A New Stoicism – part I

Becker-New StoicismThis semester my friend Greg Lopez is having his New York City Stoics meetup go through an interesting book by Lawrence C. Becker, entitled A New Stoicism. It was published back in 1997, which puts it at the vanguard of the recent series of books on updating Stoicism for modern practice, such as those by Don Robertson and William Irvine that I have discussed before.

There are several characteristics that distinguish Becker’s book, which may endear it to some readers while turning others off it. For one, it is an explicit attempt at updating the theory of Stoicism for modern times, taking into considerations developments in science and philosophy during the intervening centuries. That is, unlike both Robertson’s and Irvine’s books, you will not find much self help here.

Second, the book is written at a rather technical level, even including a formal proof that the Stoic ethical system is logically consistent (i.e., it does not generate contradictions), though Becker leaves it to others to show that the system is also complete (i.e., that all its truths can be proved within the system itself — something that for this type of propositional logic would not violate the well known incompleteness theorems proved by Gödel).

Lastly, some readers may find it a bit of a turn off (though I thought it amusing, and quickly got used to it) that Becker refers to Stoics in the plural “we,” as in the following sentence, part of his explanation of the decline of Stoicism with the rise of Christianity: “Only those shards of our doctrines were widely seen during the Middle Ages, and the term stoic came to be applied merely to people who used our remedies” (my italics).

Be that as it may, in the rest of this post I will comment on chapters 1 and 2 of A New Stoicism. (I have also gotten in touch with Becker, who is now retired, and he as suggested to Greg and me some further readings from his work, to which hopefully we will get in the not distant future.)

The very short first chapter of the book begins with a rather idiosyncratic view of the history of Stoicism, and concludes with the statement that “Only three small groups will now say anything in our favor. Some soldiers … Logicians … [and] Hellenists.”

The second chapter is also very short. It begins with a lament that modern philosophers regard Stoicism as interesting only in the historical sense, not as a viable philosophy of life. (Then again, do many modern philosophers think that their discipline is at the least in part in the business of answering people’s basic questions about meaning and how to live?)

Things get interesting when Becker asks the question of what would have happened to Stoicism if it had been practiced continuously, like Buddhism has. He writes: “It is reasonable to suppose that stoics would have found a way to reject teleological logical physics and biology when scientific consensus did; that they would have found ways to hold their own against the attacks on naturalism launched in the modern era.” I, of course, agree, which is why I have embarked on this whole how-to-live-like-a-Stoic project to begin with.

The chapter concludes with a preview of what Becker sets out to do: i) to arrive at a modern version of Stoic ethics (as opposed to the one we can glean from the ancient texts); ii) to conduct a survey of the possibilities open to Stoic philosophy given the intervening progress in both philosophy and especially science; iii) an exploration of the logic and general tenor of Stoic naturalism; and iv) an account of virtue and its relationship to the good (in the sense of eudaimonic) life.

The third chapter is the first substantive one, where Becker begins to develop his overall project for a new Stoicism. I will turn to that in my next post.

11 thoughts on “A New Stoicism – part I

  1. labnut

    AFTER FIVE hundred years of prominence in Greek and Roman antiquity, stoic ethics was pillaged by theology and effaced by evangelical and imperial Christianity

    With that brief sentence Bekker has just pillaged history. It is hard to imagine that he wrote “A History of Western Ethics”. Stoicism was always the domain of the privileged, thinking classes in Greek and Roman society. Two things contributed to the demise of Stoicism. First it was the destruction of its natural habitat, the privileged, thinking classes. The second thing was the rapid(over a period of about 200-300 years), organic growth of Christianity among the common people, finally seeping upward into the ruling classes. The appeal of Stoicism was intellectual and would never take root in the common people. The appeal of Christianity was visceral. It naturally appealed to the common people with its simple language, simple concepts, ritual and strong use of metaphor. And yet at the same time, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas would show, it also possessed intellectual depth. It was inevitable that Christianity would displace Stoicism, but I would not call that ‘pillaging’ or even ‘effacing’. It is simply the result of a broader appeal across a wide spectrum of society.

    Even today Stoicism has a narrow appeal limited to thoughtful, ethical people strongly concerned with intellectual purity. How many people does that describe?

    The ancient stoics apparently believed that nature was a teleological system—a vast goal-oriented entity. They apparently believed that within this vast entity, and with respect to its goal or end, humans had a discoverable role, both as a species and as individuals. And they apparently believed that following out one’s natural role, immunized so as to be able to live contentedly whatever one’s circumstances, was demonstrably the right way to conduct one’s life. These beliefs are now widely thought to be flagrant and uninteresting errors—errors that make stoic ethics wholly insupportable“.(pg 5)

    I would not be so quick to dismiss the role of teleology. It has a natural appeal to a great number of people. It seems intuitively true to them and thus makes Stoicism more acceptable as a belief system.

    Suppose the book described a character-building regime for this purpose, emphasizing control of one’s mental states as a means of overcoming obstacles to living well. And suppose the book made clear how natural endowments and circumstances determined whether living well was compatible with intense longing, passionate commitments, grand gestures, reckless adventure” (pg 5)

    I think it is this character building regime of Stoicism that sets its apart as a philosophical system. And yes, Stoic teaching must rebuild that connection with conviction, commitment, passion and excellence.

    The third chapter is the first substantive one, where Becker begins to develop his overall project for a new Stoicism. I will turn to that in my next post.

    I very much like the idea of a conducted tour through the book. I hope you intend a chapter by chapter commentary.


  2. labnut

    The unfolding “Diesel Dupe” scandal at Volkswagen has left left me dumbfounded. How could this happen at the company I loved and where I worked for so long with such pride? This is no ordinary, shabby misdemeanour. It is a determined, thoroughgoing, deliberate deception that must have involved many at all levels. I knew the people in charge of Quality Assurance, they were men of integrity who tried to be the voice of the customer. They always acted to hold in check both production and research & development, protecting the interests of the customer. How had they failed as well?

    This is such a betrayal of everything we stood for and believed in that it is incomprehensible and agonising.

    Is this the natural end result of unprincipled free market competition which we restrain with increased regulation? Has ethics been entirely replaced by regulations which are in turn subverted as the occasion demands? This seems to be the heart of the problem. Because regulations lack ethical content we find it easier to flout them. This is the great weakness of today’s regulatory society in the absence of an ethical framework, regulations invite subversion.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    labnut, at the cost of sounding naive, and on top of that old fashioned, I think you are right. Yes, yes, I know that human beings have always have a penchant for cheating their way through an easier life, at the expense of other human beings.

    But I do think that a lot of this sort of stuff is the result of the rise of large and anonymous corporations, where integrity and virtue are not valued, and indeed actively discouraged. (I have friends who work at similar places, and they tell me horror stories about corporate culture seen from the inside.)

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  4. Brxi (@Brxi)

    Hi Massimo.

    Thank you for posting all these short and well informed previews of books on Stoicism. What I would really like is to read them all by myself, but since I don’t have the time (I don’t get paid to read philosophy) this is very helpful. And it is good to know what to expect if I actually ever get around to reading them.

    I am looking forward to the second part as I am quite curious what Becker had to say on a “modernized” version of Stoicism that was updated through the ages. Actually, what I would really like to see is what would something like Stoicism look like if someone were to develop it today, based on the scientific/philosophical knowledge we currently have, but without all the baggage from the old Stoics. (Perhaps this is an approach you plan to take in your future book(s)?) For example, I’m not sure if the standard division into the 3 topics (Logic, Physics, Ethics) as defined in the old Stoicism is really all that helpful for a modern version of it. (From what I’ve seen, there is also not a complete agreement between modern authors on what each of these areas is about.) But then, I do not know much on the subject anyway so it is likely just my lack of understand.

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  5. Massimo Post author


    I think people have been developing a modern form of Stoicism for a while now. Not only Becker, but Irvine, Robertson, and others.

    The consensus seems to be that the teleology goes, and so does the idea that the Logos is god embedded into nature. Although we retain the idea of the Logos as the fact that the universe is organized around rational principles (otherwise, we wouldn’t have math and science).

    I still find the three topoi to be useful, as long as one understands them in modern terms: “physics” really means natural science and metaphysics, i.e., our best understanding of how the world works. “Logic” really means logic, epistemology and cognitive science, giving us the best understanding of human reasoning. And ethics is what it has always been for the Greco-Romans: the study of how one ought to live, informed by nature and reason.

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  6. Brxi (@Brxi)


    Thanks, I like that summary.

    I did read both Irvine’s and Robertson’s book. But I guess what I had in mind with “developed today” concerns the way how Stoicism is explained. I am thinking along the line of Chrysippus’ “give me the principles and I’ll find the proofs myself”, i.e. to explain (part of) the basic Stoic principles starting from the knowledge we have available today.

    A very rough sketch of what that might look like:
    – the fact that the laws of nature are fixed and the universe is deterministic will naturally lead us to the dichotomy of control, and if you add the facts on basic human nature like desires, you get the discipline of desire.
    – again starting from the laws of nature which tell us how everything is interconnected, combined with the fact that humans are both strongly social animals and the only ones which are rational, could lead to the principles of the discipline of action.
    – research on intuitive vs. rational thinking (system 1 / system 2 stuff etc.), plus the fact that CBT proves that it is possible to gradually change the intuitive part will lead to the Stoic meditation and discipline of assent.

    Than you could really say this is living according to nature (nature of universe + human nature). Of course, this would still be missing the core ethics part “virtue is the only good” etc., which might be partially supported by things like science of happiness, but in the end would probably be something an aspiring Stoic would just have to accept as a basic assumption. (I am just rambling here, you are the expert in this.)

    All this is just off the top of my head so I’m not sure if this kind of explanation would be feasible or end up being too naive or dogmatic. But I noticed that most stuff I’ve seen written on Stoicism at the end somehow boils down to “some people 2000 years ago said this and it sounds good so I will believe in it” (which sounds familiar), only occasionally sprinkled with a few scientific results. I personally did not find that too appealing which is why I was wondering if it can be done better.


  7. labnut

    I still find the three topoi to be useful, as long as one understands them in modern terms:

    I was amused by this comment on page 27:

    The disagreements seem to have been mainly about the way the branches of philosophy were to be ordered, there being near consensus on the number of them (three) and their content. This all may have been some sort of curricular debate. (We suppose teachers then as now could be interminably and comically at odds about such things.)


  8. labnut

    some people 2000 years ago said this and it sounds good so I will believe in it

    That is testimony to their extraordinary genius. It is survived more than 2,000 years of examination.


  9. Massimo Post author


    I think what you are sketching is precisely the sort of thing that Robertson, Irvine, and especially Becker, are after.

    The bit about virtue being the only good (as opposed to a preferred indifferent) may have to be taken as an axiom — which is okay, any interestingly complex logical systems has to start somewhere. But Becker tries to do better, as we’ll see in later commentaries.

    Also, one could go with Socrates in the Euthydemus and argue that there is only one virtue, wisdom, and that is the chief good because it is the only that it is intrinsically good, since if you have it then you know how to use any other good. It’s not a bad argument, really.

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  10. Brxi (@Brxi)

    labnut, true. Point well taken.
    Massimo, yes, I guess you’re right about Irvine and Robertson. I’ll need to get to reading Becker at some point but for now I’m looking forward to your posts.


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