Twenty-First Century Stoicism
Adapting an ancient philosophy to modern knowledge and information
In my previous article, I offered a look at Stoic philosophy from a more political lens. This time I offer a more general outlook, one that seeks to connect Stoicism to our modern day. For philosophy to have continued relevance, this will have to be done. While the Stoics of Classical Antiquity operated from from assumptions about the world that were ahead of their time, their views were also reflective of what pre-scientific human beings understood to be true.
Some have already begun this trek of re-imagining the philosophy. Twenty-two years ago, Lawrence Becker touched ground on this topic, through his 1997 book, A New Stoicism. Since then, he is considered a major authority on the topic of Stoicism as it exists in our current world. His work allows us to answer questions such as: What did the ancients get right? What did they get wrong? What is, after all this time, still useful?
A review of the basic principles of Stoicism are in order, which will be excerpted from my previous article.
The Stoics promoted what was considered propositional logic, a form of reasoning that based on statements, as opposed to standard, term-based logic of Aristotle. Using the relationship of contextual statements to each other, Stoic logicians made conclusions in the following manner:
- If it is day, it is light.
- It is day.
- Therefore it is light.
Logic was seen as necessary for understanding the universe and making moral decisions, and so propositional logic was developed as a tool to assist in this process.
The Stoics believed that the universe was something entirely material and operated according to reason. They believed the contents of the universe possessed specific properties which remained consistent, a deterministic outlook. Humans, being made of the substance of the universe, were no exception, and human will was merely a projection of the interaction of natural things and similarly deterministic.
The Stoics believed that the key to living an ethical life was the ability to think logically and properly understand the ways of the universe. To this end, they advocated inner-awareness of one’s emotions, which may distract from proper, impartial analysis of a situation. To be free of suffering (as much as is possible), one had to achieve the kind of inner calm and eminent mindfulness that has come to characterize the Stoics. Furthermore, they believed that evil was the product of ignorance of the universe’s reason, of a lack of awareness of something fundamental in reality. From this we might derive what could be considered the Golden Rule of Stoicism: Man must seek to live in accordance with nature.
“Nature” was not something with an environmentalist connotation (as today). Rather, nature was merely the world as it is: the material universe, the properties of those materials, and the necessary situations that emerged from those properties. This included therefore not only the environment but also the material humans who acted in it. Disappointment and misery were therefore caused by misunderstanding nature, by making decisions that were doomed to fail because they contradicted what was real and true. Stoics ultimately advised that one could find peace by understanding their natural limits and not foolishly trying to defy them. Instead, they could avoid suffering by setting achievable goals.
With the seminal categories of Logic, Physics, and Ethics laid out, we can begin to examine the philosophy more critically.
The Problem of Nature
Ancient Stoics believed that one should live in harmony with nature. There were practical as well as spiritual reasons for doing this. The spiritual reasons are where we encounter problems. Like many of those in the Mediterranean world at the time, Stoics had an animistic view of reality. They believed in the divine. Some more closely aligned with an explicit notion of the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, pursued philosophy because he believe the Oracle of Delphi had instructed him to do so. Others expressed a pantheistic vision of the universe. In general, there was a widespread view that a greater consciousness was at work behind all that is material, one that had good intentions. Marcus Aurelius, the famous Stoic Emperor of the Roman Empire, even wrote in his Meditations:
Loss is nothing more than change. Universal nature delights in change, and all that flows from nature happens for the good. Similar things have happened from time everlasting, and there will be more such to eternity. So why do you say that everything has always happened for the bad and always will, that all those gods between them have evidently never found any power to right this, so the world is condemned to the grip of perpetual misery?
In today’s world, where the mysteries of the universe seem to be more focused on what dark matter is and how to bridge quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity, the spiritual has become a particularly irrelevant factor in understanding nature. Moreover, with a world larger than the ones that the ancient Stoics knew, with several more religious attitudes to be included, Stoicism must operate under a framework that is not so easily dislodged and dismantled, one that is applicable to as many as possible. Adjusting to make no comment on the spiritual is ultimately the final solution.
Some might view this ancient, spiritual take on nature as a fatal flaw in Stoic thinking, as merely a form of old myth that has long been rendered obsolete. On the contrary, insistence on harmony with nature is the saving grace of the philosophy. If one is to live in harmony in nature, then properly understanding that nature is in order, and adherence to this principle requires some flexibility on the part of the Stoic, in response to the advent of new information. Indeed, Emperor Marcus spoke of such a need for willingness to change course in the face of inconvenient reality:
A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, ‘Why are these things in the world anyway?’
Lawrence Becker offers an idea of what this adaptation is in his own writing:
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.
This makes good sense. If nature is essentially a composite of all that is factual, then harmony with the facts is the key to harmony with nature. A thorough understanding of what the properties and state of reality truly are cannot be avoided in pursuit of the good, virtuous life. Some might contend that this offers no hard concept of what is good or virtuous, and that would be true. Stoicism is, however, a philosophy, not a dogma. It is a strategy for finding the right answers, as opposed to an impulsive list such answers.
The Problem of Human Will
Many have criticized Stoicism for its notion of the “the sage,” the man who escapes all suffering by learning to accept his place in nature (hence the non-academic use of the term “stoic”). It might well be said that humans are not well designed to escape suffering. Even the sage, upon slamming his toe into a table leg, will feel pain. The Stoic focus on mindfulness, control of the will, and assuming responsibility for one’s decisions meets many obstacles in the face of modern, scientific discovery. While not all is known about the brain, we do know that every aspect of human cognition and related behavior is the product consistent, chemical processes.
The hormones in one’s body influences this. Sometimes the causes of our decisions and the details of our personalities are deeply embedded in our genetic code or our experiences in the womb. Some people are therefore born with lesser abilities to process information. Some are born with fiery characters and are less disposed to calmly assessing a situation. Some will see different colors and hear different sounds. We are all helplessly limited by our bodies and not always equally. To attain the status of the sage is thus not a goal that all can reasonably follow.
True as this is, it would not appear to result in the defeat of Stoic thought. Again, if we return to acting in accordance with nature, this should seem normal. Even the ancients Stoics acknowledged that humans consisted of the material and were bound by it. They were never under the illusion that human beings are special. The inequality of mental prowess across the species is simply nothing new under the sun. Surely the ancients would have noted how one’s mind might be lost briefly during a bout of illness or even how one’s decisions changed after consuming wine. It was clear, even then, that the mind, as a projection of the material body, could be influenced by other materials.
It may well be argued that a brain-dead man in a coma or that a common squirrel will fail to achieve the state of being a sage. So be it, that not all living things can philosophize, but this does not mean that the process for those who can is flawed. If we suppose that even our most intellectually and cognitively gifted person is unable to become a sage, it is still only through the pursuit, the hike toward the virtuous and the good, that one can ever make progress. Even an unrealistic ideal can be a useful yardstick for the self.
Moreover, Stoicism has always been about recognition of what we can control and what we cannot control. Modern insights into the function of the human brain only help to establish this border more clearly for us. If one knows why they behave the way that they do — if they merely understand the nature of their material bodies — they can make more effective plans for maximizing their good behaviors and minimizing their bad ones. In light of this, modern science does much more to enable the concepts that were developed by ancient Stoics than many of their primitive explanation could do.
Other aspects of the philosophy do not seem to face as much of a challenge against modern insights. The view of a material universe, for example, has stood the test of time and been validated by most scientific fields. Propositional logic, while perhaps limited, was never erroneous, and it found new use among mathematicians in the previous century. Most of it really comes down to the Ethics of it — whether not one accepts the principle of “living in accordance with nature.” If nature is the facts, then the rejection of that would leave open the question of what one would use to make good, virtuous decisions.
Imagine that one had a perfect understanding of nature. They would know the right answer for every decision they had to make. They would know that it is not merely wise to depart sooner, in order to arrive early, but they would know which moment would result in a car accident and which would not. Of course, such a handle on information is not within our reach, but the spectrum of improvement is seen as we have more information. We all learn at some point that departing early increases our chances of arriving on time, while trying to arrive exactly on time often results in our being late. This is a case where gaining information allows us to refine our decisions. Knowing which time to leave, as our transit interacts with that of other automobiles, would then allow us to choose even moments to depart, so that we can both arrive early and safely. With the nature being the source of all facts, and with facts being the tools by which we make a more optimal choices, the role of nature in living better, happier lives is made clear.
By following this discipline of thinking, by looking at one’s choices as either consistent with what is known or inconsistent with what is known, one can live the Stoic life in the Twenty-First Century and ultimately find more joy and virtue in their lifetime.