From ancient to modern Stoicism — part I

Stoicism invented hereI have now being studying Stoicism intensively for close to a year and a half, and this year I’m ratcheting things up by devoting my sabbatical to it, a project that will culminate in the writing of How To Be A Stoic (the book), and the offering at City College of a course on ancient vs modern Stoicism.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. I’ve been giving a lot of thought about the project of modernizing Stoicism, and here I will like to present my preliminary suggestions in a bit of a more systematic manner than I’ve done so far.

The basic idea is that Stoicism was a live philosophy for five centuries, but has not been for the past 1800 years or so. This contrasts with Stoicism’s Eastern counterpart — as I’ve come to see it — Buddhism, which has developed continuously for two and a half millennia, starting 2-3 centuries before Stoicism. It makes perfect sense, therefore, to ask what a modern Stoicism should look like once one takes into account the intervening progress in ethics, natural science (part of Stoic “physics”) and cognitive science (part of Stoic “logic”).

The one presented below is just a preliminary sketch, accompanied by what I hope is going to be a handy infographics. The full project will require a lot more time, and may (or may not) develop into a future book.

My thinking on this has been influenced by all the modern authors that I have read so far, including the contributors to the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, Bill Irvine, Don Robertson, and John Sellars, among others. But it owes most of all to the very rigorous effort by Larry Becker.

It isn’t that I necessarily agree with Becker on every point, nor that I think his will be the last word on the subject. On the contrary, his A New Stoicism is a wonderful point of departure for a serious journey, but far from the final destination (if there ever is going to be one).

Nonetheless, a number of the ideas presented below are adapted from Becker, and I therefore owe him a special debt of gratitude. As I write this, I am scheduled to go to Virginia, where he has retired from his academic teaching, and spend a day interviewing him on the topic of modern Stoicism. Stay tuned for more on that coming soon.

The above preliminaries duly taken care of, let me get to the heart of the matter. It is neither possible here, nor necessarily desirable, to provide a point-by-point update of the entire Stoic system, as best as it can be reconstructed via extant sources for the ancient writings. So I decided to focus on six points that I think represent both the most important aspects of ancient Stoicism and those most urgently in need of update to modern sensibilities if one wishes contemporary Stoicism to flourish.

Here is the infographics that I hope is going to be useful in order to follow what I’m about to say, as well as to provide a handy reminder for future discussions (the body in the middle symbolizes humanity at large — note that the diagram is partial, the remaining three topics, currently symbolized by the two arrows, will be discussed in part II):

ancient to modern Stoicism-partial

The left column summarizes, I think accurately, six (well, only three, in this partial version) major doctrines of ancient Stoicism. The one on the right rephrases and updates them, in my own (and Becker’s, and others’) thinking.

Let us take one row at a time, then. First up: the famous dichotomy of control. As Epictetus puts it at the beginning of the Enchiridion, some things are under our control, other things are not under our control. This is of crucial practical importance, because the consequence of internalizing such apparently trivial realization is that one can then focus on having one’s eudaimonia depend on the things under her control, not on those that are not.

But what is and is not under our control? For the ancient Stoics, our conscious mental states are (though, crucially, not the unconscious ones). Everything else, the so-called “externals,” is not under control. This is why Marcus insisted so much on cultivating one’s “ruling faculty”: it is within our power to give or withdraw assent from “impressions,” i.e., from what our unconscious mind presents us as a way to perceive the world.

There are two problems with the ancient version, though, which need to be remedied in any version of modern Stoicism. To begin with, contemporary cognitive science teaches us that the Stoics were a bit optimistic about what it is under our control, mentally speaking. Our conscious thoughts and deliberations turn out to be much more influenced by, and tightly intertwined with, our unconscious ones than they believed. I most certainly don’t go for what I consider the hype of the “illusion” crowd, i.e., that subgroup of modern scientists who deny the existence of consciousness, selfhood, etc.. Those are important mental phenomena, and they are real. A better way to think about them, instead, is along the lines of Daniel Kahneman’s “system I vs system II” (i.e., unconscious, fast vs conscious, slow) mentality, supported also by the anatomical fact the executive functions (what a modern scientist would call the “ruling faculty”) are physically located in the prefrontal and frontal lobes, which are in turn anatomically distinct from, and yet deeply interconnected with, the limbic system, where our emotional responses and motivational attitudes originate.

The second problem is that it is quite obvious that a better way to describe things is by way of a trichotomy, not a dichotomy, since some externals are under our partial control. The Stoics themselves did recognize this, of course. Think of their famous example of the archer who attempts to hit a target: the ultimate outcome of the shot is not under his control, because the target could be moving, or a gust of wind could get in the way of hitting it. What is under his control is to do his best to prepare for the shot. But this, obviously, means that he has some influence over the ultimate outcome, i.e., on more than just his own thought processes. That is why Cicero, in book III of De Finibus, where he presents the parable of the archer, has Cato the Younger conclude: “the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’”

To be chosen, but not to be desired. I find this to be a very beautiful thought, which is why I follow Irvine here, who suggested that the modern Stoic ought to recognize the trichotomy of control and move to internalize her goals: you don’t hope to get a promotion, you work at your best to deserve one, and whether you get it or not is not (entirely) up to you; you don’t wish for your relationship to last your entire life, you work hard at being the best companion you can, and whether or not the relationship will indeed last all your life is not (entirely) up to you. In all cases, you accept the outcome with equanimity, knowing that you have done all you could to achieve the “chosen but not desired” end.

Second: virtue, or — as I pointed out recently — arete, which more accurately means excellence of character.

The ancient Stoic take on this is that virtue is the only good (though Cato, in Cicero’s De Finibus quoted above, more appropriately defines as the Chief Good). Here the Stoics rather closely followed Socrates, who in the Euthydemus, argues that every other skill is useful for something else, but only virtue is good in and of itself, because the virtuous person then knows how to deal with every situation life may throw at her. (Strictly speaking, Socrates is talking about wisdom, but the Stoics subscribed to a unity of the virtues model, so the two terms are interchangeable for the present purposes.)

The proposed update here is straight out of Becker, with one caveat. He suggests that in modern terms we can think of virtue as the maximization of agency, which is something that all human beings want. (To be precise, Becker says that all agents sufficiently similar to himself do, taking himself to be a typical human being. It is very possible that certain humans, or non-human conscious beings, if they exist, may not wish to maximize their agency — in which case modern Stoicism will simply not appeal to them.)

The caveat is that I’m talking about morally driven, or ethically informed, agency, otherwise we may have to contemplate the case of a psychopath who wishes to maximize his agency, including his ability to kill or hurt others. That would certainly not be Stoic, and Becker realizes this. However, his argument for connecting maximization of agency with ethics is a bit convoluted and not entirely convincing, in my opinion.

The way I’m connecting them here is rather straightforward and would be familiar also to an ancient Stoic: I am simply accepting the Stoic position that human beings are social animals capable of reason, as opposed to rational animals, a la Aristotle: very clearly, on many occasions, we don’t actually behave rationally, but it is certainly within our means to do so. I take it then as axiomatic to a modern Stoic system that the best way to live is to use reason in order to help society (and hence ourselves) to flourish. As Seneca famously put it: “Adhibe rationem difficultatibus” (Bring the mind to bear upon your problems -De Tranquillitate Animi, X.4). And the best way to live socially definitely does not include psychopathy, or indeed any behavioral pattern that is detrimental to the welfare and eudaimonia of other agents, ceteris paribus.

Third, nature. The ancient Stoics were famous for their school’s motto, “follow Nature,” by which they meant both the nature of the cosmos and human nature. This is why “physics” is one of the three fields of inquiry of Stoicism (a second one being “logic,” both deeply connected to the central one, ethics). In order to live eudaimonically, which is the goal of ethics, one needs to understand how the universe works, as well as how human beings are constituted. Without that understanding, one is bound to try to live by way of fantasy, attempting to do things that are either impossible or not helpful.

Now, “living according to nature” doesn’t mean making a fallacious appeal to nature, i.e. thinking that whatever is natural is ipso facto good. The Stoics realized just as well as anyone else that eating poisonous mushrooms, say, is most definitely not good for human beings, even though poisonous mushrooms are certainly “natural.”

What they meant was quite a bit more sophisticated: in terms of the cosmos at large, there is no good living that ignores the Logos (more on this in part II), the rational principle that organizes the universe, or that attempts to flaunt the principle of universal cause and effect in a materialistic universe (both of which were tenets of Stoic metaphysics). As for human nature, as I mentioned above, the crucial step is the recognition that we live best when we deploy reason to furthering the function of our societies.

Living according to nature can be usefully updated — again, as Becker did — to living by following the facts about both the cosmos and humanity. Here is how he puts it: “Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it–our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavors–before we deliberate about normative matters.”

This is a powerful way to bridge the famous is/ought gap (though notice that it does not reduce ethics to social science), and to do justice to Stoicism as a naturalistic philosophy. But in the 21st century we do so by taking on board whatever modern science — and especially physics, biology and the cognitive sciences — tell us about the nature of the world and the nature of humanity. This means abandoning a number of specific notions that the ancient Stoics had, but this is neither problematic (Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion, there are no sacred texts or immutable doctrines), nor in fact something that the Stoics themselves were not doing already in their time.

In part II of this essay (out on Thursday) I will discuss three additional major concepts of ancient Stoicism and my proposed updates to them: how to think of emotions, the issue of preferred indifferents, and the Logos as universal rational principle.


Postscript: Clearly, both in the discussion thread below and at the Stoicism Facebook page, the idea of maximization of agency is the most controversial of the proposals advanced so far. Now, I just happened to be reading Anthony Long’s excellent commentary on Epictetus where I found this passage:

“For what is the object of every man’s search? To have a quiet mind, to be happy, to do everything as he will, to be free from hindrance and compulsion.” (III.1)

At the beginning of the same book, aptly entitled “On freedom,” Epictetus writes: “That man is free, who lives as he wishes, who is proof against compulsion and hindrance and violence, whose impulses are untrammelled, who gets what he wills to get and avoids what he wills to avoid.”

And his conclusion at the end of that discourse is that the man who is truly free is, of course, the one who is wise enough to only want the things that are under his control, and not those that are not under his control.

I am not suggesting that this is what Becker means by personal agency, but it seems equally clear to me that a similar concept is not alien to ancient Stoic thinking at all, and that the real question is how we articulate it within the broader context of Stoic philosophy.

 

27 thoughts on “From ancient to modern Stoicism — part I

  1. I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to change the definition of Eudamonia (virtue is the only good) so profoundly, for 2 reasons. You alluded to the 1st reason when you mentioned stoic pyschopaths concerned with agency. The 2nd is that the definition of Eudamonia is one of the core concepts of the entire philosophy. According to the Stoics, Eudamonia = virtue (not agency).

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  2. I second vintagewatchguy. Maximal agency as THE goal is too readily misinterpreted as some form of agency goes. You can then caveat and explain what you REALLY mean, but is it really best to make the central goal of a philosophy a term that readers are too prone to misunderstand?

    Another way to put it is as follows. The term virtue obviously has substantive positive content, once one lists the cardinal virtues such as practical wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. What is the substantive POSITIVE content of “maximal agency”? It is likely to be immediately defined as “freedom from” rather than “freedom to”.

    I’m also struck that in your suggested morning meditation, you try to think about how you will exercise the 4 virtues that day, you imagine circles of compassion, you contemplate death. I don’t see anything in that morning meditation about thinking about maximal agency. The concept doesn’t seem to lend itself to any useful psychological exercises.

    Now, maximal agency might be another reason why the virtues are truly good for a person. But to stress maximal agency as the goal in itself seems problematic.

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  3. I like this development and will leave the fine details to greater philosophers than myself. My only comment is that the Eastern analogue of Stoicism might be more closely aligned with Zen Buddhism, which was founded in the 6th century CE.

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  4. My primary reaction is ‘Why call it Stoicism’? To use Wittgenstein’s phrase, it sounds like you’ve moved into the family of humanistic ethics. How would Cato or Adm. Stockdale be examplars of this view? It may be that these changes are necessary but the total result should be recognized as being a member of the Stoic family.To me one of the hallmarks of Stoicism is unshakeable resolve like Seneca being a Stoic through his many trials and ultimate death.

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  5. He suggests that in modern terms we can think of virtue as the maximization of agency

    Like Tim and Vintage I find this rather problematic. In fact it sounds suspiciously like Stoicism for Millennial Dummies.

    You go on to say:

    I take it then as axiomatic to a modern Stoic system that the best way to live is to use reason in order to help society

    and here I think you are close to the mark. Perhaps then you should reword your phrase to say:

    …in modern terms we can think of virtue as the maximization of social agency“.

    Though that to me seems like pinning Stoicism to a utilitarian foundation. I think you are much better off saying what we think, which is:

    …in modern terms we can think of virtue as being character excellence informed by social needs

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  6. I wanted to mention that I love this blog, that I’m a regular reader, and that I was “with” Massimo until he suggested that Becker’s view that “maximal agency is the only good”, is valid. It’s just not what the Stoics had in mind (regardless of any caveats concerning morality or ethics).

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  7. All,

    thanks for the comments, critical and otherwise. Please keep ’em coming, my views on all of this are not settled, and it is nice to have a friendly preview of what the community thinks of the project.

    Clearly, both here and over at the Stoicism Facebook group, the most problematic issue is my endorsement of Becker’s “maximal agency” idea, as much as I (and he) carefully qualified it in terms of ethics. A second, somewhat minor, point of controversy, is Irvine trichotomy of control.

    Let me take up briefly the latter issue, then go back to agency.

    As I indicated in the essay, I think the Stoics themselves already had in mind a trichotomy, not a dichotomy. The famous dichotomy comes, of course, from Epictetus, but the way Cicero has Cato explain it in De Finibus, I think the ancients were actually thinking about something very similar to what Irvine is suggesting, including the idea of internalizing goals, as in the “to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired” phrase. Also, as we all know, the famous Stoics we know of weren’t contemplative monks, they were people of action: teachers, politicians, soldiers. They must have thought that altering the world is very much possible, and very much desirable. I think Irvine simply brought this clearly into the light.

    Now back to maximization of agency. Again,I will give much more thought to this, and I will also go back and re-read Becker (not to mention that this is going to be the first question I’ll ask him during our forthcoming interview!).

    Maximizing agency sounds like I’m proposing a self-centered, and selfish, view, which would most definitely be at odds with Stoicism. This is not what either Becker or I have in mind, but it clearly requires more work.

    That said, perhaps the phrasing is more problematic than the actual substance. Arete was excellence in the broader sense, and I fail to see how it fails substantively from the maximization of agency. Recall, also, that arete was excellence not just in the domain of ethics, but in any activity one may decide to undergo.

    There is modern evidence from psychology (see the concept of “flow”) that human beings are happier when they are exercising precisely such excellence, or agency, at its maximum power. That said, in order for this to be Stoicism one has to connect arete / excellence / agency to ethics. As I mentioned in the post, Becker very consciously tries to do so, but I found that part of the book one of the least convincing. I don’t know that I can do better, but I will keep trying.

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  8. It still looks to me like Becker is suggesting that he wants to see a profound change in the very core idea of Eudamonia and what it entails (the core idea of Eudamonia being equal to the virtues never changed throughout the centuries as far as I can tell). What Becker is suggesting sounds like an interesting philosophy, but what’s wrong with Stoicism?

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  9. Yup. The maximization of rational agency is a very interesting and tempting basis for a philosophy, whatever its adherence call it. The problem is that as others have said their is nothing inherently Stoic about this. It’s a point of obvious overlap with the Applied Rationality crowd and it can also be attributed to the posthuman “inhumanist” philosophy of Reza negarastani (who I am given to understand made reference to Becker’s text in recent lectures). In the latter instance we’re thinking about rational agency decoupled from its up until yesterday dependency on the human organism. In a radicalization of the idea of mind’s functional autonomy from its biological substrate Reza is thinking a distinctly posthuman thought of rational agency in which artificial intelligences are preferred over ape brains. This is something I have also seen as a consequence of the rational agency maximization route.- And if one were an enlightened hedonist we might also pursue human extinction via upgrading out of the human condition.

    Massimo- one sticking point for me is the value placed on roles and duties by the Stoics. I suspect a great many people will have a similar problem. To a modern sensibility the idea of having an inexhaustible and necessary duty to one’s father, for instance, is unacceptable- after all, I think we would accept that the father’s actions could negate our duty. We’re also coming after analyses of roles in existentialism, psychoanalysis and Arendt’s “banality of evil”, a subject you touched on recently. It seems to me that an Eichmann could have declared ‘it was part of my duty to the state to do my job’ and leave it at that. There is a sticky issue here about hierarchisations of duties and what Foucault referred to as the fascism in our heads.

    I’m also hoping you will discuss- or have discussed in a post I missed, possibly on Becker- how one can retain a concept of arete. Given that it seems like arete amounts to “the highest expression of that for which a given being was designed” it would seem difficult to retain so normatively teleological a concept operating from within the axiomatic constraints on thought present in a post-Darwinian landscape. Obviously you’re no stranger to evolutionary biology or its philosophical consequences. For full disclosure I ask this question, and come to Stoicism (and other philosophies for life), from the perspective of desiring a postnihilism. That is I believe that in order to consistently “follow the facts” we cannot fail to be nihilists of some kind. I don’t think one need agree with that position fully in order to have difficulty with a concept like “arete”- one need only think in terms of functional independent variability or DeleuzoGuatarrian accounts of dis-organization (ie. the anus is “designed for” excretion of biological waste byproducts of digestion but have been “repurposed” for sexual pleasure).

    On the concept of “flow” a similar point was made by a number of modern mystics, such as Colin Wilson in his “The Outsider”. What’s interesting is that they took the Maslowian term “peak experience” and marshalled it in support of anti-rationalist (and at times anti-rational) mystical philosophies. As even a brief scan of the Wikipedia article on “flow” points out, the idea has its most profound resonances in Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism- all philosophies with something of a family resemblance to Stoicism, and which are, as with mysticism, in complete disagreement with Stoicism on the value of social immersion, the place of compassion, and, most importantly of all, in their evaluations on the capacity of reason to overcome delusion and the problem of the ego.

    The author who is attributed with having named the concept “flow” also highlights a problem, here I’m citing a quote from the Flow Wiki page:

    “enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative effect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life”.

    Arete is the sole good. It would seem very odd indeed if the sole good, that for which humans ought to strive if they wish live as well as they possibly can, turned out to have some nasty side-effects, especially those that ruined rational agency.- Although this wouldn’t be a million miles distant from ideas of false and destructive “enlightenment” in Buddhism.

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  10. This exchange is very interesting and productive. My understanding is that the Stoics have a developmental account of rational agency within which practical intelligence eventually becomes practical wisdom, settled on maximizing the implementation of the virtues and minimizing the implementation of vices. We become strongly motivated to “get it right,” in this sense, and doing that yields joy as a byproduct. So the perfection of that process is the “final end” – this is equivalent to the perfection of active, effective agency. Reaching it, however, is not always directly within our control – any more than hitting the target is within our control. Nonetheless, we can “get it right” In a given case by making the shot perfectly, if not by making the perfect shot. It seems to me that puts stoicism (in my sense) squarely in the eudaimonistic tradition. (I will see if I can convince Massimo of this when we meet next month!)

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  11. Massimo, you say

    focus on six points that I think represent both the most important aspects of ancient Stoicism and those most urgently in need of update to modern sensibilities

    You then wish to replace “virtue is the only intrinsic good” with “maximal agency is the only intrinsic good“.

    My question is why? Why do modern sensibilities require this? What is urgent about it? I’m guessing here but I think what really is at play is that the analytical philosopher in you desires an axiomatic foundation which is self evident as a basis for higher level conclusions.

    If that is the case I see no need. Research that I quoted in another post has already shown the virtues are universally understood with broad agreement about their nature, despite varying and confusing terminology. I think it is enough to take the virtues as axiomatic and proceed from there. They simply are a deep and ineradicable part of our nature(for whatever reason) and our sense of morality springs from this. All other moral systems are derivations.

    There may be another explanation and that is that virtue talk is associated with conservatism and tradition, thus may not appeal to modern generations of liberals. Possibly you wish to free the concept from these associations. That simply can’t be done, given its ancient Greek heritage, without emasculating it. In any case a good ethical system should appeal to both conservatives and liberals.

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  12. @ Massimo and Lawrence Becker. Labnut’s question is one I’d like to see answered as well.

    “You then wish to replace “virtue is the only intrinsic good” with “maximal agency is the only intrinsic good“. My question is why? Why do modern sensibilities require this? ”

    The definition of Eudamonia remained unchanged throughout the 6 or more centuries the philosophy was practiced. Why change it now?

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  13. Good read, if I bought the book I would have the following questions:

    1. What type of discovery process would be used to determine what is and isn’t under our control?
    2. Maximize our agency for what purpose? (Why bother?)
    3. What is reason and how do I wield it?

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  14. Maximal agency + following the facts seems to entail the virtues to me.

    Given the facts that we tend to be (but not all of us are!) social creatures whose agency is maximized when we cooperate, we both feel good, receive more preferred indifferents, and maximize what we are capable of when operating in a social world when we cultivate the classical virtues.

    Becker’s formulation has the added benefit of not needing to propose virtues as “intrinsic” goods (a mistake by the ancients that I hold Massimo may have replicated when he claimed that maximal agency is an intrinsic good. I don’t see Becker make such a claim, nor is it warranted, since in “following the facts” I don’t think there are intrinsic values in the world).

    So, since we’re social creatures and maximizing agency tends to be desirable a la Becker’s argument, cultivating the classical virtues is of benefit (and the “benefit” argument was certainly alive and well among the ancient stoics).

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  15. “Social animals capable of reason” seems to imply that some humans don’t use reason. Reason in its basic sense is simply a symbolic inference which all humans actually are doing. The Stoic therapy assumes that there are reasons behind all action. So social and rational animal makes Stoic sense to me.

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  16. “Maximization of agency towards greater good”… is the only good. Why?

    Because the world is fast, and getting faster, exponentially. We are confronted to an

    increasingly violent shoot storm. Yes, not just dirt is flying, buyt outright bullets. To wit: extremely violent wars out of nowhere. Contemplate Rwanda, Somalia, the Islamist State. Worse could be around the corner: a (nuclear) war of India with Pakistan, quickly generalizing, is imaginable. And don’t forget North Korea. Under which circumstances a first strike there should be considered?

    Science fiction, some will sneer, from the bottom of their feel-good ignorance. But 2015 was considerably warmer than 2014, which was, itself, the warmest year, ever, by a long shot. Greenland is melting, fast. A collapse of ice shields in Antarctica, little talked about, looks imminent (at least to me).

    Science fiction, some will scoff, and turn around, to study nothing, real hard. Yet, look at the Zika virus, propped by global warming. It did not exist six months ago, as a problem for WHO. Now it’s a total panic, it’s in more than two dozen countries. Brazil just attributed 4,000 cases of microcephaly to it. Four countries advised women not to get pregnant, more will follow. Tomorrow.

    Genetic engineering may be a way to stop Zika. Otherwise, massive usage of poisons (which already started). This sort of questions are all highly philosophical, they are always arduous, intricate, consequentially complex choices between an evil, and another.

    In Libya, the West, led by France, destroyed a bloody despot regime, but then, on the philosophical ground of non-intervention, thereafter let the Natives argue between themselves to find out how they would organize this country, which is more than 4,000 years old. Libyans have some outstanding issues for millennia. One of them is whether the 3,500 years old alphabet ought be used, in parts where it still exists, rather than the youngish alphabet brought by Arab armies.

    However, profiting from the resulting chaos, the Islamist State moved in. Now France wants to attack and destroy the Islamist State in Libya. Is this philosophically correct? Why? How? The military campaign’s nature and objectives depend upon the most subtle philosophy.

    Philosophical questions are everywhere, and they are not just fascinating, but they have to drive policy. And they do, one way or another. Do we want G. W. Bush’s philosophy in charge of charging across the globe? The global situation is much more acute than when Seneca was advising emperor Nero: we are losing control, not just of the civilization, but of the biosphere itself (which is rebelling).

    To all these questions, only one context in which to frame the answers: relativity. Relativity of knowledge, relativity of evil, relativity of consequences, relativity of action.

    So yes, “maximization of agency towards greater good” is where ethics is at. And even where we want to be, to feel really good about ourselves.

    Can we find some inspiration in science to guide us across how we should live, think, and even feel? Yes, of course. Look at physics: energy is not of the essence. The essence is the potential, not the absolute energy. It is the potential which sits on the right hand side of the De Broglie-Schrodinger equation. Thus it’s the potential which acts (contemplate the Bohm-Aharanov effect).

    Physics is dominated by the principle of least action (found by Maupertuis, during the Enlightenment). Least action of evil, such is modern stoicism. Keeping in mind that inaction is itself a form of action.

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  17. I agree with labnut’s comment above – I do not see how a change from virtue to maximal agency can be beneficial to the modern reader. Not to mention that due to my work I strongly associate the word agency with computer science / AI / robotics, so phrasing it like that becomes for me a much harder concept to grasp than virtue.

    I have a similar issue with the dichotomy vs. trichotomy of control. Although I fully agree that the latter way of thinking, explained like Irvine did, can offer a better perspective on the matter, I think it is in general not crucial for understanding Stoicism. (The archer example is in essence also explained by the dichotomy of of what is up to us (doing our best to do a perfect shot) and not up to us (the actual outcome)) Plus, I believe newcomers to Stoicism are much more attracted to the insight that a simple dichotomy gives, instead of having the border blurred by introducing a trichotomy. (Even Irvine used “dichotomy” for the chapter title in his book.)

    As labnut said, these two points have probably less to do with “modern sensibilities” that with your desire to give Stoicism a strong philosophical foundation. Just my two layman’s cents…

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  18. Thanks everyone, again, much food for thought here! Some preliminary remarks:

    Larry,

    thanks so much for chiming in. This and the next post are going to provide a good basis for our discussion in a few weeks!

    You are right to bring in the Stoic concept of a developmental aspect to developing wisdom and arete, which as you say is related to maximization of agency.

    Still, given the negative response about the latter concept both here and over at the Stoicism Facebook page, we need to rethink at the very least the way we are presenting the concept.

    empty,

    “The maximization of rational agency is a very interesting and tempting basis for a philosophy, whatever its adherence call it. The problem is that as others have said their is nothing inherently Stoic about this”

    Not the way Becker develops it, as he mentioned in his comment here. As he put it, according to his reasoning, maximization of agency culminates in the practice of virtue, given the sort of social-rational animal that human beings are.

    “It’s a point of obvious overlap with the Applied Rationality crowd and it can also be attributed to the posthuman “inhumanist” philosophy of Reza negarastani”

    Thanks for reminding me of those. I wish to stay as far as away as possible from those crowds, despite my former Rationally Speaking podcast co-host, Julia Galef, really being into AR.

    “To a modern sensibility the idea of having an inexhaustible and necessary duty to one’s father, for instance, is unacceptable”

    Agreed, but I don’t see that particular point as necessarily stemming from a Stoic philosophy. It’s rather a reflection of the conservatism of some ancient Stoics.

    “Given that it seems like arete amounts to “the highest expression of that for which a given being was designed” it would seem difficult to retain so normatively teleological a concept operating from within the axiomatic constraints on thought present in a post-Darwinian landscape”

    Interesting point, but Darwinian evolution does provide a naturalistic type of teleology (which is more properly called teleonomy), so as long as we agree that there is such a thing as human nature (which some philosophers, strangely in my mind, do reject) than the problem is not insurmountable.

    “On the concept of “flow” a similar point was made by a number of modern mystics, such as Colin Wilson in his “The Outsider”.”

    You are right, and thanks also for bringing up the issue with “too much” flow, so to speak. As you might imagine, I’m not pushing any type of mysticism, so I need to work on that bit a little more.

    labnut,

    “I’m guessing here but I think what really is at play is that the analytical philosopher in you desires an axiomatic foundation which is self evident as a basis for higher level conclusions”

    Correct. But I think this sort of thing should be of concern for any practicing Stoic. After all, Stoicism is a philosophy, not just a set of ad hoc techniques that work, so one should be concerned with its logical foundations.

    “There may be another explanation and that is that virtue talk is associated with conservatism and tradition, thus may not appeal to modern generations of liberals. Possibly you wish to free the concept from these associations.”

    Actually, I don’t. To begin with, I have been very explicit that I like Stoicism because it is a broad tent that can include atheists, theists, progressives and liberals. Moreover, I do think there is a lot to be said for tradition, just not across the board. Some traditions are good and need to be preserved, others aren’t and need to be replaced.

    vintage,

    “The definition of Eudamonia remained unchanged throughout the 6 or more centuries the philosophy was practiced. Why change it now?”

    I’m not so sure that Larry and I are attempting to redefine eudaimonia, as much as to clarify it and further explore it. But if it turns out that this is an unfruitful line of inquiry I’ll be glad to drop it.

    Binny,

    “What type of discovery process would be used to determine what is and isn’t under our control?”

    Personal experience and cognitive science.

    “Maximize our agency for what purpose? (Why bother?)”

    To increase one’s ability to live socially and rationally.

    “What is reason and how do I wield it?”

    Huge topics, outside the scope of this post, as important as it is. I take for granted that people have at the least a basic grasp of what reason is, for my purposes here.

    cmplxadsys,

    “Given the facts that we tend to be (but not all of us are!) social creatures whose agency is maximized when we cooperate, we both feel good, receive more preferred indifferents, and maximize what we are capable of when operating in a social world when we cultivate the classical virtues.”

    Exactly.

    “a mistake by the ancients that I hold Massimo may have replicated when he claimed that maximal agency is an intrinsic good. I don’t see Becker make such a claim, nor is it warranted, since in “following the facts” I don’t think there are intrinsic values in the world”

    You are right, bad phrasing on my part. I didn’t mean “intrinsic” in that sense. I meant it as Socrates does in the Euthydemus: something that is good in itself because it is useful for everything, not just for a particular thing (like a special skill, say, musical ability).

    jbonnicerenoreg,

    “”Social animals capable of reason” seems to imply that some humans don’t use reason”

    No, only that some (most?) humans don’t use it properly. This is in perfect accordance with ancient Stoic doctrine.

    Brxi,

    “Not to mention that due to my work I strongly associate the word agency with computer science / AI / robotics, so phrasing it like that becomes for me a much harder concept to grasp than virtue”

    Well, that certainly not what Larry and I mean by it. I find this resistance to the idea a bit strange, since it struck me as very intuitive when I first read it in Larry’s book. But, again, the idea is to forge something that the community at large can contribute to and feel comfortable with, so this may have to be revised.

    “I have a similar issue with the dichotomy vs. trichotomy of control. Although I fully agree that the latter way of thinking, explained like Irvine did, can offer a better perspective on the matter, I think it is in general not crucial for understanding Stoicism”

    I think it is, the dichotomy is a crucial element of Stoicism, certainly in Epictetus. And you seem to agree that Irvine has a point.

    Like

  19. Nano,

    well, agency and responsibility are certainly connected, but I don’t think they are identical. As I said, I need to give this more thought, the first likely update is going to be after I interview Larry in a couple of weeks.

    Like

  20. These are the lines that trouble me: “He suggests that in modern terms we can think of virtue as the maximization of agency, which is something that all human beings want.”

    So, it looks like the New or Modern version of Stoicism requires that we redefine what used to be Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance (the 4 cardinal virtues) and instead focus on “maximizing agency”.

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  21. Massimo- Lawrence’s text is on my reading list, partly for the Stoicism in it and partly for the value any account of rational agency has. I suppose I will have to wait until I get to reading his book.

    Regarding duties- the existence of duties seems to have been fairly key to most Stoics. While this might be down to their conservatism I don’t know if we can so readily separate the one from the other. Indeed, for many contemporary philosophers, like Alain Badiou and Simon Critchely, Stoicism is nothing so much as a philosophical conservatism. Further, without seeking to reduce Stoicism to such vulgar thought, we have to ask why it is that a good deal of neoreactionaries enjoy Stoicism.

    On teleonomy- this concept was developed specifically to establish distance from any idea of cosmic teleology. As I understand it- which may very well be poorly- teleonomy refers to evolutionarily constrained behaviours, adaptations. The practice or the capacity/capacities for the practice of virtue may well have resulted from evolutionary processes, indeed had to have done, but this neither implies these are good or that they will remain stable- indeed part of the point of evolutionary theory has to be that it points to the impermanence and lack of inherency to any concept of human nature (even as it doesn’t join in with any pomo denialism).

    Finally Binny asks you why bother with maximization of virtue and you answer “to better live socially and rationally”. But as living socially and rationally are part of the definition of virtue, and maximization of rationality aims at or even is virtue, we’re at risk of a circularity. The answer to “why maximize virtue?” becomes in order to maximize virtue. I think this is an essential problem in the Stoic denial of eudaimonia rather than a flaw in any particular thinkers arguments.

    Lawrence- I completely agree that Stoicism is eudaimonic. Schopenhauer argued the same, and gave a fairly good repetition of stoicism in his eudemonology.

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  22. All, given that much of the discussion, both here and at the Stoicism Facebook page, keeps focusing on Becker’s virtue/agency concept, I have just written a whole post going in depth into that. It will come out this Saturday morning (while part II of this essay will be out tomorrow). So stay tuned.

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  23. “For what is the object of every man’s search? To have a quiet mind, to be happy, to do everything as he will, to be free from hindrance and compulsion.”

    this is a great quote – compare sartre/de beauvoir’s: human = a freedom who undertakes projects [the search] in order to extend freedom.

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