I recently returned from STOICON 2015, a gathering of people interested in learning about, as well as practicing, Stoicism. This is the third such event in as many years, the last two organized by the delightful Jules Evans. (It turns out, incidentally, that STOICON 2016 will be hosted by yours truly, in New York, on 15 October. Mark your calendars!)
The event featured a number of talks in the morning, followed by two series of parallel workshop sessions for smaller groups of people, concluding with a plenary keynote lecture. In the first installment of this series I shared my notes and thoughts about the morning session, while here I am recapping the first workshop I attended. In part III I will tackle the second workshop, ending with the keynote in the last installment. All of this material will be online by the end of this week.
The workshop I went to was John Sellars’ (author of The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy) “The Stoic world-view: physics, religion, science.” His central concern was the exploration of a standard question often posed to modern Stoics: just how “Stoic” is this thing, anyway?
Turns out that one can ask the same question also about ancient Stoics: when Seneca advices us to sit down in the evening and write about our experiences of the day, this may be good advice in general, but does it come out of Stoicism as a coherent philosophy? How? And what’s all the fuss about Marcus’ and Epictetus’ talk of God and Providence? Do we have to accept it as part of the full package?
In other words, is Stoic philosophy an organic whole, where the ethics really is tightly connected to the physics, say, or can one pick and choose? The Stoics themselves clearly thought that their philosophy was a coherent system, but does that mean that a modern Stoic is then committed to some kind of pantheism, or to specific cosmological notions about the cyclical life of the universe?
Beginning then with metaphysics, the Stoics claimed that everything that exists is tangible: no supernatural, nothing incorporeal. Anything that has causal power must be a physical body. If your “soul” is what makes your body move, then the soul is a material body too (a notion that later Christian thinkers, though influenced by Stoicism, obviously rejected).
The Stoics also rejected Plato’s proposal of universal concepts (“Ideas”), as there are only particulars. So when you talk about virtue — since virtue isn’t a physical body — you are really referring to a state of your physical brain, not to an incorporeal thing.
For the Stoics there were two kinds of physical things: matter and pneuma (“breath”), and they together make up everything that exists. Matter is passive, pneuma is active, is what makes things alive; this in turn implies that everything is alive, but to different degrees. (Incidentally, John pointed out, the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit comes from the Stoic concept of pneuma.)
The Stoics themselves apparently derived the idea that the pneuma permeates all living bodies from (then) contemporary anatomical research: dissection of bodies showed a number of structures permeating them, and initially the functional distinction between arteries and nerves was not clear.
Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, famously held that the rational faculty is located in the heart, but later Stoics challenged this, agreeing with others (such as Galen) that it is found in the head. This reflected progress in anatomical research of the time, and Chrysippus himself had said that he was deriving his conclusions from the then current state of knowledge, but that future research may show things to be otherwise. This openness to update one’s beliefs with new empirical evidence (or better arguments) is a characteristic of ancient Stoicism, and it obviously ought to be retained by practitioners of the modern versions.
Interestingly, despite the apparent dualism implied by this general picture, it means that for the Stoics there is a difference only in degrees of organizational complexity between, say, a stone and a human brain — a rather modern concept.
Sellars reminded us that for the Stoics there was ultimately just one physical thing, nature, and we are all parts of it. God then was conceived either as the breath that imbues all of nature, or as identical to nature itself (matter + breath). Either way, nature was thought of as a single, physical, living organism.
So, how seriously should we take this God talk on the part of the Stoics? What are we to make, for instance, of Cleanthes’ famous Hymn to Zeus, which does sound pious and inspired by genuine feeling?
One thing to keep in mind — according to John — is that the early Stoics were known for giving allegorical interpretations of traditional mythology, as in “when you are talking about Zeus doing X you are actually describing natural process Y that causes X.” Accordingly, later on the Neoplatonist Plotinus attacked the Stoics for being atheists, engaging in God talk only to save appearances. The same criticism was eventually leveled at Spinoza, who shared much in common with the Stoics. Sellars paraphrased Cicero to the effect that the Stoics’ Fate is not the Fate of the theologians, it is the Fate of the scientists (meaning the result of universal causal connections).
Incidentally, before making too much fun of the Stoics apparent dualism, let us remember that even in the 21st century we have no clear scientific explanation of either life itself or consciousness. So it’s a bit too much to expect the ancient Stoics to get it right.
Given all the above, again, the question is: how much of the ancient Stoic worldview does one have to buy in order to practice Stoic ethics, and if the answer is “not much,” then is the resulting approach really “Stoic”? This is where John opened up the discussion to the group.
One of the obvious answers here is that “Stoicism” is a family resemblance concept, with a number of connected variants both in the ancient world and between the ancient and contemporary versions. This is true also of other philosophies, for instance Buddhism, and even of religions, like Christianity. The reason modern Stoicism may seem more abruptly different from its ancient predecessor than those other two examples is simply because it was not continuously practiced in the intervening period, and so it evolved by jumps rather than gradually.
Bill Irvine, who was present at the session, gave his favorite example of the history of the use of willow tree extract: we have known that it relieves pain for a long time, but the ancients that started using it didn’t know why, or had strange, pre-scientific ideas about it, which we now reject. And yet, we use aspirin today, and it works just the same.
My currently favorite answer comes from Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism: we need to abstract from specific notions in Stoic physics, because like anything in science they quickly become obsolete, but there is value in retaining the overarching idea. That idea is that one cannot do ethics (in the sense of figuring out how to live) and at the same time ignore how the world works. Follow the facts is how Becker rephrases the ancient “follow nature.” For instance, the Stoic ideas of universal causality and materialism — which still hold for modern science — have obvious consequences, respectively, for our concept of free will and for how we see ourselves with respect to the rest of nature (and therefore how we relate to it).