Despite all the glowingly positive things I have to say about Stoic philosophy on this blog, the truth is that Stoicism made a really bad first impression with me. It’s been a lesson to me in the dangers of judging a philosophy too quickly!
Like perhaps most people, my early exposure to the Stoic writers left me with the impression that they were a pretty cheerless, risk-averse bunch who suppressed their emotions and had strangely stiff notions of what “appropriate” behavior ought to be.
They struck me as obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions, and as indifferent to the events around them. Epictetus’ Enchiridion 1, probably the most famous summary of Stoic practice, did nothing for me at all. I didn’t see the big deal about the dichotomy of control (what is so great about cutting yourself off from the outside world?). And when I got to Enchiridion 33, where he basically straight-up recommends that we be no fun at parties and enjoins us not to “laugh much, or at many things, or without restraint,” I had had enough.
We are excited to introduce http://www.stoicsinaction.org as the new extended home of the Stoics for Justice group! I will continue posting here on Euthyphroria with personal reflections on Stoic practice from time to time, but I expect that I’ll be doing more writing at Stoics in Action from now on.
Stoics in Action is devoted to promoting and developing socially-engaged Stoicism as a vibrant way of life. We have three basic aims:
To show the world by example that—contrary to popular belief—Stoicism is an active, affectionate, philanthropic, and politically engaged way of life.
To provide a forum for contemporary Stoics to develop and refine their approach to social life in six key domains: family, career, service, politics, the environment, and intersectional identities.
To provide a nexus for Stoics to organize joint philanthropic projects, and/or to share tips and resources on how to get involved with service.
The so-called “Big Three“ Roman Stoics wrote some incredibly powerful and influential literature. Seneca, Epictetus, and of course the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius are by far the most popular authors among fans of Stoicism today, and modern Stoic practice would scarcely be possible without them!
But for all their hard-hitting advice and thematic consistency, the Big Three can sometimes be a frustratingly limited resource. As remarkable as they are for their artfully crafted window into Stoic practice, these texts were not meant for beginners. None of them really attempt to offer a survey or general explanation of the Stoic life and its aspirations: modern readers of these texts are just kind of left to pick it up as they go along. Because of this, the provocative ideas that are found in the Big Three often raise as many questions for modern readers as they answer. The big ideas that pull Stoicism together into a coherent and compelling philosophy of life tend to be hiddenin the background, where they are only alluded to in a brief and piecemeal fashion.
Luckily, there is quite a bit more literature by and about Stoics that survives from the ancient world! This additional material is essential for anyone who is trying to really understand (much less live by) the moral and mindful life recommended by these ancient philosophers:
Becoming something of a majority leader, Cato pressed his conservative optimates to pass a resolution condemning Pompey’s attempt to change election law for his own interest…
The Stoic leading the statehouse thwarted the conqueror at every turn, using his now-perfected filibuster to kill the populist legislation. With little room to maneuver, Pompey would try a new approach.
—Pat McGeehan, Stoicism and the Statehouse (2017), p. 56–7.
While the idea of a “political stoic” personality may sound like an oxymoron to our modern ears, the Stoics were famous in the ancient world for being politically engaged.
Today we normally think of a “stoic” as a rather amoral person—obsessed with eliminating uncomfortable emotions, and indifferent to the events around them. But to the ancients, Stoicism was an extremely active and pro-social life stance that focused very much on finding ways to (materially!) serve and benefit the people around us. So much so, in fact, that a Stoic who wanted to withdraw from politics had a lot of explaining to do! Justice—and an especially broad and demanding understanding of Justice at that—is one of the four virtues that lie at the center of the Stoic life, and to be apolitical was tantamount to being un-Stoic.
Modern Stoics have recently dusted off this long-neglected and once-famous aspect of Stoic moral philosophy and begun to bring it back into fashion—McGeehan’s book being a case in point.
Even though Stoic literary tradition is virtually built around the concept of offering comfort and a “healing balm” to the emotionally “shipwrecked,” I think a lot of people find the idea of “Stoic consolation” a little odd.
In contemporary culture, the whole idea raises the image of a stern Spock-like figure trying to offer bumbling advice about human affairs that he neither understands nor really quite cares about.
In actuality, however, the Stoics had a pretty solid handle on this whole “human” thing, and far from devaluing the important things that tend to get us so emotionally worked up, they weren’t afraid to jump in and get their hands dirty to help make the external world a better place.
The ancient Stoics rejected a permanent afterlife, and were agnostic about even any kind of temporary afterlife. The afterlife did not play any role at all in their value system or the argument they made for their ethics.
In fact, the opposite is true: it is specifically because we will all die and we don’t know what happens after death that the Stoic life is so urgently needed.
Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.
Stoicism is a pretty big tradition, and one can’t fully defend it (or debunk it) without addressing a rather long list of questions and counter-objections (I gave the beginnings of such a list in this post).
But if I had to choose just two arguments, one for and one against, I’d go with these two:
Socrates’ argument that virtue is the highest good, and
Crantor’s (and Martha Nussbaum’s) argument against the Stoic view of emotions.