Modern Stoicism

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Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular movement in the 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.


Modern Stoicism happens 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, has brought back virtue ethics as a viable alternative to the dominant Kantian-deontological and utilitarian-consequentialist approaches."[1] Modern Stoicism draws a lot from the late 20th and early 21st century spike in publications of scholarly works on ancients Stoics, from new translations of the classical works. Beyond that, “the modern Stoicism movement traces its roots to Victor Frankl’s logotherapy, as well as to early versions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance in the work of Albert Ellis.”[2]

The major work according to Massimo Pigliucci that spelled out the key premises of modern Stoicism was, arguably, A New Stoicism[3] by Lawrence Becker, published in 1997.[1] Another important book in Pigliucci's view, applying a take much more popular than Becker's scholarship was, A Guide to the Good Life[4] by William Irvine, published in 2009.[1] For scores of other books that followed, see the notable books section.

Key concepts

Relationship with ancient Stoicism

There is no uniformity of thought across the movement and the interpretations vary significantly from one author to another. That being said, we may cautiously assert, that the defining issue for modern Stoicism is the question of its relationship with the original, ancient Stoicism. The general assumption shared by many modern Stoicism authors (though not by all of them), is that the modern Stoicism cannot be a verbatim copy of ancient Stoicism, because of the fundamental differences between the ancient and contemporary intellectual, social, economical, legal, political and technological realms. Thus, many modern Stoicism authors share the general view that modern Stoicism needs to be a reinterpretation of ancient Stoicism. Yet, there is no agreement as to the scope and specifics of this reinterpretation. Broadly speaking, the modern Stoics focus on certain concepts and patterns of thought of the ancient Stoics, while other concepts and patterns receive far less attention. The details, though, differ greatly from author to author.

Problems with the appeal to nature

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, in the ancient Stoics it was an unquestionable idea 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.”[3]Template:Rp 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.”[3]Template:Rp 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."[3] 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

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."[3] 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.”[3]

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.”[3]

This process of “getting the facts about the [...] world”[3] 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."[3] 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.”[3] 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). For brevity: a modern Stoic will vaccinate her children.

Virtue, agency, happiness

Becker organizes his reading of Stoic ethics around the concept of agency. “The Development of Virtue [happens through] the Perfection of Agency,”[3] or through the “ideal agency”[3] 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”[3] 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.”[3] 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 her virtue."[3]

Degrees of virtue

In Lawrence 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.”[3]

Aspirations for universality

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 we read, that “acting appropriately, as understood here, is a special kind of optimization project – one that it is logically possible to reject. (And which many people with compulsive, obsessive, or addictive personalities do in fact reject.) Our [modern Stoic] claim is only that healthy agents, at least those well along the road to fitness in their deliberative powers, cannot plausibly reject it.”[3]

Stoicism versus Aristotle

Another example of possible discrepancies between the modern Stoic approach and original Stoicism is the question of whether as certain amount of external goods is required for a good life. In the orthodox Stoic view there are absolutely no entry conditions to living Stoic live. 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, the 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”[3]

Dichotomy of control

Another 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 (most of?) 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.”[3] 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.”[3]

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.” He says: “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. But stated in this way, the dichotomy is a false dichotomy, since it ignores the existence of things over which we have some but not complete control.”[4] 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

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”[3] (according to Becker this confusion happens because “Stoics have occasionally claimed that, for the sage, eudaiomonia somehow replaces ordinary happiness”.[3] 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.”[5] 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.”[5]

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.”[5] “Modern Stoics,” he concludes, “ought to be Stoics.”[5]

William 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.”[4]

Organization and institutions

While modern Stoicism in some measure grew from the academia (but not only from it), it is now represented both in scholarship and in popular movement, involving both academics and non-academics. Modern Stoicism keeps its one foot in the world of scholarship, but it also grows as a popular movement and establishes its growing popularity also among non-philosophers.

One of the groups promoting modern Stoicism was formed at a workshop at the University of Exeter in September 2012, and then set up on a more formal basis in 2013 in a project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Council. This particular group runs the "Stoicism Today" blog, the annual Stoicon event, as well as the annual online Stoic Week.

Other initiatives under the wide umbrella of modern Stoicism include the New Stoa (founded on May 8, 1996 – the first Stoic community on the internet), the “How To Be A Stoic” blog by Massimo Pigliucci, the Stoicism Group, and, beyond the Anglophone world, the “Sztuka życia według stoików” site by Piotr Stankiewicz.

Notable books

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 University Press, 1997
  • 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)
  • John Sellars, The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009)
  • William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life. The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, (Oxford: Oxfrod 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)
  • William O. Stephens, Marcus Aurelius. A Guide of the Perplexed, (London: Continuum, 2012)
  • Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the art of happiness (2013)
  • Piotr Stankiewicz, Sztuka życia według stoików, (Warsaw: WAB, 2014)
  • Patrick Ussher [ed.], Stoicism Today: Selected Writings, (Stoicism Today: 2014)
  • Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. The daily stoic: 366 meditations on wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living. (2016)
  • Patrick Ussher [ed.], Stoicism Today: Selected Writings vol. II, (Stoicism Today: 2016)
  • Massimo Pigliucci, How To Be a Stoic, (New York: Basic Books, 2017 [forthcoming])

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pigliucci, Massimo (December 14, 2016). "Stoicism". 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Pigliucci, Massimo (December 14, 2016). "Stoicism". 
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 Becker, Lawrence (1997). A New Stoicism. Princetion University Press. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Irvine, William (2009). A Guide to the Good Life. The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Ussher [ed.], Patrick (2016). Stoicism Today: Selected Writings vol. II. Stoicism Today.