Becker’s A New Stoicism, III: the way things stand, part 2

Stoa at Lindos on Rhodes

We have recently reviewed much of the first meaty section of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, as part of my ongoing commentary on this crucial book for anyone interested in how Stoic philosophy can be updated and developed for the 21st century. Here I am going to complete that section, by focusing on the last two bits of chapter 3 of the book, respectively dealing with the relationship between norms and moral training, and with the relationship between virtue and happiness.

Larry tackles different sub-topics within the context of norms and moral training: values, preferences and commitments, projects, standards, and the triad of social roles, conventions and institutions. Let’s take a look in turn.

In terms of values, Becker asks us to consider different meanings of the apparently straightforward phrase “X is good.” As (moral) agents we may mean that we approve of X, or like it, or desire it as an end. In other instances, what we mean is that X is instrumental in achieving some other goal that we like or desire. In this second case, it’s perfectly possible that we may like the end we are aiming at (a healthier body, say) but loathe the necessary means to get there (a lot of time spent at the gym).

There are more meanings of “X is good” that we need to distinguish. For instance, when we point to a good exemplar of something (this is a good Chianti), or when we say that something is appropriate given some specific circumstances (it is good to take your hat off when you enter a Church, even if you don’t believe, out of respect), or when something is regarded as valuable (it is good to be healthy), or finally when X is good-for-something (a hammer is good for nailing things).

The point is that not all of these categories of “X is good” actually entail action on our part, and when they do, the motivation may be different, and so may be our reasoning about it in order to act wisely, which is a major goal of Stoic training. Indeed, broadly speaking:

“Stoic training aims to make it possible for agents to evaluate their own (and others’) values by (a) identifying the facts about an agent’s values relevant to choices in each situation and suspending, as appropriate, further discussion of irrelevant values; (b) making the relevant values into a coherent set (insofar as possible), or at least one that is not self-defeating; (c) evaluating them in terms of their motivational forces for the agent; and (d) rank ordering those motivational forces.” (p. 15)

In fact, one could take points (a)-(d) as a working operation of wisdom.

Two additional crucial aspects of Stoic training, according to Becker, concern preferences and commitments. Both are motivators of our actions, but preferences do not necessarily correspond to our values. For instance, I may want to be healthy and minimize my risk of dying of cancer, and yet I prefer to indulge in smoking. Larry correctly characterizes this as a type of akrasia (weakness of the will) and says that:

“Stoic training aims to negate the internal motive force of a preference when it conflicts with what is possible, or when it does not track the facts about values.” (p. 16)

Categorical commitments are, well, categorical, meaning that they hold not as a function of something else, but because we value them in themselves. For instance, honor, dignity, integrity, or privacy. Here:

“Stoic training aims to make emotional response dispositions into homeostatic devices, set to eliminate damaging effects that do not have countervailing productive ones.” (p. 16)

In other words, a Stoic attempts — of course within the limits of what is humanly possible — to use reason to overcome akrasia (i.e., to do things we genuinely recognize as good for us, even though they may not be pleasurable in themselves) and to align her emotional responses with the sort of fundamental value that she claim to hold (or, failing that, to force herself to admit that she do not, in fact, hold such values).

More generally:

“Stoic training aims to negate the internal motive force of a categorical commitment when it conflicts with what is possible, or with what ought to be done, all things considered.” (p. 17)

If you think that’s impossible or undesirable you have forfeited a major role of reason in human affairs, and the Stoics ain’t gonna follow you there. (Indeed, none of the Hellenistic schools would, not even the Epicureans or the Cyrenaics.)

Next, to have projects is part and parcel of what it means to be a conscious agent. But our projects may be in partial conflict with each other, or some projects may entail other ones as sub-components. It is therefore an objective of Stoic logic to help the agent navigate the conflicts and entailments presented by her own projects in the best way possible. This would be one area of application of phronesis, the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom.

Larry then briefly talks about standards that agents apply to their own conduct, while pursuing their projects. Standards of, for instance, efficiency, difficulty, and even style, may determine which projects the agent decides to tackle and how. And we are reminded that it is an axiom of Stoic ethics (in the reformulated version presented in A New Stoicism) that an agent should (logically) not get involved in projects that are impossible or clearly beyond the agent’s capability (the aptly termed “axiom of futility,” which we will revisit soon).

Let me spend a minute on this point, since it was often misunderstood by readers of the previous edition of the book. The obvious objection is that some projects may seem impossible, but they are actually doable, and if the agent gives up before even attempting them then Stoics will achieve far less than their potential. Obviously. But that sort of underachievement would be un-Stoic to begin with. Stoics don’t give up a fight on the ground that it may not succeed. And sometimes even engage in a fight they know they are going to lose, if there are reasons other than success that justify it (e.g., setting an example for others). What Larry is talking about here is the rather commonsensical thing that we ought — both logically and ethically — to carefully consider our options and direct our efforts away from Pindaric flights. For instance, I may desire, at age 53 and with an average body, to start a professional career as a soccer player. That would be foolish (i.e., illogical) and it would get in the way of other projects that I ought to do, negatively affecting people I care for and love (i.e., it would be unethical).

Finally, in terms of social roles, conventions, and institutions, these of course are common regulators of our social life, and they are defined and constrained by a number of rules applying to them. In evaluating our social roles, and the conventions and institutions that affect them, we should keep in mind that:

“Stoic moral training aims to develop in each agent the disposition to seek social roles, conventions, and institutions in which she has more rather than less control of her own life, unless having less can be shown to make a countervailing contribution toward a good life for her.” (p. 20)

The last part of chapter 3 of A New Stoicism deals with virtue and happiness. As useful background, keep in mind that Larry will argue in the chapter on virtue (#6) that ideal Stoic agency, virtue, and happiness are inseparably linked in Stoic ethical theory. Ideal agency is necessary and sufficient for Stoic Virtue, which is in turn necessary and sufficient for Stoic happiness.

Becker begins his discussion of virtue and happiness by reminding us that Stoicism is a type of eudaimonism, which means that the philosophy aims at making it possible for us to live a life of flourishing, a meaningful life. But it does not follow (somewhat contra Aristotle) that there is only one such life possible, or that one way of achieving flourishing is better than others. It also doesn’t mean, however, that anything goes. It is a major aspect of any eudaimonic philosophy to help its practitioners to frame things so that they will be able to decide which life projects truly lead to flourishing, and which ones lead away from the path of virtue. There is, most obviously, no such thing as a eudaimonic psychopath. Moreover, even if we begin on a particular path, and something happens that forces us to deviate from it, we may still recover a sense of flourishing by taking a different, hitherto unconsidered, path. Which means that:

“Stoic training aims to make it possible for us to salvage some form of a good life under adversity, and to be able to handle sudden, massive changes in our circumstances.” (p. 20)

Larry then provides an important definition:

“Living virtuously is the process of creating a single, spatiotemporal object — a life.” (p. 21)

The worth of your life isn’t necessarily, at any moment, going to be the sum of the worth of its individual components. But it is the case, according to Becker, that any evaluation of the components of your life — in order to be meaningful — will have to be carried out within the broader context of your entire existence as a virtuous project. For instance, I may be working temporarily at a coffee shop because that’s one way I can help paying for my college tuition, which will then aid me to get on a career path that is important to me and good for the human polis at large (say, as a lawyer helping disadvantaged or poor people). The work in the coffee shop in itself has relatively little worth, it’s a job like many others. But in the context of the broader project of my life, it becomes an important piece of the puzzle. (That said, remember that a good Stoic will be able to adjust her path depending on circumstances, there is no one virtuous life.)

Interestingly, Larry stresses that keeping in mind this whole-life frame of reference is both congruent with the general eudaimonic approach, and yet distinguishes Stoicism from, as he puts it, both Epicureanism and its “modern welfarist offshoots,” by which I take it he means utilitarianism and other kinds of consequentialism. (John Stuart Mill, the father of the modern version of utilitarianism, was heavily influenced by Epicureanism.) The reason for this is because, for a Stoic (but not an Epicurean or a utilitarian), how well her own life is going is only partly, and sometimes only to a small extent, assessed by way of her internal, subjective experience. Indeed, the Stoic will always seek to compare her understanding of her own eudaimonia with that of others, particularly of her role models and “friends of virtue,” as Aristotle calls them — those people who will let you know whether you are deviating from a virtuous path, and will help you stick to it. One doesn’t pursue eudaimonia by oneself; it is, in a deep sense, a communitarian project.

One final note: at the end of chapter 3 we find the first of the book’s Commentary sections, in which ancient texts are quoted, sometimes at length, and the secondary literature on relevant points is mentioned. Those who want to ratchet things up to the next level will want to wade deeper into these sections.

4 thoughts on “Becker’s A New Stoicism, III: the way things stand, part 2

  1. SeaScene

    Wow… is life really that complicated? I have the impression of this last segment of a table set with a vast array of spoons, forks, knives, various capacities of drinking glasses .. and etc… Most all of which is not necessary to enjoy a meal. Just arriving at 70 yrs I have always told myself in trying times that life is meant to be lived until we die but LIVE IT and that “life is not always a bowl of cherries” … as my mother would say. But Massimo you did say the postings are for those “who want to ratchet things up”. Respectfully… a minimalist from Vancouver Island.

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  2. Massimo Post author


    Apologies, I probably made it sound more complicated than it is meant to be. The ratcheting up is for people who wish to get an appreciation of how Larry grounds his new Stoicism into the ancient sources and the modern philosophical literature, but I don’t think it is necessary to get the points of the book.

    The basic idea is that we should pay attention to what we do and why, especially by putting it into the context of the general framework of our lives. When we get to the end, what sort of life would we want to look back to and be able to say, yup, that was time well spent?

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  3. Massimo Post author


    Well, smart people do give themselves the chicken-pox, in the form of a vaccine. So that they don’t get seriously ill. Think of Stoicism that way, if it helps…

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