What is “Modern Stoicism”?

[A few weeks ago I was asked by Greg Sandler, together with several other members of the Modern Stoicism project, to write a short piece on how I conceive of the contemporary version of our philosophy. Below is my entry, annotated with links, and here are the other six responses, by the likes of Chris Gill, Don Robertson, Piotr Stankiewicz, Tim LeBon, Greg Lopez, and Bill Irvine.]

Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us that no interestingly complex concept can be reduced to a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions in order to be precisely defined. His example was that of “games.” Try and see if you can come up with a compact definition of what a game is and include every activity that normally falls into that category, while at the same time excluding everything else. It’s impossible. For every criterion you can think of (it’s done for fun!, it has rules, it’s a competition) there will be exceptions both ways: some games will fail to satisfy the criterion (solitaire is not competitive), while some non-games will meet that same criterion (your job may be competitive, but that doesn’t make it a game). Even so, Wittgenstein argued, we know what does and does not count as a game, though we can have meaningful discussions about borderline cases (war “games”?).

I believe something like that applies to the distinction between Ancient and Modern Stoicism, with one important caveat to be discussed shortly. There is what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” between the two versions of Stoicism, meaning that they sort of look alike and yet are not the same, like a daughter and her mother. And just as in the case of human families, there is a line of (cultural) descent connecting one to the other,

Unlike other philosophical traditions, say Buddhism, Stoicism has not evolved continuously: its development was “interrupted” by the decline of Hellenistic philosophies and the rise of Christianity, and although Stoic ideas have influenced plenty of philosophers since (including many Christian ones), we pretty much jumped from the 2nd to the 20th century with little in between (except for the brief interlude of Renaissance “Neo-Stoicism”). The world we live in now is in some respects very different from that of the ancient Greco-Romans (they didn’t have internet and social networks!), though in other respects it’s pretty much the same (Seneca, in Letter 56.1 to Lucilius, complains of unbearable noise coming from the street, which made it difficult for him to write — I can relate).

There are, accordingly, a number of notions from Ancient Stoicism that I think are negotiable for Modern Stoics. The idea of the universe as a living organism characterized by diffuse intelligence (the Logos), for instance, with its corollary of pantheism and the concept of a “providence” that, though very different from the Christian concept, still sets things in the best possible way at a cosmic scale. I think that a Modern Stoic can be a pantheist, a theist, an agnostic, or an atheist, and still arrive at a reasonable reconstruction of what the Logos means (elemental consciousness, the word of God, the logical structure of the laws of nature).

Much of Stoic “physics,” of course, has been superseded by modern science, and it won’t do for us to cling to notions that are contradicted by the advancements in human knowledge of the last 18 centuries. We know a lot more than Posidonius and Seneca on eclipses and comets. Fortunately, the details of Stoic physics underdetermine the important bit, Stoic ethics.

Even Stoic logic, as groundbreaking as it was at the time, and as influential as it was until the 19th century, has been surpassed by its modern counterpart, especially if we don’t limit ourselves to formal logic, but broaden the scope of the field in the way the ancient meant, to include every aspect of human reasoning (and hence cognitive science, applied psychology, even neuroscience).

Politically, some Stoics were what we would call “conservatives” (Hierocles), others were pragmatists (Marcus Aurelius), and some were (somewhat) “progressive” by the standard of the time (Musonius Rufus, who advocated teaching philosophy to women). So Modern Stoics may also come from pretty much across the political, not just the theological, spectrum. (There are some exceptions: I’m pretty sure racism is not a Stoic value, for instance.)

All of the above said, one could reasonably ask whether “Stoicism” is then such a flexible concept that pretty much anything, or almost anything goes. I don’t think so, and here comes the aforementioned caveat, the exception to a Wittgensteinian view of the relationship between Ancient and Modern Stoicism. If there was one thing I would have to pick that I believe defines the core of Stoicism, and without which it begins to make little sense to call oneself a Stoic, is the primacy of virtue over externals (or “preferred indifferents”). “Happiness,” meaning eudaimonia, the life worth living, for a Stoic means a life of as much moral integrity as one is able to muster. Everything else, including material things, and even relations, is secondary. Not in the sense that it is to be discarded (we are not Cynics!), but in the sense that it can never be traded off with virtue. Why? Because we want to live according to nature, which especially in a modern context just means to take seriously the two fundamental characteristics of humanity: we are social animals capable of reason.

So, as Marcus puts it “Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires” (Meditations IV.24).

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Categories: Modern Stoicism

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9 replies

  1. Buddhists would agree that ethical living is paramount. I also like the amore fati idea; to completely accept the mistakes one has made throughout life along with the good things. Nietzsche was the philosopher who highlighted this for me and Buddhism has the same idea when it talks of the ‘grit’ in the oyster shell; that is, the difficulties in life can be a means to a less self-centered position!

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  2. for a Stoic means a life of as much moral integrity as one is able to muster.

    Yes, but..

    I see three dimensions to this:

    1) Ethical living
    The manner I conduct myself in relationship to the world(‘a life of as much moral integrity as one is able to muster‘);

    2) Compassionate living;
    My commitment to helping others in the world.

    3) Passionate living;
    My commitment to moving or changing the world for the better.

    Stoics will reply that (2) and (3) are contained in (1) and that is my criticism of Stoicism. By doing this and compressing (2) and (3) into (1) they are de-emphasising their importance. The result is a nearly one-dimensional philosophy of predominantly the self whereas what is needed is a more fully three dimensional philosophy where the other dimensions are characterised by a strong engagement with the ‘other’.

    I grant that the first dimension, the ethical self, is a necessary prerequisite which makes the remaining two dimensions possible.

    You say “There are, accordingly, a number of notions from Ancient Stoicism that I think are negotiable for Modern Stoics. ” and you note that “Stoicism has not evolved continuously: its development … pretty much jumped from the 2nd to the 20th century with little in between“.

    I suggest that its development should be continued by expanding the emphasis on compassionate and passionate living. In other words embrace more fully a commitment to the ‘other’ as some religions have done.

    Quite how this should be done would need to be worked out by people like yourself. I suggest that a good starting point would be to adopt a non-religious version of the Prayer for Peace (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Francis).
    You will remember that I published such a version in the comments to your essays.

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  3. Labnut,

    I think you are correct that Stoics roll your (2) and (3) into your (1). I honestly don’t see why this is a problem. Ethical living is compassionate living, and it includes a commitment to changing the world for the better.

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  4. I don’t have anything specific to say about this post, but I just wanted you to know, Massimo, how important your writing and thinking (from all of your various blogs, former podcast, and diavlogs) has been to me – even though I lean more towards both Cynicism and Epicureanism than Stoicism (I think this is probably due to the influence of Nietzsche and Camus on my temperament, but that would be a long story). Yours are two of the few blogs I still subscribe to and of which I read every post – and they are inevitably intellectually stimulating, so many thanks!

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  5. The primacy of virtue may be the distinguishing trait of Stoicism, relative to other Hellenistic schools, but what stands out the most to me about Stoicism – perhaps because Buddhism shares this trait – is its skepticism of pleasure and of desire for pleasure: in other words, that Stoics emphasize the downsides of assenting to such desires and of bestowing moral weight upon them.

    Perhaps there were ancient Cynics who went further than Stoics in this regard, but I don’t know any modern (capital ‘C’) Cynics who take such an extreme position; e.g. by rejecting preferences entirely.

    In any case, it seems like hedonism in one form or another is the one to beat nowadays.

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  6. Above Plato’s academy it was written, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.”

    And yet, in pop hipster stoicism book after book, geometry is never even mentioned. This despite the fact that Plato’s supreme mentor was Socrates–the very godfather of stoicism.

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  7. 45,

    Geometry was never a big deal for the Stoics, who were more into either natural science (“physics”) or logic. Regardless, even those two classical topics became less important during the Roman period, and Modern Stoicism focuses almost exclusively on ethics. We leave logic to the logicians and science to the scientists.

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  8. We can simply sustain that Modern Stoicism takes the pratical ethics of the ancient stoics, while substituting stoic logic and physics with their contemporary counterparts, while making compatible the former with the latter. Do you agree?

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  9. Alessio,

    That’s correct, by the 21st century there is no distinction between “Stoic” physics / logic and general physics / logic. Physics is what scientists arrive at, logic is what logicians do. And a reasonable Stoic takes both on board and then works out their compatibility within her ethics.

    It is, of course, possible that some versions of modern “physics” or “logic” turn out not to be compatible within Stoic ethics. But I seriously doubt it, and I argue against it (for physics) here: http://tinyurl.com/jfc8knq

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