I 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):
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.