What political ideas are supported by Stoic philosophy?

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.

This passage from West Virginia state delegate Pat McGeehan’s recent book illustrates one of many ways that today’s students of Stoic tradition have found it to be a rich resource for ongoing political inspiration.

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.

Continue reading “What political ideas are supported by Stoic philosophy?”

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How can a Stoic Comfort Someone?

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.

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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.

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Stoicism and the Afterlife: You Only Live Once!

Life is like a play: it matters not how long the show goes on but by how well it is acted. It makes no difference where you stop. Stop wherever you please; just make the ending a good one.

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 77.20.

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.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

Continue reading “Stoicism and the Afterlife: You Only Live Once!”

The Best Argument Against (and for) Stoicism

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:

  1. Socrates’ argument that virtue is the highest good, and
  2. Crantor’s (and Martha Nussbaum’s) argument against the Stoic view of emotions.

Continue reading “The Best Argument Against (and for) Stoicism”

Why I Became a Modern Stoic

LOOKING FOR AN ETHICAL TRADITION

I came to Stoicism as an atheist and former Christian looking for a well-developed ethical system that could give me a way to “do work on myself” on a regular basis—or “spiritual exercise” (to use Pierre Hadot’s lovely term).

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you still can, while you have life in you, make yourself good.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

I like the idea that personal growth can be a training process (askesis in Greek—the root of ascetic”), just as intentional and intense as athletic training. So I’m attracted to the idea of building self-discipline, studying practical inspirational texts, and trying to develop moral character through the steady accumulation of good habits.

(The Stoics often compared ethics to training for an olympic competition.)

Just like with physical exercise, though, it can be hard to develop focused goals, stay motivated, and make actual progress unless you have a personal trainer or follow a well-defined training program.

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What is Stoic Logic?

And this is what the Stoics are like in logical matters, so they can maintain that the wise man is always a dialectician. For everything is seen through consideration of it in arguments: both what belongs to the topic of physics and again what belongs to ethics.

—From Diogenes Laertius, our major surviving source for Stoic logic.

Logic” for the ancients included anything that was remotely connected to rational thought. It was the huge, messy toolbox that allowed us to make progress in the the other two branches of philosophy—“physics” and “ethics.”

The Stoics famously compared logic to the wall that surrounds a field (ethics was the fruit, and physics was the land), or to the shell of an egg (with physics and ethics inside).

(Diagram by Massimo Pigliucci)

In its broad sense, then, ancient “logic” included all of what we now call rhetoric, grammar, semantics, logic proper, and epistemology. So Stoic logic involved quite a bit, some of which was extremely influential on later thinkers: Continue reading “What is Stoic Logic?”

On Greek Yogurt

As a practicing Stoic (or, if you like, a progressor—προκόπτων), I always smile when I come to the yogurt section of my local grocery store.

“Oikos” (ὁ οίκος) is the root of English words like “economics” and “ecology.” It means “house,” “home,” or “dwelling place,” and it is one of the first words students of Greek learn.

Οἰκος is also the root word in the core concept behind Stoic social ethics: “oikeiosis” (οἰκείωσις). It is translated with terms like “affinity,” “familiarization,” or “endearment,” and it is both the source of our natural affection toward humanity, and the justification for developing it.

But I always like to keep its root in mind: as if the word meant “making home-like” or “bringing into the family.” And what better way to symbolize family than with yogurt!