Becker’s A New Stoicism, VII: virtue, part 1

AreteVirtue is the quintessential concept in virtue ethics (hence, obviously, the name) and in Stoicism in particular. The entire, long and complex, chapter 6 of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism is dedicated to it, and I in turn will devote two essays to that chapter, as part of my ongoing commentary on this most important book.

The chapter begins with the acknowledgement that the Ancient Stoics put forth a number of doctrines that were a bit hard to swallow, like the idea that virtue is one thing, and that it does not admit of degrees. That’s the sort of statement that famously led Cicero to talk of Stoic “paradoxes.” Larry’s whole project, of course, is to modernize our philosophy while retaining as close a family resemblance to the original as possible, and in that spirit he recognizes that there are three fundamental notions in Stoicism: agency (based on the faculty of judgment that Epictetus emphasized), virtue (four of them, as we know), and eudaimonia (the life worth living). His suggestion is that these three, though conceptually distinct, are so causally interconnected that for all effective purposes having one means having the others, and lacking one means lacking the others. I think he is essentially correct on this, and that his approach recovers much of the “paradoxical” ideas of the ancient Stoics, but in a way that is palatable for modern philosophical sensibilities:

“We make the argument that such virtue is achieved only through a natural course of moral development ending in a specifically Stoic form of ideal agency, and we reiterate the claim that the virtue it produces is sufficient for eudaimonia. … Ideal agency is relentlessly aimed at the only thing that is ultimately good, namely, achieving and sustaining Stoic virtue-in-the-singular, from which — and only from which — a Stoically appropriate form of eudaimonia will emerge.” (p. 90)

Most of chapter 6 is then devoted to slowly building an argument for why the above is, indeed, the case. Becker begins by considering the development of virtue through agency. An important component of this argument relies on the already advanced idea (chapter 5) that agency acts recursively, perfecting itself through acting on itself (remember the contrast between agency and any other human mental or physiological process, like digestion). If virtue is essentially indistinguishable from perfected agency, then virtue itself — like everything that is perfect — does not admit of degrees. But agentic activity makes progress toward the state of perfected agency, and so, similarly, there is progress in virtuous activity, toward virtue itself. This rather elegantly, and a bit more clearly, recovers the Ancient Stoic notion that one can make progress — after all, students of Stoicism referred to themselves as prokoptontes (m.) and prokoptousai (f.), i.e., those who make progress — and yet that all but the Sage are unvirtuous, because virtue itself is not a matter of degree.

We then need to talk about the nature of agency. Agency, maintains Larry, is constituted by elements that may be “received” (i.e., arrived at without the aid of one’s agency) or “constructed” (i.e., resulting from the exercise of one’s agent). To begin with, there is the classic Stoic “cradle argument,” the observation, supported by modern developmental psychology, that agency emerges during the normal course of human development, initially as a natural, instinctive behavior, and later, gradually, as a behavior shaped by external influences, habit, and conscious reflection and decision making. Notice the qualification “normal”: as Larry drily puts it, “Question: what is worse than a psychopath? Answer: a psychopath with really strong agentic powers.” (p. 93)

Received elements of agency include our endowments, i.e., impulses, drives, and predispositions to react in certain ways to given situations.

Becker here does a little bit of a (useful) detour into the concept of consciousness. He reminds us that Stoics are materialists, and that we therefore reject any kind of mind-body dualism. Nonetheless, we do not endorse the reductive view that the mind and the body are identical, and that therefore mental activity can be explained away, in the way, say, in which the “rising” and “setting” of the Sun is explained away by celestial mechanics. Rather, Becker’s position is similar to that of philosopher of mind John Searle (and my own), that mental activity is an emergent property of the physical brain and its interaction with the internal and external environment.

Moreover, Larry takes note of the existence of two distinct types of processing of information in the human brain, unconscious and conscious (what Daniel Kahneman famously referred to as System I and System II). If so, then of course the possibility exists that the two processes will yield contrasting results in any particular instance, generating intra-agentic conflicts, so to speak. This does not present a problem for Stoic philosophy, as already the Ancient Stoics recognized the existence of non-deliberative behavioral dispositions. But they, like Aristotle, and like modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, believed that the two systems can be linked by way of deliberate habituation: we consciously decide to engage in certain behaviors, and the more we do so the more this generates an automatic disposition toward those behaviors. Virtue, in other words, is at least in part a matter of (Stoic) practice.

Fun fact, known to the Stoics, and amply confirmed by modern cognitive science: the power of agency can be manipulated (usually impaired) in a number of ways, for instance by way of chemicals, such as alcohol or drugs. That’s probably why Diogenes Laertius said that Stoics “will take wine, but not get drunk.” (VII.118)

Our characters are then shaped over time, by a combination of early dispositions that we have as infants, affects we develop by interacting with people and objects around us, and so forth, in an iterative fashion. The results may be very different for different people:

“It is also [the case] that through the iterative learning processes mentioned above, some of us become basically trusting, optimistic, confident, outgoing, benevolent, nonaggressive children with high self-esteem. Others become basically distrustful, pessimistic, anxious, introverted, malevolent, and aggressive, with low self-esteem.” (p. 103)

What about the constructed elements of agency? These arise from the fact that, at some point in our development — call that the age of reason, around when we are seven years old — we acquire a rational capability to represent our purposive activity to ourselves and others by symbolic means, i.e., by language. We then use our memory, imagination, and ability to generalize, in order to understand our experience in propositional terms. Moreover, because of a natural, built-in propensity to reduce cognitive dissonance, we strive to minimize the discrepancy between the conclusions we reach and the results we achieve. (Sometimes we do that rationally, at other times by way of rationalizing, which is not a good thing.)

The results of this activity include the ability to control (within limits) our impulses, the tendency toward reciprocity in dealing with others, the development of a certain degree of benevolence, as well as emotionality towards others. At a higher level of agentic development we encounter traits such as courage, endurance, and perseverance, which begin to look a lot like (Stoic) virtues. All of this made possible by building on natural human dispositions, augmented by our constant representing to ourselves our preferences and goals, while at the same time attempting to maximize their achievement (through the continuous perfection of agency).

Finally, we arrive at a constructed concept of who we are, an idea of self, and to the related virtue of integrity:

“By the time we develop the ability to represent the self-other distinction symbolically, we not only have a sharply defined body to refer to as the self but a growing assortment of memories, attachments, projects, emotions, and behavioral dispositions as well that we include in our consciousness of ourselves as agents. … Thus one sort of ‘integrity project’ arises: an endeavor to exercise our agency in ways that are consistent with our image of ourselves.” (p. 112)

Of course, the crucial point here is not just that Stoicism is about developing agency — that’s just what human beings in general do, including psychopaths. The idea, rather, is to develop healthy agency. But that modifier, “healthy,” requires further arguments. Here Larry deploys the same metaphor used by the Ancient Stoics, drawing a parallel between a healthy body and a healthy mind:

“A perfectly healthy human body has a complete and intact structure, standardly configured; all the parts of that structure, from skeleton to skin, function in their nominal ways. … A perfectly healthy agency likewise has a complete inventory of intact, nominally functional elements and integrated, homeostatic systems whose development is timely and complete.“ (pp. 113-114)

The idea is that psychological health will map on a good moral (i.e., virtuous) character, while psychopathology will correlate with vice. To continue the analogy with physical fitness, just as the latter is the result of both one’s constitution and of one’s conscious efforts at training (for muscles, aerobic capacity, etc., including of course a healthy diet), so is psychological health a matter of one’s early dispositions of character, augmented by one’s deliberate training in perfecting virtuous agency.

Becker then tells his readers that — again as in the case of physical training — human beings may be able to proceed from being fit to virtuosity, i.e., they may excel at what they are doing, as a result of abilities and training. One can become an Olympian athlete, just like one can make serious progress toward wisdom. By definition, of course, ideal Stoic agency is virtuoso agency, the sort of agency that culminates in the figure of the Sage. Interestingly, there may be a price to pay for this:

“The bulked-up muscles of a virtuoso bodybuilder may exclude her from many other pursuits (ballet, or competitive swimming, for example). The intellectual dispositions of a virtuoso rational-choice theorist may likewise exclude him from polite company.” (p. 119)

Much has been written on the concept of the Stoic Sage, and Larry’s view of it — in agreement with Seneca’s — is that this isn’t a logical impossibility, but rather the rare instance of a human being that has developed her virtuous agency to the upper limits possible for a member of our species. The Sage is not “perfect,” whatever that means, and it is certainly not omniscient. But she would win the gold medal at the Olympics specialty of virtue, if there were such a thing. (Which there wouldn’t be, in the ideal Stoic Republic, because Stoics don’t see much point in competing for the sake of showing one’s superiority…)

Larry points out that there is no reason to believe that the development of virtuoso agency should result in one and only one kind of person. Even Sages will be very different from each other. More pragmatically important, perhaps, is also is contention (obvious, by this point, but worth reiterating) that whatever the Ancient Stoics thought, we no longer have any reason to believe that virtue is limited to members of a particular gender, ethnicity, or religion. Stoicism and the practice of Stoic virtue is for everyone, in a truly cosmopolitan spirit.

Here is the next important step, which I can do no better then let Becker himself explain in some detail:

“Ideal Stoic agents will clearly have many of the traits that are standardly called virtues. They will act in a principled way toward others, treating similar cases similarly by criteria of fittingness and proportionality. That fits an ordinary description of a narrow sense of justice and is a trait that healthy agents will construct (and ideal ones will perfect) from primal reciprocal responses, generalization, and rationality. They will exhibit justice in a wider sense of the term as well, for they will construct cooperative dispositions from the persistent need to integrate and optimize endeavors that arise from both their primal benevolence and their narrow self-interest, and to solutions to distributive questions that are rational and stable in a given social environment with a given set of resources. Wisdom in two senses is also included in the notion of ideal agency. Such agency is the practical ability to optimize the success of one’s endeavors, and means having wisdom in the narrow sense of practical intelligence (phronesis), along with the knowledge necessary for effective deliberation and choice. But the move from healthy to fit agency, and then to the limit of versatility for it, inevitably means that ideal agents will frame their deliberations in terms of what is best for their whole lives. That frame of reference, together with the enormous breadth and depth of knowledge required to make practical intelligence effective in it, surely qualifies as wisdom in a broad sense (sophia). … Courage, endurance, and perseverance are also parts of fit agency, as we mentioned earlier. And temperance or moderation (sophrosyne) will be evident in the modulation of passion, affect, emotion, attachments, and purposes necessary to integrate one’s endeavors (personally and socially) in terms of an optimal whole life.” (p. 124)

I have highlighted the four standard Stoic virtues in the passage above in order to help the reader see the big picture of how, in Larry’s mind, they are interconnected and fit nicely with his account of virtuous (and eventually virtuoso) agency.

At this point Becker returns to his crucial notion that virtue, ideal agency, and eudaimonia, are tightly linked and completely interdependent within Stoic philosophy. Given all the above, ideal Stoic agency is both necessary and sufficient for achieving virtue, and virtue in turn is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. This also means that the virtues are indeed unified, in the specific (modern) sense that virtue is a single and comprehensive endeavor that guides the Stoic moral agent. The separate virtues are thought of as dispositions that need to be coordinated in order to yield ideal agency.

Interestingly, Larry takes sides in the context of an ancient dispute among the Stoics themselves, and I think it is the right side he comes down in favor of:

“We do not imagine, as perhaps Chrysippus did, that the Sage’s very motivations are harmonized, with the result that desire and passion are unified with reason and will, thus producing tranquility by removing conflicts at their roots. Rather we follow Posidonius in supposing that conflict remains constitutive of healthy, mature agency, and that the function of agency proper is to cope with it, not necessarily to root it out.” (p. 126)

This is more important than it may seem at first glance, because the upshot is that, whatever Chrysippus and perhaps Epictetus may have thought, a reasonable Stoic does not attempt to eliminate even the negative emotions, since that is, as a matter of fact, impossible for a human being (and thus in violation of what Becker calls the Axiom of Futility). Rather, Stoicism is about coping with the unhealthy aspects of our mental life while cultivating the healthy ones, in what I have called an exercise in shifting the emotional spectrum.

Next up: the argument for virtue as the product of ideal agency.

11 thoughts on “Becker’s A New Stoicism, VII: virtue, part 1

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    So mental health equals virtue, correctly understood. But does the non harmonization of reason and passion mean that the Stoic will not be happy on the rack and consequently external circumstances are necessary?


  2. Massimo Post author


    No, it doesn’t mean that. I don’t see how that follows from Larry’s reasoning. He is pretty clear that virtue is necessary and sufficient for Stoic eudaimonia.


  3. Massimo Post author

    Yes, they would, but they would not be necessary for eudaimonia. Even the Ancient Stoics were clear on the fact that only the Sage would be “happy” on the rack. What Larry is doing here is a nice move, though: acknowledging that probably not even a Sage would be able to eliminate the unhealthy passions, and that the best that can be done is to cope with them. Again, they would still not be required for a happy life.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rudolph

    In my experience, agency, virtue and eudaimonia are tightly connected indeed. You rightly say that every person has agency, but it is virtue that guides our behavior. Acting out virtues will lead to eudaimonia. That to me is the whole reason early Stoics all pointed to virtue, as they realized through their own experience that this is the way to reach eudaimonia. I may be dumbing it down, but it’s easy to see how agency, virtue and eudaimonia are all connected and depend on each other. None of the three is more important, as one will notice that without agency it is impossible to be virtuous, you need virtues to develop right agency, and that eudaimonia is inevitable when you put virtue in practice.

    Stoicism is the reason I started to believe the two systems of cognitive processes are really possible to be linked through the right effort. The moment I fully realized this I quit eating unhealthy and was able to break my weird relationship with alcohol, and it was easier than I could have ever imagined.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lawrence Becker

    This is a very good discussion. Another way to put it is that when Stoic agency has succeeded in subordinating the vices to the virtues, and succeeded in expressing the virtues in a coherent way (when they conflict with each other, for example, as they sometimes do), we will have something approximating Virtue in the singular. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t have vicious impulses from time to time. Nor does it mean thatI we will forget them, or never have them again. It does mean, however, that they will be ONLY transient impulses – subordinated to the virtues, and not inappropriately expressed in our conduct. (I think I see something like this in people’s faces when it looks like they are struggling with the impulse to burst into an angry response, and then smile and relax instead.)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. mstahl302

    This is a fascinating discussion. I’ve often had difficulty with the “truth” of virtue as espoused by the Stoics. Other aspects of Stoicism, for example, the dichotomy of control and the discipline of assent, resonate within me as obviously true, consistent with my own experiences about the world and what I understand about cognitive processes.

    The four virtues, however, felt like something that was “received wisdom”, not necessarily derived knowledge. I couldn’t understand why I should believe in them any more than, say, the three Christian virtues of faith hope and charity.

    If I understand Becker, the four virtues are a natural expression of healthy agency. We practice them not because somebody wrote in a book long ago that they are special and we must believe to be good Stoics, but because we recognize them as expressions of healthy behavior. Therefore, we regularly apply our conscious processes towards practicing them, as a way of bussing our unconscious habits towards them. Ideally (as a sage), we can be virtuous all the time, without effort.


  7. wotcha1

    I did not find that the virtues followed ‘clearly’ from the discussion and indeed wondered if there was a sleight of hand when Larry makes use of ‘normal’ and opposes this to ‘psychopath’. I agree with mstahl that the ‘received wisdom’ seems just to be popping up and wonder if that is actually consistent with a naturalistic account of morality?


  8. Massimo Post author


    Although Larry did not refer to this, modern empirical evidence seems to show that the four cardinal virtues (together with a couple of others which are also found in Stoicism, but are not labeled as such) are recognized cross-culturally:

    As for psychopaths, the idea is simply that there is a normal (as in described by a normal, or bell-shaped, statistical distribution) range of human behaviors and capacities, and that Stoicism is useful to people who fall within that normal range. If someone is severely defective in a major component of reasoning or affect — as the psychopath is with regard to the latter — then that person needs medical help, not philosophy.

    Finally, all of the above seems perfectly naturalistic to me, in the sense that it is an account of ethics that squares with the particular type of biological and social being that we are. If we were markedly different, then a different account of ethics would have to be develop. And if we were dramatically different — for instance, non social at all — than perhaps no account of ethics could be developed.


  9. Lawrence Becker

    To add to the naturalism discussion underway here, I find these reminders useful:

    Human beings are born lethally underdeveloped. Unless we receive help from others immediately, and repeatedly over a lengthy infancy, we die. Furthermore, unless we can effectively receive such help – that is, put it to physiological use toward our survival – we die. And unless we can actively seek and effectively use such habilitative help from others during a lengthy infancy, childhood, and adolescence, we rarely thrive.

    Seeking and receiving help from others during infancy quickly gets embedded in potent reciprocal relationships which both we and our caregivers are motivated to sustain. Such social relationships are then, typically, strengthened and elaborated throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

    That’s the naturalistic baseline for the developmental story Stoics tell (and both evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology confirm). That developmental story includes the genesis and development of practical intelligence, courage, temperance, the multifaceted virtue of justice, and wisdom about the physical and social world we inhabit and the possibilities for us in that world.

    I think this turns out to be the basis for robust forms of naturalistic ethics, of which Stoic ethics is in my opinion the most robust and attractive variety.


Comments are closed.