This 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.