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!
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 fields 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.