Category Archives: Modern Stoicism

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.

Stoicism is a philosophy. Not a magic wand, a bag of tricks, or a prosperity gospel

A funny thing is happening now that Stoicism is part of the zeitgeist: people want to use it as a magic wand to solve any and all problems, as if practicing a philosophy of life (any philosophy of life, not just Stoicism) provided some kind of superhuman powers that can make us transcend our limitations as finite beings. Which is ironic, given that a central tenet of Stoicism — the dichotomy of control — is precisely about just how limited human powers really are.

For instance, ever since I started my Stoic advice column I got seriously challenging questions, ranging from how to deal with being transgender to what to do if one finds herself in an unhappy marriage, from whether and how to give to the homeless to preparing for death because of terminal cancer. I do my best, and all of these are precisely the sort of questions that a philosophy of life should be able to help with. And the column is an immensely rewarding aspect of my Stoic practice, because both the people who write letters to me and many readers tell me that they find help and comfort in Stoic philosophy.

Then again, there are those who ask what I think of as near-impossible questions: can someone who is severely cognitively impaired practice Stoicism? Well, no, because in order to understand and follow a philosophy one’s mental abilities have to be within the range of normalcy or near-normalcy. Ah! But isn’t that a limitation of Stoicism? No, or if it is, then it’s a limitation that it shares with any other philosophy or religion. Or with very different kinds of activities, for that matter. Consider: would you say that exercising at the gym is of “limited” value because one has to have arms or legs in order to lift weights? That would sound silly, wouldn’t it?

Or: can Stoicism deal with depression? It depends. There are examples of people suffering from different degrees of depression who have actually benefited from Stoic philosophy. But depression is a mental illness, and it requires professional medical intervention, in the form of psychotherapy and/or, if needed, psychiatric therapy. My colleague at City College, Lou Marinoff, wrote a best selling book provocatively entitled “Plato, Not Prozac!” about philosophical counseling as a tool for, as he puts it, “therapy for the sane.” But even Lou, despite his obvious skepticism of psychiatry, acknowledges in the introduction to the book that if your mind does not function properly you may, in fact, need Prozac (or whatever other effective medication). That will bring your mind back to a near-functional level, at which point you will still be faced by life’s ordinary questions, about meaning, relationships, career, goals, and so forth. For those, philosophy, not pills, are going to be the answer.

Speaking of the relationship between philosophy and psychology, an increasing number of people also seem to consider Stoicism just a bag of tricks, essentially detached from the underlying philosophy. This is not as objectionable as the above mentioned attitude (or the one I’m going to turn to next), as not everyone is interested in adopting or developing a philosophy of life (though, arguably, they should be! — see below). The analogy here is with the practice of, say, yoga. Yoga is actually a complex and ancient set of spiritual, mental and physical practices that are supposed to work harmoniously together. But many people in the West just take yoga classes because they are good for their body and decrease their stress level. That’s fine, so long as one is clear about the distinction. Similarly, many people who are into Buddhism are not practitioners of that (very demanding) philosophy. They just use meditation techniques to improve their wellbeing. Again, that’s fine, but don’t go around calling yourself a Buddhist if you don’t take seriously the philosophy underlying those techniques.

The same, I think, holds for Stoicism. As is well known, Stoicism has inspired a number of modern cognitive-based therapies, like rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. These approaches work, in many cases, and are useful to people. So if someone wishes to extract Stoic, or Stoic-inspired, exercises and mind tricks in order to improve their wellbeing, by all means they should do so. But that’s not Stoicism. Stoicism is a coherent philosophy of life, it comes complete with a particular view of ethics and eudaimonia, it prioritizes virtue over everything else (the so-called preferred indifferents), and it attempts to use our knowledge of the natural sciences and metaphysics, as well as of logic and cognitive science, for our own betterment. That’s a lot more than just a toolbox of practical techniques.

The third problem I see with certain developments in Stoicism sensu lato concerns what I have come to think of as the Stoic equivalent of prosperity theology, which, arguably, is no theology at all. I grew up Catholic, and I can tell you were in the Gospels (Mark 10,25; Matthew 19,24; and Luke 18,25) it actually says that not only wealth shouldn’t be a major goal in life, but rich people will have a hard time getting to heaven (presumably because in order to become rich one pretty much has to engage in not entirely Christian behaviors).

The Stoics had a similar attitude. While wealth is a preferred indifferent, meaning that it may be pursued so long as one does so in a virtuous fashion, it also comes with a particularly strong set of temptations to act unvirtuously. Here is Seneca, for instance, someone who knew a thing or two about both wealth and the temptations of unvirtuous behavior:

“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.” (Letter II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 6)

“That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good. But wealth falls to the lot of the pander and the trainer of gladiators; therefore wealth is not a good.” (Letter LXXXVII. Some Arguments in Favor of the Simple Life, 15)

“When you are choosing between two good men, the richer is not necessarily the better, any more than, in the case of two pilots of equal skill in managing the tiller, you would call him the better whose ship is larger and more imposing.” (Letter LXXIII. On Philosophers and Kings, 12)

“Money never made a man rich; on the contrary, it always smites men with a greater craving for itself.” (Letter CXIX. On Nature as Our Best Provider, 9)

(And yes, before you bring it up, Seneca was not a Sage.)

Here is Epictetus on the same theme:

“Do you not know what the thirst of a man in a fever is like, how different from the thirst of a man in health? The healthy man drinks and his thirst is gone: the other is delighted for a moment and then grows giddy, the water turns to gall, and he vomits and has colic, and is more exceeding thirsty. Such is the condition of the man who is haunted by desire in wealth or in office, and in wedlock with a lovely woman: jealousy clings to him, fear of loss, shameful words, shameful thoughts, unseemly deeds.” (Discourses IV, 9)

“I say that virtue is more valuable than wealth to the same degree that eyes are more valuable than fingernails.” (Fragments 13)

“The following are non-sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person, than you.’” (Enchiridion 44)

And, just in case you are still not convinced, here is Marcus:

“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” (Meditations, VIII.33)

“From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” (Meditations I.3)

Now, can anyone have read the above and then written an article entitled “What is Stoicism and How Can it Turn your Life to Solid Gold?” Appropriately, the article refers to Stoic techniques as “tricks,” and the word “virtue” does not appear in it, at all.

There are a number of other examples of application of Stoicism to business and entrepreneurship, from Ryan Holiday’s “7 ways billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates demonstrate the ancient philosophy of Marcus Aurelius” to Petrina Coventry’s “6 Ways Stoicism Can Help Entrepreneurs.” (What’s with the numbering, anyway?) Again, nothing wrong with using Stoic techniques to achieve whatever goal one wishes to achieve. But that’s not Stoic philosophy, as abundantly demonstrated by the collection of quotes given above.

Ah, but am I not being hypocritical here? Don’t I make money out of selling my own book, How To Be A Stoic? Of course I do. Just like I get paid by the City College of New York to teach philosophy there. Philosophers too have to make a living, as the ancient Stoics themselves discovered: Chrysippus, the third heard of the Stoa, is reputed to have been the first one who took money for his services, and both Zeno and Seneca were wealthy. Epictetus started as a slave and lived a modest life, but Marcus Aurelius was literally the most powerful and wealthy man in the Western world.

The question, therefore, isn’t whether one earns money, or how much. The question is whether that’s a chief goal of their lives. I can honestly say that I do not care how many copies of How To Be A Stoic are sold (don’t tell my editor, please). If many, that’s a preferred indifferent; if few, that’s a dispreferred indifferent. I would have written the book anyway, because I thought I had something to say. As always with virtue ethics, the focus is not on the outcome, but on the agent’s intentions. Pursuit of money for its own sake is definitely not Stoic. And even having a lot of money acquired virtuously is problematic, because large amounts of wealth carry strong temptations to act unvirtuously, either in spending that money, or in acquiring even more of it, or in misusing it to buy oneself influence, power, or reputation. Again, Seneca docet.

Now, none of the above should be construed as an attempt to “purify” Stoicism, to demarcate the good guys from the bad guys. On the contrary, I’ve maintained from the beginning of my own practice that Stoicism is neutral with respect to a large spectrum of metaphysical positions and political ideologies. But I think it is a disservice to both the history and the very idea of Stoic philosophy not to make the distinctions I made above. Stoic techniques can be used to improve your mental health or to become rich and successful. But neither is the goal of Stoic philosophy. That goal is one and one only: to become a better, more virtuous person. Everything else is indifferent, as preferred as it may be.

Now why would anyone want to practice the philosophy, instead of just picking and choosing the good bits, like many modern yoga practitioners or meditators? Because a philosophy of life provides you with a general framework to orient yourself in the world, it gives you quick access to what is truly important and what you can ignore, it equips you with a moral compass, and it helps you construct meaning out of what you do. In short, it allows you to live a eudaimonic life, the sort of life that, once you get to the end, you look back to it and justifiably feel that it was time well spent.

But why Stoicism in particular? Because of Epictetus’ promise, right at the beginning of his Handbook:

“Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (Enchiridion I.3)

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

Stoa at Lindos on Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More generally:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry then provides an important definition:

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

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

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

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

Becker’s A New Stoicism, II: the way things stand, part 1

Stoa at Miletus

Last time we have briefly examined the reasons why Larry Becker has just published the second edition of his A New Stoicism, which attempts to carry out an ambitious thought experiment: what would have happened if Stoicism had not gotten interrupted, so to speak, in the third century of the modern era, and its practitioners had instead engaged with the philosophy and science of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and finally modernity?

The second entry in this series tackles chapters 1, 2 and 3 of the book, grouped by Becker under the general heading of “the way things stand.” (I originally meant to cover this material in one post, but it has become clear that I will need two.) Chapter 1 is very brief, and it offers a rather bleak, and yet realistic, view of the history of Stoicism — as well as philosophy as a whole — after the third century. It begins with the assertion that Stoic ethics was “pillaged” and effaced by imperial Christianity, meaning that the Christians, who took over the Roman Empire, also picked and chose their favorite bits of Stoic philosophy (the Logos, the virtues, the concept of duty), and absorbed it into their own, very different, ethical framework.

One could argue, however, that this pillaging is precisely what allowed Stoicism to remain a live presence for many centuries, unlike, say, its former rival, Epicureanism — which the Christians rejected wholesale because of its unfriendly metaphysics based on atoms swirling in the void. After all, Christian thinkers from Paul to Augustine to Thomas Aquinas engaged with Stoic thought, a process that eventually led to a brief resurgence of the Greco-Roman philosophy during the Renaissance, the so-called Neo-Stoicism of Justus Lipsius and Michel De Montaigne.

Still, Becker is right that during the Middle Ages Christianity came to use Stoic precepts as spiritual exercises and “remedies,” while at the same time abandoning or radically transforming core concepts of the philosophy. It is, in fact, the case that Christian monks used Epictetus’ Enchiridion as a training manual for spiritual exercises, though they changed every occurrence of “Socrates” to “Jesus.” But it is also the case that Thomas Aquinas articulated his famous theory of the seven virtues by subordinating the Stoic ones (prudence, courage, justice, and temperance) to the specifically Christian ones of hope, faith, and charity.

Interestingly, Becker says that the confusion between the philosophy and the “remedies” still obtains today, and I wonder whether he is referring to the onslaught of Stoicism as a set of “life hacking” techniques, which does make a number of prokoptontes feel rather uneasy, skeptical of what may be construed as a borderline perversion of the philosophy. (After all, making money or becoming successful aren’t Stoic objectives, they are mere preferred indifferents)

Becker then suggests that Stoics have gradually abandoned their original metaphysics, in the face of modern mechanistic science, thus decoupling their philosophy from theology. As we shall see later on, he does not think this was a bad move, but rather an incomplete one: if the universe is not a living organism then one needs a new account of the Logos, and if Providence is not the result of the activities of that organism, then one needs a new account of Fate and the web of cause-effect.

We then come to the rise of Romanticism, which resulted in the rejection of even Stoic techniques, let alone the broader philosophy, on the ground that some of what the Stoics regard as destructive emotions ought to be embraced, rather than rejected. More importantly, Becker is implicitly critical of David Hume’s fact-value distinction (which is, indeed, rejected by a naturalistic ethics like the Stoic one), and thinks it problematic that both modern social science and philosophy bought into it. The Stoics thought that social science is integral to the study of ethics, not a completely distinct field.

The chapter ends with the observation that moral truth is increasingly given a coherentist interpretation in modern philosophy, an interpretation according to which:

“Pluralism, relativism, and irony abounded, alongside various forms of dogmatism about natural duties and the intrinsic moral worth of human beings. … It is a complete disaster. Only a few are escaped to tell you.” (p. 4)

After this rather dark view of things, chapter 2 sets out to establish a new agenda for Stoic ethics. This too is a rather brief chapter, in which Becker imagines a book that hasn’t been written yet, one in which the old Stoic teleology is replaced by the idea that “living according to nature” is reinterpreted as meaning living according to the dictates of practical reason, all things considered. That book would also argue that such normative propositions cannot be constructed a priori (as in, say, Kant), but rather depend on empirical knowledge of the natural world at large, and of human nature more specifically.

That same hypothetical book would then describe a practical philosophical regime aimed at building character, a regime that emphasizes control over one’s mental states in order to overcome whatever obstacles to living well one may encounter in the course of her life. The book in question would also argue that virtue is always one and the same thing: conformity to practical reason and wisdom, thus recovering, by a different route, the ancient Stoic concept of the unity of the virtues.

That imaginary book is not the one that Becker has actually written, he says (though methinks he has come pretty darn close!), but A New Stoicism certainly represents of very good outline of that more complex endeavor, an endeavor that begins with chapter 3, a broadly declarative survey of the possibilities open to modern Stoicism.

It is this survey that represents the meat of the first section of the book, and to which I now turn. It begins by admitting that “our” critics, as Larry charmingly (in my mind) puts it, think of Stoic ethical doctrine as a mix of two types of components: on the one hand, a number of notions that are sensible, but also common to other Hellenistic philosophies, and are thus not distinctively Stoic; on the other hand, some notions that are distinctively Stoic but are untenable. The latter include the ideas that the only good is virtue, that virtue does not admit of degrees, and that nonetheless one can make progress towards it. Boldly, Becker warns his readers that he will defend a modern version of all these “paradoxa Stoicorum,” as Cicero called them.

In order to prepare the ground for his project, Larry tackles the famous relationship among the three fields: physics, logic, and ethics. He admits that modern science no longer includes any notion of teleology, and yet that we can still recover a version of the quintessentially Stoic idea that an understanding of the world is pertinent to the study of ethics. Contra much modern philosophy, that is, ethics is not an autonomous enterprise for the Stoic.

For Becker ethics is subordinate to science and logic — as it was for the ancient Stoics. But we need to be careful to understand what he means by this, because his approach is a hell of a lot more sensible than that of scientistically inclined writers such as Sam Harris and Michael Shermer. The subordination derives from the fact that the subject matter of ethics is human character and conduct, together with pertinent mental and social phenomena. It stands to reason, then, that the person concerned with ethics ought to study human nature. Moreover, the methods of ethics are those of rational discourse, which therefore implies that one needs a good handle on logic, understood in the broad sense (i.e., not just the study of formal reasoning) that the Stoics were interested in. (For a modern and sensible approach to a broad conception of rationality see Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason.)

Other characteristics of ethics are that it is normative, since it is in the business of saying what people ought to do, not just of describing what they actually do; it attempts to construct an account of normativity itself (i.e., why ought people do certain things?); and, practically speaking, is mostly in the business of organizing facts (about the world and humanity) and sifting them through a logical sieve. I find this general account of the nature of ethics incredibly compelling, and much better — especially in terms of applicability — than pretty much anything else I’ve seen from professional moral philosophers from Kant on.

The next bit is just as provocative, and yet, again, I think Larry is right on target. He characterizes modern ethics as narrowly concerned with a special domain, or defined by a special point of view or set of commitments, generally referred to as “moral.” Stoic ethics, by contrast, is a much broader enterprise, attempting to provide “overriding and final” judgments about all human actions. These judgments are overriding and final because they are arrived at all things considered, taking into account self-interest, altruism, prudence (in the sense of practical wisdom, or phronesis), and even etiquette.

Becker suggests that the Stoic approach (which in this respect is typical of all “Socratic” philosophies) is superior because it directly addresses the question that no modern meta-ethicist has been able to solve: if ethics is concerned only with the sub-set of moral decisions, why should people give priority to that particular criterion whenever it contrasts with other relevant criteria, such as self-interest? Stoic “ethics,” instead, includes considerations of self-interest, and others, from the get go, since it is about judgments arrived at all things considered.

Larry then returns to something that is going to be controversial among modern Stoics: the issue of teleology. I have to state at the onset that my own position is essentially aligned with his, and yet that I welcome an ecumenical version of Stoicism where alternative (e.g., pantheistic, or even theistic) metaphysics are possible. I do not see a contradiction between welcoming a plurality of positions on a given topic and yet at the same time personally thinking that one of them is better than the others (presumably, so do my fellow Stoics who think of themselves as pantheists or theists, with respect to those doctrines).

Essentially, Becker accepts modern science at face value. If science does not require teleology, and in fact rejects the notion of an organic universe in favor of a mechanistic (or, more modernly, a quantistic-relativistic) one, so be it. Stoicism will accommodate such notion. The most important components of this view are that:

“Cosmology does not tell us why there is something rather than nothing, and whether a god produced it. Metaphysics does not thoroughly reconcile human freedom with determinism, or with indeterminism, or with combinations of the two; it does not fully reconcile the description of human consciousness as an object with the nature of subjective experience; it does not fully resolve problems about the nature of time, identity through time, and causality.” (p. 11)

The idea is that, so far as we can tell, there is no reason to think that our galaxy, planet or ourselves are special in any way. The universe is indifferent toward us and takes no special notice of or concern for our affairs.

Next, reminds us Becker, Stoic ethics is naturalistic, meaning that it constructs normative propositions, all things considered, from facts about human values, preferences, projects, commitments, and even conventions. This is important, because it amounts to a rejection of absolute moral truths, while at the same time not embracing relativism. The idea of mind independent moral truths is rejected as incoherent (akin to, say, mathematical Platonism), since ethics is the study of human prescriptive actions. Conversely, relativism is also a no starter because there are objective facts about human nature and the human condition that constrain our ethical choices.

Ethics, then, applies to normally functioning human beings. Not to pathological ones (say, psychopaths) or to Martians (who, presumably, will have their own ethics, all their things considered). Becker, wisely, stays clear of any essentialist definition of human nature, and instead thinks the Stoic approach is useful for:

“Huge percentages of normally formed human beings [who] are purposive, socially interactive, reciprocally benevolent language users; have complex emotional-response dispositions and profound attachments or bonds to other people or things; deliberate and make choices; [and] typically have some limits or boundaries that they will try to protect categorically.” (p. 12)

How, then, do the biological and social sciences contribute to the Stoic ethical project? In three ways: (i) they offer facts about human behavior that can be used to construct ethical arguments; (ii) they offer theories, for instance in evolutionary biology, that help us make sense of the biological nature of human behavior and the degree of its plasticity in response to varying circumstances; and (iii) they provide empirically based analysis of human rationality and its limits.

Finally, for now, Stoic ethics is about particulars, meaning how individual human beings ought to behave under their specific circumstances:

“Stoic ethical theory begins with the particular — with fully situated individuals — and works carefully out to more general matters.” (p. 13)

The second part of this post will address the last two sections of chapter 3 of A New Stoicism: norms and moral training (including values, preferences, commitments, projects, standards, social roles, conventions, and institutions), as well as the relationship between virtue and happiness.

Becker’s A New Stoicism, I: the map of the territory

With this post I am going to begin an in-depth coverage of the second edition of Larry Becker’s fundamental book, A New Stoicism, without question the most serious attempt to “update” Stoicism from the end of its first half-millennium run, in the second century of the modern era.

I have commented on the previous edition of Larry’s book and I have published an interview with him about the development of his ideas. This new series will proceed as follow: (i) a brief summary of the changes to the new edition, with a justification of why it was necessary, essentially covering the preface of the book (this post); (ii) “the way things stand,” discussing chapters 1-3, on “the conceit,” “a new agenda for Stoic ethics,” and “the ruins of doctrine”; (iii) “the way things might go,” covering chapters 4 and 5, on “normative logic” and “following the facts” (Larry’s rendition of “live according to nature”); (iv) on virtue (chapter 6); (v) on happiness (chapter 7); and (vi) the postscript, including discussions of “the virtues of virtue ethics in the Stoic tradition,” “Stoic politics and virtue politics in general,” and “Stoicism as a guide to living well.”

Larry has promised to chime in during our discussions, so fasten your seat belts, and hang on for a fascinating ride!


Larry explains at the beginning of his new book that he implemented five substantial changes with respect to the old edition. Even if you have not read the latter, it is going to be instructive to briefly discuss what Becker has done, as it will represent a conceptual map of sorts to help us keep our bearings in the posts to come.

I. Larry reformulated the relationship among Stoic agency, virtue, and the concept of eudaimonia (or flourishing).

The problem this is meant to address is an apparent inconsistency in Stoic thought. For the Stoics, virtue is an end in itself, the chief good of a human life (which they derive from Socrates’ discussion in the Euthydemus). But Stoicism is also considered a eudaimonic philosophy, in the Socratic tradition. How can this be, since eudaimonia is usually defined as the ultimate goal for this class of philosophies? How can the chief good be both a virtuous life and a eudaimonic one?

Larry proposes a “developmental” account of Stoic ethics (a revised version of the so-called cradle argument, which one finds in Cicero’s De Finibus, book II) from which it will turn out that Stoic agency, Stoic virtue, and eudaimonia are all emerging from Stoic practice, being, in a sense, inextricably linked to each other. As a bonus, Becker will also provide an explanation of the famous “paradoxical” Stoic doctrine that virtue is an all or nothing thing, and yet one can make progress toward virtue (see the drowning man metaphor). After all, they coined the term “prokopton” precisely to indicate one who makes progress in the study and practice of Stoicism.

II. Specifically Stoic moral training and education have to be part of the above mentioned developmental story.

I will not make additional comments about this here, we will get to it in due time.

III. An entirely new treatment of the topic of suicide, which was omitted in the first edition.

Again, no further comment needed at the moment, except that Larry will show that the moral possibility of suicide (under strict conditions) is, in fact, part and parcel of Stoic philosophy, as I’ve argued here while discussing Epictetus’ so-called open door policy.

IV. A major update in the discussion of the available literature on Stoicism, both ancient and modern, a literature that has grown substantially since the 1998 edition of A New Stoicism.

No further comment needed here.

V. A postscript with substantial new material on the topics of virtue ethics, how Stoicism relates to politics and social justice, and Stoicism as a guide to modern living.

This last change is arguably the most impactful for readers interested in the practice of Stoicism, and the fact that it is relegated to a postscript should not deceive the reader. It is there because Larry’s main interest is theoretical and grounded in his academic approach. His book is not a practical guide. But the ancient Stoics would have told you that if you do not have a good grasp of the theory, the practice becomes an empty bag of tricks, which is why they included the study of the fields of physics and logic in their curriculum, as preparatory to the crucial bit, the ethics.

So the one sketched above is the map of the territory ahead. Next up: how and why to update Stoicism to the 21st century.

Stoicism on romantic love and commitment

I often learn about Stoicism by confronting what I think is a likely Stoic position on a particular issue with what other philosophies’ take is on that same position. Hence my ongoing series on Stoicism and its alternatives. (Not to be confused with my other ongoing series, on Stoicism and its critics.) Now, if there is a topic on which both ancient and modern Stoic authors don’t write a lot is love, romantic and otherwise. So let’s get to it, by way of comparing my views with those of my friend and colleague Skye Cleary, who has written a really nice essay about relationships and commitment in the latest issue of the New Philosopher. (Not yet available online, keep an eye on the site, and while you’re at it, subscribe to the magazine)

Skye’s piece, which won the New Philosopher’s Writers’ Award, is entitled “Can we make love stay?” and is written from an Existentialist perspective. (Spoiler alert: the answer turns out to be possibly, but it’s hard…) Skye begins with the commonsense observation that when we fall in love it feels like it will last forever. And yet, both demographic statistics and human neurobiology tell us that that’s far from guaranteed. Indeed, according to research by Helen Fisher on human hormonal profiles, the “high” of romantic love lasts on average between six and 18 months. After that, either the couple breaks up, or they move to a phase of attachment (which may last several more years, or a lifetime). That latter phase is, in fact, a more mature form of love, but it is definitely not the heady hormonal and emotional cocktail of the beginnings.

(Fisher’s Anatomy of Love contains lots of interesting science, but — as usual with contemporary mixes of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology — it needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt.)

So what’s the problem? As Skye summarizes it: “We keep promising ‘till death us do part’ even when we know there’s a pretty good chance love won’t last.” That, in a nutshell, is the problem, and Skye briefly lists a number of potential solutions: “not making any commitments, making short-term commitments, commit knowing that we might have to break our word, or commit with lots of caveats.”

She further nails the issue when she reasons that the problem, ultimately, is that there seems to be a contradiction between committing to future actions (and feelings) when that future is, in fact, uncertain. Should commitment be absolute, no matter what — which would seem a rather foolish way to proceed — or should it be conditional on future developments, which begins to sound like no commitment at all?

One of the early Existentialist philosophers was Søren Kierkegaard, who thought about this matter and arrived at one possible solution: leap into marriage (and, ultimately, religion), commit not to a lover, but to love itself. Skye, however, is duly unimpressed: “the problem is that there is something insidious and zombie-like about performing loving actions without passion for the beloved.” That is, pace Kierkegaard, it makes no sense to commit to the idea of love regardless of the particular person one happens to be implementing that idea with.

But Skye rejects also what she calls the “ultra-rational” approach, i.e., pledging commitment only if one is absolutely sure that things will work out. This is in a sense the opposite of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and it is probably accurate to describe it as “ultra” rational. As such, it may be interpreted to be close to the Stoic position, given the emphasis of the school on reason, but I don’t think it is.

Allow me a short detour into a series of posts I have been running at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato (devoted to general philosophy). I have been writing about Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, a must-read for anyone interested in the very idea of reason, its applicability, and its limits. Julian makes a profound distinction between reason and logic. Skye’s ultra-rational individual comes across as a Spock-like figure (remember, Spock is often misunderstood as a quintessential Stoic!) who acts in life on the basis of strict evidentiary and logical reasoning. And yet, even Spock, later in his career, had to admit that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

Baggini’s point is that reason is far broader than formal logic, that to apply reason means to arrive at good judgments based on a combination of logic and evidence, but also personal experience and values. That’s why the Stoics thought that the study of “logic” and “physics” are both instrumental to ethics, but by themselves are insufficient to achieve wisdom. As Epictetus puts it:

“We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)

Let me recap so far: the Stoic position clearly cannot be Kierkegaard’s, which even Skye, as an Existentialist, rejects anyway. But it is not to be found in its opposite, “ultra-rational” extreme, either. What then?

Skye turns to another giant of Existentialism, Albert Camus, who also rejected Kierkegaard. As she summarizes it: “what’s important is being able to stand on the ‘dizzying crest’ of absurdity. Sisyphus embraces his torture of endlessly push the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down again. Just as the absurd hero finds revolt, freedom, and passion in his lucidity, this is how we ought to approach relationships: we embrace the absurdity of love and give it our best shot.”

I never understood why Camus and the Existentialists are so fond of Sisyphus. If they actually took a look at the myth as it is usually recounted, they’ll discover that he is no hero at all. To begin with, Sisyphus was a bit of a rascal, to put it mildly. He was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) and very much devoted to self-aggrandizing and deceit. He was punished by Zeus for, among other misdeeds, performing the impious act of killing travelers passing by his city. Because of that Sisyphus was forced to eternally roll the boulder up, a constant reminder of the hubris of thinking himself cleverer than Zeus. He didn’t have a choice, he didn’t revolt, and he had no passion for the task. Indeed, he was supervised by Persephone in the Underworld, to make sure he did what he was supposed to do.

At any rate, a Stoic informed by modern science would say that there is absolutely nothing absurd about love. Its biological origins lie, of course, with the need for reproduction and the raising of a family (it may be no coincidence, as Fisher points out, that many relationships last 4-5 years, the time it took in human prehistory to get a child to be sufficiently independent as not to need both parents to stick around). But the modern concept has evolved culturally a great deal, to represent and satisfy a wide range of human needs for companionship, sharing one’s goals and projects, and so forth. The fact that it doesn’t (always) last is a fact of nature, which the Stoic would accept rather than indulge in Disney-like wishful thinking (not that that’s what Skye does in her piece). Here is Epictetus on wishing things to be different when they cannot be:

“If you long for your son or your friend [or your partner], when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” (Discourses III, 24.86)

While Stoicism is most definitely not a passive philosophy (along the lines of “que sera, sera”), it is one founded on realism, meaning that we try to differentiate between the things we can actually control and change and those we cannot (as in Enchiridion 1.1, and analogously to the famous Christian Serenity Prayer). Which means what, exactly, in terms of love and commitment?

I think a more productive way to address the issue Skye (and a lot of us) is concerned with is not by asking “how do I make love last?” or “should I commit till death us do part”? Nor is the solution to think in terms of conditional commitments, commitments with caveats, or commitments until things change. Rather, we should ask ourselves what, exactly, should we commit to.

My answer is: justice, as in one of the four Stoic virtues. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, but hear me out. “Justice” for the Stoics doesn’t mean (only) social justice, though it can and should also be interpreted that way. It is, rather, the idea that we ought to treat others with fairness, as human beings with their inherent moral worth. That applies to all our relations, but especially to the close ones, and therefore to love for a partner.

This means, for instance, no cheating (contra to what some modern psychologists seem to think). It also means to treat our partner kindly and lovingly, to do our best to be helpful and supportive. This is what is known as the discipline of action, which regulates all our dealings with others:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Seneca is talking about friendship here, but this goes a fortiori for a loving relationship. He also says, again about friendship, but mutatis mutandis:

“When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment.” (Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Meaning that one needs to be careful whom one commits to, but once you do commit, you have to do it wholeheartedly. And, I maintain, that is what love is, after Fisher’s initial rush of hormones: a solid relationship based on trust, compassion, and friendship. Of course there is no guarantee that it will last a lifetime. Some do, others don’t. Therefore, it is unwise to “commit” to a specific length of time, come what may. But we can, indeed ought to, commit to be as good to that person as we can. To use the old Stoic metaphor of the archer:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

To aim for our relationship to last until death us do part is within our power. To make sure it does is not. Commitment is to the goal, not the outcome, and the commitment is difficult enough work for a mere human as it is. Let the goal come (or not) as it pleases the universe.

Is Stoicism “true”? What does that mean, anyway?

Philosopher of science Imre Lakatos

I recently wrote about the remarkable similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism, referring to a recent book by Bob Wright, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. With all due respect to Bob, and acknowledging (from experience) that authors don’t actually have full control of the titles of their books, I maintain that to ask the question of whether a philosophy (be that Buddhism, Stoicism, or whatever) is “true” is, in part, a category mistake. But that does not, in fact, mean that modern scientific evidence is entirely irrelevant to the practice of said philosophy. Let me explain.

A category mistake is a situation where someone is attempting to apply a particular criterion to something to which that criterion is irrelevant or inappropriate. For instance, if I were to ask “what is the color of triangles?” that may sound deep, but it’s actually nonsense (what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a “deepity”). That’s because triangles are geometrical figures, and they are characterized by things like number of sides, angles, lengths, and so forth. But not colors (though individual instances of triangles may, of course, be colored).

The classic case of a category mistake is given by philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in his The Concept of Mind (1949), where he introduced the idea: consider someone who is visiting Oxford University. The guy, upon viewing the various colleges and the library, inquires “But where is the University?” The visitor’s mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category “units of physical infrastructure” rather than that of an “institution.”

So when someone asks whether Buddhism or Stoicism are “true” I think they are making a category mistake. Philosophies of life cannot be true in the sense of corresponding to some sort of reality out there, like the fact that the Sun is a star of a given type and surface temperature, or that water boils at 100C. Rather, philosophies of life are frameworks to orient one’s existence and navigate it in a way that is satisfying to the practitioner. Which means that one cannot even sensibly ask whether Buddhism or Stoicism “work.” The proper question, rather, is does Stoicism (or Buddhism) work for you?

Another proper question one can ask about a philosophy is whether it is coherent, i.e., (more or less) internally consistent. Or whether its precepts are clear, instead of being muddled. And so forth. Coherence, clarity, and individual usefulness are criteria properly applied to philosophies of life, just like number of sides, angles, and lengths are proper characteristics of geometrical figures. But truth, in this case, is not a proper category, it’s more like color for triangles.

Nevertheless, philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism also make more limited claims about specific practices. For instance, meditation for Buddhists, keeping a philosophical diary for Stoics, and so forth. These claims are empirical in nature, and are therefore at least potentially subject to systematic or scientific inquiry. That, I surmise, is the meaning of Wright’s book title.

(For the purposes of this discussion, “empirical” is taken to be broader than scientific, since it includes personal experience, for instance, while scientific means done systematically, according to the methods of whatever science is germane, like psychology, biology, and so forth. My knowledge that I need to take the Q train to get from my apartment to Time Square is definitely empirical, but it would be a bit too much to label it “scientific.”)

Interestingly, even if one or more particular practices within a given philosophy were shown not to work, that would not invalidate the philosophy within which such practices are situated. The Dalai Lama famously said that if science comes up with something that contradicts a Buddhist doctrine, Buddhism will have to change. Notice the use of the word “change,” not “be abandoned.” How come?

Help may come here from an unlikely source: philosopher of science and mathematics Imre Lakatos, a student of Karl Popper. Allow me a brief detour into philosophy of science, I promise it will pay off.

Popper had arrived at the conclusion that scientific theories cannot possibly be proven true, because there is always a chance that — while the theory has so far withstood various empirical tests — it will fail a new one tomorrow. Indeed, the history of science tells us precisely that: Newton’s mechanics was considered true, until it failed to describe the orbit of the planet Mercury and was replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity. The latter is already known not to be true, because in certain areas of application it provides predictions that contradict those of quantum mechanics. And so forth.

Popper then thought that science makes progress not by arriving at true theories (it manifestly doesn’t), but rather by progressively eliminating false ones. If a theory fails a given test then we know it is not true, and it can safely be discarded.

Except that things don’t work that way either. For instance, the Copernican theory in astronomy abysmally failed, initially, to account for the actual positions of the planets in the sky. In fact, it wasn’t doing any better than its rival, the long established Ptolemaic system. And yet, astronomers like Galileo believed Copernicus was much closer to the truth than Ptolemy, and kept the theory alive. Until Kepler had a eureka! moment, realizing that if planetary orbits were elliptical, and not circular as assumed by Copernicus, everything would fall into place, with the theory now providing a very good approximation of observable planetary positions. But Popper would have rejected the Copernican system, because it had been falsified by observation for decades.

Okay, said Lakatos, if scientific theories — strictly speaking — cannot be shown to be true, and cannot be shown to be false, how does then science make progress? By producing research programs. A research program is a body of theory (the “core”), plus a number of ancillary notions (the “protective belt”) that bridge the gap between the theory and the empirical world. For instance, the core of the Copernican theory is the idea that the Sun, and not the Earth, is located near the center of the solar system. But the further idea that planetary orbits are circular is part of the protective belt. What Kepler did was to retain the core and change the belt, substituting ellipses for circles, and thus making the core empirical functional.

Lakatos thought that research programs aren’t “true” or “false” (that would be another category mistake), but rather “progressive” or “degenerative.” A progressive research program is one that keeps producing new results that are useful to scientists. A degenerative one, by contrast, doesn’t yield new insights, and in fact it needs constant fixing and tweaking, until eventually it is abandoned because no longer useful. That’s exactly what happened to the Ptolemaic system, where the tweaks came in the form of an increasing, embarrassingly high number of “epicycles” (basically, sub-orbits used to artificially improve the align between theory and observations). Indeed, the word epicycle nowadays has come more broadly mean the introduction of baroque and artificial notions in order to save a pet theory. If you need epicycles you are very likely on the wrong path.

Back to philosophy, then. The suggestion I want to make is that philosophies of life are, in a sense, like scientific research programs: they too are constituted of a “core” and a “protective belt.” The core is made of the fundamental precepts of that philosophy, without which it would not be recognizable as such. The protective belt is constituted of ancillary notions that are not as crucial, as well as of a series of practices. The core is not really open to empirical verification, but is rather assessed in terms of internal coherence and usefulness to the practitioner. The belt, by contrast, is open and revisable, partially in light of empirical or scientific evidence.

This means that philosophies can (and do) evolve by way of dynamically adjusting their protective belts in response to human experience and understanding. Whether they become “progressive” or “degenerate,” to use Lakatos’ terminology, depends on whether they are useful to a sufficient number of people or not.

If you have followed me so far, then the next question is: what do the core and belt of Stoicism consist of? Opinions, I’m sure, will vary, but here is a first pass:

Stoicism’s core

(i) Virtue is the chief good, i.e., the thing in life you do not trade anything with. Everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Seneca, Letter LXXI. On the Supreme Good, 32)

(ii) The dichotomy of control is the proper way to look at world, in order to make a distinction between what is and is not up to us, and thus focus our energy on the first and ignore the second.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1)

(iii) Cosmopolitanism: regardless of social status, geographical or ethnic origin, and so forth, all human beings are to be treated fairly, and indeed the point of a human life is to be of service to society. (This is related to another famous Stoic motto: live according to nature, i.e., by applying reason to social living.)

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)

(iv) Cause and Effect: while this is sometimes understood as Stoic determinism, I’ve argued that from a modern perspective talk of determinism is a bit of a red herring (because if it turns out that quantum mechanics confirms the existence of truly random events at the fundamental level, cause and effect still hold at the macroscopic level of human actions, even if the universe were strictly speaking non-deterministic). The important point is that everything happens because of previous causes. See the metaphor of Chrysippus’ cylinder:

“‘In the same way therefore,’ he says, ‘as a person who has pushed a roller forward has given it a beginning of motion, but has not given it the capacity to roll, so a sense-presentation when it impinges on the will, it is true impresses and as it were seals its appearance on the mind, but the act of assent will be in our power, and as we said in the case of the roller, though given a push from without, as to the rest will move by its own force and nature.” (Cicero, De Fato, 43)

(v) Materialism: the Stoics thought that everything is made of matter. Of course, modern science may understand something quite different by “matter” then they did, but the important point is that things are made of stuff, there are no spooky entities, no mind-matter dualism, and so forth.

“The primary matter [the Stoics] make the substratum of all things: so Chrysippus in the first book of his Physics, and Zeno. By matter is meant that out of which anything whatsoever is produced.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.150)

Stoicism’s protective belt

The protective belt is not as easy to define as the core, because it is both much larger and dynamic. Roughly, it can be divided into two major categories: theoretical and practical, with the theoretical component subject to critical analysis on the basis of coherence and logic, and the practical component subject to critical analysis based on usefulness and empirical evidence.

Part of the theoretical belt, for instance, is the idea of a providential universe, which the ancient Stoics believed in (they were pantheists), and yet which even they allowed was not strictly necessary for ethics:

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XII.14)

Some of the Stoics’ so-called “paradoxical” ideas fall into this category too: for instance, the notion that virtue is an all-or-nothing (and that, therefore, all bad actions are equally bad), as expressed in the famous drowning man metaphor:

“For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already. … Similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.” (Cicero, De Finibus, IV.48)

On the empirical side, there are all the Stoic techniques, which have been validated, modified and expanded by modern disciplines like rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. There is a very in-depth recent article in the New York Times on how to deal with stress (really, life in general) on the basis of modern empirical evidence. It could have been written almost entirely out of quotations from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus. For instance:

* Changing your perception of a stressful situation helps you cope with it, just like Epictetus said:

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Enchiridion, 5)

* Practicing stress inoculates you against it, for example by reflecting on what to expect and rehashing a difficult situation ahead of time:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Seneca, Letter CVII. On Obedience to the Universal Will, 3)

* Practicing resilience helps coping with stress, for instance by way of exercises in self-deprivation:

“‘Bad bread!’ you say. But just wait for it; it will become good. Hunger will make even such bread delicate and of the finest flavor.” (Seneca, Letter CXXIII. On the Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue, 2)

* Finding a role model gives you courage and inspiration:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters to Lucilius, XI, On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

* Daily journaling is an empirically proven way to help you reflect on issues and better prepare to deal with them:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.” (Seneca, On Anger, III.36)

* Eating well and in a mindful way is good for your mind, not just your body:

“When it comes to food, responsible people favor what is easy to obtain over what is difficult, what involves no trouble over what does, and what is available over what isn’t.” (Musonius Rufus, Lecture 18B.8)

* Good friends and relations are an important source of support and happiness:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

* Helping other people is good for your own mental wellbeing:

“The universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.1)

The list could go on and on, but you get the gist. Of course, the Stoics do all the above not just because it makes their own life better (practical outcome), but because it is the right thing to do for a social animal (ethical precept). Then again, for them there is no sharp distinction between one’s own wellbeing and that of everyone else, because of universal cause and effect and the notion of cosmopolitanism. Every time I make the world better by my actions I don’t help just other people, I help myself as well.

So when people ask if Stoicism (or Buddhism, or Christianity) is “true” the answer is: it depends on what you mean. If you are referring to the core principles, then you are committing a category mistake: core doctrines are not true or false, they are coherent or incoherent, useful or not. If they are coherent and useful, the philosophy progresses, in the Lakatosian sense; if not, it degenerates. But if you are talking about the protective belt, then the theoretical components are subject to the same sort of (philosophical) analysis at the core, and the practical ones can usefully be confronted with empirical and scientific evidence. Being aware of the distinction between a philosophy’s core and belt would surely save us a lot of endless discussions about whether something or someone is “truly” Stoic (or Buddhist, or Christian) or not.