Modern Stoicism

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Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular movement in the late 20th and early 21st century which attempts to revive the Stoic philosophy in the modern setting. It is not to be confused with Neostoicism, an analogous phenomenon in the 17th century. The term "Modern Stoicism" covers both the revival of interest in the Stoic philosophy and the philosophical efforts to adjust Ancient Stoicism to the language and conceptual framework of the present. 'The rise of Modern Stoicism' has received attention in the international media since around November 2012 when the first Annual Stoic Week event was organized.[1]

Background[edit]

Philosophically[edit]

Modern Stoicism has developed in the context of the 20th-century surge of interest in virtue ethics in general. "The [...] work by philosophers like Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum, among others, have brought back virtue ethics as a viable alternative to the dominant Kantian-deontological and utilitarian-consequentialist approaches."[2] Modern Stoicism draws a lot from the late 20th and early 21st century spike in publications of scholarly works on ancient Stoics. Beyond that, “the Modern Stoicism movement traces its roots to the work of Dr Albert Ellis, who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy,[3] as well as Aaron T. Beck,[4] who is regarded by many as the father to early versions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Victor Frankl also found stoicism useful in assisting him during the war, he later developed his theory known as Logotherapy [2]

One major premise of Modern Stoicism can be expressed as, in Lawrence Becker's words, "it is interesting to try to imagine what might have happened if Stoicism had had a continuous twenty-three-hundred-year history; if Stoics had had to confront Bacon and Descartes, Newton and Locke, Hobbes and Bentham, Hume and Kant, Darwin and Marx."[5] Or, as Massimo Pigliucci puts it more concisely, "it is worth considering what it means to 'be a Stoic' in the 21st century."[6]

The first major modern work that spelled out the key premises of Modern Stoicism is, arguably, A New Stoicism[5] by Lawrence Becker, first published in 1997.[2] For other important books, see the notable books section below.

Psychology and psychotherapy[edit]

Stoic philosophy was the original philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy, particularly as mediated by Dr Albert Ellis' Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), the major precursor of CBT. The original cognitive therapy treatment manual for depression by Aaron T. Beck et al. states, "The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers".[7] A well-known quotation from The Handbook of Epictetus was taught to most clients during the initial session of traditional REBT by Ellis and his followers: "It's not the events that upset us, but our judgments about the events." This subsequently became a common element in the "socialization" phase of many other approaches to CBT. The question of Stoicism's influence on modern psychotherapy, particularly REBT and CBT, was described in detail in The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) by Donald Robertson.[8] Moreover, several early 20th century psychotherapists were influenced by stoicism, most notably the "rational persuasion" school founded by the Swiss neurologist and psychotherapist Paul DuBois, who drew heavily on Stoicism in his clinical work and encouraged his clients to study passages from Seneca as homework assignments.

As a popular movement[edit]

It is characteristic of the Modern Stoicism movement that it is global and that it relies heavily on the social media and online communities. As E.O. Scott puts it "Modern Stoicism is really a “Web 2.0” phenomenon."[9] One of the key sites is the Modern Stoicism website, which harbors the Stoicism Today blog and hosts the Annual Stoic Week (online) and Stoicon (offline) events.[10] Another important place is the New Stoa, which was founded in May 1996 and is arguably the first lasting stoic community on the internet. Three key podcasts talking about Stoicism applied to modern thought are the Stoic Solutions Podcast hosted by Justin Vacula[11], The Practical Stoic Podcast hosted by Simon Drew [12] and Steve Karafit's The Sunday Stoic [13]

There are also a number of personal blogs exploring stoicism, some of them run by notable stoic scholars (e.g. Massimo Pigliucci, William Irvine or John Sellars) and some by therapists who explore stoic applications (e.g. Donald Robertson). In addition, articles on Stoicism have appeared on popular websites.[14][15] In E.O.Scott's words, "[the] potent combination of social media and a few highly publicized books and articles [...] has recently launched stoicism on an exponential growth curve."[9] There is a variety of stoic meetups and groups based in places like Australia, Denver, Dublin, Edinburgh, Fremont, Helsinki, London, Manchester, Milwaukee, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, Toronto and Warsaw - amongst others. According to E.O.Scott, "arguably the most important and influential gathering place for Modern Stoics [online]"[9] is the "stoicism group" on Facebook of ~27 000 people (as of July 19, 2017). The analogous Reddit group has amassed ~96 400 users (as of June 11, 2018). Beyond the Anglophone there is the “Sztuka życia według stoików” site run by Piotr Stankiewicz, "Stoicyzm Uliczny" run by Marcin Fabjański and Centrum Praktyki Stoickiej run by Tomasz Mazur and others.

Applications of Modern Stoicism are reported across industries. According to "Forbes," Modern Stoic thought "hold[s] fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems in a turbulent, post-recession slump."[16] However, two Stoic academics, Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, have warned against using "life-hack Stoicism" or "Silicon Valley Stoicism", as the primary means of understanding Stoic philosophy[17]. Subsequently, they discussed on a popular Stoic blog, Stoicism's role in advocating for change in society, including when it comes to standing against gender-based discrimination in the workplace [18].

Similarities of Modern Stoicism and Third Wave CBT have been suggested as well, and its potency in treating depression has been studied.[19] There has also been interest in applying the tenets of Ancient Stoicism to the human origin story [20] and the modern challenges of sustainable development, material consumption and consumerism. [21]

Key concepts[edit]

Problems with the appeal to nature[edit]

Presumably, the single most difficult challenge that Modern Stoicism faces is its relationship to the core principle of Ancient Stoicism, that is to the principle of “following nature.” In a word, the Ancient Stoics put forward it was unquestionable that in order to live a good life, one needed to live consistently with nature. According to the Ancient Stoics, nature was by definition good and everything which was conformable to nature was deemed good. Moreover, the Ancient Stoics had a teleological outlook on the world, that is, they held that everything in the universe was purposefully and rationally organized to a good end.

However, this view is much more difficult to uphold in the present day. As Becker puts it, “science presented significant challenges to our [Stoic] metaphysical views.”[5]:3 The notion of the rational organization of the world seems much more doubtful in the 21st century than it, presumably, was two millennia ago. “When we face the universe,” Becker writes, “we confront its indifference to us and our own insignificance to it. It takes no apparent notice of us, has no role other than Extra for us to play, no aim for us to follow.”[5]:11 Even more pressing questions are raised when we face our own human realm, with the long and still expanding record of genocide and atrocity and the manslaughter that followed. These are major challenges for the ancient Stoic view of the world as a rational and essentially good being.

We happen upon an analogous problem if we narrow down our interest to human nature (as contrasted to the nature of the universe as a whole). In other words, the idea of “following our human nature” also raises serious questions. As Becker describes it, “it is ‘natural’ to find these [defining] traits in human character and conduct, but it is equally natural to find a significant number of exceptions. As a result, none of these characteristics fits into the most familiar forms of ethical argument from human nature, e.g. (a) that humans are by nature X, and that Y is contrary to X, hence, that Y is contrary to human nature; or (b) that X is what defines the unique function (the essence) of a human being, thus to flourish as a human being is to excel at X."[5] In this vein, “following human nature” yields no specific guidelines for conduct either. All told, this is one of the central problems for Modern Stoicism: that in the 21st century it is far more difficult to ground our ethical framework in “nature,” be it universal, cosmic nature, or to special human nature.

Following nature as following the facts[edit]

Becker acknowledges this problem and even goes to the point of asserting that “stoic ethics would be much better off without its ‘follow nature’ slogan."[5] Yet, he reflects that the stoics are, “however, too deeply branded with it to renounce it now. The best we can do is reinterpret it.”[5]

The reinterpretation he proposes is this. “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 [...] 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, and accepting those adjustments for exactly what they are, no more and no less. And it means living within the facts - within the realm of actual rather than hypothetical norm.”[5]

This process of “getting the facts about the [...] world”[5] happens in some measure (but not exclusively) through science. In Becker’s words, “The biological, behavioral, and social sciences contribute to ethics in three important ways: they offer a wealth of material that can be used in the naturalistic arguments [...], they offer explanatory theories (e.g. from evolutionary biology) that help separate relatively fixed traits from transient or malleable ones and they offer powerful, elaborate analyses of learning, rationality, and rational choice."[5] Ethical reasoning of a stoic “cannot begin until all relevant description, representation, and prediction are in hand, [...] – until, let us say, the empirical work is done.”[5] This empirical work may be obtained by the scientific method and thus the principle of “following facts” can be (in some contexts) read as “not contradicting science” (not to be confused with simple “following science,” which would be reductive and misleading).

Virtue, agency, happiness[edit]

Becker organizes his reading of stoic ethics around the concept of agency. “The Development of Virtue [happens through] the Perfection of Agency,”[5] or through the “ideal agency”[5] as he calls it. In other words, this can be described as the belief in the “inherent primacy of virtue in terms of maximization of one’s agency.”[2] This agency is understood in terms of “a balance of control and stability”[5] and is executed all-things-considered, i.e. upon having obtained the most detailed information about the facts as available.

Happiness, in this view, is also explained and achieved through agency. “We hold,” this is Becker again, “that happiness as understood by mature and fit agents is a property of whole lives, not of transient mental states. We hold that it is achievable only through a proper balance of stability and control in the exercise of agency.”[5] And, “this sort of happiness with one’s life also appears to be a psychological consequence of healthy agency [...] The life of a stoic sage is filled with such happiness, as a consequence of virtue."[5]

Degrees of virtue[edit]

In Becker’s version of Stoicism, several dogmas of Ancients Stoics are questioned or challenged. For example, the traditional stoic all-or-nothing understanding of virtue is questioned (to some extent). In the original, Orthodox Stoicism one was either a perfect sage or no sage at all, there was no “middle ground,” or “in between.” The Ancient Stoic virtue admits of no degrees. And yet, Becker lays ground for a softer, more nuanced approach. “You can drown,” he writes, “face down on the calm surface of the sea as surely as at the bottom. [...] We [i.e. the Modern Stoics] follow later colleagues in thinking that these doctrines are untenable.”[5]

Aspirations for universality[edit]

Another dogma of the Ancient Stoics that is sometimes questioned in Modern Stoicism is the idea that the gateways of stoic philosophy are open to everyone and that living a stoic life is definitely the best option for every human being. E.g. in Becker’s New Stoicism suggests that “acting appropriately, as understood here, is a special kind of optimization project – one that it is logically possible to reject. (Which people with compulsive, obsessive, or addictive personalities may in fact reject.) [Modern Stoic] claim is, only healthy agents, at least those well along the road to fitness in their deliberative powers, cannot plausibly reject it.”[5]

Stoicism versus Aristotle[edit]

Another example of possible discrepancies between the Modern Stoic approach and Ancient Stoicism is the question of whether a certain amount of external goods is required for a good life. In the Orthodox Stoic view there are absolutely no entry conditions to living a stoic life. One can become a sage no matter the circumstances: be it poverty, illness, physical adversity and so on. This issue has been traditionally the bone of contention between the stoics (who held the mentioned position) and the followers of Aristotle (who held that a certain amount of external goods is necessary for development of virtue). In this context, Becker’s words are quite non-orthodox coming from the stoic position. He writes that “it is [...] plausible to conclude, however, that there is an identifiable kernel of bodily and psychological health that is a necessary condition of all further development. If this kernel is damaged, so is the capacity to develop agency.”[5]

Dichotomy of control[edit]

A very important concept of Traditional Stoicism is the distinction between things within one’s power and not within our power. While this concept is embraced fully by many Modern Stoics, some reinterpret it. Becker, for instance, points out that the whole idea of the dichotomy is in fact a major oversimplification. As he puts it, “[the] distinction between things that are within our control, or ‘up to us,’ and those who are not [...] [is] misleading.”[5] Instead, he proposes to read it along the lines of “it is wise to calibrate the strength, depth, and dissemination of our attachments to the fragility and transience of the objects involved.”[5]

On the other hand, William Irvine goes even further and undermines the central premise of the dichotomy, i.e. that the distinction between things “in our power” and “not in our power” is sharp and that there is no third option. In other words, Irvine suggests the possibility of turning the “dichotomy of control” into a “trichotomy of control.” Irvine argues “We can restate Epictetus’s dichotomy as follows: There are things over which we have complete control and things over which we have no control at all. As well as suggesting "the dichotomy is a false dichotomy, since it ignores the existence of things over which we have some but not complete control.”[22] Pigliucci describes it as follows: “some things are up to us (chiefly, our judgments and actions), some things are not up to us (major historical events, natural phenomena), but on a number of other things we have partial control. Irvine recasts the third category in terms of internalized goals, which makes more sense of the original dichotomy.”[2]

The question of ascesis and renunciation[edit]

There is also no unity in evaluating the ascetic elements in stoicism and in defining the sage’s attitude towards the ordinary pleasures of life. Becker mentions “the confusion, both among stoics and their critics” and the “false notion that the stoic ideal is a life devoid of the ordinary pleasures of sex, food, drink, music, wealth, fame, friends, and so on”[5] (according to Becker this confusion happens because “stoics have occasionally claimed that, for the sage, eudaiomonia somehow replaces ordinary happiness”.[5] In this vein, Stankiewicz argued against the “ascetic misinterpretation,” saying that “stoicism is not asceticism and a stoic is not a monk. In fact, it is the school of The Pale Epicureans that is closer to the ideal of abstemiousness. The stoic proposal is far broader and it extends far beyond the narrow passage of the ascetic way.”[23] Thus, “we [the Modern Stoics] must face the lushness, diversity and – yes! – sensuality of life and we have to live and thrive inside this world, accepting it as it is. Unlike a monk, a stoic doesn’t dodge the myriad of different aspects of the earthly and sensual life.”[23]

On the other hand, Kevin Patrick refutes this argument, ridiculing it as “hedonic stoicism” and saying that the mentioned position “falls into the more common trap and misinterpretation, that since externals are indifferent to us, we should go ahead and indulge in all of those things for which we have a proclivity.”[23] “Modern Stoics,” he concludes, “ought to be stoics.”[23]

Irvine takes a more modest stance and he proposes a program of “voluntary discomfort.” As he describes it: “By undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort – by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed – we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befell us in the future. If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will. In other words, voluntary discomfort can be thought of as a kind of vaccine: By exposing ourselves to a small amount of a weakened virus now, we create in ourselves an immunity that will protect us from a debilitating illness in the future.”[22]

Notable books[edit]

The following list, arranged by the time of first publication, includes positions representing modern Stoicism only, while it excludes purely scholarship books on ancient Stoics, biographies, etc.)

  • James Stockdale, Courage Under Fire, (Stanford University: Hoover Essays, 1993)
  • Sharon Lebell, The Art of Living. The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectivness, (New York: Harper One, 1995)
  • Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)
  • John Sellars, The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003; 2nd edn London: Duckworth, 2009)
  • Vernezze, Peter. Don't worry, be Stoic: ancient wisdom for troubled times. (Lanham: University Press of America, 2005)
  • Keith Seddon, Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace, (Stoicon Foundation, 2006).
  • Margaret Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, (Chicago, University Of Chicago Press, 2007)
  • M. Andrew Holowchak, The Stoics. A Guide for the Perplexed, (London: Continuum, 2008)
  • William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life. The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Cooper, Ray. The stoic homilies: a week-by-week guide to enlightened living. (Burleigh, Qld: Zeus Publications, 2009)
  • Natalie Haynes, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, (London: Profile Books, 2010)
  • Marcin Fabjański, Stoicyzm uliczny. Jak oswajać trudne sytuacje, (Warsaw: Czarna Owca, 2010)
  • William O. Stephens, Marcus Aurelius. A Guide of the Perplexed, (London: Continuum, 2012)
  • Jules Evans, "Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations", (Rider, 2012)
  • Donald Robertson, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (Karnac, 2010)
  • Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013)
  • Tomasz Mazur, O stawaniu się stoikiem, (Warsaw: PWN, 2014)
  • Piotr Stankiewicz, Sztuka życia według stoików, (Warsaw: WAB, 2014)
  • Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. The daily stoic: 366 meditations on wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living. (2016)
  • Ryan Holiday. "The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs" (Penguin Publishing Group, 2014)
  • Patrick Ussher [ed.], Stoicism Today: Selected Writings vol. I, (Stoicism Today: 2014)
  • Patrick Ussher [ed.], Stoicism Today: Selected Writings vol. II, (Stoicism Today: 2016)
  • Massimo Pigliucci, How To Be a Stoic, (New York: Basic Books, 2017)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Joe Gelonesi (November 17, 2014). "The rise of Modern Stoicism". ABC - Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC - Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 20 July 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Pigliucci, Massimo (December 14, 2016). "Stoicism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  3. ^ "REBT Network". 
  4. ^ "Arron T Beck". Wiki. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Becker, Lawrence (1997). A New Stoicism. Princetion University Press. 
  6. ^ Pigliucci, Massimo. "How To Be A Stoic?". 
  7. ^ Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery (1979) Cognitive Therapy of Depression, p. 8.
  8. ^ Robertson, D (2010). The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoicism as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. London: Karnac. ISBN 978-1-85575-756-1. 
  9. ^ a b c Scott, E.O. "A Quick Map of the Online Stoic Community". 
  10. ^ AM, Timothy Willis On 12/1/14 at 7:33 (1 December 2014). "Meet the Real Stoics Taking Psychology Back to the 3rd Century BC". Newsweek. 
  11. ^ "Stoic Solutions Podcast - Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life". Stoic Solutions Podcast. Retrieved 2018-04-09. 
  12. ^ Development, PodBean. "The Practical Stoic Podcast with Simon Drew". Retrieved 2018-04-09. 
  13. ^ "Home | Sunday Stoic". Home | Sunday Stoic. Retrieved 2018-05-05. 
  14. ^ "7 insights from the ancient philosophy of Marcus Aurelius that will change the way you think about life, death, and time". Business Insider. Retrieved 2018-02-05. 
  15. ^ Shammas, Michael (January 23, 2014). "Want Happiness? Become a Practicing Stoic". The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 3, 2018. 
  16. ^ Sheffield, Carrie. "Want an Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy". 
  17. ^ Whiting, Kai; Konstantakos, Leonidas (2018-04-17). "Life-Hack Stoicism—Is It Worth It?". The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast. Retrieved 2018-04-26. 
  18. ^ Whiting, Kai; Konstankos, Leonidas (5 May 2018). "Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self: The Power To Change Society". The Daily Stoic. 
  19. ^ Evans, Jules. "Anxious? Depressed? Try Greek philosophy". 
  20. ^ Whiting, Kai; Konstantakos, Leonidas; Sadler, Greg; Gill, Christopher (2018-04-21). "Were Neanderthals Rational? A Stoic Approach". Humanities. 7 (2): 39. doi:10.3390/h7020039. 
  21. ^ Whiting, Kai; Konstantakos, Leonidas; Carrasco, Angeles; Carmona, Luis Gabriel (2018-02-10). "Sustainable Development, Wellbeing and Material Consumption: A Stoic Perspective". Sustainability. 10 (2): 474. doi:10.3390/su10020474. 
  22. ^ a b Irvine, William (2009). A Guide to the Good Life. The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press. 
  23. ^ a b c d Ussher [ed.], Patrick (2016). Stoicism Today: Selected Writings vol. II. Stoicism Today. 

External links[edit]