I have been devoting a significant number of posts to Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (here are parts I, II, III, IV and V), since — whether one agrees with his positions or not — it is the pre-eminent scholarly attempt at modernizing Stoicism. Indeed, I plan on soon commenting on a solo paper he wrote about Stoic emotion, and then plunge into a multi-part commentary (with audio) of my recent interview with him, so stay tuned for (much) more. Here, however, I tackle chapter 7 of his book, focused on happiness.
It appears that part I of my “ancient to modern Stoicism” essay has generated quite a bit of controversy (part II, by the way, is here). Both several commenters on this blog and others over at the Stoicism Facebook page have taken issue with my second suggestion: that we should replace the ancient concept of virtue with Becker’s idea of virtue understood as maximization of agency.
Some of the comments were clearly off the mark (even made by people who publicly admitted not having read either Becker or my essay, basing their “criticism” on the figure accompanying my post). For instance, a number of comments kept arguing that serial killers and tyrants would be virtuous Stoics according to the updated conception of virtue — despite the fact that I had very clearly said in the opening essay that that was not going to be the case, and tried to explain why.
It has been some time since we last looked at Becker’s book, A New Stoicism, so it’s time to get back to it with a discussion of the next to the last chapter, on virtue. As you might recall, Becker’s project is to establish modern Stoicism on a footing that preserves the basic insights of the early version, but also updates and, when necessary, significantly alters (or even does away completely) with whatever precepts are no longer tenable in light of modern science and philosophy.
We have just seen Lawrence Becker’s treatment of normative logic, in his A New Stoicism, ending with his list of four axioms of normative Stoic logic. In the following chapter of the book (#5) he elaborates on a number of important — for the modern practicing Stoic — consequences of his reconstruction and modernization of the Stoic system.
I’m going to continue our discussion of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, after having looked at chapters 1 & 2, and then 3. As we have seen, this is a rather comprehensive, if a bit idiosyncratic, attempt at updating the whole Stoic system for modern times. It is written in a somewhat technical language, but I believe it is accessible even to readers without much background in philosophy, and well worth the effort.
Let us resume our discussion of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism with an overview of the third chapter, where the author surveys what can be salvaged from what he terms “the ruins” of Stoicism after the closing of the school and the rise of Christianity.
The first crucial point made by Becker is about the relationship among science (Stoic “physics”), logic, and ethics: “we cannot plausibly propose to ‘follow’ nature, as the ancient motto had it. Yet for stoics, ethics remains subordinate to science and logic in a way that separates us from most other contemporary ethical theorists.”
This semester my friend Greg Lopez is having his New York City Stoics meetup go through an interesting book by Lawrence C. Becker, entitled A New Stoicism. It was published back in 1997, which puts it at the vanguard of the recent series of books on updating Stoicism for modern practice, such as those by Don Robertson and William Irvine that I have discussed before.
There are several characteristics that distinguish Becker’s book, which may endear it to some readers while turning others off it. For one, it is an explicit attempt at updating the theory of Stoicism for modern times, taking into considerations developments in science and philosophy during the intervening centuries. That is, unlike both Robertson’s and Irvine’s books, you will not find much self help here.