The problem with Modern Stoicism



I came across a post on reddit, and the poster had made this statement.  “The whole joke was about rigidly applying stoic doctrine to a simple birthday wish.

The joke itself was funny, but what stood out to me was the statement “rigidly applying Stoic doctrine.”  I have seen this criticism from others, in more serious contexts, and it got me thinking.

There is a real problem with modern Stoicism, that harkens back to the “box of my favorite things with Stoicism scrawled on the side.”  Many moderns need to water down Stoicism so as to maintain other beliefs to which they have already granted assent.  This is not a new trend.

There was a pretty serious Romanizing of Stoicism which attempted (successfully) to knock of the rough edges of the Cynic-inspired Hellenic school.  The Greek school of philosophy needed to be molded to be more palatable to the Roman culture.  Even their Cynics were reduced.  It is worth nothing, that this process brought Stoicism to its height.

Nearly every stage of Christianity has taken something from the Stoics, whether it’s Augustine and Origen, Justus Lipsius, or moderns.  The pagan worldview of the Stoics needs to be mitigated to combine with Abrahamic doctrine.  And so it was.

It’s pretty recent phenomenon that there is a sizable group of people interested in understanding Stoicism qua Stoics.  Not as Christian Stoics, or Roman Stoics, or any other thing.  This is a new revival.

Of course, some moderns need to handle and deal with orthodox Stoic positions when it confronts their metaphysical positions (atheism, theism, deism, etc.), their political opinions, their commitment to social causes, and more.

And so more watering down occurs.  A lot of it does: a redefining of virtue, a redefining of preferred indifferents, a white-washing of the theology of the ancients, turning the Dichotomy of Control into a trichotomy, and more besides.

Which brings me to the original point:  the problem of “rigidly” adhering to the doctrine.

Do we want to progress on the Stoic path?
Is there any possibility of attaining εὐδαιμονία?
Do we believe that we can actually be virtuous?
Is Sagehood possible for us?

If any of these are true (not even all), then anything other than rigid adherence is inappropriate.  Epictetus (always via Arrian) gives us this directly:

τηλικούτων οὖν ἐφιέμενος μέμνησο, ὅτι οὐ δεῖ μετρίως κεκινημένον ἅπτεσθαι αὐτῶν, ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν ἀφιέναι παντελῶς, τὰ δ᾽ ὑπερτίθεσθαι πρὸς τὸ παρόν.

“Having such important aims remember, then, that you must undertake them not moderately stirred but that you must totally give up some things and defer others for the time being.”

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 1:4.

μετρίως κεκινημένον means something like “to be stirred up within measure” or “moderately stirred up.”  We might say “halfheartedly.”  Philosophy is not something to do a little bit, or else we’re no better than mountebanks.  Hobbyists.  Indeed, we need to throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly.

Epictetus says we must totally give up some things, and postpone others.  Yet we have Stoics claiming there is no ascetic training component of Stoic practice.

So when I see this claim of “rigidly applying doctrine,” what I see is someone scrambling to maintain their preexisting biases.  This claim is a last-ditch attempt to avoid confronting the cognitive bias of half-doing Stoicism.  To avoid the incontrovertible conclusion that there is a conflict which must be resolved.

Internal conflicts are not small things, humans will go to great lengths to solve them.  We also go through great lengths to delude ourselves that they exist, because we have a core understanding that we cannot hold two contradictory opinions.  Each one needs justification, or a situational disposition, or a subjective stance.  Or else we have to let go of some things.

What a horror would it be if our practice of philosophy changed us, changed our minds!


13 thoughts on “The problem with Modern Stoicism

  1. You have a lot of sound points here, but I feel like you may be conflating a few different things.

    I’m totally on board with your criticism of the Reddit user who thought it was silly to apply Stoic practice to a birthday wish. He or she clearly has failed to grasp the importance of philosophy as a way of life and a serious askesis, training, or even mindfulness. They could stand well to read some Hadot, and to revise their understand of Stoicism accordingly!

    But then you say this:

    “Yet we have Stoics claiming there is no ascetic training component of Stoic practice.”

    I understand that claims like this may surface in the social media communities all the time—where we will always find people trying to water-down philosophy into just a hobby or a “sometimes snack”—but is there really much evidence of this tendency among any of the leading modern Stoic authors?

    You could point to your exchange with Piotr Stankiewicz’ in Stoicism Today as just such evidence. Half of that debate, however, turned on semantics: Piotr was arguing that Stoicism can’t be associated with ‘asceticism’ as most people understand it (with its Christian-Gnostic-Neoplatonic overtones). Your argument picked up where his left off: yes, in principle it is possible for the Sage to live virtuously in any circumstances (ex. “a palace”), but we cannot absorb the doctrine that “there is no good or evil outside the moral realm” (as Stankiewicz puts it) without filling our life with rigorous askesis, and taking philosophy seriously as a full-fledged way of life—putting our belief in the indifference of externals to the test on a regular basis. So Stoics are ascetics in a very important sense, even if they are not ascetics in the way the word is commonly understood today.

    You and Stankiewicz may have some legitimate disagreement in there somewhere. But as far as I can tell, it probably has more in common with the difference between Aristo and Seneca’s interpretation of indifferents (to leverage off your previous post on that topic) than it does with the question of philosophy as rigorous ascetic training.

    After all, Seneca, for all we like to say that he “softened” Stoicism, was very adamant that A) philosophy is not a hobby, but a rigorous daily practice, B) virtue is the only good, and C) it is when Fortuna is offering us things that delight the senses that we must be most alert and cautious to practice our principles. He thus has much in common with Epictetus.

    • P.S. “…turning the Dichotomy of Control into a trichotomy, and more besides.”

      I always saw Irvine’s trichotomy as just another way of distilling the parable of the Stoic Archer, or the ball player in Discourses 2.5. A way of concisely conveying the discipline of action.

      If you see it as a “watering-down,” can I assume, then, that you see the trichotomy as being connected to a (mis)interpretation of ends (telos)? Are you suggesting that the trichotomy teaches us to say things like “I can’t control weather I am famous and rich, but I can try to become famous and rich?” That would indeed be a pernicious watering-down!

      To me a trichotomy has never suggested that our end (telos) should be anything other than virtue. It is just a way of reminding ourselves that virtue often requires us to pursue certain external targets (skopos). “Socrates, then, knew how to play at ball.”

      • Thanks for the link.

        I must admit I find that post rather confusing. You seem to be saying that either A) the trichotomy reduces the concept of virtue-as-sole-good by brining externals into the fold, or that B) it leads directly to the *same* understanding of virtue as the Dichotomy: our intent is what matters.

        You imply that (B) undermines some claim that modern Stoics have made. But isn’t (B) exactly what proponents of the trichotomy would claim? AFAIK the trichotomy wasn’t meant to be a departure from Stoic doctrine, but just a way of clarifying and operationalizing the Dichotomy in the context of (social) action.

        The trichotomy is a *synthesis* of the Dichotomy and of the Stoic theory of appropriate actions/duties. It is not a replacement for the Dichotomy that adds a “third, heterodox category,” but rather an analytic method the makes clear to novices how we can use the Dichotomy in conjunction with the Stoic “reserve clause” to guide our choices and intentions toward virtue in external world.

        It also seems to be a bit of a leap to connect the trichotomy to ‘maximal agency,’ since Irvine wrote a full 10 years after Becker.

        Sorry to nit-pick so much in one day—I’m just trying to understand your criticisms!

      • I’m making the claim A. B is true, but moderns don’t make that claim (so far as I’ve seen). B shows there is not even a practical need for Trichotomy, as anything mentioned is found in the dichotomy.

        The Trichotomy’s function, then, is a watering down of virtue, and the moving of responsibility from an internal position to a partial external one a la Aristotle.

      • Alright, your argument makes sense to me now! I don’t quite agree with (A) as strongly as you put it—but the concern you raise is something worth keeping in mind.

        I’m all in favor of being on guard against ways that a philosophy could malfunction in practice.

        Pleasure discussing with you :).

  2. I think Stoicism looses its moorings when it is taken out of its Socratic origins. And since we don’t have the 100s of writings of Zeno and Chrysippus it is too easy to misinterpret the fragments and secondary sources that we have. Today, the unification of modern science and Stoicism seems to be the major problem which is particularly acute since science today is commonly thought of as empirical and sceptical rather than secure and reliable knowledge (which virtue is supposed to be).

    • I’m reading Xenophon’s Memorabilia these days, and enjoying the discussions of Socrates.

      The dearth of writings from the Early and Middle Stoa are certainly a keenly felt loss.

      Maybe we can hope for a “Stoic Herculaneum” discovery?

  3. Glad I’m not the only one who’s concerned with this. Lately I’ve been put off by some topics that emerge on the Stoicism subreddit. Between the seduction tips, pleasure seeking advice and desire for externals, I was getting confused on how people didn’t seem to notice that their hedonism was incompatible with Stoic practice.

    Nothing wrong with people choosing to live their lives the way they wish, of course. The problem, for me, was that they called themselves Stoics, and I don’t see the point of calling yourself that when one’s values and actions fundamentally disagree with the philosophy.

    Anyway, keep writing! Blogs like yours are useful to clear up these issues, and I’m glad I found it.

  4. Oh my gosh. I read the threads about picking up girls on r/Stoicism.

    I take it all back. Say whatever you like. Modern Stoicism is going to hell in a handbasket, haha!

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