, I came to believe that it might be helpful – if for no other reason than to better manage the limitations of the pluralism and proceduralism that has often infected my writing in ethical theory as a whole, and virtue ethics in particular. Such limitations can be seen in some of my earliest work, from the book on justifying moral judgments (1973) and the neglect of virtue article (1975) through the reciprocity book (1986) and the pieces on the unity of the virtues (1990) and the conception of a good life (1992). It was getting very frustrating.

But why go for a new form of Stoicism as a remedy for that rather than a new form of something else?

Because it seemed to me that it was the only plausible remedy that was not already under continuous renovation. I had been using an assemblage of things found in Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and character-based consequentialism. I wasn’t satisfied with the results about the connection between virtue and happiness, virtue and justice, the unity of the virtues, the natural development of the virtues in human lives, and the connection between virtue and the good life. That’s a lot of dissatisfaction. So I began to think that it was unproductive to keep reassessing Aristotle, for example, using only the parts of it that still seem sound as elements in contemporary ethical theory, but to keep rejecting Stoicism rather than first doing a similar reassessment of its original elements in the light of contemporary science and philosophy. And I am very happy with the way that turned out to be true for my work in ethics after the first edition of the Stoicism book–in the work on habilitation, health, and agency (2012). That book and some subsequent articles barely mention Stoicism but are clearly inspired by it.

Some argue that philosophy ought to be enquiry, not therapy, and Stoicism is often one of the most popular for practical purposes.  What are your thoughts on this criticism?

I have just a couple of almost reflexive responses. Like mathematics, philosophy is a theoretical endeavor that can be pure, practical, or mixed; mixed in the intention of those doing it, or in what counts as success or failure in doing it. It is hard to avoid the mixed category in either mathematics or philosophy, of course, because even the purest mathematics or philosophy can have unexpected practical consequences. And ethical theory, no matter how purely theoretical its intentions, cannot escape the fact that part of the criteria for its success or failure will come from its practical effects. People who write books defending nihilism risk creating the philosophical equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Philosophical anarchists, if they are successful, risk creating chaos rather than utopia. And philosophical accounts of virtue and happiness risk increasing rather than reducing the number of people in need of psychotherapy.

So even though my Stoicism project was theoretical rather than therapeutic, I am certainly interested in its practical uses. And I believe that Stoicism old or new, properly understood, can yield therapies that merit something similar to an FDA stamp of approval. It has not had a massive Randomized Clinical Trial. Neither has aspirin. Nonetheless, its practices have had a very long history, and its detractors seem to me to be basing their complaints on either a misunderstanding or misuse of Stoic remedies. As long as those remedies are used by people who are pursuing what Stoics would recognize as a virtuous life, they will be safe and effective, barring the usual list of low-incidence side effects.

That doesn’t mean that Stoic therapies are the only ones that are safe and effective. And it seems to me that modern Stoicism is not proselytizing by being so energetic. Inquiry into how to be a stoic (Pigliucci, 2017) can be every bit as philosophical as inquiry into why (or why not) to be a stoic today.

You write that “stoic virtue ethics has a powerful political dimension.”  How can Stoicism help in the current political climate?  

Stoic ethical theory looks as though it is under-determinative with respect to a very wide range of political cultures, forms of government, and public policies. But all comprehensive ethical theories are under-determinative in the sense that people who use the same theory (say, utilitarianism) may disagree with each other about good and bad forms of government, accounts of justice and the rule of law, electoral politics, and specific public policies. But ethical theories do give considerable guidance on all these matters, and Stoicism gives more than most in some ways that are worth noting. Here are a few of them.

Stoic ethical theory insists that the first thing we need for thinking through political matters is the availability of a calm state of mind–one that is not being driven by mental states that block thought or hijack the range of decisions one can make.  Fear, anger, grief, grievance, resentment, desire, or attachments, for example, can be so intense or settled that they do this. Stoicism addresses this pointedly through its insistence that we develop the ability to monitor the appropriateness of our emotions in all aspects of our lives so that when rational deliberation, decision, and action are called for, we are not being driven or blocked or hijacked by inappropriate states of mind. We ask this in a daily way of adults and children, teachers and students, protesters and police, pilots and surgeons, politicians and members of the military, friends and neighbors. Healthy people can get good at it in their daily lives without flattening out their emotional lives overall. So there is no reason to suppose they shouldn’t be good at it when they are dealing with the political climate.

Stoicism goes on to affirm a form of cosmopolitanism in which people should work at the task of treating all human beings as their brothers and sisters–as members of the same family. Members of the same family often hold fundamentally different political views, including ones that go all the way to the ground in encompassing religious or philosophical allegiances. Does that mean they should disown each other? Does it mean they should be unable to have civilized and productive relationships aimed at improving family ties? Stoics think not, and continue to press for diplomacy rather than war whenever it is possible. Apparently those are nontrivial points these days.

Stoicism is also, however, a form of political realism rather than utopianism. Historically, Stoics have not been pacifists, ultimately, though they can put up with a lot as long as it represents progress toward virtue. And again historically, Stoics can be formidable soldiers, relentless opponents, and persistent in their pursuits. They recognize that the levers used to create and sustain political power often include the manipulation of tribalism, loyalty, eroticism, hate, fear, anger, resentment, greed, and lust–including both the lust to lead and the lust to be led.  Stoic ethical theory aims to demystify such manipulation in political contexts, and render it impotent.

In sum, Stoicism aims to strengthen the agentic power of people making progress toward virtue to construct a political climate that systematically subordinates human vices to human virtues. That too is a nontrivial point in its favor.

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1 thought on “Why Stoicism Is Being Updated

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