Stoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.
(In this sense, a philosophy of life is somewhat akin to a religion, and indeed religions can and do provide their adherents with a philosophy of life. The main difference, however, is that one is supposed to accept a religion’s tenets by faith, while philosophies are arrived at by reason. Also, religious doctrine — in theory at the least — is not supposed to change, while philosophies are living and ever evolving notions.)
Ever since I’ve started studying and practicing Stoicism I have run into people who frequently confuse it with two allied concepts, which, however, need to stay clearly distinct: the idea of therapy, and the idea of applied rationality. Let me consider them and their relationship to Stoicism in turn.
As is well known, Stoicism does have strong links with a family of modern therapies, especially Victor Frankl’s logotherapy and Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy, both of which are in turn connected to cognitive behavioral therapy (which itself has gone through three different “waves,” emphasizing respectively behavioral factors, cognitive factors, and finally a blending of both).
Modern Stoics like Don Robertson and Tim LeBon have very explicitly worked toward augmenting ancient Stoic practices with a battery of modern, evidence-based techniques that are used for therapeutic approaches. These are important efforts, it should go without saying: one of the fundamental principles of Stoicism is that the study of Ethics (meaning, how to live one’s life) needs to be informed by an understanding of Physics (i.e., natural science and metaphysics) as well as Logic (i.e., logic, epistemology and cognitive science). Which means that the modern science of the mind, including its therapeutic applications, should be incorporated into any viable modern version of Stoicism.
But as Robertson, LeBon and others are the first ones to point out, therapy is not philosophy. Therapies consist of a collection of techniques (derived from a given theory and refined via pertinent empirical evidence), not of general precepts about how to live one’s life. And therapies — especially CBT & co. — are meant to target specific problems for limited periods of time, not to serve as lifelong all-purpose companions.
(Indeed, it can be argued that if your therapist thinks you need to commit your life to weekly sessions, a la Woody Allen, you should probably look for another therapist.)
So the difference between Stoicism (or any philosophy of life) and CBT-related (or any other) therapies is that you go to therapy if you have a specific, potentially treatable problem, like depression, or a type of phobia, or panic disorder. Conversely, you reflect on and practice a philosophy your entire life, and it informs your outlook on pretty much everything.
What about (applied) rationality? I am thinking specifically about people bringing up organizations like my friend (and former podcast co-host) Julia Galef’s Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), which has been explicitly mentioned in recent discussions over at the Facebook Stoic page. After all, Stoicism is a rational philosophy, built on the idea that our “ruling faculty,” to use Marcus’ famous phrase, can and ought to be deployed toward the achievement of apatheia and a eudaimonic life.
But, I argue, the connection between applied rationality in the modern sense of the word and Stoicism is far more dubious and less helpful than the one between Stoicism and therapy. Here is why.
What CFAR and others are in the business of doing is to teach critical thinking with a very strong practical bent. Now, you can take a course in critical thinking at your local community college (or online, often for free), and learn that way about elementary logic, informal fallacies, and cognitive biases. What CFAR attempts is to show you how those and other notions can be applied in the service of self-improvement which, in turn, they say, will make you a happier person.
And herein lies the rub. I’m not going to question CFAR’s specific methods and claims. That’s an empirical question about which I don’t know enough, and that is at any rate irrelevant to my point here. Rather, the problem is in the more “philosophical” aspect of applied rationality, the general contention that it will make you a happier person.
First off, “happiness” is defined very differently depending on the context. Most people arguably mean by that word some kind of general contentment in life, or the feeling of elation that we experience when something very positive happens to us (“I’m so happy about my raise!”). CFAR seems to mean a degree of control over your goals, the ability to improve one’s own decision making. Here is what they say on their website (since taken down):
“Recent scientific understanding of cognitive biases, or systematic thinking errors, provides an exciting opportunity for humanity to become smarter and more effective. We’re taking the results of cognitive science research, and turning them into techniques that people can practice and use in their own lives.”
Their goal, in part, is “building a real-life community of tens of thousands of students, entrepreneurs, researchers, programmers, philanthropists, and others who are passionate about using rationality to improve the decisions they make for themselves and for the world.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the above, in principle. But this is only superficially like a philosophy of life. Indeed, applied rationality is essentially good old fashioned instrumental rationality, which can be put to uses that are ethically positive, negative or neutral. Stoicism, instead, is most decidedly the view that we ought to behave in certain ways (practice the four cardinal virtues) because that is the right way to live for rational social animals such as ourselves (“follow nature,” as the ancient Stoics put it).
“To improve the decisions [we] make for [our]selves and for the world” is certainly a good thing, but we need first to agree what exactly we want to do for ourselves and the world, as well as what counts as improvement. And applied rationality is, seems to me, entirely silent on this crucial matter. Well intentioned philanthropists can benefit from more critical thinking, a knowledge of logic and an awareness of fallacies just as well as psychopathic dictators. That’s because critical thinking is a set of tools, and tools don’t make for a philosophy, they make for aids that can be deployed for whatever goals we have decided we wish to go after. But how do we decide those goals in the first place?
Wisdom. The objective of the prokoptôn, the student of Stoicism, is to strive toward the ideal (and likely unachievable) condition of the Sage, the perfectly wise person. We have role models to help us on our way, beginning of course with Socrates. And we get there by a combination of studying, reflecting and practicing.
But wisdom is not the business of either therapy (see above) or applied rationality. Indeed, they both presuppose a certain way of looking at things, a conception of what is and is not good, what is and is not worth achieving. And that is why they are not philosophies of life.