STOICON ’16: Larry Becker

Larry BeckerAnd here it is, the last of our weekly entries in this limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

This dulcis in fundo entry is dedicated to Larry Becker, the author of A New Stoicism, whom I have recently interviewed for this blog (here, here, here and here; see also the category reserved for him, currently with 13 entries).

Larry (born 1939) is an American philosopher working mainly in the areas of ethics and social, political, and legal philosophy. He is the author of books and journal articles on justice, Stoicism, reciprocity, property rights, and metaethics. He was an associate editor of the journal Ethics from 1985-2000, and the editor, with the librarian Charlotte B. Becker, of two editions of the Encyclopedia of Ethics.

Larry is a Fellow of Hollins University, where he taught philosophy from 1965-1989, and is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus from the College of William & Mary, where he was the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the Humanities and Philosophy from 1989-2001.

From 2000-2011 he was on the volunteer Board of Directors of Post-Polio Health International, and served as its President and Chair from 2006-2009.

At STOICON ’16, Larry will be joining us via Skype and chat with me on “Posidonius and Stoic ethics-in-action.” [the following adapted from the Wiki entry] Posidonius (c. 135 BCE – c. 51 BCE), was a Greek Stoic philosopher, politician, astronomer, geographer, historian and teacher native to Apamea, Syria. He was acclaimed as the greatest polymath of his age, but unfortunately his vast body of work exists today only in fragments. Writers such as Strabo and Seneca provide most of the information about his life.

Posidonius’s extensive writings and lectures made him famous everywhere in the Greco-Roman world, and a school grew around him in Rhodes. He attempted to create a unified system for understanding the human intellect and the universe which would provide an explanation of and a guide for human behavior. Posidonius wrote on physics (including meteorology and physical geography), astronomy, astrology and divination, seismology, geology and mineralogy, hydrology, botany, ethics, logic, mathematics, history, natural history, anthropology, and tactics.

For Posidonius, philosophy was the dominant master art and all the individual sciences were subordinate to philosophy, which alone could explain the cosmos.

He of course accepted the Stoic categorization of philosophy into physics (natural philosophy, including metaphysics and theology), logic (including dialectic), and ethics. These three categories for him were, in Stoic fashion, inseparable and interdependent parts of an organic, natural whole. He compared them to a living being, with physics the meat and blood, logic the bones and tendons holding the organism together, and finally ethics – the most important part – corresponding to the soul. His philosophical grand vision was that the universe itself was similarly interconnected, as if an organism, through cosmic “sympathy”, in all respects from the development of the physical world to the history of humanity.

Although a firm Stoic, Posidonius was, like Panaetius and other Stoics of the middle period, eclectic. He followed not only the older Stoics, but also Plato and Aristotle.

He was the first Stoic to depart from the orthodox doctrine that passions were faulty judgments and posit that Plato’s view of the soul had been correct, namely that passions were inherent in human nature. In addition to the rational faculties, Posidonius taught that the human soul had faculties that were spirited (anger, desires for power, possessions, etc.) and desiderative (desires for sex and food). Ethics was the problem of how to deal with these passions and restore reason as the dominant faculty.

And Larry will take it from there and talk about why Posidonius’ insights are still very much relevant to the practice of modern Stoics.