Pragmatic Stoicism, anyone?

81I3hlYvZML._SL1500_Just read a brief introduction to a book by John Lachs, entitled Stoic Pragmatism and published by Indiana University Press in 2012. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“The problem of pragmatists is that they never give up striving. The problem of stoics is that they give it up too soon. If we could combine the two views—vigorously seeking improvement so long as our energies have a chance to prevail and graciously surrendering when the world strikes us down—we would have the makings of a sound philosophy.”

“Contrary to what recent generations of thinkers have preached, the grand task of philosophy remains the exploration and recommendation of sensible ways of life. Stoic pragmatism stands out among these as perhaps the best approach to a satisfying existence. It may not offer a perfect method for dealing with the baffling complexity of our problems, but for thoroughly limited beings such as ourselves, it is good enough.”

And here is the Amazon summary of the book:

“John Lachs, one of American philosophy’s most distinguished interpreters, turns to William James, Josiah Royce, Charles S. Peirce, John Dewey, and George Santayana to elaborate stoic pragmatism, or a way to live life within reasonable limits. Stoic pragmatism makes sense of our moral obligations in a world driven by perfectionist human ambition and unreachable standards of achievement. Lachs proposes a corrective to pragmatist amelioration and stoic acquiescence by being satisfied with what is good enough. This personal, yet modest, philosophy offers penetrating insights into the American way of life and our human character.”

So, anyone for a creative mix of Pragmatism and Stoicism?

10 thoughts on “Pragmatic Stoicism, anyone?

  1. I think that I’m going to have to pick up this book given the premise. I am interested in seeing how Lachs is able to justify Stoics “giving up to soon”. I realize that there are a lot of self-proclaimed Stoics out there that argue both for an against this idea of Stoic passivity, to the point where it actually seems to become a fault. As Stoics we understand what is and is not in our power to control, however being a ‘civis mundi’ or cosmopolitan also means that it is our duty to take action for the betterment of all humanity. I wonder if Lachs ignores this particular aspect of Stoicism in his book in favour for quotes and passages which may show Stoicism to be a philosophy of those individuals who get stepped all over.


  2. Intriguing premise. When you consider the hagiographies of the visionaries our society tends to venerate, a common narrative strain is the idea that said person believed in their vision even when it was deemed untenable by others (or by common sense or some other metric). Like Steve Jobs or Tesla.

    While I think this tends to be exaggerated, maybe it is true that very successful people tend to have an outsized belief that they are correct, or that they will succeed despite ample evidence to the contrary. And perhaps most of those people don’t end up succeeding, but enough do that it becomes a common variable among the successful our society extols, studies, emulates, etc.


  3. Good points. Leather Library, I’d be curious to hear what you think if you go through the book. I’m inclined to think that Stoicism is pragmatic enough the way it is, and I do tend to be a bit weary of American-style Pragmatism (the philosophy, not the everyday attitude). But I’m open to good ideas to improve my theory and practice.


  4. I certainly agree with the author that one of the risks of a certain reading of Stocism is excessive quietism. I seem to recall that William Irvine writes about this point in “A Guide to the Good Life”. Irvine’s response to this critique was that while the Stoics can be read that way looking at the lives of Stoics, especially Marcus Aurelius, seems to argue against going down that path.

    This seems like a reasonable enough reading, but it seems to me that the idea of detachment does run the risk of sliding into passive acceptance of the status quo (Buddhism historically has had this problem as well, something Engaged Buddhism tries to address). Any attempt to reconcile equanimity with engagement interests me. I look forward to giving this book a read to see the author’s thoughts on the subject.


  5. John, not sure that Socrates and the others were never satisfied with good enough, but they did certainly spur people to constant self-improvement.

    marginalia, right, my response to that charge is the same as Irvine. And also, I’m re-reading Epictetus’ Discourses, and he is quite clear that Stoics need to get involved in things, not just passively accepts what happens. And yes, Buddhism risks the same problem.


  6. The problem of stoics is that they give [up striving] too soon

    All this criticism really says is that stoics may fail to act on everything they should act on in their control, But that’s not a failure of stoicism. That’s a failure of individual thoroughness.

    I think if one answers Epictetus’s questions thoroughly and honestly each night, they help prevent failures of thoroughness.


  7. Massimo, I would love to read your thoughts on pragmatism at some point. I a, quite drawn to it myself (particularly the older social Pierce, Dewey flavor) but I a practicing stoic and academic positivist social scientist. Have you write on this anywhere?


  8. Brandon, for some reason I never got into pragmatism. I’ve read the classical authors here and there, found me reasonable, but wasn’t intellectually titillated by them. And then I got really turned off the more recent stuff, especially Rorty. Perhaps I should revisit.


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