What do I disagree about with the ancient Stoics?

How to be a Stoic (this blog) is meant to chart and share my progress in the study and practice of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. So far, I have published a whopping 365 posts since the inception of the blog, in March 2015 (and that output doesn’t count my book, by the same title). A fair question, which I’ve been asked a number of times both in person and online is: what, if anything, do I disagree with the ancient Stoics about? Moreover, how does that affect the idea that I am, in fact, practicing “Stoicism”? Good questions, let me answer them.

To begin with, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. Religions too, of course, change over time, but usually with much resistance. After all, their precepts are supposed to have been dictated, or at least inspired, by gods, and who are we as mere human beings, to alter those? Philosophies of life do not, obviously, suffer from that problem: philosophies are meant to change and update themselves with new insights and even new discoveries, especially a philosophy like Stoicism, which includes the field of study of “physics,” i.e., all the natural sciences and metaphysics. Surely that field has changed a lot since the time of Zeno of Citium.

Indeed, the Stoics themselves were very clear about the necessity to update their view of the world, as well as on the fact that they were not enslaved to whatever their predecessors happened to believe. In letter XXXIII to Lucilius Seneca writes:

“The truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating. What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” (10-11)

I belong to that posterity Seneca is talking about, so I feel free to accept or reject whatever I find sensible in his teachings, those of Epictetus, and so forth. The problem, though, is that the development of Stoicism has been “interrupted,” so to speak. While Buddhism, say, or Confucianism, or Christianity, have developed as continuous (and more or less highly branching) traditions since their inceptions, Stoicism as an active school of thought died around the II century CE.

True, it has in the meantime influenced major thinkers, from many of the Church Fathers to Descartes and Spinoza, and it even underwent a brief revival during the Renaissance. But it is only with the modern efforts of people like Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine and others that it has been reborn like the Phoenix and has become a viable philosophy for modern living. That leaves a gap of 18 centuries, during which both philosophy and especially science have progressed quite a bit. I see that gap as an opportunity to reshape things while keeping the spirit of ancient Stoicism as alive as possible.

[A fairly useless debate often arises at this point: “but is it still Stoicism?” Who knows? And who is to tell? Is modern Christianity really Christianity? What about modern Buddhism? I think that so long as people are inspired by these traditions and they keep an honest attitude toward maintaining what they see as the core of those traditions, then all is fine and good. But if you are interested in pointless debates about the true nature of philosophies and religions, the Sophistry Club is meeting around the corner. Have fun!]

All the above said by way of a preamble, here are some things that I reject or significantly alter with respect to the teachings of ancient Stoicism.

First up: pantheism and the related concept of providence. The early Stoics believed that the universe is like a living organism, endowed of a capacity to act rationally (the Logos). We are bits and pieces of that organism, which makes sense of one of their recurring metaphors, presented here by Epictetus, quoting Chrysippus:

“If I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.” (Discourses II.6.9-10)

I am a scientist and a secularist, I do not believe that modern science and philosophy support pantheism, or any kind of theistic metaphysics, for that matter. I respect people who do hold such beliefs, and I have written that Stoicism is effectively neutral on this matter. But so far as we can tell from the point of view of 21st century knowledge, the universe is neither an organism nor a mechanism (as in Newton’s). It’s a manifestation of laws of nature whose origin still eludes us, and which have resulted in the organic evolution of sentient beings at least one of likely suitable billions of planets scattered throughout the cosmos. There is no rhyme or reason for this, other than the universal web of cause and effect, and there is no particular meaning to our lives, other than the one we construct as social and intelligent beings.

A position like mine (which is very similar to the one espoused recently by Larry Becker) is often taken to be irreconcilable with ancient Stoicism, but this is patently false. The Stoics themselves, including most prominently Marcus, but also Epictetus and Seneca, were keenly aware that their ethics would withstand a radically different “physics,” as in the oft-repeated “gods or atoms” phrase by Marcus. It is, therefore, not as much of a stretch as one might think to re-conceive the Logos as the (factual) observation that the universe is indeed structured in a rational manner (otherwise the very practice of science could not possibly succeed). And “providence” simply becomes the outcome of cause-effect relations, toward which a Stoic attitude remains the best available option, in my mind.

Second: the exact recurrence of things. The ancient Stoics believed that the cosmos originated in a fire that reset everything, but also that the new cycle would repeat the previous one in every detail. So would the next cosmic conflagration, and so on for all eternity. Interestingly, a similar model has been presented in modern cosmology, though astronomers thinks that if it is correct, each episode would actually be different because of small (quantum) fluctuations in the initial conditions.

Regardless, I’m going to go with whatever cosmologists tell us, and if it turns out that there is no eternal recurrence, whether precise or not, it doesn’t matter. It is another bit of Stoic physics that has no impact on what’s really important: the ethics. Besides, my astronomer friends keep changing their mind about how the universe really originated, and how it will end up, every few years. The debate is fascinating, but it would be unwise, at the moment, to bet on a particular outcome.

Third: the possibility of perfect human knowledge. As part of their studies in the field of “logic” the Stoics developed a sophisticated type of epistemology, i.e., a theory of human knowledge. I think they got a lot of things right, but they were a bit too optimistic about the ability of even the Sage (i.e., the perfect Stoic, whatever that means) to acquire certain knowledge. Mind you, they didn’t think of Sages as superhuman, but they believed it was possible for them not to make mistakes in the use of their faculty of judgment (prohairesis). The Skeptics chastised the Stoics for that, and the debate between the two schools gradually led to a softening of the Stoic position. I don’t think there is much at stake here, though. I can’t make sense of what “perfect knowledge” means. Insofar as I’m concerned, human beings are capable of remarkable feats of reason (think of our accomplishments in science, mathematics, and logic), and yet can easily fool themselves into believing all sorts of nonsense. It is what it is, and it’s not important as far as Stoic ethics is concerned.

Fourth: virtue is all or nothing. This one used to bother me more than it does now. Following ancient Stoicism, only the Sage really has virtue, and the rest of us — missing it — are equally wretched. This is the basis of the famous “drowning man” metaphor: it doesn’t matter whether you drown in meters or inches of water, you are still drowning. My early reaction to this was that the notion isn’t very tenable, but that it has the value of teaching us some humility (we are all bad, none of us is a Sage). More recently, though, in the course of my commentary on Becker’s A New Stoicism, I came up with a visual metaphor that actually makes sense of the ancient seemingly contradictory notions that virtue is all or nothing, and yet we can (and should) make progress toward it. Take a look here.

Lastly (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, by the way): sex. Here the Stoics gave completely contradictory advice. Specifically, there was a huge difference between the Zenonian approach (early Stoa) and the Roman imperial one (late Stoa): apparently, and logically enough, the early Stoics were much more “Cynical” then the later, rather prudish, Romans. Take a look at some pertinent quotations from the early Stoics:

“[Chrysippus in his work on Commonwealth] praises Diogenes for saying to the bystanders as he masturbated in public, ‘Would that I could thus rub the hunger too out of my belly.’” (Plutarch, De Stoicorum repugnantiis 1044b-1045a)

“[Zeno says] penetrate the thighs of … a female any more or any less than those of a male.” (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism III.245-246)

“In the Republic [Zeno] lays down community of wives [i.e., free love] … he bids men and women wear the same dress and keep no part of the body entirely covered.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.33)

“It is also [the Stoics’] doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.133)

Now compare the above to the much more restrictive Roman take:

“If you consider sexual passion to have been bestowed on mankind not for the sake of pleasure, but for the continuance of the race, all other desires will pass harmlessly by one who is safe even from this secret plague, implanted in our very bosoms.” (Seneca, To my Mother Helvia, on Consolation, XIII)

“Men who are neither licentious nor wicked must consider only those sexual acts which occur in marriage and which are carried out for the creation of children to be right.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XII.1)

“When you yield to carnal passion you must take account not only of this one defeat, but of the fact that you have fed your incontinence and strengthened it.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.18)

“If any one does own to incontinence, he brings in passion, to give him the excuse of involuntary action. Injustice is in no circumstances conceived as involuntary. There is an involuntary element, they think, in jealousy, and for this reason this too is a fault which men confess.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.21)

My own compromise is along the following lines, drawn from my interpretation of Stoic general precepts: sex is ethical only within a committed relationship and for reciprocal pleasure, since it is part of what keeps a relationship healthy. How and with whom it is done is entirely irrelevant from a philosophical perspective, and many types of relationships are ethically compatible with Stoicism.

I’m sure that more reflection would highlight other points of disagreement I have with the ancient Stoics. Nonetheless, I do think there is a strong core to Stoic philosophy, especially in its ethics, that is easily retained and tweaked for modern sensibilities. Most importantly, for me, the idea that we are social animals capable of reason, and that it is our duty to apply it to improve the human polis. As Marcus puts it:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

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Categories: Modern Stoicism

7 replies

  1. What are your thoughts on the arts such as music? Didn’t Epictetus frown upon them?

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  2. Jeremy,

    The ancient Stoics don’t really talk much about the arts, and its a deficiency of their view of things. Obviously, they fall into preferred indifferents, so they can be pursued as any other external, so long as they don’t get in the way of virtue. I think they are an essential component of human creativity and expression, but I don’t have a problem classifying them as indifferents.

    Epictetus uses an example from the arts when he talks about the dichotomy of control:

    “Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received – and the latter lies outside his control.” (Discourses II, 13.2)

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  3. Seneca seemed to see music as a trivial waste of time: “The voice, whose best and simplest flow is naturally straightforward, they twist into sinuous turns of the most feeble crooning. Their fingers are always snapping in time to some song that they carry in their head, and when they’ve been asked to attend to serious and often even sorrowful matters, you can overhear them quietly humming a tune. Theirs isn’t leisure but idle occupation” (On the Shortness of Life, 12.4)

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  4. Marie,

    Seneca may have been criticizing a particular type of music making. In On Tranquillity of Mind he writes, approvingly:

    “Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music.”

    But of course the point of the OP is that just because Seneca, or Epictetus, said X or Y, we are not bound to it as modern Stoics. The task is to separate what is really implied by the philosophy and what is more likely to reflect cultural or even personal idiosyncrasies (see the bit on sex…).

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  5. great read thanks, massimo. I have one question though: do you think casual sex is unethical?

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  6. René,

    Good question. My opinion is that casual sex is ethically questionable, on the ground that it is mostly about using another human being as a means to an end (one’s own pleasure). Even if that human being is willing to be so used. Kant would certainly object to it, but I do think it doesn’t fit too well with Stoic philosophy either, as it seems to be about pleasure for its own sake, and moreover has the potential to damage one’s moral fiber, as one gets used to exploiting others for his or her own advantage.

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  7. The Stoic ideas of Nature as a being with an endless cycle of cause and effect and matter as atoms with recurring and recrating fire are really not as far from the cosmology of modern physicists as one would expect. We are separated from Marcus by over 18 centuries. Considering their lack of scientific instruments, testable therories, peer reviewed journals, etc., it is not bad. What is amazing is their timeless insight into human nature and cognition. When we make the virutes our primary values we do thrive as humans. Stoic physics may have been lead but their ethics are still incorruptible gold.

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