Why Modern Stoicism does not miss the point

And we come now to a new exciting entry in my ongoing “someone else doesn’t like Stoicism and likely misunderstands it” series of posts. Today’s entry is about an article published by Mark Vernon over at The Idler, entitled “Why Modern Stoicism misses the point,” and accompanied by the tag line “there is more to Stoicism than self-control, it is about surrendering to the divine will.”

Vernon begins by hoping that his readers will go and check out Epictetus’ Enchiridion for themselves, because “it will show them how etiolated modern Stoicism has become, and how challenging the way of life advocated by Epictetus and his fellows, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, really was. It’s only in this challenge that it has anything striking and useful to say to us today. Stoicism now focuses on Epictetus’ best known remark. It’s commonly glossed thus: ‘it’s not what happens to you that matters but how you respond that matters.’”

Vernon continues: “It’s the advice behind today’s virtue à la mode, resilience: grin and bear it. Little wonder big corporates pay good money for seminars teaching such passivity. It’s compliance dressed up as a philosophy. The slave-cum-scholar-cum-stoic secures your future as a wage slave. Only, something crucial to Epictetus has been stripped out.”

Before we get to what modern Stoics have allegedly stripped out, let me address what Vernon has said so far, beginning with the idea that (ancient) Stoicism was challenging. Of course. All philosophies of life, or religions (which come with a built-in philosophy of life) are challenging, if one means to practice them seriously. If you think being a Christian or a Buddhist isn’t challenging you have not understood what Christianity or Buddhism are about. And that’s true for the ancient as well as the modern versions of all these approaches to life. I don’t know many modern Stoics who don’t think that to be the case, and indeed lots of discussions at the large Stoicism Facebook community (almost 24,000 at current counting) focus precisely on the challenges of practice, the community being, in a sense, a large mutual support group.

Vernon then says that Epictetus’ dichotomy of control has been reduced to today’s “virtue à la mode,” as he calls resilience. I’m not sure where he is getting that, but it is nowhere to be found in any of the modern books on Stoicism I’ve read thus far, including Don Robertson’s, Bill Irvine’s, Larry Becker’s, or my own.

But it appears from his sneering at “corporate” Stoicism that Vernon’s real targets are the likes of Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferris. I have written about what I think of that approach before, but even in those books I see little to substantiate Vernon’s attitude. Sure, they are more self-help than philosophy, addressed to a particular audience, and written in a style that is alien to my own way of writing. But so what? If they are helpful to people, that’s a good thing. And who knows how many that would have never heard of Stoicism before have taken or will take a look at the ancient authors as a result of reading Holiday or Ferris. That’s a good thing too.

Vernon’s more fundamental issue, however, concerns something else entirely:

“What Stoicism-lite removes is the cosmic view that informed [Epictetus] advice. He was convinced that the ways of the world and the universe were determined by an omnipresent, omnipotent force. Stoics called it the Logos. It was divine. It was irresistible. And crucially, it was benign.”

Ah, yes, the old “gods not atoms” objection. Except that even the ancient Stoics were pretty clear that their metaphysics underdetermines — as modern philosophers would put it — their ethics, meaning that their ethical practice is compatible with more than one (but not just any) metaphysical stance.

Here is Marcus, for instance:

“Recall the alternative; either there is providence or a fortuitous concurrence of atoms.” (IV.3)

“Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?” (IX.39)

“Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts.” (X.6)

And several more examples can be found throughout the Meditations. Seneca too says pretty much the same:

“Whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defense.” (Letter XVI. On Philosophy, the Guide of Life, 5)

It is hard to read any of the above and not agree that for the Stoics it simply did not matter whether the universe is arranged by a benevolent Providence or not. One still has to do one’s best to contribute to the polis of humanity.

Moreover, Vernon’s vocabulary is misleading: “omnipresent … omnipotent … divine … irresistible.” This sounds too much like Christianity, which is not surprising given that the author is a former priest for the Church of England, who now considers himself an “agnostic Christian.”

But the Logos was nothing like that. The Stoics were pantheists, so their “god” was immanent in the universe, and made of matter. Indeed god simply is the universe for the Stoics, and accordingly they used words like “god,” “nature,” and “cosmos” interchangeably. The “divine” is everywhere, and we are literally bits and pieces of it. There is nothing at all in this conception that hints at omnipresence, if not in the trivial sense that the universe is everywhere (where else would it be?), and even less so omnipotence. The “irresistibility” of the Stoic god is the irresistibility of the universal web of cause and effect, as explained by Chrysippus.

As for the allegedly benign character of Providence, this should not be interpreted, again, in anything like the Christian sense of a grand plan of which we are a part. Rather, the Stoics thought of the world as a living organism, and that organism tries to do whatever is best for it as a whole, which sometimes means that some of its parts bear the unpleasant brunt of its actions. Here is how Epictetus famously explains it, quoting Chrysippus:

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses II.6.9-10)

Vernon will have none of it: “Remove your desire? Abandon your freedom? Give up your will? In a godless cosmos, red in tooth and claw, governed by the ruthless laws of evolutionary survival, your desire, freedom and will are all you have. Nietzsche, the herald of the death of God, saw through Stoicism-lite: ‘You desire to LIVE according to Nature? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power – how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature?’”

Ah, you’ve got to love it when a former priest approvingly mentions Nietzsche, the uber-bad boy of philosophy! At some point I will write a separate post on Nietzsche and the Stoics, apparently it’s sorely needed.

For now, though, suffice to point out two things: first, contra both Nietzsche and Vernon, plenty of agnostics and atheists seem to have no trouble at all finding meaning and conducting an ethical life within a world “red in tooth and claw,” so one ought to at least pause before making fun of modern Stoics, who are just one such group of people. (I should further qualify that I think of Modern Stoicism as a big tent, metaphysically speaking, which includes theists, atheists, agnostics, and even some pantheists.)

Second, Nietzsche literally had no idea what he was talking about in that passage. “Living according to nature,” for the Stoics, meant (and still means) living by developing the highest potential as human beings. And that translates into applying one’s reasoning ability and judgments to improving social life. As Marcus puts it:

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Meditations, IX.12)

This is the same “gods or atoms” Marcus as above, of course. And here is Seneca, railing against philosophers who’d rather engage in logic chopping than in helping people:

“I should like to have those subtle dialecticians of yours advise me how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word “friend” is used, and how many meanings the word ‘man’ possesses.” (Letter XLVIII. On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher, 4)

None of that may have meant anything to Nietzsche himself, but when Nietzsche says that the point is precisely to be otherwise than nature, he seems to impute to the Stoics a type of appeal to nature, a logically fallacious argument (X is natural, therefore X is good) that would have taken Chrysippus a nanosecond to dispatch of.

Vernon quotes Marcus in his favor: “You must consider the doing and perfecting of what the universal nature decrees in the same light as your health, and welcome all that happens, even if it seems harsh, because it leads to the health of the universe, the welfare and well-being of God. For he would not have allotted this to anyone if it were not beneficial to the whole.” (No ref.)

Yes, that is one of the most Christian-sounding sound bites from Marcus, though there is a lot of room for a more neutral interpretation there too. But what about this, also from the emperor-philosopher?

“And by the Universal Nature treating these [pain, pleasure, death, and life] with neutrality I mean that all things happen neutrally in a chain of sequence to things that come into being and their after products by some primeval impulse of Providence, in accordance with which She was impelled by some primal impulse to this making of an ordered Universe, when She had conceived certain principles for all that was to be, and allocated the powers generative of substances and changes and successions such as we see.” (Meditations IX.1)

Things happen neutrally because of a chain of cause-effect that began in a primeval impulse. I doubt this would sound too alien to anyone accepting what Vernon contemptuously refers to as the take on nature “sanctioned by today’s high priests, the scientists, with their creed of mechanistic materialism.”

Vernon concludes that “without a transcendent perspective on life’s harshness, without trust in an unfolding higher than human vision, all we have is our desire, our frightened calls for control, our empty cries for freedom echoing about in the indifferent void.”

That’s a pretty bleak take not just on modern Stoicism, but on the human spirit. There is no question that if one believes in a benign Providence and in a grand plan orchestrated by a benevolent God then life is easier to bear. But it is highly doubtful that even the ancient Stoics accepted anything like that view of the cosmos, and it is certain that they didn’t think it was required in order to “live according to nature,” i.e., to be decent people who do their best in order to make existence a little bit better for everyone. And to impute either shallowness or willful ignorance to modern Stoics if they don’t accept Vernon’s particular theology is downright insulting. Except that Stoics, ancient and modern, don’t believe in insults. But neither Nietzsche nor Vernon are in a position to understand why.

15 thoughts on “Why Modern Stoicism does not miss the point

  1. Jaycel Adkins

    “without a transcendent perspective on life’s harshness, without trust in an unfolding higher than human vision, all we have is our desire, our frightened calls for control, our empty cries for freedom echoing about in the indifferent void.”

    I guess he should have taken his own advice and read the first line of the Enchiridion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jbonnicerenoreg

    I think Vernon’s point is, or should have been, that the ancient Stoics practised piety as did Cleanthes in his hymn. Showing a reverential awe and gratitude toward the universe was part of being a good person and comes through in Epictetus. It is less a matter of belief than attitude. A modern example might be Jodi Foster in the movie “Contact” where on her trip through the wormhole exclaims “Beautiful”. She didn’t change her belief as a scientist but her attitude was transformed by her experience.


  3. Massimo Post author


    Right, but that attitude of awe toward the cosmos is definitely practiced by secular people, including myself. That’s why one of my favorite meditations is the sunrise one inspired by Meditations XI.27.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A. Historian

    Massimo, thanks for this clear-eyed post. In addition to the post about Nietzsche, I would find very valuable one which contrasts your views on Stoicism with the natural law thinking that today dominates in many intellectual conservative circles: among jurists (Robert P. George, John Finnis, Hadley Arkes, for instance), (neo-)Thomist Catholics, Straussians, certain right-wing think tanks (Witherspoon, James Wilson Institute, Acton, etc.), and in various journals (First Things, Lex Naturalis, etc.).

    Under the radar, this approach has become a strong force on the right in recent decades, including in the Academy. This medieval/neo-Aristotelian natural law takes a hard-line stance on what constitutes “nature” and thus human flourishing. It seems clear that your (better) understanding of ancient views of nature does not accord with this conservative version, which, incidentally, strongly favors Aristotle and Cicero over the Stoics.

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  5. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Thanks for this. I don’t see any fundamental incompatibility between Epictetus’s view of giving up desires (which I think is a more elaborate relative of the popular wisdom known as “picking one’s battles”) and a non-theistic view of nature, as long as nature is not viewed too narrowly, as it seems to be in this former priest’s article as the classic “struggle for survival.” I don’t think nature has to be seen as transcendent or benevolent in order for one to be able to accept the lot that nature assigns him or her; they just have to see it as being “no evil” as the ancients put it, and appreciate that the same natural law that mandates that we all die either by getting sick in old age, violence, accidents, the destruction of the Solar System, or the changes of state of the Universe is also what allows us to exist and contemplate in the first place. As a scientist, I don’t see nature as alive, but I do see it as dynamic, and life is just a kind of peculiar, complicated case of dynamics. So the loss or absence of life is not a loss or absence of order or of anything essential to the cosmos. Therefore, I don’t think not being a theist – not seeing the universe as necessarily having characteristics that can only be described in mental life terms and not in physical or mechanistic terms – is a guaranteed impediment to the less glamorous side of Stoicism, which is accepting the things you can’t control and that the outcomes of your actions are among those things.

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  6. Wayne Bivens-Tatum (@acadlibrarian)

    Just as (perhaps) Vernon gets modern Stoicism wrong, I think you get Nietzsche wrong, at least to some extent. For example: “None of that may have meant anything to Nietzsche himself, who — let’s not forget — had a pretty horrible record of human interactions throughout his life. But that’s a point scored against nihilism, not Stoicism.” Which horrible human interactions are you referring to? Nietzsche had several close friends and was by all accounts unfailingly polite and courteous, if a bit stiff and formal, in his personal interactions with everyone. The Paul Ree/ Lou Salome break was bad, but hardly horrible or an example of his usual behavior. Also, to consider Nietzsche’s philosophy nihilist (rather than, for example, aiming at overcoming the nihilism he saw around him) is far from a universal view.

    If you do write a post on Nietzsche and Stoicism, you might consider reading the following to get a broader picture of Nietzsche (that you might still hate): Julian Young’s recent biography Friedrich Nietzsche, Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche on Morality, Alexander Nehamas’ Nietzsche: Life as Literature, and Robert Solomon’s Living with Nietzsche. Solomon’s book does a plausible job of interpreting Nietzsche as a virtue ethicist of a sort, which would put him closer to the Stoics than other modern ethical traditions.


  7. Pete Rogers

    Massimo, very interesting. Your criticism of Nietzsche’s criticism appears to hang on the idea that Nietzsche missunderstood the stoic phrase and desire to ‘live in accordance with nature’. I have come across this phrase in stoic writings but not found sufficient elucidation of it. You say it means living to develop your highest potential. Where might I find elucidations to this effect in stoic texts or some quotations? Thanks, Pete


  8. Fred Lunjevich (@Floony7)

    Tim Ferriss is the reason I learned of Stoicism as something worth looking into. Bought On the Shortness of Life and it changed everything. Found I already had a copy of Meditations and went from there.

    It got me into Stoicism, which is what I needed because the hardcore skepticism thing was starting to wear me down 🙂

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