Who’s afraid of Stoicism?

Stoicism invented hereOne of the hallmarks of a successful movement is that media coverage begins to shift from treating it as a curiosity to presenting it as a possible threat, or at the least as overblown, simplistic, and possibly a vehicle to swindle people. If that’s the case, the past couple of weeks have given us incontrovertible signs that modern Stoicism has grown enough to trigger a journalistic hack job and to attract the hires of at the least one professional philosopher. Let’s take a look. (Incidentally, want proof that Stoicism is trendy? We made it into the New Yorker!)

The NYT article: Stoicism in the fashion pages!

On December 6, Alexandra Alter published a curious article in the New York Times (where, a mere couple of years ago, I wrote my first ever essay on the topic, simply entitled How to Be a Stoic. Does the phrase sound familiar?). Alter had been invited to Stoicon by yours truly, and she was particularly keen on covering our keynote speaker, the controversial (even within the Stoic community) Ryan Holiday. Alter begins with a doubly inaccurate phrase: “In an underground gymnasium in New York City in October, the author Ryan Holiday spoke to nearly 350 people about the transformative power of pessimism and self-doubt.” Except, of course, that Stoicism is about realism, not pessimism; and it is about self-examination, not self-doubt.

She goes on to present Ryan has a swindler catering to Silicon Valley billionaires and NFL sports teams, proceeding to recount his professional history, from PR man for American Apparel (hired to do damage control on behalf of the then CEO of the company) to his writing of a self-exposé entitled “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” In the process, we learn about the size of Ryan’s advance from his publisher, and — absolutely crucial — that he was called a “scumbag” by an anonymous Amazon reviewer.

Alter has a hard time understanding how “the same person who wrote ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying,’ a bombastic treatise on the art of self-promotion through media manipulation, went on to write a meditation on the perils of self-absorption and pride,” apparently automatically rejecting Ryan’s own explanation about his disgust with his former profession and his exploration of Stoicism as a better way to frame his life priorities.

My colleague Gabriele Galluzzo and I are very briefly quoted in the article, explaining why some people at Stoicon had misgivings about inviting Ryan in the first place, but of course the bits where we expanded on the topic were cut out, I presume because the author needed more space to finish her hack job.

So, do I defend Ryan’s approach? Do I agree with it? These questions have been posed to me so many times since Stoicon that I’d better go on record here, as clearly as possible. I’ll do that in the format of a short q&a with myself:

Q. Does Mr. Holiday actually know anything about Stoicism?

A. Yes, I think he has put a lot of thought into this, he knows what he’s talking about.

Q. Would you use his approach to write about Stoicism?

A. No, the way he presents it is not my style. And yes, before you even ask, I do think there is a danger of hype that the community needs to keep an eye on. But I haven’t seen anything worrisome so far.

Q. But isn’t he in it for the money?

A. To begin with, I don’t have privileged access to people’s minds and their inner motivations. But no, I don’t begrudge him (or anyone else) his success or money, so long as they are achieved honestly.

Q. Doesn’t Mr. Ryan’s approach in a way cheapen Stoicism?

Q. No, I don’t think there is anything wrong in making an idea accessible by simplifying it. If I thought so, my entire career as a science and then philosophy popularizer would be an embarrassment to me; instead I’m proud of it.

A. Are Mr. Holiday’s book worth reading at all?

Q. Yes, I do think The Obstacle is the Way, for instance, is well worth reading and may speak to a different crowd from that addressed by other books on contemporary Stoicism. There are plenty of other modern authors one can go to for more in-depth treatment, or simply for exposition of Stoic ideas that adopt a different style of communication, beginning with Larry Becker and continuing with Bill Irvine and Don Robertson, among many others. Now, can we perhaps move on?

The QZ article: philosophy or life hacking?

A few days after the NYT article, Olivia Goldhill published another one in QZ. This one was far more nuanced and balanced than Alter’s, though still a lot of attention was on Ryan and “life hacking,” rather than on the Stoic movement as a philosophy of life. Goldhill’s answer to the question of “why Stoicism?” is right on target: “Though several Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism have a clear practical element, Stoicism is one of the most accessible and explicitly practical schools of western philosophy. The philosophy advocates self-control and not being overly indulgent in sensual pleasures.”

She goes on to ask: “One Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, was born a slave and wrote extensively on how to accept one’s fate. Can such a philosophy be of equal use to those coming to terms with the daily grind of life in Silicon Valley?” As Ryan pointed out on Twitter a few days after the article came out, people tend to forget that while Epictetus was a slave-turned-teacher, Seneca was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, and Marcus was an emperor. (To which it would be good to add that Zeno was a merchant, and Cleanthes a pugilist who worked in a garden at night to pay for his philosophical studies.) Stoicism has always been, from the beginning, a philosophy for every walk of life (though not necessarily for everyone, that depends to some extent on one’s character and behavioral predispositions.).

The next bit explains the basics of Stoicism, quoting yours truly extensively and accurately. And then we get to the comments of philosopher Sandy Grant, who is very critical of Stoicism (more on her in the next two sections as well). To give you some background, Grant works at the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge, and her focus is on writings aimed at the general public.

Grant is quoted by Goldhill as saying that “Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. … [it is] hopelessly outmoded. It cannot grasp the modern predicament or suggest to people how they may best live now. Stoicism gets the question wrong. It is no longer a matter of ‘What can I control?’ but rather of ‘Given that I, as all others, am implicated, what should I do?’ The control fantasy is ridiculous in an interdependent, globalized world.”

This led to a tasty exchange between Grant and Holiday on Twitter. Holiday wrote: “This is silly. Two thousand years ago would you write ‘the emperor is using a philosophy designed for slaves?'” To which Grant replied: “Stoic man tells women philosophers they are ‘silly’!!! Stoic life hack: that which you cannot control, dismiss. Oops!”

Certainly the use of the word “silly” wasn’t the best possible choice by Holiday, but it’s not like Grant hadn’t been dishing out her own share of epithets. Notice also that Holiday didn’t tell “women philosophers” (I assume there Grant was counting Skye Cleary of the American Philosophical Association, also interviewed by QZ, on her side) that they were silly, but rather that a specific position (expressed by Grant, not Cleary) was so. There is a difference, and not a minor one either.

The QZ article goes on to quote my friend Skye, an existentialist philosopher who teaches at various places in New York (including my own City College), and the author of the excellent Existentialism and Romantic Love (she is rumored to be working on a book on cocktails and philosophy, one of my favorite topics!).

Even Skye, however, is critical of our philosophy: “[she sees a] lot of problems with Stoicism, particularly in a contemporary context. I think there’s a really blurred line between what we can and can’t control. This is something Simone de Beauvoir talked about in terms of women’s oppression. She said it might seem like there’s very little individuals can do but, collectively, we can and should do things to combat oppression and inequality and discrimination.”

And then Goldhill gets to the issue of life hacking, in the context, of course, of her discussion of Ryan. She quotes me as saying “There’s a danger that if you just use the tools and are detached from the general philosophy, you could end up misusing the tools. Stoicism, like everything else, doesn’t come with guarantees. It also comes with the idea that you’re ultimately responsible for what you do. So if you stop at one level instead of going to the next, you ought to realize you’re not getting the full picture. By not getting the full picture, you might end up worse off than you were before.”

Which I thought was fairly reasonably balanced. Not so Grant’s response to the same question [referring to Ryan’s books]: “it is bad pop psychology of a comically macho bent for sale to entitled and arrogant successniks.” Someone is not mincing words, apparently.

Sandy Grant really doesn’t like Stoicism

A few days before the QZ piece came out, Skye had interviewed Grant for the blog of the American Philosophical Association, which publishes occasional profiles of its members (here is mine, in case you are curious).

The piece was not about Stoicism per se, but the topic did come up. I’m going to quote extensively here:

“I’ve seen news reports that philosophy is trending and even ‘cool’… so, these issues are ones for us all to address. Taking Stoicism as an example, perhaps it is readily repackaged as a life hack for a popular audience seeking consolation and coping strategies. That may explain its appeal to some people, because it can be sold as a convenience food. But perhaps there’s more to it. Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. Perhaps it helped its practitioners to live as well as they could, given that status quo. But today the idea of not getting discombobulated [sic] about things you deem beyond your control risks quietism, or at least distraction. Maybe this appeals to those who think they need not take up a stance. You mentioned that Stoicon attendees were predominantly men. Well, it has that stuff going on about mastery of the emotions, and it trades on the elevation of the old bearded man as sage. That sort of thing might appeal to some men, those content to uphold the status quo. But we are in times of striking reaction against equality, and against the insistence that women’s lives, queer lives and black lives matter. Perhaps in these regards Stoicism is not just irrelevant, but perhaps it is the last thing we need… and maybe no modernizing gesture can rescue it.”

To begin with, god forbid philosophy should become trendy and cool. Let’s instead help people like Neil deGrasse Tyson condemn it to irrelevance. “Sold as a convenience food”? C’mon, that sort of contemptuous dismissal is not an argument, and of course could apply to any sort of popularizing, including the one that Grant herself does. I will provide my full response to the matters of slavery, women’s condition and “quietism” in the last section of this essay, but making it an issue of (white, bearded?) men against the rest of the world is bizarre, not the least because Grant has the empirical evidence wrong: there are lots of women in the modern Stoic movement (and many were present at Stoicon), and a number of professional women philosophers have written positively about it (specifics below). Also notice that Grant doesn’t just dismiss Stoicism as irrelevant, she goes all the way toward painting it as pernicious.

But there is more: “I should like to debate Stoics on these matters [war and oppression] and see what they can come up with. Beauvoir is raising Stoicism’s lack of potency in engaging big questions of our time. Given what we were discussing before, this is an important issue. If everyone is implicated and we all take up a stance, even by ostensible inactivity, these big questions matter. I don’t think an oversimplification or misunderstanding reply from Stoics would succeed because it accuses Beauvoir of a ‘strawman’ fallacy. But in cashing out that strawman claim against her I don’t see that reference to the lives of the philosophers counts. We don’t have records of Epictetus marching against slavery… but even if he had that wouldn’t get Stoicism off the hook. The objection from Beauvoir is that Stoicism’s argument about resignation to that we cannot control does not capture oppression cases. Stoics must answer to this. What I would add to what she says is this: oppression is a collective action problem. We can do something about it, but only if we act together. I tried to elucidate this point in my paper ‘Freedom and Oppression.’ But Stoicism comes across as a mere operation on yourself, and one of a particular kind, one whereby you may honorably fulfill your roles. Remember too that Stoicism counsels a search for mental serenity by curbing various passions presumed to be noxious. Existentialism however seeks to deploy the passions in the service of progressive change. We need philosophies now that can inspire collectives. It seems to me that a revival of existentialism, but as a renewed philosophy for the now rather than as a history of ideas or biographical enterprise, is on the cards. Can there be a new existentialist movement?”

First off, I’m up for debating Grant, any time. Perhaps the Bloggingheads.tv platform would be a good one. Second, what Grant is talking about is that Stoics — when accused of being powerless to change society — point out that most of our philosophical forerunners that we know of were actually people of action, who very much tried to change society for what they thought was the best (think of Cato’s revolution against Julius Caesar). When Grant says that this is besides the point because philosophers’ lives are irrelevant to their philosophy she betrays a profound misunderstanding of Stoicism: it is very much a lived philosophy, as Epictetus reminds us: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) That’s also why the Stoics insisted so much on the importance of role models: we learn virtue by patterning ourselves after people who do great things and who live according to their stated philosophy.

The quip about Epictetus not marching against slavery is so over the top that it is hard to take it seriously. To begin with, it smacks of presentism, the unfortunate tendency of some people, philosophers included, to straightforwardly apply our own values, and even, in this case, methods, to different times and cultures (though I’m betting that Grant would vehemently oppose any such move if attempted by others and applied to cultures she cares about). She also seems to forget (or being unaware of) the fact that one of the fundamental Stoic virtues is that of justice, or that the Stoics adopted a cosmopolitan outlook that was revolutionary for the time.

As for the passions, we can certainly have a debate about whether anger, say, is or is not a good thing to cultivate, but notice that even Grant acknowledges that it needs to be directed by philosophical insight, lest we see the sort of “anger” that brought us both Brexit and Trump, and that has caused all sorts of serious evils in even the recent past. I don’t know whether there can be a new existentialist movement, but Grant forgets that the “collective passion” that moved Sartre, Beauvoir’s soul mate, led him to endorse Stalinist Russia.

Finally, Stoicism can very much be a conduit to societal change, but from the bottom up, so to speak, rather than form the top down, as is the usual approach. It is a type of virtue ethics, after all, so its focus is the development of the character of the individual. And even the type of collective movement that Grant hopes will materialize in the near future isn’t going to go anywhere (and, again, in the past has often gone terribly wrong) if its members are not virtuous in the virtue ethical sense of the word. Let us not forget that a very good number of revolutions the world has seen so far started with great intentions and devolved in massacre and tyranny.

What does it mean to “keep calm and carry on”?

The final installment, for now, of the “let’s criticize Stoicism because it’s getting too cool” is afforded by an extended interview I had with Skye, again for the APA blog, where she let me have as much space as I wanted to further respond to Grant and to clarify a number of recurring issues. Below are some excerpts from that interview, organized by topic for ease of reference.

On Stoicism vs life hacking: Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and as such it comes with actionable advice for its practitioners. If one is interested only in developing a toolkit, one can of course push the philosophy in the background and just focus on the tools it provides. This is nothing unusual, we do it in other areas as well. Some people, for instance, engage in meditation, or practice yoga, without necessarily embracing the philosophical or mystical traditions behind those techniques.

On keeping calm and carrying on: You won’t find that phrase in any of the ancient Stoic texts, but it has become associated with the current popularization of Stoicism. I think that’s fine, so long as we understand what the phrase means within a Stoic context. Most importantly, it does not mean that we should go through life with a stiff upper lip because that’s the best we can do in a world that is fundamentally not going to change. Instead, it means that one should keep a level-headed attitude because that’s the best way to tackle complex problems.

On women and Stoicism: There was actually a significant number of women at Stoicon. And we had three women speakers during the single-day session: Julia Annas, Debbie Joffe Ellis, and Cinzia Arruzza. Moreover, other women philosophers have written positively about Stoicism, for instance Martha Nussbaum. Also, the Stoicism Facebook community, counting over 17,000 people, has a lot of women members, several of whom regularly contribute to the ongoing discussions. Sometimes people say that Stoicism is more popular among men because it is about suppressing emotions, but that gets it twice wrong: first, because that’s actually a profound mischaracterization of the philosophy; second, because it uncritically accepts the stereotype that women are more “emotional” (and therefore more fragile?) than men. I hope we are finally moving beyond that sort of false biological dichotomy.

On Stoicism as a “slave philosophy” incapable of furthering social change: First off, why pick on Stoicism in particular? During the same period a number of philosophies and religions were developing or thriving, including Epicureanism, Peripateticism, Platonism, Cynicism, Christianity and Buddhism. Should we then dismiss all of those as well because they happen to come about during an historical time that was characterized by slavery and women’s oppression? Also, which period of human history, exactly, isn’t so characterized? Do we not have actual slavery in a number of countries in the world right now, not to mention virtual slavery due to abysmal economic conditions in many places on the planet? Don’t we have a large number of countries today where women are oppressed, and a number of others — including the U.S. — where they are still at a significant disadvantage compared to men? Further, Stoicism has, historically, never encouraged quietism, from Greco-Roman times until today. Many Stoics were persecuted and either exiled or put to death by Roman emperors because they dared speak truth to power. And a number of modern individuals who were not quietist have been positively influenced by Stoicism, for instance Nelson Mandela, who read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations during his prison time, a reading that helped him overcome his anger, develop an understanding of his guard as a human being, and eventually recognize that reconciliation is better than anger when it comes to achieve both justice and social progress.

On teaching resilience somehow being a bad thing: since when resilience has become a bad thing? I mean, I hear a lot this criticism of Stoicism that it’s a bad thing to encourage people to be resilient and accept the fact that life comes with problems, some of which we can only endure, not resolve. It seems to me that resilience is actually a necessary component of a positive reaction to problems: if one is emotionally crashed one can hardly fight back. Moreover, it is wishful thinking to tell people that they can overcome everything, or that they can be “anything they want to be.” Realism isn’t defeatism, while unbridled optimism can actually pave the way for self-blame or, worse, blaming the victim, when things don’t turn out the way we were induced to believe they would.

On the line between what we do and we do not control: That line is clearly drawn by Epictetus: under our control are our values, our judgments, and our actions. Everything else is not under our control. This does not mean that we cannot influence (some) events, of course. But it does mean that we don’t have complete control over what’s going on in the world. The Stoic attitude, consequently, is not one of renunciation and inward focus, but rather a shift from external to internal goals: my goal isn’t to make my partner love me, because that’s not under my control; it is to be the most lovable person I can be with her, because that’s under my control. My goal is not to achieve peace in Syria, because that’s outside of my control; but it is to do whatever I can to improve the situation — donate money to relief organizations, write to my representatives, protest in the streets, help refugees — because that’s under my control. Anything else, the Stoic says, would be wishful thinking, and the world doesn’t change just because we wish it to.

What is Stoicism’s response to oppression? Oikeiosis. That’s the word that the ancient Stoics used to indicate the active development of concern for other people. Hierocles, a II century Stoic who wrote a book entitled Elements of Ethics, thought that we should think of others in concentric circles: nearby me, affectively speaking, there is my family; then my friends; then my fellow citizens and countrymen; and so on all the way to the whole of humanity. Now, Hierocles said, begin to mentally contract those circles, bringing people closer and closer to you, actively practicing concern for all. He even provided practical advice on how to do this: when you meet someone in the street, refer to her or him as “brother” or “sister.” This explicit behavior will gradually affect the way you feel about others. This kind of cognitive re-direction of one’s feelings, incidentally, is at the core of CBT.

A second aspect of the Stoic response to oppression is the concept of cosmopolitanism, a word that was actually invented by the Cynics and then deployed systematically by the Stoics. We are all equal, says Seneca, and we ought to treat everyone the same because of our shared humanity. Musonius Rufus, a I century Stoic teacher, thought that men and women have the same intellectual capacities, and that they ought to be taught in the same way, no room for discrimination.

Finally, the Stoics were mindful of practicing four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate complex situations to one’s best), temperance (self-control), courage (not just physical, but especially moral), and justice (i.e., fairness toward other people). Especially the last two are perfectly good tools for the Stoic practitioner to fight against oppression and discrimination, since they are core aspects of Stoic doctrine.

On Stoics as unemotional sociopaths: The Stoics, unlike Aristotle, believed that there is no such thing as a good amount of anger. That’s because anger has a way of swallowing you, it easily gets out of control, and even when it is justified, it often lead to actions that one is likely to regret. But that’s not the same as saying that one shouldn’t respond appropriately to atrocities and injustice, even emotionally so. Indeed, the Stoics, contra popular misconception, did not counsel the suppression of emotions. They weren’t proto-Spock from Star Trek. Rather, they thought that negative, disruptive emotions — such as hatred, anger, and fear — should be controlled by reason, while positive emotions — like love, a righteous sense of justice, and even a sense of awe at the beauty of the world — should be actively cultivated.

The Stoic take on existential anxiety: Existential anxiety, for the Stoics, comes primarily from our fear of death. But that fear is misguided for a number of reasons. First, because death is a natural process that leads into the same state in which we were, so to speak, for the long time before we were born. We didn’t suffer then, and we are not going to suffer after we die. Second, and more crucially, Seneca says that we actually die every day, meaning both that every day brings us closer to the end, and also that we don’t really know when that last moment will come. That is what gives the Stoic an urgency to live life at its fullest, and not to waste time in trivial matters or the pursuit of empty pleasures. However the Stoics, again contra popular misconceptions, did enjoy pleasures, so long as they owned the pleasure and not the other way around: as Diogenes Laertius put it, Stoics drink wine, but they don’t get drunk.

On the moral duty to be socially engaged: A major way one practices the virtues of courage and justice is precisely by conducting the sort of public life that many Stoics became famous for, as politicians, statesmen, or teachers. As Marcus puts it in the Meditations (IV.26): “Your life is short. You must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice.”

121 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of Stoicism?

  1. Nancy,

    “My using the phrase “preferred by the speaker” was a nod to Stoic terminology (preferred indifferent).”

    Aye—then that makes a certain amount of sense. It’s still tricky, though, sense there are a few different ways that people define preferred indifferents (not all of which, IMO, will capture label people’s moral decisions “preferred”), and since technically the ancient Stoics classified other people’s virtues as an “external good” rather than an indifferent.

    But I digress!

    “I thought I pretty clearly posited a scenario in which half would be killed on A and 3/4 would be killed on B. I’m not sure where your 100% comes in.”

    It seems to me that you are saying that if we choose to send the train down track A, then everybody on track B survives. Thus the 100%: changing the situation in A changes the situation in B and vice versa.

    “And I don’t see how your variations aid the analogy, which is meant to simply illustrate total vs. percentage.”

    My variation involves two agents, who make two different decisions at two different times. Yours only involves on agent, who makes one decision that affects two distinct groups of people.

    I think my variation, then, captures what we are discussion: what it means for there to be a moral improvement between two agents that live in different eras.

    Your variation seems to me to be describing one agent who is making a decision that has long-term consequences. For instance, your trolley problem can be seen as modeling this question: are we willing to sacrifice the short-term well-being of humanity to help prevent catastrophic global warming? If we are, then the absolute population size now and the absolute population size we expect in the future might become important variables to consider.


  2. Nancy,

    I wouldn’t call infanticide moral progress, would you? So that fact that it is now illegal is an example of progress.

    As for abortion, I was referring to the Christian Middle Ages, but you jumped back to Greco-Roman times. Even then, the practice of abortion was widespread, but it wasn’t done for moral reasons, it had nothing to do with a woman’s control over her body.

    The UN charter of human rights has guided action by both the UN and a number of countries in the world, it is much more than a wish list, even if it doesn’t fit your technological nihilistic worldview.

    And talking about ancient law, the code of Hammurabi was another example of moral progress, and so was the corpus of Roman law that gave origin to the modern one.

    But as we have stated repeatedly, moral progress is neither necessary, nor uniform across cultures, nor irreversible.

    Women and votes: we don’t know much about women in ancient (Paleolithic?) tribes. We do know that they were treated as property for much of the history of humanity. Indeed, some progress was made under the Roman Empire, when women finally came to own property. But to deny that passing modern legislation giving women the right to vote is not a (much welcome) example of moral progress is really strange.

    You keep insisting on the idea that absolute numbers are more important then relative ones. So I will keep insisting that you look up the statistical concept of confounding variables. No social scientist would look at things the way you do.


    Thanks for your analysis, I find myself largely in agreement with it. The only difference is that I wouldn’t refer to either Seneca or especially Holiday as hypocrites. Ryan openly and publicly renounced his former ways and embraced a more ethical style of life. Assuming he is sincere (I have no reason to doubt it), that makes him someone who has made personal moral progress, not a hypocrite.

    As for Seneca, the actual facts on the ground are difficult to ascertain, as I and plenty of others have written (see the recent two biographies of him, for instance). But he very explicitly says that he is a poor role model (and, in fact, nobody in the modern Stoic community takes him to be one), which makes him a failing human being more than a hypocrite.


  3. I wouldn’t call infanticide moral progress, would you? So that fact that it is now illegal is an example of progress.

    It’s still practiced in many places in the world, regardless of legal status.

    And the reason people practice infanticide is not because they hate babies – it is because it is preferable to abortion which can kill the mother.

    And the reason that both abortion and infanticide are practiced is because humans are quite capable of reproducing themselves into complete environmental collapse. So the alternative to abortion/infanticide is not big happy healthy families, it’s starving families and societal breakdown. Babies were sacrificed through infanticide for the greater social good. So a greater number of people would die without infanticide. So under such conditions is infanticide immoral?

    Thanks to more effective means of birth control, and safer abortion techniques, women can now control their fertility without danger to themselves and without resorting to killing their babies.

    And since babies are people, why did you limit your statement to the outlawing of infanticide and not just point to murder generally? Is outlawing of murder an example of moral progress? Except of course “murder” so-defined is illegal/unacceptable in all cultures. And in spite of that, it is still with us, and we have developed technologies which are capable of killing more people more quickly than ever before. And since we have devised methods of killing more people more quickly now than ever before, that would seem to belie moral progress.

    As for abortion, I was referring to the Christian Middle Ages, but you jumped back to Greco-Roman times.

    I said that in pre modern nation-states abortion was legal. The fact that you mentioned Christian Middle Ages doesn’t negate the fact that Greco-Roman times fully meets my criterion.

    . But to deny that passing modern legislation giving women the right to vote is not a (much welcome) example of moral progress is really strange.

    We do know that pre-state societies often were better for girls and women. I have already provided evidence that one Roman observer was clearly impressed by the size of non-Roman women. The fact that the ancient Gaulish women were just as big as the men – and Diodorus thought it was significant enough to remark upon it – indicates that they were probably being treated better than women in Rome were.

    And if they were treated better, it’s possible that they were participating in decision-making of their tribe, which, if not the equivalent of a formal democratic process was certainly more equitable than women in a nation-state being refused participation in voting.

    And so it’s very possible that the scenario was that women in pre-Roman conquest Gaulish tribes had the equivalent of the right to vote, and then after Roman conquest, under the control of a nation-state were denied the vote, and then eventually in modern European times regained the vote.

    So the issue isn’t whether the modern right to vote is moral, the issue is whether it is actual progress instead of just a returning to an original state.

    … even if it doesn’t fit your technological nihilistic worldview.

    So it’s a sign of nihilism to look at the ways that material conditions of human existence shape human behavior, and it is preferable to believe that a vague “moral progress” is a causative force in human behavior instead.

    Apparently the faith that the answer to all human behavioral improvements is “moral progress” is unshakeable and I am a dirty heretic in this congregation. I suppose it’s time to go before I am burnt at the stake.

    I believe there’s a witch-burning reference in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – maybe the contemptible labnut will share that scene with you all as well.


  4. Massimo: Thanks for your feedback. I was being a little polemical on purpose to address Nancy’s objections by referring to Seneca and Holiday as “hypocrites,” a term that is usually reserved for people who claim to be innocent somehow when they fail to live up to their own moral ideal. I thus mentioned that both Seneca and Ryan Holiday were self-critical, unlike the more classic cases. It could be argued, however, that the difference between a classic hypocrite and an ordinary faulty person is more a matter of degree than kind, just as I describe my own attachment to external validation (an issue on which I’ve been working hard lately) as “egotism” even though it’s more often accompanied by shame rather than arrogance. Regardless of whether they admit to it or not, both fail to live up to their ideals, and those who admit to their failings don’t necessarily overcome them any sooner. I do think Holiday has, in fact, overcome some of his failings: compared with “The Obstacle Is The Way,” his second Stoic book “Ego Is The Enemy” came across more raw and real and less trendy life-hack. However, that he’s still very much involved in the business world, in which the guiding ethic is often that increasing profits every three months is the one and only measure of business success, could be a risk in terms of further progress or even be seen by some as classic hypocrisy.

    Nancy: Stoic Justice demands that stoic students not burn heretics at the stake. 😉 I, at least, have found your view on moral issues being heavily dependent on technology an interesting challenge. I think your view is being taken as nihilistic because it sounds, on the surface, like it’s denying the very possibility of positive social change having any relation to intentions to improve morally. Could it be, instead, that you believe that we can only make something resembling moral progress through economic and technological improvements, and thus we should focus our efforts not on our own character, but how to tweak technology and economics so as to do what history has proven, in your view, that character cannot? That would not be nihilistic, but perhaps a bit scientistic (believing science and technology are the only ways to know things and find solutions), and even though I’m a scientist, I’m skeptical that we can solve all problems with science and technology for much the same reasons you’re skeptical of moral progress: history shows that solving one problem tends to create new ones (though often less inconvenient/dispreferred ones).

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  5. To expand a bit: the nihilistic view of the relationship between technology and social justice would be, “There is no relationship at all between the abolition of slavery or equal feeding of girl children and people’s moral thinking about justice.” The other, more scientistic view, would be more like, “Moral thinking by itself is unable to or correct backlashes in social justice; only through adequate technology can higher moral standards be implemented and adopted by the majority of the population. Slavery could not have been abolished nor seen as morally wrong by a majority of people without the machines to make slavery obsolete, and the fair feeding of girl children could not be implemented nor seen as morally right by a majority of people without the agricultural technology to protect a family from famine.” So instead of “moral thinking -> justice, with support from technology,” it’s “technology -> justice, with support from moral thinking.” If that’s what Nancy was arguing, she could be right in many cases, but not necessarily all cases.


  6. Eric,
    your list is an interesting take on the same subject. It is different in style and emphasis to mine.

    We both agree that Stoicism should be given a new face and a new emphasis. I argue that self control and resilience is a means, not an end, that frees us from the control of events so that we can move our focus to compassionate engagement with society.

    I am at a loss to understand Massimo’s position on this since he says little about it. So my questions to Massimo are:

    1) does he think that the emphasis in modern Stoicism should move from self-control and resilience to compassionate engagement with society, especially suffering society.

    2) if necessary, how does he think this should be done? Eric and I have outlined two different approaches.

    3) does modern Stoicism need to be refashioned to make this possible?

    4) does he agree that modern Stoicism enables quietism?

    5) how should modern Stoicism counter this prevalent belief? Quoting 2000 year old examples is not persuasive.

    My question to you, Eric, is this. How will modern Stoicism motivate the passionate concern for humanity that we find in, for example, Catholicism? I cannot discern this passionate concern in modern Stoicism.


  7. Julie,

    That’s a very nice and charitable reconstruction of Nancy’s position, thank you. That said, there are two counter-objections to the scientistic view:

    I) we have a number of examples, from antiquity on, of laws and customs changing in a moral direction without any obvious correlate with technological improvement. For instance, women’s right to vote in Western countries. The right to vote, incidentally, isn’t limited by available resources, unlike slavery.

    II) If the scientistic view were correct, then one would want to know why societies would change in a moral direction even when technological improvement makes it possible. What, exactly, do patriarchally-oriented especially white males gain from sharing their power with women, minorities, and so on? Nothing, unless they and the majority of society recognize that it is the moral thing to do. Let’s not forget that Egyptian and Roman societies, for instance, had plenty of resources, by they were not shared among everyone (the Gracchi brothers tried that, and they were killed as a result). Or just this morning the NYT published a story about how the Saudi elite spends lavishily on themselves without sharing at all with the rest of society. It’s not like they are liking resources, they simply don’t see the immorality of what they are doing.

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  8. To Massimo’s comment I would add that enabling something is not the same thing as being its cause. For example technology gives me greater leisure time and a greater disposable income. I use that increased leisure time and income to perform charitable works. The cause in this case is my moral sensitivity/judgement/motivation and character. The increased leisure and income enables me to realise these moral urges but is decidedly not the cause. For example most of my friends do no charitable work and many of them have greater leisure and income than I have.

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  9. Labnut,

    Exactly, that’s another very good example. Yes, improve conditions (or leisure time) do make it possible for people to engage in moral work. But they absolutely do not require it, and they are certainly not sufficient for it. One needs an understanding of morality and a will to put it into practice.

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  10. I agree that it’s possible both to have better technology without increased justice and increased justice without better technology. I suppose someone committed to a scientistic view of social justice could argue that certain types of technological change inevitably cause moral regression, for instance, “agriculture without famine protection guarantees oppression of women” or “mass-produced food guarantees intemperance,” but even within societies that have been subject to these technological changes, the severity of these problems has varied among cultures. The French, for instance, supposedly have fewer problems with intemperance with food than do the equally technologically advanced Anglo-Saxon cultures, and the ancient Romans permitted women to own property even though they had not yet solved the famine problem, while until not long ago, rural Albanian women could not own property unless they underwent a legal transition to a sort of third gender, and they probably didn’t have any worse famine problems than ancient Rome. So yeah, while I think Nancy had some good points, I do also think there is a role for cultural moral thinking by itself in matters of justice, independent of technology.


  11. Nancy,

    ‘the faith that the answer to all human behavioral improvements is “moral progress”’

    Nobody here has claimed that all behavioral improvements are attributable to moral progress.

    In fact, nobody has made a vague appeal to “moral progress” as some sort of mystical explanatory method. Massimo et al have done nothing but give you specific, concrete examples of situations that they think might involve some moral progress.

    Recall that you are the one who is claiming that moral progress does not exist in any region or on any time scale. So it only takes one positive example to refute your position.

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  12. Labnut,

    Re. Self-control and resilience as a means to an end: I agree that they should often be viewed that way. At least some of the ancient Stoics, in fact, viewed it that way too: we discipline our passions so we can focus on Benevolence.

    I think it is *also* important to treat Temperance and Courage as an end in themselves, though. Virtue has many facets.

    Re. Cosmopolitan ideaS and motivations that already exist in mainstream modern Stoicism—have a look at Donald Robertson’s book. He talks a lot about Stoic action and Stoic social ideals—philosophy as the pursuit of incremental progress toward the ideal “community of enlightened friends.”

    Also, Hadot ‘ s work does a great job of highlighting Stoic philanthropy.


  13. Eric,
    have a look at Donald Robertson’s book. He talks a lot about Stoic action and Stoic social ideals—philosophy as the pursuit of incremental progress toward the ideal “community of enlightened friends.”

    I did so. Thanks for the reference. I really like his book.

    Chapter Five, ‘Love, friendship, and the ideal Sage‘, of his book, describes it well and I am in complete agreement with what is said there.

    And yet. All the articles I have seen, both blog and mainstream media, overwhelmingly place the emphasis on the development of the self. You are right that Stoicism lends itself to a life of compassion and chapter five of his book does a good job of bringing this out, but right now I think this message is being neglected.

    Remember that I adhere to a tradition that places love and compassion foremost in its consciousness and work so it is natural for me to look for the same emphasis in Stoicism. I also believe that the world is permeated and suffused with suffering, that dealing with this requires determined and passionate conviction, that the extent and severity of this suffering requires urgent commitment to ending it.

    This kind of emphasis is missing from most modern portrayals of Stoicism. This is what I want to see in Stoicism.

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  14. The New Yorker article referenced at the beginning of Massimo’s essay is a perfect example of what I believe is misplaced emphasis. These are necessary qualities but the story is incomplete.

    Another recent article also illustrates what I consider an unbalanced emphasis(I can give a multitude of examples):

    I am happy that Stoicism is getting so much publicity and I hope the trend continues but I also hope for a change in emphasis.


  15. Labnut,

    “You are right that Stoicism lends itself to a life of compassion and chapter five of his book does a good job of bringing this out, but right now I think this message is being neglected.”

    I feel much the same way. Many influential people, such as Massimo, are on board with the principles of Stoic action. But the social/philanthropic side of the philosophy is almost always treated as an “advanced topic” for committed enthusiasts.

    That’s why a team of us from Stoics for Justice have registered StoicsInAction.org and are hoping to build a space that reverses the usual order of emphasis. Still in progress though!

    “Remember that I adhere to a tradition that places love and compassion foremost in its consciousness and work so it is natural for me to look for the same emphasis in Stoicism.”

    I hear that. As a former Christian and a longtime Humanist, I had to find the compassionate core of Stoicism before I could take it seriously as a philosophy of life.

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  16. Labnut (and Eric),

    My take on the relationship between Stoicism and social concern is this: Stoicism, like all virtue ethical philosophies, is focused on personal improvement, that is, it doesn’t provide a bird’s eye view of ethics. This is not a deficiency, it is simply a different way to approach things.

    So when Stoics talk about the discipline of action, the virtue of justice, or the concepts of oikeiosis and cosmopolitanism, they are telling themselves that they ought to treat other people with justice, to get involved socially and politically, and that they ought to think of others as brothers and sisters.

    This is very different from a modern approach to social justice, which tends to be informed by a universalist approach, and works better with universalists takes on ethics, such as Kantian deontology, or utilitarianism.

    Think of the difference as a bottom-up approach (Stoicism and virtue ethics more generally) vs a top-down one (modern view).

    So, I do think that justice and brother/sisterhood are fundamental Stoic concepts, and that they should be brought back to the center. But I am also a bit cautious about initiatives such as Eric’s, because I’m afraid they have the potential to end up pushing a particular (liberal-progressive) view of social justice. While that happens to be the view that I endorse, I don’t think it is the one that naturally falls out of Stoicism (I mean, some of the ancient Stoics were “conservative” even by the standards of the time, for instance Hierocles). Moreover, I prefer Stoicism to be a large tent, both in terms of religious and political ideologies, and social justice warriorship (not that that’s what Eric is doing) tends to alienate a good number of people that I’d prefer to keep on board.

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  17. Julie,

    I am definitely not denying that improvement of conditions facilitates progress in terms of civic liberties. But I do think the two are logically independent, as the examples brought up by both labnut and myself tend to indicate. Yes, if I want to help more people I have to have the means to do so (similar to Kant’s famous “ought implies can”), but I am under no compulsion to do it, unless my morals dictate it.


  18. Massimo,

    I share your concern about Stoic action reducing itself to simply “pushing a particular (liberal-progressive) view of social justice.”

    Personally, my view is very close yours: the focus of Stoic ethics is on intent, and on prudent motivation toward benefiting others in whatever situation your find yourself. That could many any number of things in practice, and it extends not just to politics but to family, career, time management, charity, and more (most of which is quite non-partisan territory).

    It’s true that our particular initiative attracted a self-selected group of progressives up front—i.e. people who disagreed with some of Irvine’s political statements. But I for one am committed to a “big tent” understanding of Stoic ethics. Virtue ethics, I think, has the potential to help us amplify the best of both conservative and progressive values, as opposed to settling for half the puzzle (which is what we are often forced to do in polarized political arenas).

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  19. Massimo:

    I tend to agree with you there. However, there’s still some room to play Devil’s advocate for an extreme scientistic-deterministic position on human moral behavior. Those who go so far as to say we have no free will and all our morality and immorality is mere instinct might argue that certain technological, economic, or other conditions do, in fact, compel us to behave in certain ways. If you don’t behave morally in the presence of the technology to be able to do so, then, you must have been held back by some situation that provoked your base instincts. Thus, the Stanford Prison Experiment scenario would be merely the unavoidable response of human beings put into a situation where they are given extreme power over others who are not kin, because being cruel to non-kin is adaptive to the survival of one’s own genes unless those non-kin have something useful to offer you that you can only get by cooperating with them, and they surely don’t if they are in such a low position (except maybe, if they’re of the opposite sex, a chance to play the genetic lottery with them).

    I myself am not committed to such a position. I find it revolting, but I can’t say it’s wrong simply because of that. Instead, I keep in mind that the Stanford Prison Experiment and real-life situations like it or which inspired it (the Nazi concentration camps, Abu Ghraib) occurred in Western society and may thus reflect the poor moral education of many Westerners in the 20th and 21st Centuries. What might a Stoic undergrad student or soldier have done as a real or mock prison guard in those situations? I suspect they might well have spoken out. We already know the tale, after all, of Stockdale’s experience as a brave prisoner who united his people…perhaps a similarly trained prison guard would treat the prisoners the way a fair-minded ancient Stoic might have treated his servants. If the determinist were to then argue that the Stoic in question became a Stoic and behaved decently due to some other contingency born strictly of the subconscious mind with no prior conscious commitment to training having influenced that subconscious mind, well, they’re probably going well beyond the level of confidence in their position that the actual neuroscience of decision-making supports. The same could be argued if this prison guard adopted any other virtue ethic, from another philosophy or even a religion, that maintained that abusing the prisoners was a bad course of action.


  20. Eric,

    What I wrote was not meant as a criticism of your efforts, which I admire. As you say, we actually have fairly similar positions (and even if we didn’t, I would respect the disagreement). But as you also say, the social justice warrior people tend to gravitate toward that sort of approach, and then to monopolize it. And while I actually agree with most (though not all) of their principles, I am also extremely worried about their typical (not universal!) attitude and its clear potential to turn away from the tent people that I would rather keep in.


    I do see your point. However, the Stanford (and similar, like the Milgram) experiment are often reported as if their results were universal and deterministic, while no such thing happened. Some people refused to play along, in both experiments. Which to me indicates that people have volition (I dislike the term free will, because of its loaded meaning, largely originating from medieval Christian theology).

    As for scientism in general, here are three examples of what I think about it:


    You may be inrterested to know that I have co-edited a book about the pros and cons of scientism, together with my long time collaborator, Maarten Boudry. It will come out next year by Chicago Press. Cheers!

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  21. Thanks for the links, Massimo. They mentioned weaknesses in the scientistic point of view that I hadn’t thought of before. I don’t think most of us practicing scientists not formally trained in philosophy, for instance, think of math and logic as being separate disciplines from science – we would more likely think of them as part of the so-called “scientific method,” which you’re probably right about not really being a thing given how it’s always oversimplified when taught. However, there are branches of math and logic that go beyond what’s useful to guide scientific analysis.

    I was once fascinated by deterministic explanations for human psychology and sociology, and that’s why I can play Devil’s advocate for them and still give them serious thought. Yet it’s not too hard to be reminded of why, and expose myself to new reasons why, they’re incomplete and unsatisfactory. Evo-psych started to fall apart for me as soon as I realized I could make up a reason why just about any ethical stance or behavior could be seen as beneficial to our ancestors’ survival in certain situations. Deterministic (lack of) volition is a bit tougher, but the cases you point out of people who backed out of dark experiments, plus the course of my own life, point to at minimum a compatibilistic view where theoretically deterministic causes of behavior have so many inputs and twists and turns that they become “chaotic” or something like it and not all dots between inputs and outputs can be connected. Thus if volition is not “free” in theory it is at least not fully predictable from known inputs in practice and thus can be treated as “free enough.” As a professional philosopher you might know of an even more nuanced view.

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