Becker’s A New Stoicism, I: the map of the territory

With this post I am going to begin an in-depth coverage of the second edition of Larry Becker’s fundamental book, A New Stoicism, without question the most serious attempt to “update” Stoicism from the end of its first half-millennium run, in the second century of the modern era.

I have commented on the previous edition of Larry’s book and I have published an interview with him about the development of his ideas. This new series will proceed as follow: (i) a brief summary of the changes to the new edition, with a justification of why it was necessary, essentially covering the preface of the book (this post); (ii) “the way things stand,” discussing chapters 1-3, on “the conceit,” “a new agenda for Stoic ethics,” and “the ruins of doctrine”; (iii) “the way things might go,” covering chapters 4 and 5, on “normative logic” and “following the facts” (Larry’s rendition of “live according to nature”); (iv) on virtue (chapter 6); (v) on happiness (chapter 7); and (vi) the postscript, including discussions of “the virtues of virtue ethics in the Stoic tradition,” “Stoic politics and virtue politics in general,” and “Stoicism as a guide to living well.”

Larry has promised to chime in during our discussions, so fasten your seat belts, and hang on for a fascinating ride!

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Larry explains at the beginning of his new book that he implemented five substantial changes with respect to the old edition. Even if you have not read the latter, it is going to be instructive to briefly discuss what Becker has done, as it will represent a conceptual map of sorts to help us keep our bearings in the posts to come.

I. Larry reformulated the relationship among Stoic agency, virtue, and the concept of eudaimonia (or flourishing).

The problem this is meant to address is an apparent inconsistency in Stoic thought. For the Stoics, virtue is an end in itself, the chief good of a human life (which they derive from Socrates’ discussion in the Euthydemus). But Stoicism is also considered a eudaimonic philosophy, in the Socratic tradition. How can this be, since eudaimonia is usually defined as the ultimate goal for this class of philosophies? How can the chief good be both a virtuous life and a eudaimonic one?

Larry proposes a “developmental” account of Stoic ethics (a revised version of the so-called cradle argument, which one finds in Cicero’s De Finibus, book II) from which it will turn out that Stoic agency, Stoic virtue, and eudaimonia are all emerging from Stoic practice, being, in a sense, inextricably linked to each other. As a bonus, Becker will also provide an explanation of the famous “paradoxical” Stoic doctrine that virtue is an all or nothing thing, and yet one can make progress toward virtue (see the drowning man metaphor). After all, they coined the term “prokopton” precisely to indicate one who makes progress in the study and practice of Stoicism.

II. Specifically Stoic moral training and education have to be part of the above mentioned developmental story.

I will not make additional comments about this here, we will get to it in due time.

III. An entirely new treatment of the topic of suicide, which was omitted in the first edition.

Again, no further comment needed at the moment, except that Larry will show that the moral possibility of suicide (under strict conditions) is, in fact, part and parcel of Stoic philosophy, as I’ve argued here while discussing Epictetus’ so-called open door policy.

IV. A major update in the discussion of the available literature on Stoicism, both ancient and modern, a literature that has grown substantially since the 1998 edition of A New Stoicism.

No further comment needed here.

V. A postscript with substantial new material on the topics of virtue ethics, how Stoicism relates to politics and social justice, and Stoicism as a guide to modern living.

This last change is arguably the most impactful for readers interested in the practice of Stoicism, and the fact that it is relegated to a postscript should not deceive the reader. It is there because Larry’s main interest is theoretical and grounded in his academic approach. His book is not a practical guide. But the ancient Stoics would have told you that if you do not have a good grasp of the theory, the practice becomes an empty bag of tricks, which is why they included the study of the topoi of physics and logic in their curriculum, as preparatory to the crucial bit, the ethics.

So the one sketched above is the map of the territory ahead. Next up: how and why to update Stoicism to the 21st century.

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Categories: Larry Becker, Modern Stoicism

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24 replies

  1. “…if you do not have a good grasp of the theory, the practice becomes an empty bag of tricks…” I like that and will shamelessly steal it for use on my undergraduates. Also looking forward to this review.

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  2. “…if you do not have a good grasp of the theory, the practice becomes an empty bag of tricks…” Really?

    It is saying “It’s all very well in practice. Will it work in theory?”

    I daresay that a performer who performs brilliantly in Cirque du Soleil knows nothing about the physics of his act. And I would be amazed if the erudite physics professor who knows all about the precise conditions under which the performer would fall and crash performed in Cirque du Soleil.

    Just because something sounds right doesn’t mean it is.

    Just saying.

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  3. The phrase is apt in many, many cases, but I never thought Massimo intended it as a universal truth. He’s smart, but he’s not Plato!

    You are correct that there are many things that in practice only need our reflexes and instincts. But in the realm of philosophy and other explicitly reasoned pursuits (I mentioned “undergraduates” after all), the saying is very applicable. For instance, as a molecular biologist, I’m well versed with students being able to carry out technical procedures (e.g., carrying out a polymerase chain reaction by following a set of instructions), but when it goes wrong, they are completely lost as they don’t actually understand the principles (i.e., the theory) behind the technique or (arguably worse), they can’t interpret the results meaningfully. As a personal example, I have taught molecular phylogenetics for some 17 years and never fully grasped until this month the importance of coalescent theory and introgression with respect to using gene sequence data. In a “doh!” moment, I’ve realised that my practice of concatenating gene sequences may been in error because I didn’t dig deep enough into the theory. My grasp of the theory was incomplete and that has lead to my practice being faulty in some cases. Being a stoic, I can’t change the past, so all I can do is learn from my mistake and move on (and now I have a other lecture to prepare 😦 ). In fact, it’s been a bad month for my grasp of theory as I’ve also realised I had an incomplete grasp of the principle of parsimony.

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  4. Practical,

    As Alex just explained, my statement about theory <> practice was not meant to be a universal law. But it certainly applies to Stoicism, and I would say in general to any philosophy of life.

    That’s part of the issue with some modern writers pushing the self-help, “life hacking” angle of Stoicism, while de-emphasizing or ignoring the theory.

    One example: articles that put forth the use of Stoicism to become rich entirely and grossly miss the point. Because they don’t take the full philosophy into account. While there is nothing wrong with wealth, from a Stoic perspective, becoming rich simply is not a Stoic goal.

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  5. It is intimidating to even ask a question of persons of such intelligence but to practice Stoicism is to confront the fear of seeming foolish.It is worth the risk and so on.I digress.The reading of ,and participtating in your blogs have had a deep impact on me so I have to offer my gratitude.I am fighting with Don Quixote and trying to grasp his search for meaning. Don Quixote as a Stoic?

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  6. “Practical” respectfully disagrees.

    @alex.

    Partial knowledge is a dangerous thing in many fields. Your example clearly illustrates it. The field I specialize is also one such. However, it is untrue in many other fields, including Stoicism (see my response to Massimo). You can drive or swim or do a hundred other things without knowing the theory behind it. My concern was that the pronouncement sounded so universal. Such universal sounding pronouncements sound so convincing that they are admired and repeated without any rational examination of the content (like another universally repeated, but unexamined statement “An unexamined life is not worth living.” So meaningless, yet never challenged.) Just to be sure, my comments were NOT about Massimo, whom I happen to admire, but the idea (or lack thereof) behind the pronouncement.

    @Massimo.

    I am sorry if I misunderstood you, but your statement did sound universal. I also have to disagree that it applies to Stoicism. Using Stoicism to make money etc., is a distortion of Stoicism. It is not Stoicism in the sense it really doesn’t have anything to do with Stoicism. If someone says it is and someone else believes it, it just means that the believer is misinformed and credulous. It has little to do with theory.

    The point I was trying to make was that one can use an actual principle of Stoicism like “Some things are up to us and others are not,” and realize that there is no point in worrying about something that’s not under your control. This is profound and usable knowledge for anyone. We can jeer the user saying that she is merely using “an empty bag of tricks” because she doesn’t know the theory of Stoicism.

    You might not have meant it that way, but reading it I felt it is an unwarranted insult to non-philosophers.

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  7. Practical,

    Again, my statement was confined to philosophies of life, but I stand by it despite your skepticism that it applies to Stoicism. Take your own example: using Stoicism to make money is a distortion of Stoicism. Correct. How would that know that unless one actually understood the theory, which is rooted in the concept of virtue as the chief good? That’s why we have so many “life hackers” going around with a Stoic-inspired bag of tricks to get richer, get the girl, and so on. That’s not Stoicism because it lacks commitment to the theory.

    Moreover, this is certainly what the ancient Stoics themselves thought. That’s why they insisted that a prokopton should study “physics” and “logic” in order to truly understand ethics.

    And no, my words were not meant as an insult to non-philosophers, only as a warning to take the philosophy seriously.

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  8. Thank you, Massimo.

    Quite likely, I didn’t state my case clearly. The problem is not theory or practice. It is the misinterpretation of theory or practice, either willful or ignorant. A theory is as subject to distortion as practice. People who wildly distort the US constitution quote the constitution. People who slaughter innocent men, women, and children they have never met do so in the name of their religious theory. They can quote their holy book to prove it. Catholic bishops who behaved so immorally had studied the theory of Christianity for decades. Knowledge of theory is no guarantee that it will not be misused or ignored.

    To continue with the example, at least some of the people who write books on how you can make money using Stoicism do know the theory. Just their understanding is different or they ignore it anyway.
    If knowledge of the theory alone would exempt someone from distorting it, we wouldn’t have some academic philosophers going around and writing articles and books saying how horrible Stoicism is. The theory just didn’t mean the same thing to them as it did to you or me.

    I don’t quarrel with your sentiment, just with the diagnosis.

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  9. Practical,

    I don’t think we are that far apart. I never said that theory alone is sufficient. It is a constant back and forth between theory and practice that makes for the least possible misunderstanding.

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  10. Thank you, Massimo. That’s comforting to know.

    So, I take it that you wouldn’t object if I tell a non-practicing academic philosopher, “…if you do not have a good grasp of the practice, the theory becomes an empty bag of tricks.”

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  11. No practical,

    I would object. Do you think there is somthing about being a non-academic that precludes people from understanding the theory? Because the Stoics certainly didn’t think so.

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  12. I agree with Massimo that there is not a wide divergence between what he is saying and what Practical is saying. It is certainly true that people can follow the precepts of stoicism as a way of life and get some good from them without paying attention to the underlying theory.

    The question is whether such practice disconnected from the theory enables a person to make progress toward Stoic Virtue (the only good), which is necessary and sufficient for Stoic happiness. It’s pretty clear that the ancient Stoics would have answered no to that question. They argued about whether to teach ethics first, before the physics and the logic. But they didn’t argue that the physics and the logic could be dropped. They thought all three were essential parts of the system.

    And more to the practical point under discussion here: for the ancient Stoics, making progress toward Virtue in the singular (the only good) requires wisdom and knowledge about the ethical precepts rather than just belief in their usefulness as a guide to life. That implies not only familiarity with the outlines of the whole stoic philosophical system, but actually some intellectual grip on the parts of the theory – particularly the logic and epistemology relevant to the ethical practice. And that means familiarity with what we now call ethical theory.

    Or so I continue to think. And I continue to think that the ethical theory can stay recognizably stoic even if we substitute modern natural science for the ancient versions.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. @Massimo

    I thought I was afraid you might say that – it is all right for a theoretician to formulate a theory which he hasn’t tested in practice, but it’s not all right for a lay person to practice something she has understood as beneficial, without knowing the theory. Doing so is nothing more than using “an empty bag of tricks.”

    Fine, let’s leave it at that.

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  14. @ Larry Becker

    First of all, let me say that I have a great admiration for your work and I believe you are probably the most important of the modern Stoics.

    But your concern is different. You are concerned about how one can be a modern Stoic by reconciling precepts and concepts developed more than 2,000 years ago to today’s world. I am concerned about something very different: making Stoic principles (as opposed “Stoicism”) accessible to those who can benefit from it. If someone doesn’t want to know anything about Stoicism, and still finds Stoic principles helpful and uses them, they don’t have to be subjected to any pejorative epithet – such as using an empty bag of tricks. Their use of Stoic principles is valid and, if it works for them, we should be happy for them.

    I know many people want to be Stoics. But a lot more who can benefit from Stoic principles have no interest in Stoic philosophy. Should we treat them inferior to those who do? I humbly submit that we should not.

    If we look more closely at those who are benefiting from CBT, REBT etc., they are, it seems to me, benefiting from Stoic principles and not from “Stoicism.” Why we should we object?

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  15. Practical,

    “it is all right for a theoretician to formulate a theory which he hasn’t tested in practice”

    Where did I ever say that? Stoicism is premised on a constant interaction of theory and practice. Theory without practice is useless, practice without theory is a bag of tricks, not a philosophy.

    “If we look more closely at those who are benefiting from CBT, REBT etc., they are, it seems to me, benefiting from Stoic principles and not from “Stoicism.” Why we should we object?”

    Nobody is objecting, but you are making my point: CBT is not a philosophy of life, it’s a type of therapy. It will help you overcoming phobias and correct your behavior. It will not give meaning to your life. That’s what philosophical reflection does.

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  16. To Practical: you say:
    “I know many people want to be Stoics. But a lot more who can benefit from Stoic principles have no interest in Stoic philosophy. Should we treat them inferior to those who do? I humbly submit that we should not.

    “If we look more closely at those who are benefiting from CBT, REBT etc., they are, it seems to me, benefiting from Stoic principles and not from “Stoicism.” Why we should we object?”

    You make a good point. And I don’t object, or regard them as inferior. (Though of course there is a lot of talk about superior and inferior people in the ancient sources. I ignore that.)

    But I do have a worry about the use of stoic principles that are empty of effective ethical content. And that would turn into a serious objection if it turned out that their use of stoic principles was in effect making them better at being vicious rather than virtuous. That is, I’m worried about leaving out the ethical component of the stoic principles. (Maybe this is just a philosopher’s worry about something that does not and perhaps could not happen.) But if the stoic principles as practiced in CBT, REBT etc. include an ethical component that is compatible with Stoicism’s, and is effective in sustaining the motivation to make progress toward virtue, my worry evaporates.

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  17. @Massimo

    Your question: “it is all right for a theoretician to formulate a theory which he hasn’t tested in practice”
    Where did I ever say that?

    My response: You said it when you responded to my comment “I take it that you wouldn’t object if I tell a non-practicing academic philosopher, “…if you do not have a good grasp of the practice, the theory becomes an empty bag of tricks,” with this: “No Practical, I would object.”

    With regard to the rest, our disagreements may just be semantics. The point I was trying to make was exceedingly simple. We need to distinguish between someone wanting to be a Stoic and someone wanting to use the principles of Stoicism (Just as non-Christians may want to use some Christian precepts.) My point was that the latter is not subjected to the rules of the former, but that does not make them inferior, or less worthy. Both uses are equally valid. There is no reason to describe one in uncomplimentary terms.

    Somewhere along the line, the discussion seems to have gone off the track.

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  18. I see. The problem there is that there is plenty of good scholarship one can do on ancient philosophy without practicing it. But that wouldn’t be Stoicism, of course.

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  19. @ Massimo

    Exactly, Massimo. So also, there is plenty of good practice one can do on without knowing the theory. That’s the point of the entire discussion.

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  20. @ Lawrence Becker

    I am glad we are entirely in agreement on the issue I raised.

    With regard to misusing Stoic principles, I can see why you are concerned. Although, as a practitioner, I don’t see it as a serious problem (I can be wrong on this, of course).

    Many years ago, when I practiced martial arts, about 50% of the time my teacher would lecture me on the philosophy of restraint. By the time I got to be a black belt, my teacher would say things like “If someone at night attacked you for your money, just give it to him and walk away. If you give in to anger and want to teach him a lesson, you could seriously damage him for a few bucks. Or even kill him.” I could understand why he was emphasizing the philosophy behind the art.

    But I don’t have similar serious concerns about someone misusing Stoicism. I’m thinking of some fundamental Stoic principles (as propounded by Epictetus and as understood by me):

    • Concern yourself exclusively with what is in your power.
    • Be content to let things happen as they do.
    • Do not value external things.
    • Your thinking, not externals, drives your behavior.
    • Evaluate your impressions using rationality (“your nature”).
    • You are the cause of your sorrow, unhappiness, misery, etc.

    While one could conceivably misuse anything (including a kitchen knife), I don’t see any imminent danger of anyone misusing principles like the above to damage someone else.

    All the same, I appreciate your stand on this.

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  21. Well put. I don’t see any imminent danger of it either, as long as we begin and end with reasonably virtuous human beings – who are not stoic but who have a character in which courage, justice, moderation, wisdom, and practical wisdom are pretty securely dominant over natural, vicious impulses and who are pretty securely resistant to being manipulated into pursuing a path in which their virtues cannot be properly expressed.

    On the other hand, on the off chance that we are dealing with a psychopath with a lot of practical intelligence but no practical wisdom, the fundamental stoic principles you list might yield a very different result.

    I appreciate this discussion. Thank you.

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  22. Practical,

    “there is plenty of good practice one can do on without knowing the theory.”

    I don’t think anyone denied that, that’s why we have CBT. But it isn’t philosophy. I maintain that if someone is just doing practice without understanding the philosophy then that’s not Stoicism. It may be useful, but that’s not the same thing.

    “With regard to misusing Stoic principles, I can see why you are concerned. Although, as a practitioner, I don’t see it as a serious problem”

    I beg to disagree with you and Larry on this. Stoicism is actively being misused by large numbers of people, largely falling into two categories: “life hackers” who seem to think that Stoicism will make them rich, and alt-right “men’s rights” people who emphasize courage and forget about justice.

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  23. I’m happy to have unwittingly started an interesting discussion. Perhaps it all wouldn’t have happened if Massimo had instead written, “…if you do not have a good grasp of the theory, the practice becomes less than it could be…” or even, “…significantly less than it could be….” That seems, to me, to accommodate both sides of the debate.

    Whilst reading the above, it put me in mind of the virtuous cycle of induction and deduction plus the problem of infinite regress. I think Massimo’s perspective is that to do justice to the philosophy as philosophy, one needs the theory to help inform practice and the practice then helps to further understand the theory, and so it cycles. The questions perhaps are: can either theory or practice meaningfully exist in isolation (by meaningful I mean be a useful pursuit)? ; which pursuit can start the cycle, or can both equally do so?

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  24. Alex, Massimo, and Larry
    I thank you all for engaging in a dialog with me.

    @Alex
    I owe special thanks to you. I overlooked Massimo’s statement at first until you attached importance to it. The discussion that followed led us to some unexpected places and I am glad it did.

    @Massimo
    I consider someone who practices Stoic principles (without any specific reference to Stoic physics or metaphysics) a Stoic whether she buys into the whole package or not. I also believe that people misuse Stoicism do so willfully (or they have been misinformed). It is not because they were not taught the virtues and that we should do so forthwith. Using your example, alt right easily could (I’m sure would) claim that they are seeking justice as well. But all this is a different conversation because I suspect you have an academic view of what Stoicism is and I have a real-world view. I am content to be in honest disagreement with you on this without claiming that I am necessarily right.

    @Larry
    I am delighted that you decided to chime in. After reading your comments, I am more comfortable with my views, again without any faint hint that I am necessarily right.

    Thank you all.

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