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.”


Categories: Critics of Stoicism, Modern Stoicism

121 replies

  1. Nancy,
    Not just declare that something exists and disparage anybody who requires evidence.

    We have given strong evidence and clear reasoning, but you still resort to denial.

    Though an exercise in futility, one must quite admire the resolute, indomitable spirit of Monty Python’s Black Knight in his fight against reality.


  2. Nancy,

    Your analogy with astrophysics is off the mark, since science makes progress in a very different way than philosophy (see the book I linked to very early on in the discussion). We don’t “revere” the ancient Stoics, we appreciate the universal insights they had into the human condition. But Stoicism is not a religion, so nobody worships Seneca, Epictetus and the others. We simply take them to be uncommonly wise people for their age. We then proceed to keep the wisdom and throw out what didn’t or couldn’t work.

    As for the discussion on absolute vs relative numbers in terms of moral progress, as I mentioned early on you are simply confusing (in the statistical sense) two different variables: an improvement in relative conditions (real, undeniable) and an increase in population size (also real, undeniable, but irrelevant to the question at hand). Asking whether it is “better” to have a relative vs an absolute improvement is asking a question based on the (statistical) confusion of those two variables. The answer, therefore, can only be: separate the variables and we’ll talk about moral progress vs population growth.


    • Your analogy with astrophysics is off the mark, since science makes progress in a very different way than philosophy

      That’s exactly my point – they are NOT analogous. You said earlier in this discussion:

      The issue, rather, is the failure to recognize that humans make moral progress, and that it makes little sense to judge harshly people from 2000 years ago for both having made that progress yet.

      Eric recently put it well in a comment on this blog. He said that it would be like for a modern mathematician to blame Euclid because he didn’t get spherical geometry (or something to that effect). Rejecting the analogy as valid commits you to say that there is no such thing as moral progress.

      Although I used astrophysics instead of mathematics in my example, it’s the same principle – I am rejecting the analogy Eric proposed and you approved when you claimed rejecting moral progress is analogous to rejecting intellectual progress.

      you are simply confusing (in the statistical sense) two different variables: an improvement in relative conditions (real, undeniable) and an increase in population size

      On the contrary – my exact point is that “improvement in relative conditions” is not at all impressive if the end result is a greater number of individual sufferers.

      And that’s not even considering the possibility the prohibition of women’s economic/reproductive independence in the past has contributed to a greater overall population.

      I am still attempting to discover the nature of the phenomenon you are all calling “moral progress” by proposing these questions. So at this point I gather that “moral progress” is not related to the greater number of humans who benefit by the phenomenon, but rather to “improvement in relative conditions.” But as we have previously discussed, the improvement in relative conditions is NOT moral progress if the conditions have improved without a conscious moral choice being made (Indian girls being fed more due to technological progress.) In which case, the vast majority of improvements in women’s lives relative to men are not the result of “moral choice.”

      Possibly the only one is the legalization of abortion – except that abortion was not illegal prior to modern nation-states. So abortion was once permitted (moral good) then it was outlawed (moral bad) and then it was legalized (moral good.) And thanks to the election of Donald Trump and his Supreme Court appointments, it could become illegal again (moral bad.) So there doesn’t appear to be any moral progress there, just a back-and-forth.

      And of course not everybody agrees that abortion is moral.

      And in any case I still haven’t seen any evidence presented that the ratio of people who treat women better is much higher now than it was 2000 years ago.


  3. Nancy,

    Astrophysics and mathematics are not analogous. Not even close. I did send you the link to the book, read the chapters on progress in science (astrophysics) vs progress in math and you’ll see the difference.

    Yes, moral progress is improvement in relative conditions, or in conditions in general once the confounding variable of population size is accounted for. Again, you may benefit from reading an intro text in statistics of the social sciences.

    Conditions have improved in part because of acceptance of better moral norms. You have been given examples (the UN charter of human rights, laws that allow women to vote) of conscious moral choices, but you simply ignored them.

    Abortion was not legal before modern nation-states. Certainly not under Christianity, which dominated Europe for a millennium and a half.

    As for the evidence for the ratio, what exactly are you asking for? Historians have amply documented the almost complete subjugation of women before modern times. Now that subjugation is reduced in a number of cases, in some cases dramatically so. If that isn’t evidence that the ratio has changed I have no idea what counts as evidence as far as you are concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. And abortion was legal in the US in the 1800s.

    UNTIL the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before “quickening” (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for “bringing on the menses” with herbs that could be grown in one’s garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism (“taking the trade”). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business — including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press — was booming. The most famous practitioner, Madame Restell, openly provided abortion services for thirty-five years, with offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and traveling salespeople touting her “Female Monthly Pills.”



  5. <

    blockquote>Conditions have improved in part because of acceptance of better moral norms. You have been given examples (the UN charter of human rights, laws that allow women to vote) of conscious moral choices, but you simply ignored them.

    The UN charter of human rights is a wish list. The ancients were capable of coming up with wish lists – that’s arguably what the Ten Commandments were about. And the charter doesn’t seem to have ended FGM or honor killing to mention just two examples. Since the ancients were able to come up with goals for how to treat people but failed as we have in achieving those goals, I’m not sure how that represents “progress.”

    And as far as voting – is like abortion – prior to nation states (assuming they didn’t vote as in a democracy) were women denied a say in the decisions of their tribes? Is granting women the vote giving women a new liberty that women as a group never had before, or is it restoring a voice in community decisions that was taken away thanks to the rise of nation-states? Is restoring a former liberty an example of progress?

    Which leads to this:

    As for the evidence for the ratio, what exactly are you asking for? Historians have amply documented the almost complete subjugation of women before modern times.

    There are certainly examples of subjugation of women before modern times – very similar to what is going on now in some places in the world, and with a greater total number of those being subjugated, as we have established.

    There is evidence that outside of Rome the lives of women was actually better than in Rome. According to Diodorus Siculus:

    The women of the Gauls are not only like the men in their great stature but they are a match for them in courage as well.


    The nights the Ligurians spend in the fields, rarely in a kind of crude shanty or hut, more often in the hollows of rocks and natural caves which may offer them sufficient protection. 6 In pursuance of these habits they have also other practices wherein they preserve the manner of life which is primitive and lacking in implements. Speaking generally, in these regions the women possess the vigour and might of men, and the men those of wild beasts.

    But there is no doubt that the lives of women, at least in the West are better than ever before in the history of the world. But the cause of this improvement is not “moral progress” but rather technology that allows women to control their fertility easily, and to hold independent money-making jobs which do not value physical strength.


  6. Weighing in as a female astrophysicist and student of modern Stoicism: Maybe what makes moral progress under-perform our technological capability to declare things like racism, patriarchy, and human trafficking (slavery) completely obsolete throughout the world is the huge effort of education it requires to get people to question their common sense when it’s inadequate for dealing with our challenges. We scientists have to undergo many more years of formal education as everyone else to be able to learn the trade of research tools, collaborations, research-related bureaucracy, and above all, learning scientific principles that go totally against what our common sense says about how the world works. This is especially true in physics, when we learn, say, that space and time are not absolute but subject to movement and gravity, that you really do need external forces to change the movement of an object (they don’t just stop by themselves), that there’s no such thing as “before the Big Bang” because time itself was created in the Big Bang, and that when measuring quantum systems we have to formally take into account the ways our measurement apparatus will affect the dynamics of the particles we’re “observing.”

    I roll my eyes over the ancients’ sexism (and homophobia), but I attribute it to their having a narrower idea of what the “nature” they sought to follow was due to their lack of scientific and technological progress, not knowing how tiny the genetic and physical differences between men and women really are in the greater scheme of things, and that other animals don’t always use their genitals exclusively for reproduction. Those who thought back then that sex isn’t so big a deal were few back then for much the same reason that those who thought back then that the Earth revolved around the Sun were few.

    There are still people today who reject major aspects of modern science, such as biological evolution, the germ theory of disease, the roundness of the earth (really!), the Big Bang, relativity, the age of the Universe, etc. Does this mean that we have made no net progress in scientific knowledge? No, it means we’ve done a lousy job in teaching the ethic of rejecting common sense in order to have a more harmonious relationship with Nature to the whole of society. It’s hard to teach, and goes against the short-term interests of some institutions or individuals. Our failure to eliminate the practice of oppression and the desire of some to continue or increase it may be due to moral education being as poor as scientific education at the general-public level. Unlike science, which can be practiced by only a few trained scientists who don’t have qualms about giving up common sense, morality has to be practiced by as many people as possible to run a stable society. So the lack of quality moral education keeping up with scientific and technological advancement may be more problematic to moral progress than poor scientific education of the general public is for scientific progress.

    In order to get moral practice to catch up with our technological capability, and thus get even the harshest critics of today’s society to agree that we’ve made moral progress or at least not gone backwards, we will need to be able to question our common sense on a massive scale, in order to accept that, for example, high levels of social inequality can have negative effects on the lives of even the high-status individuals, that maybe technological progress is probably not enough to solve every problem within our life expectancies including our mortality itself, and it’s also unlikely that we can solve the environment issue by just moving to another planet, and make decisions from there. That’s what we students of modern stoicism are attempting to do: question common sense in terms of how our lives and our society are run, so that we can do the best we can with the best model we have of the big picture. Although we may not agree with everything some typical politician from 2000 years ago did, or some allegedly reformed paid corporate internet troll from our own era did, that doesn’t mean that these kinds of people don’t still have potentially useful ideas for how to move beyond common sense to keep them from doing even worse or continuing to do lots of sketchy things. Perhaps we think that the aspect of common sense that says that anything a hypocrite says is automatically bunk needs to be questioned.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The problem with hypocrites is not that they are incapable of good ideas. The problem with hypocrites is that they condemn others for – or at best advise others to avoid – the behavior that they themselves engage in. And this practice appears to be the result of their assumption that they are above the value judgments of mortals, much like the way Zeus could get away with immoral behavior but a mortal could not.


  7. Massimo,
    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.

    I thought this was an important statement because it indicates:

    1) people are capable of making moral progress as Ryan did.
    2) that Stoicism can be the means of making moral progress.

    I think this is a most heartening message.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. In that case, I think we need to look at why these hypocrites say we need to avoid those behaviors. I would believe faulty preachers like Seneca or Holiday if they told me to avoid those behaviors or attitudes because of their own bad personal experience with them. If they make it clear that they do not feel like exceptions, but rather shameful examples of the rule itself, and I think those two in particular do often present themselves that way, fair enough. It’s different, in my opinion, from a politician who pushes laws promoting one moral principle, does something else, and then tries to claim innocence somehow rather than saying, “I totally shouldn’t have done that, and I’m a pretty lousy person because I did that, so don’t screw up like I did.”

    I do, at least, think the honestly self-critical hypocrites should totally expect, and respect, that some people will never take them seriously because they haven’t been able to find their way out of their own self-professed self-caused misery. Thus, they will have a hard time believing these people really are as miserable as they say…if you’re so miserable, why do you keep making the same so-called mistakes?

    I would say in my case that it’s because I really needed a painful kick in the pants before I could start to question one of my most misery-generating axioms: that without some kind of external validation of my current level of skill or potential, I had to assume myself incapable of making my life worthwhile, as opposed to just needing more or better effort. The next axiom to question for me would be regarding pleasure and pain, one I find myself having a harder time getting to the bottom of given how very deep rooted hedonism is in both our common sense and our current society.

    If these faulty preacher types cannot give such an answer to why they repeated or continue to repeat mistakes, perhaps I will also stop taking them seriously.


  9. On keeping calm and carrying on … it means that one should keep a level-headed attitude because that’s the best way to tackle complex problems.

    A really good example of that was Sully Sullenberger’s memorable touch down in the Hudson River. A lifetime of discipline, self-control and self-improvement combined with an unflappable ability to focus on what truly mattered in the face of overwhelming pressure enabled him to bring off an extraordinary feat.


  10. Grant said,
    We don’t have records of Epictetus marching against slavery

    This is a really atrocious example of presentism. It takes present day conditions, where we have the freedom to mobilise, march and demonstrate against an issue, protected by the rule of law, and projects them back to the Roman Empire 2000 years ago.

    But those freedoms did not exist then. Attempting to do so at that stage of the Roman Empire would have been a swift path to a brutal death. This was the Empire that progressively crucified 6000 slaves along the Appian way. It had no hesitation in proscribing or executing any opponents and great numbers died.

    Rome prospered and survived for so long because it fiercely maintained a militaristic consensus among the elite that brooked no dissent. To see how incredibly silly Grant’s statement is, try to imagine marching against Marxism at the height of Stalin’s power. That is how stupid it would have been to march against slavery at the height of the Roman Empire.


  11. On re-reading the criticism of Stoicism I was struck not only by wrong-headed they are but also by the fact that critics are unable to offer a coherent alternative that is practical and realisable. While I am critical of the ‘life-hack’ approach to Stoicism it does indicate that its principles are readily understood, accepted and capable of implementation. There is no other philosophy with such a practical, down-to-earth approach that can be readily accepted by people of all belief systems.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think the best criticism to an individualistic virtue ethic like Stoicism is “Quit gazing at your linty little navel and try to fix society. Your philosophy sounds incompatible with that, in practice if not in theory, given how many people in your camp have arguably made society worse or at least failed to do anything to fix it.”

    But I think the whole point of Stoicism is, despite what it sounds like from the outside, to get us out of our own heads – to teach us to demolish our “common-sense” excuses and fears that keep us from seeing situations realistically and taking the wisest actions we can. Yes, society needs to be fixed and instills many of those excuses and fears in us. But as long as we are letting these fears control most of our actions, how are we supposed to get out there and take a wise, realistic approach to fix things? If we’re too gung-ho, too attached to the outcome or a specific way of doing things, or too unaware of our own traps we’re likely to fall into, we might set ourselves up for a predictable failure and, worse, an inability to analyze and admit it and try something else. This is where, say, cult leaders, dictators, and reformers who get too caught up in the external praise and glory to keep track of what they’re supposed to be trying to do tend to go wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. “I think the best criticism to an individualistic virtue ethic like Stoicism is ‘Quit gazing at your linty little navel and try to fix society…'”

    My hope is that, in the near future, this will be seen as one of the worst and least cogent criticisms of Stoicism.

    We just need to clearly prove to the world that the Stoic discipline of action demands a tremendous amount of social engagement from its followers. The ancients were well aware of this: it was the Epicureans that were accused of retreating from the world and failing to make the world a better place. Everybody knew that Stoics placed a huge value on social engagement and political service.

    It’s just not so obvious today, where the most popular definition of Stoicism is the dichotomy of control—removed from its context, it is easily mistaken for encouraging neglect of the external world.


  14. Eric,
    I think the best criticism to an individualistic virtue ethic like Stoicism is ‘Quit gazing at your linty little navel and try to fix society…’

    Unfortunately that criticism carries a lot of weight, and, I think with some justification. Look at any modern writing about Stoicism and you will see it is primarily advocated as a means of self-control and resilience. Yes, the justice virtue and circles of compassion contain much more but that receives little emphasis. You have to look in the backrooms of Stoicism to see the social engagement. What is in the backroom receives little attention.

    We have to move that out of the backroom and put it on the front porch, the ‘stoa’, so that it is seen as the face of Stoicism.This is how I propose we do it.

    I propose that we make Stoic Humanism the first and guiding principle of Stoicism.

    Stoic Humanism

    It is

    1) Being authentically Human.
    It is a philosophy grounded in what makes us uniquely human, our capacity for compassionate, ethical behaviour. It is also an understanding of our fallibility and weakness(only human). It is a recognition of our capacity for extraordinary achievement(super-human). It is a commitment never to treat anyone as if they were sub-human.

    2) Valuing Humanity.
    It is grounded in a respect for all humanity, understanding its diversity, celebrating its commonality, is tolerant and inclusive. It is a commitment to work for the greater good of humanity.

    3) Being Humane.
    This is a commitment to act with kindness and goodwill to all life, treating it as we would wish to be treated

    4) Practising Humanitarian values.
    This is a recognition of the suffering of less fortunate people and a commitment to extending every possible assistance to them.

    5) Valuing the Humanities.
    In the humanities we celebrate and honour our species extraordinary capacity for imaginative thought. It is our capacity for imagination that allows us to be more than we are.

    Stoic Humanism then is the sum of our being human, our humanity, being humane, our humanitarian behaviour and our creative expression through the humanities.

    The ethos of Stoic Humanism is expressed in this prayer for humanity.

    The Stoic Prayer for Humanity

    Beloved humanity, let me be an instrument for our peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is error, truth;
    Where there is pain, healing;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy;
    Where there is intolerance, respect.

    Beloved humanity, I will not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood as to understand;
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    And it is in living that we give life.

    We need this, a strong, ringing declaration of intent that will give Stoicism a new face. Stoicism’s strong emphasis of self control and resilience should be explained as the manner in which we free ourselves from being controlled by events ‘so that‘ we can direct our attention to our true calling, Stoic Humanism.

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  15. Of course what I call the Stoic Prayer for Humanity is a re-phrased version of the well known Prayer for Peace – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Francis, often wrongly attributed to St. Francis.

    I have re-phrased it to make it universal in its applicability. This is fully in the spirit of Stoicism, a philosophy universal in its applicability.


  16. Lovely declaration, Labnut!

    I drafted something similar some months ago. You might enjoy this Stoic “call to action:”

    We believe that, when it comes to human nature—regardless of whether we originate with Providence or with Atoms—nothing is more glorious and beautiful than solidarity, love, and affection among humankind. As such, we are committed to the vigorous pursuit of Justice and Benevolence as the cornerstones of a life well lived. In particular, we aspire to these ideals:

    Family: We will take joy in diligently upholding our responsibilities toward our families and friends with a modest and generous spirit, viewing duty as its own reward, and remembering that love of family is the beginning and wellspring of all philanthropy.

    Career: We will pursue excellence and prudent action in our careers and in any other roles that we have come to play in society, regardless of the obstacles or injustices that Fortune will inevitably throw our way.

    Kindness: We will show kindness, compassion, and gratitude to all sentient creatures, recognizing in particular that humans of all abilities, cultures, ethnicities, races, genders, and sexual orientations carry the seeds of virtue and belong to one Cosmopolis, and that reason requires us to love and forgive even our enemies.

    The Common Benefit: We will strive to assist all our fellow humans—especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us—in their pursuit of external security, justice, and any beneficial comforts that align with human nature, even as we gently remind the world that true Happiness is found only in virtue and the three healthy passions.

    Politics: We will be watchful for opportunities to exercise our civic duty by engaging in political life, protecting our homelands, and by criticizing unjust aspects of our respective cultures and laws—but all without anger or hubris, and with a complete repudiation of vengeance.

    Apatheia: We will not allow any of the four unhealthy passions to interfere with these duties of ours as rational and social creatures, but rather we will view the four virtues as our final and only end in life. We will also remember that the Therapy of the Passions is a powerful healing balm, and we will not pass by an opportunity to gently share well-placed advice with those who are battered by stress or the winds of Fortune.

    We recognize that we are each chronically prone to fall short of these ideals, and that none of us is beyond the need to be reminded of them daily. We thus see the study of philosophy as a disciplined way of life, and we hold the spiritual exercises taught by the ancient and modern Stoic tradition as fundamental to our path of Justice and Benevolence.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. 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.


  18. 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.


    • 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.


  19. 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).

    Liked by 1 person

  20. 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.


  21. 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.


    • 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.


  22. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. 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.


  26. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. 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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  28. 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.


  29. 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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