Becker’s A New Stoicism, II: the way things stand, part 1

Stoa at Miletus

Last time we have briefly examined the reasons why Larry Becker has just published the second edition of his A New Stoicism, which attempts to carry out an ambitious thought experiment: what would have happened if Stoicism had not gotten interrupted, so to speak, in the third century of the modern era, and its practitioners had instead engaged with the philosophy and science of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and finally modernity?

The second entry in this series tackles chapters 1, 2 and 3 of the book, grouped by Becker under the general heading of “the way things stand.” (I originally meant to cover this material in one post, but it has become clear that I will need two.) Chapter 1 is very brief, and it offers a rather bleak, and yet realistic, view of the history of Stoicism — as well as philosophy as a whole — after the third century. It begins with the assertion that Stoic ethics was “pillaged” and effaced by imperial Christianity, meaning that the Christians, who took over the Roman Empire, also picked and chose their favorite bits of Stoic philosophy (the Logos, the virtues, the concept of duty), and absorbed it into their own, very different, ethical framework.

One could argue, however, that this pillaging is precisely what allowed Stoicism to remain a live presence for many centuries, unlike, say, its former rival, Epicureanism — which the Christians rejected wholesale because of its unfriendly metaphysics based on atoms swirling in the void. After all, Christian thinkers from Paul to Augustine to Thomas Aquinas engaged with Stoic thought, a process that eventually led to a brief resurgence of the Greco-Roman philosophy during the Renaissance, the so-called Neo-Stoicism of Justus Lipsius and Michel De Montaigne.

Still, Becker is right that during the Middle Ages Christianity came to use Stoic precepts as spiritual exercises and “remedies,” while at the same time abandoning or radically transforming core concepts of the philosophy. It is, in fact, the case that Christian monks used Epictetus’ Enchiridion as a training manual for spiritual exercises, though they changed every occurrence of “Socrates” to “Jesus.” But it is also the case that Thomas Aquinas articulated his famous theory of the seven virtues by subordinating the Stoic ones (prudence, courage, justice, and temperance) to the specifically Christian ones of hope, faith, and charity.

Interestingly, Becker says that the confusion between the philosophy and the “remedies” still obtains today, and I wonder whether he is referring to the onslaught of Stoicism as a set of “life hacking” techniques, which does make a number of prokoptontes feel rather uneasy, skeptical of what may be construed as a borderline perversion of the philosophy. (After all, making money or becoming successful aren’t Stoic objectives, they are mere preferred indifferents)

Becker then suggests that Stoics have gradually abandoned their original metaphysics, in the face of modern mechanistic science, thus decoupling their philosophy from theology. As we shall see later on, he does not think this was a bad move, but rather an incomplete one: if the universe is not a living organism then one needs a new account of the Logos, and if Providence is not the result of the activities of that organism, then one needs a new account of Fate and the web of cause-effect.

We then come to the rise of Romanticism, which resulted in the rejection of even Stoic techniques, let alone the broader philosophy, on the ground that some of what the Stoics regard as destructive emotions ought to be embraced, rather than rejected. More importantly, Becker is implicitly critical of David Hume’s fact-value distinction (which is, indeed, rejected by a naturalistic ethics like the Stoic one), and thinks it problematic that both modern social science and philosophy bought into it. The Stoics thought that social science is integral to the study of ethics, not a completely distinct field.

The chapter ends with the observation that moral truth is increasingly given a coherentist interpretation in modern philosophy, an interpretation according to which:

“Pluralism, relativism, and irony abounded, alongside various forms of dogmatism about natural duties and the intrinsic moral worth of human beings. … It is a complete disaster. Only a few are escaped to tell you.” (p. 4)

After this rather dark view of things, chapter 2 sets out to establish a new agenda for Stoic ethics. This too is a rather brief chapter, in which Becker imagines a book that hasn’t been written yet, one in which the old Stoic teleology is replaced by the idea that “living according to nature” is reinterpreted as meaning living according to the dictates of practical reason, all things considered. That book would also argue that such normative propositions cannot be constructed a priori (as in, say, Kant), but rather depend on empirical knowledge of the natural world at large, and of human nature more specifically.

That same hypothetical book would then describe a practical philosophical regime aimed at building character, a regime that emphasizes control over one’s mental states in order to overcome whatever obstacles to living well one may encounter in the course of her life. The book in question would also argue that virtue is always one and the same thing: conformity to practical reason and wisdom, thus recovering, by a different route, the ancient Stoic concept of the unity of the virtues.

That imaginary book is not the one that Becker has actually written, he says (though methinks he has come pretty darn close!), but A New Stoicism certainly represents of very good outline of that more complex endeavor, an endeavor that begins with chapter 3, a broadly declarative survey of the possibilities open to modern Stoicism.

It is this survey that represents the meat of the first section of the book, and to which I now turn. It begins by admitting that “our” critics, as Larry charmingly (in my mind) puts it, think of Stoic ethical doctrine as a mix of two types of components: on the one hand, a number of notions that are sensible, but also common to other Hellenistic philosophies, and are thus not distinctively Stoic; on the other hand, some notions that are distinctively Stoic but are untenable. The latter include the ideas that the only good is virtue, that virtue does not admit of degrees, and that nonetheless one can make progress towards it. Boldly, Becker warns his readers that he will defend a modern version of all these “paradoxa Stoicorum,” as Cicero called them.

In order to prepare the ground for his project, Larry tackles the famous relationship among the three fields: physics, logic, and ethics. He admits that modern science no longer includes any notion of teleology, and yet that we can still recover a version of the quintessentially Stoic idea that an understanding of the world is pertinent to the study of ethics. Contra much modern philosophy, that is, ethics is not an autonomous enterprise for the Stoic.

For Becker ethics is subordinate to science and logic — as it was for the ancient Stoics. But we need to be careful to understand what he means by this, because his approach is a hell of a lot more sensible than that of scientistically inclined writers such as Sam Harris and Michael Shermer. The subordination derives from the fact that the subject matter of ethics is human character and conduct, together with pertinent mental and social phenomena. It stands to reason, then, that the person concerned with ethics ought to study human nature. Moreover, the methods of ethics are those of rational discourse, which therefore implies that one needs a good handle on logic, understood in the broad sense (i.e., not just the study of formal reasoning) that the Stoics were interested in. (For a modern and sensible approach to a broad conception of rationality see Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason.)

Other characteristics of ethics are that it is normative, since it is in the business of saying what people ought to do, not just of describing what they actually do; it attempts to construct an account of normativity itself (i.e., why ought people do certain things?); and, practically speaking, is mostly in the business of organizing facts (about the world and humanity) and sifting them through a logical sieve. I find this general account of the nature of ethics incredibly compelling, and much better — especially in terms of applicability — than pretty much anything else I’ve seen from professional moral philosophers from Kant on.

The next bit is just as provocative, and yet, again, I think Larry is right on target. He characterizes modern ethics as narrowly concerned with a special domain, or defined by a special point of view or set of commitments, generally referred to as “moral.” Stoic ethics, by contrast, is a much broader enterprise, attempting to provide “overriding and final” judgments about all human actions. These judgments are overriding and final because they are arrived at all things considered, taking into account self-interest, altruism, prudence (in the sense of practical wisdom, or phronesis), and even etiquette.

Becker suggests that the Stoic approach (which in this respect is typical of all “Socratic” philosophies) is superior because it directly addresses the question that no modern meta-ethicist has been able to solve: if ethics is concerned only with the sub-set of moral decisions, why should people give priority to that particular criterion whenever it contrasts with other relevant criteria, such as self-interest? Stoic “ethics,” instead, includes considerations of self-interest, and others, from the get go, since it is about judgments arrived at all things considered.

Larry then returns to something that is going to be controversial among modern Stoics: the issue of teleology. I have to state at the onset that my own position is essentially aligned with his, and yet that I welcome an ecumenical version of Stoicism where alternative (e.g., pantheistic, or even theistic) metaphysics are possible. I do not see a contradiction between welcoming a plurality of positions on a given topic and yet at the same time personally thinking that one of them is better than the others (presumably, so do my fellow Stoics who think of themselves as pantheists or theists, with respect to those doctrines).

Essentially, Becker accepts modern science at face value. If science does not require teleology, and in fact rejects the notion of an organic universe in favor of a mechanistic (or, more modernly, a quantistic-relativistic) one, so be it. Stoicism will accommodate such notion. The most important components of this view are that:

“Cosmology does not tell us why there is something rather than nothing, and whether a god produced it. Metaphysics does not thoroughly reconcile human freedom with determinism, or with indeterminism, or with combinations of the two; it does not fully reconcile the description of human consciousness as an object with the nature of subjective experience; it does not fully resolve problems about the nature of time, identity through time, and causality.” (p. 11)

The idea is that, so far as we can tell, there is no reason to think that our galaxy, planet or ourselves are special in any way. The universe is indifferent toward us and takes no special notice of or concern for our affairs.

Next, reminds us Becker, Stoic ethics is naturalistic, meaning that it constructs normative propositions, all things considered, from facts about human values, preferences, projects, commitments, and even conventions. This is important, because it amounts to a rejection of absolute moral truths, while at the same time not embracing relativism. The idea of mind independent moral truths is rejected as incoherent (akin to, say, mathematical Platonism), since ethics is the study of human prescriptive actions. Conversely, relativism is also a no starter because there are objective facts about human nature and the human condition that constrain our ethical choices.

Ethics, then, applies to normally functioning human beings. Not to pathological ones (say, psychopaths) or to Martians (who, presumably, will have their own ethics, all their things considered). Becker, wisely, stays clear of any essentialist definition of human nature, and instead thinks the Stoic approach is useful for:

“Huge percentages of normally formed human beings [who] are purposive, socially interactive, reciprocally benevolent language users; have complex emotional-response dispositions and profound attachments or bonds to other people or things; deliberate and make choices; [and] typically have some limits or boundaries that they will try to protect categorically.” (p. 12)

How, then, do the biological and social sciences contribute to the Stoic ethical project? In three ways: (i) they offer facts about human behavior that can be used to construct ethical arguments; (ii) they offer theories, for instance in evolutionary biology, that help us make sense of the biological nature of human behavior and the degree of its plasticity in response to varying circumstances; and (iii) they provide empirically based analysis of human rationality and its limits.

Finally, for now, Stoic ethics is about particulars, meaning how individual human beings ought to behave under their specific circumstances:

“Stoic ethical theory begins with the particular — with fully situated individuals — and works carefully out to more general matters.” (p. 13)

The second part of this post will address the last two sections of chapter 3 of A New Stoicism: norms and moral training (including values, preferences, commitments, projects, standards, social roles, conventions, and institutions), as well as the relationship between virtue and happiness.


10 thoughts on “Becker’s A New Stoicism, II: the way things stand, part 1

  1. Zachary Day

    I recently purchased this book upon your recommendation. Although I have been enjoying it thus far, Becker’s commitment to outlining ethics in a logical or mathematical form is quite cumbersome for someone who only has time to read between classes. I appreciate your summary for that reason. I recently deconverted from Christianity, and the question I am always asked is what is the basis for my morality now. I think that stoicism may provide a coherent way to answer that question.

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  2. Patrice Ayme

    Very interesting… Thanks.
    Most of the texts we have from Greco-Roman Antiquity were preserved by Christian monasteries (150 out of 160, roughly). Considering that, starting in 363 CE, Christians burned books and libraries, and. Considering that, after 391 CE, thanks to Theodosius’ law, it was open season on intellectuals judged to be “heretic”, while the Roman imperial government merged with Christian saints and bishops, one can be sure that only texts and authors which pleased the Christians in charge, survived.

    Thus all the big names and their big books and the big philosophical movements of Antiquity which were known or popular in the Middle Ages, bear a Christian stamp of approval. The rest of the gigantic intellectual production of the Greco-Romans mostly disappeared, and can only be found out, or inferred, with exquisite difficulty (such as fragments, or partly erased parchments).

    A text such as Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura was found by the Pope personal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, in January 1417, in an obscure monastery (Fulda?), there was just one copy (and it got lost after having been copied; there were fragments in other places).

    The average Christian in charge detested Epicurus’ philosophy, inspired by Democritus’ atomism. (Lucretius is centered around atomism, the most important scientific discovery.)

    Theology assumed that the universe was in some way a living being (“God”, or “Gods”). Before rejecting that outright, we need to inquire all what is meant by “living”. Nobody knows, and this is a question exobiologists, or now Quantum theorists, would like to answer. So, indeed, the search for a modern version of the deity, or deities, is incomplete.

    “Living according to Nature” faces the problem that, on Earth, “Nature” is life. However, although “Natural”, “Nature” is an art onto itself: what is more artificial than life? Life evolved, as it is, in part from chance and necessity, and other factors science is barely scratching at (see Quantum Computers to get a glimpse of the possibilities q-bits are starting to offer).

    Thus, indeed, one should follow reason, as reason (however happenstance sometimes) is the skeleton of life. (interestingly, the Gospel of John starts by saying “God” is the “Logos”, that is, Reason, a thesis to seduce Neo-Platonists and Stoicists, but not only…)

    Building character according to reason does not mean just controlling reason, but the emotions, and the circumstances giving rise to the emotions. For example, it means inspecting, controlling, even rejecting, the emotional circumstances which mold most people’s minds, while encouraging others (for example don’t expose children to team sports on TV, but expose them to “Nature”).

    Ethics, according to “Nature” encompasses much more than what moderns value as “moral” (most ancient religions had human sacrifices; Carthage found ethical to crucify poorly performing generals, while Athens and 18C Britain executed admirals for the same reason).

    Thus an ethical system embracing “Nature” will come to embrace much that is considered “immoral” today (therein Seneca’s amazing moral limberness).

    An ethics embracing “Nature” is not just correct, it’s eminently practical. Experts consider that the risk of nuclear weapon conflict is the highest ever, and the world’s ethical system is not ready for this. It is actually because it’s not ready for this, that we got into the present predicament.

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  3. jbonnicerenoreg

    The phrase “all things considered” seems to make moral judgements weak. We can never know what all the relevant facts are to a particular judgement. So our judgements can be, at best, reasonable. This may be the best we can do which is fine and would have to accepted, but combined with no teleology it is not even a cousin of Stoicism.


  4. Massimo Post author


    “All things considered” does not mean one is seeking omniscience, it just means that the moral agent needs to arrive at decisions while taking into account the totality of her life’s projects, and not just the specific situation at hand. It’s part and parcel of attempting to live wisely.

    And I completely disagree that the result isn’t even a cousin to Stoicism. It’s the strongest family resemblance you can reasonably have, 18 centuries later.

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  5. mccainmac

    “For Becker ethics is subordinate to science and logic — as it was for the ancient Stoics.” For the first 35 years of my life I was taught that ethics was subordinate to revelation, paticularly from a certain god from the Middle East.

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  6. Lawrence Becker

    One more thing on teleology as understood by the ancient Stoics. How much does it actually help in deciding what one ought to do in a given situation? Isn’t it radically indeterminate from the point of view of every human actor? If we accept the ancient Stoic account of the universe, we may be sure that we each have a role to play within the goal-oriented activity of a providential universe, and we can be sure about some of the details of the role we have been assigned – e.g., slave, cripple, Emperor, physician,… But there doesn’t seem to be any script that tells us how to act the part. Are we to be a rebellious slave, or an obedient one? An Emperor like Nero, or like Marcus Aurelius? It looks as though the actors in this cosmic play are going to have to write their own parts, starting from what they can glean about the roles, and circumstances, and capabilities that they have been given as a starting point. God is silent, otherwise, about the shape of the overall plan and what would best contribute to it in individual cases. So in terms of our ethical choices, don’t the ancient Stoics face exactly the same problem modern Stoics face if they give up the ancient teleology?

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