You might have heard of positive psychology. It has been all the rage in the media for a while now, especially thanks to the high profile work of its founder, Martin Seligman. Positive psychology (PP, henceforth) focuses on the achievement of a satisfactory life, rather than on illness, on personal growth rather than pathology. But what is the relationship, if any, between Stoicism (ancient and modern) and positive psychology?
As a Stoic, am I committed to some kind of fundamental mind-body dualism? And if so, how on earth can I reconcile that with my understanding, as a scientist, that dualism has become untenable at the least since the second part of the early 20th century, particularly with the publication of Jacques Loeb “The Mechanistic Conception of Life”? (Not to mention earlier sharp criticism by Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous “Darwin’s bulldog.”)
Stoics have a bad reputation when it comes to emotions. But is it deserved? What, exactly, is the connection between Stoic theory and what modern cognitive science tells us about the relationship between emotion and cognition?
These and a number of related questions are taken up by an in-depth treatment of the problem of Stoic emotion in a paper by Larry Becker, published in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations, edited by Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko for Cambridge University Press. The paper is well worth a careful read for any serious student of modern Stoicism, but I will attempt to give the gist of it by presenting some of its highlights.
Stoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.
Why on earth am I devoting years of my life to studying (and practicing) Stoicism? Good question, I’m glad you asked. Seriously, it would seem that the whole idea of going back two millennia to seek advice on how to live one’s life is simply preposterous.
Have I not heard of modern science? Wouldn’t psychology be a better source of guidance, for instance? And even philosophy itself, surely it has moved beyond the ancient Greco-Romans by now, yes?
We have recently looked at a number of Stoic exercises straight from the mouth of one of the great ones: Epictetus. He was, of course, a teacher, and his Enchiridion, on which I focused, was explicitly put together (by his student Arrian) as a quick guide to Stoic practice.
Here I present a second set of “spiritual” exercises, this time culled (with the help of my friend Greg Lopez, co-host of last year’s Stoic Camp) from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There will inevitably be some overlap between the two sets, of course, but the contrast between Epictetus and Marcus will be instructive, as the latter was influenced by the former, and yet wrote the Meditations as a personal diary, not for publication. We are, therefore, glimpsing at what the emperor told himself he should and should not do, as a good Stoic.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)