As part of my ongoing exploration of Stoicism — of which this blog is essentially my public diary — I have been keen on thinking about what a modern Stoicism might look like. After all, the ancient version ceased being a live philosophy abut 18 centuries ago, and much has happened in both philosophy and science in the meantime. An update is long overdue (one such was attempted, and enjoyed a brief period of interest, during the Renaissance.)
In part I of this essay I presented three possible major 21st century improvements on ancient Stoicism, derived chiefly from the work of Bill Irvine and of Larry Becker, regarding the dichotomy of control, virtue, and nature. In this second and last part I wish to explore three more major issues: how to think of emotions, the question of preferred indifferents, and the Logos as universal rational principle.
Last time I introduced a partial infographics to aid in following and referring to the discussion. Let me now reproduce the full version of the diagram (again, the figure in the middle represents humanity at large):
On to the fourth topic, then, emotions. As I’ve explained at length recently, the Stoics were not advocating an unemotional life, but rather the achievement of what they called apatheia, a sense of equanimity and mental tranquillity. The recipe for this was to withdraw “assent” from negative emotions, while at the same time cultivating positive ones.
As I’ve explained before, the Stoics held to a concept of “emotions” (more correctly rendered by the term “passion”) not dissimilar from the one currently accepted by cognitive scientists: as neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux points out, when scientists talk about, say, fear, they refer to the evolved, presumably adaptive, nonconscious neural system that allows us to detect threats and to react to them. The classical fight-or-flight response is an obvious example, and the neural machinery that makes it possible is located in the amygdala. The amygdala, then, create the basis for the conscious feeling of what we call the emotion of fear. But emotions in the Stoic and neuroscientific sense are better understood as “cognitively assembled conscious feelings,” which means that they are the result of an active, conscious, construction of the human mind. This construction takes place out of a number of building blocks, only one of which is the non-conscious, amygdala based, threat detection and reaction mechanism. The additional blocks are derived by our understanding of the context in which we are experiencing the reaction, including the social context, as well as from our past judgments of similar situations, our expectations about them, and so on. In other words: conscious deliberation arriving at a judgment, the human use of what Marcus Aurelius famously called the ruling faculty.
This is all good, and I do agree with the ancient Stoics that negative emotions as defined by them (e.g., fear due to irrational expectations of something bad or harmful) need to be “withdrawn assent,” something that Stoic practice (and modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is designed to do. But I find the positive Stoic emotions a bit narrowly construed: they include only contemplative aspects of virtue, like “discretion,” the rational aversion of vice, or “willing,” the rational desire of virtue. This is simply too restricted a spectrum to account for a truly eudaimonic human life.
So my proposal in the diagram is to expand the Stoic system from emotions that are concerned only with the exercise of virtue to emotions that are more broadly related to human needs. This, I believe, is a fairly major departure from ancient Stoicism, and I’m not aware of any modern author who proposes it (though of course I may have missed it).
What this means, for instance, is that love of your spouse, your children, and your friends; or a passion for social justice; or a feeling of awe for the beauty of the universe, or for human art, are all positive emotions that a eudaimon should cultivate, even though they do not directly affect virtue. Then again, I believe that indirectly everything we do affects virtue, understood as excellence of character. Another way to put this is that I think a human being that did not love his family and friends, was not concerned with social justice, and did not appreciate art and beauty would be a non-excellent one, failing to achieve arete in the broadest sense possible for Homo sapiens.
Next up: indifferents. In ancient Stoicism these include everything that is not directly concerned with virtue, and is therefore not an intrinsic good or bad, but can still reasonably be pursued or avoided, such as, respectively: health, education and wealth (preferred) vs sickness, ignorance and poverty (dispreferred).
Now, the ancient Stoics themselves disagreed on this (e.g., compare Seneca and Epictetus), but several of them thought that the indifferents were to be preferred or dispreferred in proportion to how they enabled the pursuit of virtue, and for no other reason.
Again, this seems to me an unnecessary restriction on eudaimonia, and one that can be relaxed in a way similar to what I suggested for the emotions above, without risk of turning Stoicism into either Epicureanism or Peripateticism. My proposal is to say that indifferents may be preferred insofar as such preference doesn’t get in the way of virtue (as opposed to, more limitedly, facilitating virtue). This retains the fundamental Stoic precept that virtue (again, understood as moral excellence of character) is the only intrinsic good, while allowing the “neutral” cultivation of other activities.
(As one of my readers — timbartik — helpfully suggested recently, from a Stoic perspective virtue can be properly positioned by way of what economists call lexicographic ordering. Here is how he put it: “A lexicographic ordering is an ordering such as alphabetical ordering. In such an ordering, the first letter’s place will dominate all subsequent letters in determining the order. However, holding the first letter constant, the subsequent letters also matter. Stoicism is saying virtue is the first letter, and other goods collectively determine the value of the second letter. Therefore, one should always prefer the state of one’s life that maximizes virtue; holding virtue constant, one could also logically prefer states of life that increase other goods. Lexicographic orderings come up in economics because it turns out that if a consumer’s preferences are lexicographic, they cannot be represented by a utlility function that assigns some value to a vector of goods and services, because lexicographic preferences do not allow for any tradeoffs among the goods or services that are lexicographically ordered.” I believe this captures exactly what I’m trying to say here.)
For instance, let us say that I enjoy listening to live jazz music (which I do). This is obviously an indifferent, but under the strict ancient interpretation it is hard to connect it in any way to virtue. Indeed, strictly speaking it is a “pleasure,” and so more pertinent to an Epicurean domain.
But I think a significant part of human life is made of such experiences (in this case, the aesthetic experience of music), which can be cultivated in a virtuous manner, even though they do not directly enable virtue itself. Moreover, not all such experiences are equally good or defensible. I think a good argument can be made that, for instance, trash tv or watching porn is not good for one’s character, and should therefore count as a dispreferred indifferent. But enjoying good art, good music, good literature, and so forth, does — I maintain — contribute indirectly to the formation of an excellent human character, again because I’m using an expanded definition of the latter concept.
(I am leaving out of this what constitutes “good” art, music, literature and so forth. That’s a different discussion that does not alter my main point.)
So, as long as the activity in question is broadly speaking a positive one, and of course as long as it is pursued without interference with, or compromise of, one’s virtue, it ought to be acceptable for a modern Stoic.
Finally, the big issue of teleology. Here there is no question that the ancient Stoics adopted a teleological view of the cosmos, where the Logos was understood as a vitalistic rational principle that permeated the universe. That’s why Marcus, for instance, can deploy the analogy of body parts in order to explain why we should accept bad things happening to us. Say that you are the foot of a body, and because of an accident you develop gangrene. It makes sense, from the point of view of the whole body, to cut you off, even though you, as the foot, may not be happy about it. Accordingly, the Stoics derived a good degree of consolation from being part of an interconnected universe ordered in a rational fashion. Moreover, they also accepted a universal principle of cause and effect that had important metaphysical consequences, including physicalism and determinism (from which they derived a compatibilist view of free will).
As a modern scientist and philosopher, I accept both physicalism and determinism, but I do reject the ancient Stoic teleological view of the cosmos. As I’ve written here, even some ancient Stoics — like Marcus — conceded that their ethical precepts would not be affected regardless of whether “Providence or atoms” were the ruling principle of the universe, but still, this does make a difference in the way one approaches things.
I have also maintained that one of the things that attracts me to Stoicism is that it truly can be a “big tent” from the metaphysical and ideological perspective, which leads me to propose the following update regarding the Logos: besides accepting universal cause and effect, I suggest that a modern Stoic can be neutral about the teleological question. She can either stick with the ancient idea of the universe as an organism that follows a rational principle of organization (and therefore talk of Providence = God = Nature), or she can say that the universe can be understood rationally (otherwise we wouldn’t have science) and lived accordingly, without committing to a further position that is currently at odds with the best available evidence.
To recap, then, my updated Stoic system would consist of:
- The realization of a trichotomy of control, leading to the internalization of one’s goals.
- Virtue reconceived as the ethical maximization of agency.
- A mandate to “follow the facts” about the nature of the universe in general and human nature in particular.
- An expanded conception of positive emotions, to include those that are related to fundamental human needs.
- An expanded pursuit of preferred indifferents, to include those that are only indirectly related to virtue, itself understood as excellence of character.
- A neutral stance on the fundamental metaphysics of the universe, with the Logos interpreted either classically, as a providential ordering principle, or in closer accordance with modern science, as the idea that the universe can be understood and lived rationally.