Category Archives: Modern Stoicism

Disciplines, fields, and virtues: the full Stoic system in one neat package

The invention of StoicismI’ve been studying Stoicism as a practical philosophy fairly intensely for several years now, and up until recently I accepted what has become received wisdom in the modern Stoicism community about the relationship among three important components of Stoic philosophy: the practical disciplines as laid out by Epictetus, the four cardinal virtues, and the three fields of study comprising the classical Stoic curriculum. Such received wisdom comes from the work of Pierre Hadot, as articulated in detail in The Inner Citadel (full pdf here). Hadot develops a correspondence between the disciplines and the fields of study within the context of his discussion of the philosophy of Epictetus (ch. 5), and he also constructs a correspondence between the virtues and the disciplines when he discusses Marcus Aurelius (ch. 9). I have summarized his take in this post, which is accompanied by what I was hoping to be a handy diagram to put the whole thing together.

Even though something definitely appealed to me in the idea of drawing correspondences among those three aspects of Stoic theory, something also struck me as not quite right. For one thing, there are four virtues, three disciplines, and three fields, which really clashes with my sense of symmetry. More importantly, I noticed that every time I had to explain the whole system to someone, I would have to pause and try to remember, or reconstruct, Hadot’s explanation for it. That is not a good sign, it means that the system does not come natural to me, that there is something that does not feel quite right about it.

During a recent discussion at the New York City Stoics meetup, facilitated by my friend Greg Lopez, we were talking about this with our special guest, Brian Johnson, author of the excellent The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (my six-part commentary of that book is here). In it, Brian argues that Hadot’s interpretation is forced, and does not quite reflect Epictetus’ own philosophy. At some point during the conversation, it struck me not only that Brian was likely to be right, but that I had also developed a somewhat clear idea of why. I am going to present that idea below, in the hope that it may be useful to others to better understand Stoicism as whole.

First, though, a quick recap of the three components of Stoicism among which we want to figure out the proper relationship: the disciplines of Epictetus, the cardinal virtues, and the classic fields of study.

Epictetus’ three disciplines: these concern desire (of what is and is not appropriate to want), action (regarding our relations to others), and assent (to give to or withdraw from “impressions,” i.e., our initial, automatic judgments about the importance of things).

Here is how Epictetus puts it in the Discourses:

“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent. Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions [i.e., the first one]. … The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships. … The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.1-5)

Notice here that Epictetus basically lays out a sequence for his Stoic curriculum: the most important thing, and the first one to study, is how to properly direct our desires and aversions. Which should train ourselves to desire only whatever is under our control, and to treat everything else as not being up to us. Once we muster that, we are ready to properly act within the world. It is important here that Epictetus reminds his students that we don’t want to be “unfeeling like a statue” — so much for the stereotype of the unemotional Stoic. It is, finally, only the advanced student that can tackle the third discipline, that of assent, which allows us to arrive at good judgments.

The four virtues: as is well known, there are four virtues in Stoic philosophy: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. There are several definitions of them in the Stoic canon, but perhaps the most compact and informative ones are found in Cicero’s De Inventione (On Invention):

“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence [i.e., practical wisdom] is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [i.e., courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … [And] temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.” (II.53-54)

Keep these definitions in mind, we will come back to them.

The three fields of study: finally, a quick look at the three fields, in the summary provided by Diogenes Laertius in The Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” (VII.39-40)

Diogenes then goes on explaining in detail the parts of each of the three fields, from which it is clear that: (i) “physics” is the study of how the world works (i.e., our natural science and metaphysics combined); (ii) “logic” is the study of how to reason well (which today would include formal and informal logic as well as psychology, with its understanding of cognitive biases); and (iii) “ethics” is much broader than today’s concern with right and wrong, and it is actually conceived as the study of how to live your life well.

The problem with Hadot’s system: we are now in a position to recap Hadot’s suggested correspondence among the disciplines, the virtues and the fields, after which we will see why Johnson rejects it, and examine my substitute proposal.

Here is my rendition of the Hadotian system in the earlier post linked above:

C50C06B1-1738-455A-80EA-4BD3849DDAA7.png

The general idea is that the discipline of desire is related to physics because one needs to understand how the world works in order to figure out what is and is not proper to desire; these two, in turn, are connected to the virtues of courage (to accept the dictates of the cosmos) and temperance (to regulate one’s actions accordingly). The connection between ethics and the discipline of action is the most obvious one, since action regulates how we interact with others; the corresponding virtue is, naturally enough, justice. Finally, assent is linked to the study of logic because perfecting reasoning improves our judgment, and hence allows us to properly examine our impressions; the relevant virtue is practical wisdom, which steers us through morally complex situations.

It’s a neat system (except for the asymmetry, noted above, between the number of virtues and the rest), but it finds little evidential support in Epictetus. Johnson points out that Epictetus usually does not mention the fields, except, interestingly, logic. Regarding the latter, he holds an interesting position: on the one hand, he makes fun of those among his students who are into logic chopping:

“If I admire the interpretation [of a philosophical treatise], I have turned into a literary critic instead of a philosopher, the only difference being that, instead of Homer, I’m interpreting Chrysippus.” (Enchiridion 49)

On the other hand, he also clearly thinks that without logic there simply is not philosophizing at all:

“When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ he said, Would you have me demonstrate it? ‘Yes.’ Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument? And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much — whether it is necessary or not.” (Discourses II, 25)

I’m going to make a note of this quote for the next time someone asks me what logic (and, by extension, philosophy) has ever done for them…

Johnson has additional worries about Hadot’s system, for instance that the connection between physics and the discipline of desire especially seems to be forced. Interested readers are referred to pp. 79-80 of his book. Indeed, if one reads chapter 5 of The Inner Citadel, it is pretty clear even to the casual observer that he struggles mightily to connect physics and desire. Another worry correctly expressed by Johnson is the fact that Epictetus does not use the virtues in his teachings, deploying instead his rather novel approach of role ethics; on this, see mostly chapter 1 of The Role Ethics of Epictetus, especially the last part of it. As for Marcus, Hadot himself traces the concepts in the Meditations to an amalgam of traditional Stoicism, influences from Epictetus, and even Platonism. Marcus was not a philosopher, and it is hard to construct a system of any sort from what is, after all, his personal diary.

For these reasons, and as a result of my own reading of all the above authors, both modern and ancients, I find myself in agreement with Johnson that Hadot’s quasi-neat system of correspondence among disciplines, fields, and virtues is a bit artificial and strained. What then?

A new way to conceive of the full Stoic system: it occurred to me that there is plenty of evidence that the Stoics thought of each of the three subject matters we have been discussing in a rather unitary, holistic, fashion: they argued, most famously, for the unity of virtues, which I propose to represent as a tetrahedron with four faces (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance), all aspects of a fundamental object, which we can simply call virtue. Here is the visual:

The four virtues as a tetrahedron

The reasons the virtues are deeply interconnected is because it makes little sense to try to use them separately. Consider: courage is not just physical bravery, but rather the moral courage to stand up for what is right. But how does one know what is right? That falls under the domain of the virtue of justice. Then again, as Cicero clearly says above, practical wisdom (prudence) is the virtue that tells you what is good, what is bad, and what is neither, surely pertinent knowledge to exercise justice. And it takes all three to practice temperance about one’s own passions, because one has to know the difference between good and bad, have the courage to act on it, and do so with the general welfare in mind. You simply can’t have one without the others.

The three fields of study, while formally distinct, were also deeply interrelated. The Stoics very clearly did not study physics and logic for their own sake (see my discussion of curiositas vs studiositas). Here, for instance, is Seneca to his friend Lucilius on the subject:

“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.” (LXXXIX.42-45)

The above description, unfortunately, can still be applied, almost two millennia later, to much of what goes on in modern academic philosophy departments, but that’s another story…

Their holistic thinking is why the Stoics came up with a number of metaphors to make clear the interconnectedness of the three fields, the best of which is, in my opinion, that of the garden as presented by Diogenes Laertius. Logic is necessary to keep out the weeds of bad reasoning; physics nurtures our understanding of reality; and ethics applies both reasoning and understanding to the crucial task of living well.

The Stoic garden

What about the three disciplines, then? They too are conceptually distinct and yet obviously tightly interconnected, as it is clear from Epictetus’ treatment of them and the explicit sequence he lays out in the Discourses, mentioned above. This is a diagram to grasp the basic idea:

Epictetus three disciplines

If my analysis (built on Johnson’s critique of Hadot) is correct, then a better way to look at the relationship among the disciplines, the virtues, and the fields of study is an integrated one, reflecting the recurrent Stoic way of treating things as conceptually distinct and yet practically deeply connected. Here, then, is my attempt at how we should see the full shebang:

The full Stoic system

Briefly, on the left we have Stoic theory, comprising of course the fields of study of logic and physics (which inform each other), but also ethics (which is informed by the other two). On the right side is Stoic practice, which can be conceptualized either in terms of the virtues (lower part of the diagram), as in classical Stoicism, or in terms of the disciplines (upper part of the diagram), as emphasized by Epictetus. The virtues reinforce themselves, but could also be understood as reference points that make it possible to actually practice the disciplines (though, alternatively, one could follow Epictetus’ original alternative based on his theory of roles). Conversely, the disciplines are what makes the virtues useful in real life, giving them substance, so to speak. Finally, notice that the three areas of study inform both the articulation of the disciplines and the nature of the virtues.

There are two main reasons so many people have been attracted to the system of Stoic philosophy over the past 23 centuries: it is eminently practical, and it has a beautiful internal coherence. The diagram above should make clear why.

_____

Important note on terminology: throughout this essay I have avoided the word “topoi” (sing., topos) because it has been used confusingly in the public literature, including, unfortunately, by myself. Sometimes people use it to refer to the disciplines (desire, action, and assent) and sometimes to the fields of study (logic, physics, and ethics). Johnson, for instance, uses “topoi” in reference to the disciplines, while Robertson, in his Stoicism and the art of Happiness, applies the word to the fields of study. I checked Hadot’s treatment of the matter in The Inner Citadel, and it turns out there is a good reason for the confusion: it originated with Epictetus himself! Hadot writes: “In order to designate these exercises [the three disciplines], Epictetus uses the word topos, a term traditionally used by the Stoics — at least since the time of Apollodoros of Seleucia — who flourished at the end of the second century BCE — to designate the parts of philosophy [the three fields].” So it appears that part of the basis for Hadot’s suggestion of a correspondence between disciplines and fields is the fact that Epictetus used for the former the word traditionally employed for the latter. At any rate, to avoid any further confusion, I adhered to the English words “disciplines” and “fields (of study).”

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Becker’s A New Stoicism, X: Virtue ethics, political philosophy, and how to live well

We have arrived at the end of my extended commentary of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism. Let me stress one more time that this is the book to read if one is seriously interested in a philosophically coherent update of Stoicism for the 21st century. There is absolutely nothing else like it, period. It is, however, a difficult book to get through, especially the extensive commentaries at the end of each chapter, not to mention the appendix devoted to a presentation of a Stoic system of formal normative logic. That is precisely why, with Larry’s approval and help, I wrote these ten posts. Needless to say, the reader will be well served to use this collection as a guide, not a substitute, for reading the actual book.

That said, time now to tackle the last bit, an important postscript to the revised edition of A New Stoicism, which deals with three important topics that Larry had left out of the first edition, and did not feel would fit organically within the main text of the second one: the relationship between Stoicism and virtue ethics more generally; the question of whether a eudaimonic philosophy like Stoicism has enough to say about social and political philosophy; and why Stoicism has a lot to contribute to practical living in modern times. I will summarize and briefly comment on each of these topics, though I wish Larry had devoted significantly more space to them. Next book, perhaps.

Stoicism and virtue ethics broadly construed

Virtue ethics has seen a renaissance in moral philosophy ever since the work of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Bernard Williams, and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others (see this nice summary). That is because it provides a valuable alternative to the two dominant modern approaches: Kantian deontology and utilitarianism (in their many varieties, see this article by John-Stewart Gordon for a discussion). But plenty of people have noted issues with the chief version of modern virtue ethics, which is based on Aristotle. In particular, its foundation on a teleological view of human nature that is no longer tenable according to modern science (see this video discussion with my colleague Dan Kaufman).

While it is true that the ancient Stoics in turn relied on a “providential” view of the cosmos rooted in their pantheism, two major differences with Aristotelianism make Stoicism a far more palatable candidate for a modernized virtue ethics: (i) the ancient Stoics themselves clearly saw that the specific details of their metaphysics were ultimately irrelevant to the question of how to live their lives (see here, for instance); and (ii) Stoicism provides a thoroughly naturalistic account of ethics, based on the so-called cradle argument which we have already discussed, and which turns out to be eminently compatible with the findings of modern cognitive psychology. This leads Larry to write:

“Ethical theory makes a great deal of sense to me when it is grounded in the reality of the human condition and our developing understanding of the physical and social environments we inhabit. It makes much less sense when it is done a priori or tethered only to our intuitions.” (p. 226)

One area I’m going to respectfully disagree with Becker is toward the end of this first section of the postscript, where he hints at the possibility that virtue ethics, particularly Stoic virtue ethics, might provide us with a framework capable of unifying the three major traditions in moral philosophy:

“[Stoic agentic activity] has to unify consequentialist concerns about always acting so as to promote the best consequences, with our deontological concerns about always acting on principle with respect to moral requirements and prohibitions, and with our virtue theoretic concerns about always acting in (good) character.” (p. 227)

Well, yes. But I’m pretty sure both utilitarians and deontologists would recoil in horror at the suggestion! And, I think, for good reasons. Even though Larry is here magnanimously stating that virtue ethics would provide a unifying approach “without definitely subordinating one type [of moral philosophy] to the others,” it seems to me that it is (Stoic) virtue ethics that would do the unifying, and that such a feat would be made possible by a focus on virtuous agency, thus implicitly putting virtue ethics at the forefront of the allegedly egalitarian solution. I don’t think this really matters a lot, though. The point, which is well taken and should be kept in mind by critics of virtue ethics, is that our approach of course includes both deontological components (because we recognize duties toward others) and utilitarian ones (because we are concerned with the consequences of our action). But the central focus remains on the improvement of our own character, as the surest way to contribute to the betterment of the human polis.

Stoic politics and social philosophy

One of the most persistent (and frustrating, if your Stoic progress is not sufficiently advanced) objections to Stoicism is that it has no concern, or provides us with no tools, for social and political philosophy. The philosophy is too vague, or individualistic, or even egoistic, say the critics. And this despite a significant literature to the contrary.

An obvious observation that should address these concerns a bit is that one of the four Stoic virtues is that of justice, connected to Epictetus’ discipline of action — which is meant explicitly to regulate our interactions with others in a just way. As Larry puts it:

“From Socrates onward, it has been argued that those virtues [like justice] defeat radical amoralists like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic and ground strong political duties that involve self-sacrifice for the good of one’s family, neighbors, and fellow citizens.” (p. 228)

In the modern parlance developed by Becker throughout the book, strong agency, virtue and eudaimonia are tightly interrelated (see here), so that a Stoic simply cannot go through her life by exercising virtue only for her own sake, it automatically includes regard for others. This is a consequence, again, of the cradle argument referenced above, which is often presented in terms of oikeiôsis, the gradual “appropriation” of others’ concerns that is the basis for Stoic cosmopolitanism (see here).

One thing I need to add to Larry’s treatment here, and on which I hope to expand soon in a forthcoming post. I don’t think Stoicism entails a particular type of social philosophy (say, liberal progressivism), though it is incompatible with a number of them (no Stoic Nazis!). As usual, people will say that that’s a bug, and I respond that it is a feature. I don’t see why liberal progressives (among whom I count myself) should be the only virtuous political agents around. I think one can be a virtuous conservative, libertarian, and a number of other things. Specific solutions to social-political issues will come, as Becker clearly states, from the virtuous application of practical reason. And no particular ideological group has a monopoly on that.

Stoicism as a guide to living well

Finally, Larry tackles the recent growth (which mostly happened after the first edition of A New Stoicism, back in 1998) of the modern Stoicism movement, which has resulted in widespread interest in Stoicism as a practical philosophy for the 21st century — and which is the raison d’être of this very blog.

He mentions a number of available resources for those interested in learning and practicing Stoicism, including — very kindly — my own How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern life (but also books by Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, Chris Gill, and even Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, whose main character turns around his life through the discovery of Stoicism).

Interestingly, Becker then turns to one of the underestimated ancient Stoics, Panaetius, an exponent of the so-called Middle Stoa and Posidonius’ teacher (the latter, in turn, was Cicero’s teacher, which is why Cicero wrote a lot, and sympathetically, about Stoicism). The reason for the neglect is that we only have fragments of Panaetius’ writings, but one of the important ones comes from Cicero’s On Duties. That’s the bit where Cicero presents Panaetius’ theory of ethical social roles, and it is worth considering as a possible framework for modern living as well (here is my summary of Brian Johnson’s treatment of the other major theory of roles in Stoic ethics, the one articulated by Epictetus).

Cicero summarizes the four roles in this fashion:

“It should also be understood that nature has endowed us with two roles, as it were. One of these is universal, from the fact that we all share in reason and that status which raises us above the beasts. … The second role is the one which has been specifically assigned to individuals. … To the above-mentioned two roles, a third is appended, which some chance or circumstance imposes; and a fourth as well, which we take upon ourselves by our own decision.” (On duties 1.107, 110–11, 114–17)

Long and Sedley, in their The Hellenistic Philosophers (sec. 66, at E), explain:

“[It is] Panaetius’ almost certainly original doctrine that proper functions are specifiable by reference to ‘four roles’ which each person has. … The word translated ‘role’ is persona (the Latin for an actor’s mask), and Panaetius’ theory intriguingly anticipates modern conceptions of personality and role play. Roles one and two refer respectively to the shared rationality of all human beings (‘universal nature’) and the physical, mental and temperamental nature of the individual. … Equally impressive is the clarity with which he distinguishes the entirely accidental determinants of personal identity (role three) from the career and specializations people choose for themselves (role four). … Collectively the four roles offer an account of the general considerations people should review in deciding on their proper functions — what I ought to do as a member of the human race, as the person with my natural strengths and weaknesses, as unavoidably involved in these external circumstances, and with the lifestyle and bent I have chosen for myself.”

Larry’s postscript ends with a brief but illuminating discussion of the relationship among Stoic teaching, training, and “therapy,” as well as their joint consequences on the idea of Stoic moral education. Stoic teaching should consist of presenting to students the three classical fields (physics, logic, and ethics), to emphasize how coherent and attractive Stoic philosophy really is. Stoic teaching should also include an outline and justification of our ideas on the development and structure of virtue.

In terms of training, this includes the application of principles and precepts to hypothetical and actual cases, along the model presented by Epictetus’ Discourses. A second aspect of Stoic training should comprise the mental as well as physical rehearsal of one’s activities, including such things as the evening philosophical diary as well as exercises in self-denial (see here for a list and discussion of practical Stoic exercises).

Finally, addressing Stoic therapy, Larry correctly points out that to talk in those terms is actually somewhat problematic. If someone suffers from organic problems that affect one’s mentation, then philosophy isn’t going to do it, one needs psychological or even psychiatric help (see this discussion). Of course, as I’ve argued on several occasions, philosophy and therapy may be complementary, and a prokopton may prefer, if she needs therapy, a cognitive approach inspired by Stoic insights, such as REBT and CBT. Whatever one does, once the therapy has succeeded in putting out, or at least controlling, whatever fire was raging in one’s mind, one still needs a compass to navigate life in a eudaimonic fashion. And Stoicism has been the best compass around for more than two millennia.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, IX: Happiness

We are reaching the end of my extended commentary on the second edition of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism, a book aiming at taking several steps toward updating Stoic philosophy for the 21st century, and a must read for anyone seriously interested in Stoic theory. This post will cover the last chapter of the book, on happiness, while the final entry in the series will deal with an important postscript Larry wrote, about virtue ethics, virtue politics, and Stoicism as a guide to living well.

To begin with, “happiness” for Stoics is really eudaimonia, i.e., it does not refer to a temporary state of mind (“I’m happy that I got a job!”), but rather to our satisfaction with the entire trajectory of our lives. It is, therefore, a reference point for navigation, the “polestar” of not just our ethical theory, but our whole way of life. Why take the the entirety of our life as the reference frame? Because whenever we focus too much on individual episodes we eventually realize that something that seemed at the time to be a catastrophe was actually quite bearable, trivial, even. Similarly, we achieve a goal that we thought was crucial, life changing, even, but it soon turns out to be just another step forward, not really as momentous as it initially looked. In other words, keeping an eye on the broad picture helps us put things into a better perspective, as well as assess more rationally the significance of what happens here and now.

When it comes to the meaning of life, Becker acknowledges that the ancient Stoics believe in an organic universe, i.e., a universe conceived as a living being, capable of rationality (the Logos). This brought comfort because they conceived of individual human beings as bits of the Logos, and of our lives as made meaningful by the fact that we play an (unknown) part in the doings of the cosmos.

Be that as it may, Larry immediately adds, this pantheistic “god” did not answer to prayer (pace Cleanthes hymn to Zeus, which is not really a prayer — see Enchiridion LIII.1), and more importantly did not give any clear guidance on action. Epictetus, arguably the most pious sounding of the Stoics, repeatedly tells his students that they need to figure things out for themselves, which is why a major goal of Stoic training is to refine as much as possible one’s prohairesis, i.e., the ability to arrive at correct judgments.

Epicurus, Becker reminds us, rejected the idea of a general meaning of life, and both Marcus (see here) and Panaetius seem to have harbored significant doubts. Regardless, actionable meaning for the Stoic comes from within, not without. It lies in our practice of virtue, with the goal of living a eudaimonic life, a life actually worth living. The cosmos may or may not play a further role, it does not really matter in practice.

Next, there is the perennial issue of preferred indifferents, which Larry deals with in the following fashion:

“It is true that Stoic happiness does not necessarily include nonagency pleasures — all the other possibilities for what we ordinarily call having a good time. But it is highly misleading to go on to say that such pleasures are superfluous, or that they “add” nothing to virtue. They do not add virtue to a virtuous life, but they add something else to it. … The pleasures of virtue are never to be traded for nonagency ones, but among virtuous lives, those with nonagency pleasures, and nonagency goods generally, are preferred to those without them. Further, with virtue held constant, the more nonagency goods the better.” (p. 158)

Indeed, once again, Stoics are neither Cynics nor Aristotelians. We neither think that externals are necessary for a eudaimonic life (like the Aristotelians), nor do we believe they get in the way of it (like the Cynics). This is one of the chief reasons Stoicism resonates with me: it is at the same time a demanding moral philosophy, and yet one that takes seriously that a human life can certainly be augmented by things other than virtue (though it doesn’t have to, in order to be worth living).

Becker is also clear that there is no single recipe for which combination of non-agentic (i.e., external) goods is going to work for each of us. So long as we stay away from pursuits that positively harm our moral character, whatever combination of activities and externals happens to work for each of us is fine. There are many different kinds of good Stoic lives. (Again, refreshing compared to the rigidity of the Aristotelian recipe, which tolerates different life styles, but really insists that the preferred one is the life of contemplation.)

How much control can, or indeed should, we strive to exert over our lives? Despite his insistence on keeping an eye on the full trajectory, Larry is also clear that he is not suggesting that we develop detailed and rigid, Soviet-style, many-years plans for our existence. Life is too complex and variable for anything like that. Instead — in perfect Stoic fashion — he introduces a helpful analogy.

Imagine you are piloting an airplane. The airplane represents the character that you wish to develop as an agent. Clearly, you want your plane to be responsive to your commands so that you can not only set a route, but also make adjustments, and even occasional major changes of course, depending on the external conditions. (I am very much conscious of this as I am writing while in a flight from Brussels back to New York, and we are experiencing some significant turbulence…) Here is how Becker puts it:

“A fixed-wing aircraft is said to have positive stability if it stays in, or returns to, straight and level flight unless pressure is continuously applied to the controls. It has neutral stability when it holds any given attitude (roll, pitch, yaw) in which it is placed, tending neither to exaggerate that attitude nor to return to straight and level flight. It has negative stability when it deviates from any given flight attitude unless corrective control is continuously applied. At the theoretical limit of either positive or negative stability, an aircraft is virtually uncontrollable.” (p. 160)

The same goes with our lives. What we are striving for here is not control in the sense of determining everything that happens to us. Epictetus clearly argued that that’s just wishful thinking, of the dangerous kind (Enchiridion I.1-3). Instead, we want our lives to be “maneuverable,” so to speak, capable of returning to whatever main path we decided after proper adjustments have been made for local turbulence. Sometimes the path itself will have to be altered, a change of course made necessary by the fact that the goal is to keep flying well and safely, not necessarily to reach a particular predetermined destination.

There is an important caveat introduced by Larry at this point in the discussion, one that signals a certain degree of departure, perhaps, from ancient Stoicism, and yet makes perfect sense and is worth emphasizing. While developing agency means aiming at the ability to optimally control our character, and therefore our responses — including our emotions — it does not follow that we should wish to exercise such control all the time, but only when practical reason demands it.

The example conjured by Becker is that of a woman who is affected by grief, being at this moment distraught by some tragedy that has happen to her recently. But she is in a lounge at her work place, in a uniform, maybe she is a doctor. Suddenly an emergency occurs, a new patient is brought in, and she needs to snap out of her situation and take action. She does so, because practical reason demands it. She is able automatically, effortlessly, perhaps, to set aside — to control — her emotion because she is needed in order to save a life. Once the emergency is over, she may or may not resume her grieving, depending on the new situation. That, and not a hypothetical state of perennial detachment, is what Stoic training is attempting to achieve:

“Being overcome by emotion is no more problematic for a Stoic than being overcome by sleep. Sometimes sleep is dangerous (think of trying to avoid hypothermia), or a dereliction of duty, even when it is desperately needed. So too for all-consuming grief, or lust. But at other times luxuriating in sleep or passion is a harmless pleasure, much preferred to the tightly controlled variety.” (p. 163)

Next, Larry takes up the famous “Sage is happy even on the rack” problem, which, as he drily puts it, is the sort of thing that our ancient brethren have done much to invite sarcasm about. He rightly points out that nothing in Stoic philosophy has ever implied that practicing Stoicism makes one into a superhuman, immortal or invulnerable. Extreme pain, or brain damage, can and will destroy human agency, no matter how many premeditatio malorum you carry out. Under those circumstances the Stoic has limited choices: the prospect of recovering her agency, should the condition in question be reversible; or the hope to get the death she prefers if the circumstances allow it. These aren’t particularly satisfying answers to how a Sage will fare on the rack. But it is so, Becker says, because the example is hardly informative of the overall philosophy.

A Sage — which, remember, is as rare as the phoenix, according to Seneca (Letters to Lucilius, XLII.1) — is different from the rest of us because her agency has passed the healthy or even fit levels, and has been developed to the point of virtuosity. Even so, the Sage will suffer on the rack, and she will be different from the rest of us only insofar as she is capable of maintaining her agency under extreme conditions, or to recover it as quickly as possible after she goes through severe traumas. That’s it, and yet, it is a lot. Not a superhuman, but a virtuoso level of humanity.

Larry proposes a sort of classification of different kinds of good Stoic life. The primary type is one in which Stoic virtue is achieved and sustained. It is primary because, as we have seen, virtue is good in and of itself, since it is inextricably linked with both virtuous agency and eudaimonia.

The secondary kind of good Stoic life is available to the person who is making progress toward virtue. She has not developed it to the level of virtuosity, so she is a prokoptousa, not a Sage. Full virtue has not been achieved, and it is not stable, it is an ongoing project.

The tertiary type is available to someone who is not currently on the Stoic path, but for whom that path is still an open possibility. Obviously, not everyone is a Stoic, and we should remember that:

“Stoicism is cosmopolitan and is quite alert to the fact that most people have other conceptions of a good life, many of which are internally coherent, conscientiously and firmly held. … Deeply held religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or agentic commitments fundamentally at odds with Stoicism have always been present. These are not necessarily cases of truncated psychological development. They are often simply divergent from Stoic development.” (p. 168-169)

This is a strong reminder that Stoics do not proselytize, though we happily engage in discussions of our philosophy with people who may be interested. Moreover, practicing Stoicism means that we need to cultivate tolerance and acceptance toward other ways of conducting life, so long as they are not destructive (as for instance some religious or political fundamentalisms are — a Nazi Stoic is inconceivable).

What happens when we disagree with someone’s choice of a life path? I am going to transcribe exactly what Becker says, because it ought to be kept constantly in mind during our interactions with others:

“It may be that [someone] will eventually adapt to her new circumstances by giving up Stoicism altogether and embracing the notion that what the Stoics regard as only preferred indifferents can actually give her a very good life. Stoics would disagree (silently) about the theoretical point but not try to argue her back into distress. They, too, would much prefer that her life seemed good to her. Stoics are not cruel, though they can be clumsy. The same point can be made about people who willingly take paths away from Stoicism toward other accounts of the good life. When reasoned discussion fails, Stoics wish their critics well and go about their business.” (p. 169)

That last line, I think, should be tattooed on our forearms, or at least framed and placed in a prominent place on our desks.

Larry then tackles the issue of whether a Stoic should desire a long life. The ancients, especially Seneca, clearly answered in the negative (Letters to Lucilius, XCIII.2). For Seneca there is no such thing as a premature death, as we die whenever the universe decides it, and the worth of a life is not measured by its duration, but rather by its quality (Letters to Lucilius XCIII.4). Becker would not necessarily disagree, I think, with the basic concept, but he argues that while we can exercise our virtuous agency, there will be reason to do so for as long as possible. We tend to think of our lives in terms of narratives, and here is where the Stoic may diverge from some other people, propelled by a different conception of what makes human life meaningful:

“Lives often end too soon in narrative terms because they are incomplete, and they are too long when they go on pointlessly after they are complete.” (p. 170)

And what makes a life complete or not, in a narrative sense, is how the agent herself conceives of her life. Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, lived until he was 98 (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.28). One version of his end says that he starved himself to death (Lives, VII.31), presumably because he reached the judgment that he could not longer be useful. Which brings us to the next topic in chapter 7: suicide.

Larry’s position is very clear, and I find myself in complete agreement:

“Stoicism endorses the permissibility of suicide, but not a requirement of it. It is permissible when suicide becomes the only available way to act virtuously — the only act that is consistent with Stoic virtue itself, or the pursuit of it.” (p. 170)

Again he proposes an analogy with sleep: sometimes we may resist it because there is some important project that needs to be completed. But there will be other cases where in fact we should welcome sleep, because resisting it would either be futile or dangerous.

The ancient Stoics explicitly admitted the possibility (though, again, not the requirement) of suicide in a small set of circumstances: on behalf of one’s country, on behalf of one’s friends, or to avoid severe and indeterminate pain or suffering (which would permanently cripple our virtuous agency). Becker adds that suicide must be the last available option, and that it is always to be decided upon by following the virtue of justice, which means, he points out, that suicide in order to commit murder is out of the question.

What about assisted suicide? The ancient Stoics did not have a problem with it, and in fact Epictetus promptly goes to help a friend when he hears that the friend has decided to starve himself to death (turns out, though, that the friend did not have a good reason to end his life, and Epictetus reproached him — Discourses II.15.4-13). However, our forerunners would not have wanted to put a friend or relative in jeopardy for assisting, if the practice were against the law of the land. The just thing to do would be to reform the law. This has obvious practical consequences for the ongoing debate on assisted suicide, and it seems to me that the Stoic position is precisely the one outlined here by Larry.

One more, very important, point about suicide:

“Stoic virtue ethics includes awareness of the damage to others that can be done by a suicide, especially within a circle of family and close friends. This is one of the factors that determines whether one’s suicide is permissible in the first place.” (p. 172)

The chapter ends with a brief discussion of joy as an aspect of eudaimonia. The idea is that exercising virtue in itself brings joy (though we do not do it because of that), even within the context of an otherwise miserable life. If her circumstances are not miserable, however, the Stoic will experience joy just like any other human being. Socrates, Becker reminds us, could make himself at home at a rowdy banquet, and not by declining the wine. The Stoic understands — pace Epicurus — that filling one’s life with pleasures and joy is not her proper aim, but she would be foolish to avoid them for that reason.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, VIII: virtue, part 2

Hercules between vice and virtue by Pelagio Palagi

Let us finish the discussion of the central concept of virtue as reconciled by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism, specifically the idea of virtue as the product of ideal agency, elaborated upon in the second part of chapter 6 of the book.

Larry begins by responding to his critics and laying out an 11-step moral argument for virtue. I will introduce each step by quoting from the text, and add my own commentary.

Step 1: “I have many endeavors — many things I want to do — and each of those endeavors warrants normative propositions about what I ought (or am required) to do or be, nothing-else-considered.”

Remember that “normative” here does not mean some sort of categorical imperative, but rather something akin to a hypothetical, or conditional, imperative. IF I wish to do X, THEN I need to do Y. And “nothing else considered” means that we are, at this stage, talking about local projects, not (yet) about the lifelong project of living as a good Stoic.

Step 2: “One of my endeavors is practical reasoning nothing-else-considered — practical reasoning devoted solely to the task of implementing any occurrent endeavor I might have — including itself.”

This refers back to the recursive property of agency, the fact that agency, unlike, say, digestion, can be applied to itself and improve over time. What this particular step is saying is that one of the goals I wish to pursue as an agent is to implement whatever it is that I want to do locally, right now (i.e., nothing else considered).

Step 3: “My normative practical reasoning about my endeavors, done serially, routinely generates a welter of conflicting requirements and oughts.”

Of course, if I wish to accomplish goals X, Y and Z, it is inevitable that some conflict will arise between two or more of those goals. I want, for instance, to be a good partner, good father, and good teacher. But I only have so much physical and mental energy, so many hours in the day, and so forth. That means there will inevitably be trade-offs among the requirements generated by my attempt to accomplish all the goals I am after.

Step 4: “However, none of my endeavors, considered separately, routinely claims all the resources available for the exercise of my agency — even for a single day.”

If I focus on one goal at a time, then typically this isn’t going to be all-consuming, even for a brief period. We all juggle multiple endeavors, every day.

Step 5: “Thus even the sequential application of practical reasoning nothing-else-considered to a long, arbitrarily selected series of target endeavors will routinely face local optimization problems — conflicts between two endeavors that can be solved by integrating them so that both of them can be pursued successfully.”

So what do you do if there are conflicting demands imposed by the fact that you want to be a good partner, father, and teacher? You are now facing an optimization problem, which demands to be treated as more than just a single task nothing else considered, because you have to take into account other things simultaneously. Notice that optimizing does not mean reaching perfection, it just means doing your best given your goals and the resources you have available.

Step 6: “The indefinitely repeated, stepwise solution of local optimization problems eventually results in global optimization, but as I reflect on this process in the course of integrating any two projects, I see that I may fail in my local endeavor if I do not now consider matters globally.”

Optimization is something that needs to be reiterated across all your relevant projects, with the aim of optimizing things globally. That’s why you need to move from nothing-else-considered to all-things-considered. This, let me clarify in response to some readers’ comments, does not mean that one need to be omniscient! “All-things” here just means every relevant bit of information you can assemble and that is pertinent to accomplishing your many goals. Let’s say you are about to buy a house. “All-things” doesn’t mean that you have to know everything there is to know about real estate; it just means that you need to consider the multiple tasks that you have to complete in order to file a successful mortgage application, make an offer that is likely to be considered by the seller, think about what sort of renovations, if any, you want to make and how much they will cost, and so forth. This is practical reasoning informed by practical knowledge.

Step 7: “When I reason all-things-considered, however, I am no longer engaging in an endeavor whose aim is local optimization. Rather, every endeavor that I consider (because it defines an aim for me; is normative for me) becomes a target for the optimizing work of practical reasoning.”

By this step we have expanded our concern from one goal at a time, nothing-else-considered, to all our relevant endeavors, all-things-considered. So our practical reasoning, as Becker says, now applies “globally.”

Step 8: “Further reflection reveals that even if my most comprehensive and controlling endeavor is solely to perfect the exercise of my agency based on the sort of practical reasoning I ought to do, and if I succeed in that endeavor, then I will by definition succeed in optimizing the success of all my endeavors — over my whole life.”

This is a crucial step, so we need to pay attention or something very important is going to slip by. What Larry is saying here is that even if we decide to focus solely on improving the exercise of our agency, that — by definition — will also result in the optimization of everything else I want to do, because that’s what agency does: it allows us to figure out how to accomplish our goals in the best way possible. So devoting oneself to the pursuit of agency perfection is the same thing as devoting oneself to optimize all our goals during our entire life.

Step 9: “Any normative proposition that is sound in my case is sound also for anyone who is relevantly similar to me.”

Another crucial step. All of the above, and therefore also the forthcoming conclusion of the argument, applies to agents that are relevantly similar to me, i.e., individuals who are social, capable of reasoning, wish to accomplish a number of tasks in their lives, and wish to do it well. It does not apply to, say, a psychopath, who is not sufficiently similar to me. I don’t know if it applies to Martians either, I would have to know more about them as biological and social beings to be able to determine.

Step 10: “Healthy agents will acquire strong norms corresponding to the usual notions of wisdom, justice, benevolence, beneficence, courage, temperance, and other traits that are standardly called virtues. Indeed, developing such traits is a necessary condition for developing one’s agency from health to fitness to virtuosity.”

A third crucial step: given the sort of social being capable of reason that typical human beings are, THEN (and only then) it follows that developing our agency (as Becker says, from mere health to fitness to virtuosity, if possible) is the same thing as practicing the standard Stoic virtues. (Notice that the partial list given in this step is a mix of primary and secondary virtues; the primary ones are practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. For a list of the secondary ones, see this article on Stoic virtue ethics by Matthew Sharpe, table 2.1; the original source is Stobaeus.)

Step 11: “Since any normative proposition warranted by the endeavor to perfect our agency is ultimately traceable to a requirement that we make this our most comprehensive and controlling endeavor, it will dominate any conflicting requirement from any other endeavor.”

Finally, perfecting our agency (which means practicing the virtues, which allows us to optimize across all our lifetime endeavors) requires that we focus first and foremost on the very task of perfecting our agency. That’s why in Stoicism pursuing virtue is the primary goal, and everything else falls into the categories of preferred and dispreferred indifferents.

If you don’t find the above argument convincing, perhaps that’s because you are under the mistaken impression that it applies to every agent. Not so, says Larry very clearly in a crucial caveat:

“It is important to keep in mind that this argument is sound only for agents of the sort described in our developmental story, and that it is a mistake to characterize them solely in terms of rationality. Pure practical reason, shorn of the rest of the psychology of healthy human agency, does not yield the normative propositions described in steps 1–11. … Rational agents with a significantly different psychology (for example, rational agents who are primarily pleasure seekers, or who have only a very limited and thoroughly integrated repertoire of endeavors) fall outside the scope of this argument.” (p. 131)

That is, Epicureans will be unmoved by the argument. So be it. Psychopaths will never be virtuous. That’s a fact of life. And as I said above, I’m agnostic about Martians.

Two more points to finish chapter 6: about the all-or-nothing nature of virtue, and about the unqualified good the virtue is. These are both standard Stoic doctrines, which Larry convincingly re-interprets in modern fashion.

It may seem paradoxical to say that virtue is all or nothing (as the ancient Stoics did) and yet to also state that we can make progress toward virtue (after all, we are supposed to be prokoptontes and prokoptousai — those who make progress). But virtue is perfection of agency, and strictly speaking the only beings who are perfectly virtuous are the Sages. But Sages are as rare as the Phoenix (as Seneca says). That means the rest of us can, and should, strive toward Sagehood, even if it is ultimately unachievable. In so striving, we are making progress. (If this notion sounds strange, it is no different from Buddhists attempting to achieve enlightenment, even though that feat is also about as rare as the Phoenix.)

Here is a geometric analogy I came up with last night while discussing these issues at my Stoic School of Life. Imagine a perfect circle. It is defined rigorously as a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the center). Any deviation from this makes for something that looks like a circle but isn’t (technically, it’s an ellipse). If our goal is to draw a circle, but we do not exactly succeed, then we are drawing an imperfect circle. But imperfection comes in degrees. Consider the following figure:

Only the innermost drawing is a perfect circle. All others are ellipses, but they approximate the circle more and more as one moves from the outermost one toward the center. Very few of us could draw a perfect circle by hand (as Giotto is reputed to have done), but we can presumably get better and better with practice. Every time we come closer and yet do not succeed we are making progress. But every time we do not succeed we have not reached perfection (geometrically defined as above), because perfection is all or nothing, but imperfection has infinite degrees. The same goes for virtue: it is all or nothing, and yet we can (and should) make progress.

Finally, consider the idea — again common among the Ancient Stoics — that virtue is the chief good, as also explained by Socrates in the Euthydemus. Here is how Becker puts it:

“For a healthy agent, no matter what her circumstances, virtue as a set of dispositional powers is unconditionally a good, right up to the moment of death. We can think of no circumstances in which a mature, healthy agent could plausibly hold that the ability to act appropriately, as understood here, is a bad or indifferent thing, all things considered. … It is a good in sickness and in health, war and peace, poverty or plenty, hate or love. It is a good independently of how things turn out (recall the archer). It is a good independently of others’ attitudes, actions, virtues, and vices. Moreover, virtue appears to be unique in this regard. Everything else (pleasure, for example) is only conditionally good.” (p. 134)

So there you have it, folks: virtue is the same thing as the recursive perfection of agency applied to all our endeavors all-things-considered. It is so for a certain type of agent. It is all or nothing, and yet we can make progress toward it. And it is the only thing that cannot possibly be misused by us.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, VI: following the facts, part 2

Continuing my in-depth commentary of Larry Becker’s landmark book, A New Stoicism, we have come to the second part of chapter 5, broadly devoted to a modern reconstruction of the famous Stoic motto, “live according to nature.” As we have seen, Larry re-interprets this as “follow the facts,” a concept he further elaborates in this manner:

“Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it — our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavors — before we deliberate about normative matters. It means facing those facts — accepting them for exactly what they are, no more and no less — before we draw normative conclusions from them. It means doing ethics from the facts — constructing normative propositions a posteriori. It means adjusting those normative propositions to fit changes in the facts.” (p. 46)

The second part of this chapter, in my commentary, begins with a developmental account of moral motivation, which takes on, and updates, yet another fundamental Ancient Stoic concept, that of oikeiosis, or “appropriation” (of broader concerns than just one’s own preferences and needs), in turn the base for the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism, related to the discipline of action and the virtue of justice. As you can see, there is much packed into these pages.

As Becker points out, the best outline we have of the Stoic theory of moral development is found in Cicero’s De Finibus, book III, and that outline, already in its original form, was broadly compatible with what modern psychology tells us about the matter. The theory can be presented in five steps:

1. We begin life as egocentric beings, focused on the satisfaction of our desires and the accomplishment of our own goals, which are not all pleasurable (like learning how to walk).

2. Our egoistic affections and motivations eventually become dispositional, meaning that they generate certain dispositions to pursue projects and achieve goals, which we begin to apply beyond the original, narrow set of affections and motivations.

3. One of the things we develop a disposition to acquire is knowledge, which initially is useful to satisfy our immediate needs, but later on becomes something we are interested for its own sake, and that we apply to a much broader range of objects and concerns:

“We are repelled by error, ignorance, and falsehood. Modern studies of cognitive development, especially language acquisition, provide ample evidence of this.” (p. 62)

4. We learn to translate all of the above in appropriate acts, by formulating general rules and principles, which we test in actual situations. We become conditioned to act appropriately (not in the sense of politely, but as in most likely to be effective for the task at hand), and doing so — like seeking knowledge above — becomes something we value in its own right.

5. By way of normal psychological processes (which include, for instance, a concern for others, a sense of empathy, and so forth) as well as by the sort of conscious deliberation we call practical reasoning, we develop an interest in moral good and, in the Stoic context, virtue.

How do we decide what to do in life, both right now and by way of long term projects? Many of our endeavors are “heteronomous,” i.e., derived from other people’s or societal expectations, a number of which may be subliminal, assimilated without conscious reflection. For instance, we may orient ourselves toward a particular career path and not others because our parents expect us to do so, or because society deems other projects to be inappropriate, or risky, and so forth.

This, of course, is not ideal from a Stoic perspective, since as Stoics we put a premium on autonomous agency and our capacity of judgment. We then need to convert heteronomous projects into autonomous ones, appropriating those that fit our goals and desires upon reflection, and possibly discarding others that don’t.

Larry maintains that for Stoics agency defines autonomy, but also that agency has a peculiar characteristic that does not apply to other aspects of human psychology or physiology: it is recursive, meaning that it applies to itself, attempting to improve by constant feedback between our reasoning ability and the empirical input provided by our experiences. To put it simply, it is natural for human beings to become better and better at exerting their own volition in every and all of our endeavors.

Becker reiterates that Stoics are determinists — by which I take it he means that we believe in universal cause and effect, something rather uncontroversial, which allows us to skirt the metaphysical and epistemological quagmire that the word “determinism” usually gets philosophers and laypeople alike bogged into.

But, Larry immediately admits, if one is a determinist, then what might be the difference between the workings of agency and those of something as prosaic as, say digestion? The difference is recursivity: digestion is as natural a process as agency, for humans, but it very clearly does not apply recursively to itself, which means that it does not improve by way of such recursion. Agency does. That is why it made sense for the ancient Stoics to insist that we can improve our faculty of judgment, prohairesis, by continuous exercise, while we can’t improve our ability to digest in the same fashion.

Moreover, and just as importantly, most psychological and physiological processes have a limited scope of application: digestion applies to food, and nothing else. Agency, by contrast, applies to everything. Agency is the most comprehensive process we can engage in. This will become particularly important in the next chapter, when Becker will present is famously controversial idea that Stoic virtue can be redefined, in modern terms, as “ideal” agency. He rephrases the point in this revised edition by arguing that ideal agency is necessary and sufficient for Stoic virtue, which is in turn necessary and sufficient for Stoic eudaimonia. (Spoiler alert: he is aware that psychopaths have agency too, but he has an argument for why theirs is not ideal, and therefore for why there is no such thing as a virtuous psychopath.)

Larry takes seriously the limitations of being human. He is perfectly aware that there is a lot of variation in the population in terms of the strength of the agency of different individuals, as well as of the fact that agency can be weakened by all sorts of external factors (imbibing alcohol, taking drugs) as well as internal ones (neurological damage, because of genetic causes, disease or accident). People so affected, temporarily or permanently, will be weakened agents, and they will therefore have more trouble than others practicing virtue and conducting a Stoic life. In extreme cases (such as severe mental impairment), it will be impossible for them to do so.

Nonetheless, for normally functioning human beings agency is characterized by the following attributes: (i) it is resistant to extinction by other psychological processes; (ii) whenever it is exercised, even weakly, it tends to reinforce itself (because of recursivity); (iii) through its own exercise it can become the most comprehensive and controlling of our constitute powers; (iv) when extinguished, it is highly likely to reboot itself; and (v) when it develops errors, these can be reduced and corrected by its further exercise.

At this point the chapter returns, more fully, to the issue of determinism. Becker asserts that as modern Stoics, just like the Ancient ones, we hold that human freedom consists in the exercise of agency. If you couple this position with the acceptance of cause-effect determinism this makes the Stoic theory of moral responsibility a type of compatibilism. Neither Larry nor, frankly, I have much interest in rehashing confused and ultimately fruitless discussions about “free will.” We are happy with a pragmatic take on the issue (you do make decisions, right? Good, then you own them), with an account in terms of combinations of external and internal causes (like the famous story of Chrysippus’ cylinder), and with the conclusion that our agency, or faculty of judgment, or volition, can be improved by ways of reflection and exercise. Everything else is, to be blunt, mental masturbation (my phrase, not Larry’s).

(Incidentally, Becker, in this section of chapter 5, also discusses fatalism and indeterminism, but the broad picture is the one I have outlined here. I leave it to the reader to delve into the details and side paths as an exercise in philosophical reading.)

The upshot, then, is this:

“Consider, now, two alternatives: on the one hand a life in which agency plays no causal role, and on the other a life in which agency plays a persistent and pervasive part in the causal story of its every waking moment. We Stoics simply report that we prefer our lives to be of the second sort and find the idea of that kind of life more than sufficient to assuage our longing for autonomy and metaphysical liberty.” (p. 71)

What about responsibility? Here Larry’s answer is clear and carefully articulated:

“Agents are fully responsible for their acts if and only if they (a) are aware of what they are doing; (b) are aware of the causes of their actions; (c) assent to acting in those ways from those causes — that is, are acting in accord with norms they recognize as their own; (d) are aware of the causes of their assent — that is, the causes of their own norms; (e) thereby introduce new causal factors into the determination of their actions through their awareness of the causal conditions that shape it; (f) are aware of this iterative, self-transformative causal process; and (g) assent to that, in the sense that they recognize that this process is normative for them.” (p. 72)

If one wishes to have a more robust sense of agentic responsibility one is out of luck, because of cause-effect determinism. If one wishes to have a significantly less robust sense of agentic responsibility — along the lines of “my brain made me do it,” or “this was bound to happen since the Big Bang,” then one is out of luck because he will not be able to actually act as if he really believed in such weakened or non-existence sense of responsibility. Once again, some sort of compatibilism is the only philosophically viable, and pragmatically useful, way around these issues.

A nice corollary of Larry’s analysis of agentic responsibility is a good way to make sense of the famous dichotomy of control: in what sense, within a deterministic universe, are some things “up to us,” as Epictetus puts it, while other things are “not up to us”? In the sense that agency has causal powers within the universal web of cause-effect, again, like Chrysippus argued, so that things are under our control if and only if we can exercise our agency on them, while human agency itself does not, of course, magically stand outside of the universal causal web. Stoics believe in agency, but not in magic.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, V: following the facts, part 1

The ancient Stoics were famous for a number of slogans that sounded, to outsiders, rather paradoxical (so much so that Cicero wrote an entire book on paradoxa Stoicorum). One of the most famous ones is the idea that we should live “according to nature.” In his update of Stoicism for the 21st century, Larry Becker rephrases this as “following the facts,” which gives the title to the fifth chapter of his A New Stoicism. But chapter 5 is about much more than just a recasting of an ancient motto, as we shall see in this post, part of my ongoing commentary on Larry’s book. Indeed, the discussion of this chapter will require two separate essays, but it will be worth the investment of time and effort.

Right off the bat, Becker gives his readers the punch line, which is worth keeping in mind throughout the following discussion:

“Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it — our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavors — before we deliberate about normative matters. It means facing those facts — accepting them for exactly what they are, no more and no less — before we draw normative conclusions from them. It means doing ethics from the facts — constructing normative propositions a posteriori. It means adjusting those normative propositions to fit changes in the facts.” (p. 46)

This means three things: (i) the framing of Stoic ethics as naturalistic, as it was in ancient times, and therefore grounded in our best scientific understanding of the world; (ii) the rejection of the original Stoic teleological view of nature, because it is no longer compatible with the scientific worldview; and (iii) a naturalistic bridging of the is/ought gap. These three points by themselves go a long way toward achieving the goal of articulating a 21st century version of Stoic philosophy that can still be reasonably called “Stoic.”

Larry uses this framework to go back to his axiom of futility, which I presented last time: “Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.”

This, he maintains against the obvious objection, does not mean that Stoics aren’t supposed to take risks, or to attempt endeavors that are unlikely to succeed. It is simply the rather commonsensical view that if you have good, solid reasons to think that something is impossible, either in general or for you personally, it is then foolish to attempt it. Anyone who argues against this has not spent sufficient time in the real world, I think.

The next move is to flesh out the idea of normativity, which is always a stumbling block for any moral philosophy. If norms are independent of facts about the world — as much modern philosophical tradition maintains (think Kant) — then one is faced with the question of where on earth norms come from (and the answer can’t be transcendental either, as in “God says what’s right or wrong,” as demonstrated 24 centuries ago by Plato in the Euthyphro). If, conversely, norms can be read straight off facts (as in much contemporary, misguided literature of the “neuroscience will solve all your problems” kind), then one faces the issue of which facts, exactly, are normative, and why? What Larry is attempting here is the only reasonable middle way: a naturalistic ethics that is grounded in facts about human nature, but that filters them through a logical system aimed at producing an ethics of flourishing, not just survival.

That is why Larry argues that there can be no source of norms other than the endeavors of individual agents, and that all such endeavors are, at bottom, facts about the character and conduct of those agents. The question then, is to see which characters and conducts we want to foster, and which ones to discourage. As he says, my commitment to fidelity within a relationship may imply a requirement about you being faithful as well, but — crucially — both norms are the result of my own endeavor of having a successful relationship.

Becker clearly states something that is obviously true not just of Stoicism, but of virtue ethics in general:

“Stoic ethics is messy because the social world is messy. We begin (and end) our deliberations in terms of actual human beings, rather than hypothetical, idealized, or schematic ones.” (p. 50)

That is why Stoics reject universal moral approaches, like deontological or utilitarian ones, and why the answer to any sensible moral question is always going to be: it depends (on the particulars of the case). The fact that someone may be dissatisfied with such “messiness” is a reflection of their own state of mind, not of the world as it actually is.

This messiness is in part the result of the fact that our commitments are varied and have a tendency to come into conflict with each other, like the classical one of family vs work. Larry discusses various types of integration across commitments, where some commitments take partial or absolute priority over others, while sometimes one simply has to make arbitrary decisions, or split resources (time, energy) equally between competing commitments. The key is practical reasoning “all things considered”:

“Given all relevant projects and possibilities throughout my whole life, I ought, now, to do (or be) X.” (p. 54)

This is why self-reflection and continuous re-evaluation of one’s projects and commitments — what Socrates would call “the examined life” — is necessary. It is how we dynamically reassess our priorities and partition our resources in order to maximize eudaimonia, or flourishing.

Please note that of course my projects can and will also at some point come into conflict with yours, and such conflicts will be resolved in a similar fashion, by reasoning and agreeing on ranking of the relevant inter-personal norms. Becker provides a specific example to give his readers an idea of how this works out in practice:

“Suppose I mow my lawn on Sunday mornings, while next door you are trying to achieve serenity, pray, and keep the day holy. If we happen to agree that your project is more important than mine, and thus dictates to mine, our problem is settled. We have interpersonal horizontal integration in that case. If we find that our conflicting Sunday morning endeavors are each embedded in a more encompassing project (tolerance in my case, neighborly love in yours), then we have the basis for another familiar sort of conflict resolution.” (p. 55)

Stoic pragmatism comes into sharp view when we realize that conflicts are endemic to human social life, and that there is nothing in Stoic ethics that mandates a commitment to resolve all and every inter-personal conflict. Life, again, is messy, and it often remains that way despite our best efforts.

A few concluding observations about the first part of chapter 5 of A New Stoicism. Larry correctly observes that human practical reasoning is ad hoc, involves conditional inferences, generalizations, and error correction. This sort of procedure is built into what it means to be a human agent. Because of language, we are capable of representing to ourselves, and others, our goals and norms, and we are also in a position to assess and — when necessary — reform, those goals and norms. This recursivity made possible by language has the following, crucial, consequence:

“If one pursues practical reasoning in a thoroughgoing way, one aims at constructing a general theory of the normative elements of one’s life all things considered — that is, a moral theory of one’s life. The next step is to represent one’s own life as an instance of a type, and to construct a moral theory for that type of life. Types of lives may then be considered as various ways in which moral agency itself may be expressed. And when one has reached the issue of normative propositions for the life of an agent as such, one has reached a form of universal moral theory.” (p. 60)

That’s all for now. Next: a developmental account of moral motivation.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, IV: normative Stoic logic

Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism, which I have discussed over three previous posts, is now getting into the heavy lifting of the second part of the book, “The way things might go,” comprising chapters 4-7 on normative logic, living according to nature (“follow the facts,” in Becker’s rendition), virtue, and happiness. This post comprises chapter 4, on normative Stoic logic.

Admittedly, this bit is not for the philosophically faint of heart, as the material is difficult to get through, despite (or maybe because) the brevity of the chapter itself. Still, it is very well worth the effort, as one gets, among other things, the beginning of an explanation of how Stoics bridge the so-called is/ought (fact/value) divide, which David Hume allegedly thought unbridgeable, but that any naturalistic ethics has, in fact, to bridge.

The first issue that Larry approaches in this context is defining norms and normative propositions, since ethics is a prescriptive (i.e., normative) discipline (as opposed to a descriptive one, like psychology). Norms — in this context — are simply facts about the behaviors of agents, i.e., about their goals, projects and endeavors. Normative propositions, then, are representations of facts about norms, and they can be true or false but can acquire no other truth value (i.e., Stoic logic is classical logic, not, for instance, paraconsistent).

Any logic is characterized by “operators,” i.e., by the logical equivalents of things like “plus,” “minus,” “divided by,” “multiplied by,” and so forth in mathematics. Standard deontic logic (a major modern approach to the use of formal logic in ethics) has operators like “obligation,” “permission,” and “prohibition.” Stoic moral logic, instead, uses operators like “requirement,” “ought,” and “indifference,” to which we now briefly turn.

Beginning with the definition of requirement:

“To say that an agent is required to do (or be) x is to say one or more of three things: (i) it may be to say that her doing or being x is in some sense a necessary condition for her pursuing some endeavor she has; (ii) it may be to say that within the terms of some endeavor, she ought to be (or it is required that she be) sanctioned for doing or being non-x; or (iii) it may be to say that her doing or being non-x would be a ‘nullity’ in her endeavor.” (p. 39)

For instance, if my endeavor is to become a better person, then I am required to practice the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance; I should be sanctioned if I do not practice those virtues (the word “sanctioned” here does not refer to formal punishments, it could simply be the result of me chastising myself when writing my evening diary, for instance); and if I do not behave virtuously then I am not in the process of becoming a better person.

Next, ought:

“To say that an agent ought to do or be x is to say that her doing (or being) x is advisable (but not necessarily required) in terms of some endeavor that she has.” (p. 38)

Notice that “ought,” here, does not have anything like the standard meaning that it has in modern moral philosophy, where it indicates an imperative. We as Stoics cannot make sense of moral imperatives that are detached from specific goals or endeavors, hence the “advisable rather than requires” bit above. Think of these as conditional imperatives, of the type: IF I want to do x, THEN I ought to do y.

Finally, indifference:

“The indifference operator is interpreted as a logical remainder. To say that it is a matter of indifference whether an agent does x is to say that her doing x is neither advisable nor inadvisable, neither required nor prohibited.” (p. 39)

In the case of my endeavor to become a better person, it is indifferent whether I am wealthy or not, as wealth has nothing to do with being a good person.

Becker then proceeds to distinguish three sets of possibilities to be used in our reasoning: logical, theoretical, and practical. Logical possibility is the largest set, and it includes the other two. It refers to things that are possible because they do not entail a logical contradiction. For instance, insisting in attempting to square the circle is futile, since we know that this is logically impossible.

Theoretical possibility refers to things that may be done, because they are not logically impossible, though whether they will be done depends on a set of pragmatic considerations. It is certainly logically possible to establish a human colony on Mars, for instance, but it may not be advisable to do so. Which means that practical possibility is the smallest set, contained by the other two, and refers to things that are logically and theoretically possible as well as, in fact, pragmatically realizable. My writing this commentary series on Larry’s book falls, obviously, in this latter category, as it is compatible, in practice, with a number of other endeavors I am currently engaged in. (Having another meeting with my Dean, by contrast, is pragmatically impossible, or so I tell myself right before politely declining his invitation.)

One more piece of the logical puzzle before we get to bridging the is/ought gap: it will often be the case that there will be conflicts among some of our endeavors and goals. Stoic logic comes built in with a way to resolve at least some of these conflicts from the get go: requirements take precedents over oughts, and both of these take precedence over indifferents. This is practically very important, because, among other things, it makes sense of what Stoics mean by “preferred indifferents.” If my goal is to become a more virtuous person (as it should be, if I’m a Stoic), then it is a requirement for me to practice the cardinal virtues, and that requirement overrides oughts related to other projects that may interfere with my main goal; both requirements and oughts related to compatible projects, in turn, override my pursuit of preferred indifferents, if that pursuit conflicts in any way with the requirements and oughts that have logical-ethical precedence. If pursuing wealth, say, is something I can do only by compromising my practice of virtue, then it is required of me, as a Stoic, not to pursue wealth.

We now get to how Stoics bridge the is/ought gap. Becker begins his treatment of this topic with an analogy: if I want to play a game, say chess, and win, then I ought to follow its rules, as well as to implement certain defensive and offensive strategies. If I don’t follow the rules, then I’m not playing the game. And if I don’t implement good strategies then I will not win at the game. Similarly with any kind of naturalistic philosophy, like Stoicism: IF I want to be a productive member of the human polis and live a flourishing human life, THEN I should be engaging in certain behaviors and not others (e.g., practice virtue, not comport myself like a psychopath). This conditional imperative follows from certain facts about human nature and human society, and it is the result of deliberate reflection on my part, “all things considered,” i.e., once I have evaluated all my priorities and goals in life.

As Larry puts it, for Stoics means/ends reasoning of the type just outlined is the underlying form of all practical reasoning. Most of our normative propositions, however, will be of the “nothing else considered” type, i.e., they will apply to local goals or endeavors. For instance, if my goal tonight is to have a romantic dinner with my partner, then I ought to buy some wine and flowers, and perhaps the ingredients to cook a good meal. But this sort of normative propositions can be in contrast with other normative propositions, e.g., tonight I really ought to grade my students’ papers, as a result of my commitments as a teacher and a professional. But I cannot both grade papers and set up a romantic dinner on the same night, for pragmatic reasons.

Stoic logic, as laid out by Larry, provides various means to resolve conflicts between normative propositions. Specifically:

“We resolve such conflicts by means of rules for generating superordinate normative propositions that dominate the conflicting ones. … When one endeavor is embedded in a more comprehensive and controlling one, the latter’s norms are superordinate. … When we recognize one endeavor as subject to assessment and correction by another, the latter’s norms are superordinate. … Sometimes norms of the same ordinal rank conflict. We resolve such conflicts with forced choices.” (pp. 43-44)

So, for instance, if I think of the need to spend a romantic evening with my partner and of the need to grade my students’ papers as on the same ordinal rank, then I juts have to make a forced choice between the two. But more likely then not, one norm will actually be superordinate: in this case, grading papers is part of my duty, both ethical and contractual, toward my students and employer. By contrast, spending a romantic evening is pleasant, but not a duty toward my partner, certainly not on that particular night. I should, then, grade the damn papers and promise to my partner that I will make it up to her the following night (at which point I will have an additional ethical duty to fulfill a promise made). Of course, the final level of superordinacy is represented by my duty to be a moral, virtuous person. That duty overrides everything else, including grading papers, should the two norms come into conflict.

The chapter ends with a succinct statement of four axioms of Stoic logic. These are explained in more depth, together with some additional axioms, in the appendix to the book devoted to formal logic, but the brief description that follows is sufficient for the general reader:

Axiom of Encompassment. The exercise of our agency through practical intelligence, including practical reasoning all-things-considered, is the most comprehensive and controlling of our endeavors.

Axiom of Finality. There is no reasoned assessment endeavor external to the exercise of practical reasoning all-things-considered.

Axiom of Moral Priority. Norms generated by the exercise of practical reasoning all-things-considered are superordinate to all others.

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.