Stoicism in the 21st century

by Jeroen Bouterse

I remember the first time I thought I might be able to get on board with Stoicism. I read a passage in Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, about a distinguished Stoic philosopher on a ship crossing the Ionian sea. The ship finds itself in a violent storm, catches water and seems to be on the verge of being overpowered by the elements. The narrator describes how everybody is working to keep the vessel afloat, all the while lamenting their situation.

In the midst of all the chaos, he looks for the Stoic – perhaps to anchor his own courage in the idea that the truly wise are unperturbed even by this seemingly dire situation. “And then”, he remembers later, “I beheld the man frightened and ghastly pale, not indeed uttering any lamentations, as all the rest were doing, nor any outcries of that kind, but in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others.” Whether the philosopher at least manages to make himself useful at the pumps remains unclear.

To add evident insult to apparent injury, a rich man then heckles the Stoic, remarking that he himself showed no fear whatsoever. The philosopher’s retort is something to the effect that apparently the man doesn’t have as much to lose by his death as has the philosopher. We can hardly expect that witticism, expressed in a convoluted way and apparently after some hesitation, to have saved his face.

Now that’s my kind of Stoic – the kind of hero who still jumps at loud noises, and who still gets bullied by obnoxious social superiors.

Aulus Gellius tells the story not in order to laugh or ridicule, however, or (as Christian authors would later do) to point out the shortcomings of Stoicism.[1] He tells it to drive home what even in his own time must have been a comment on a simplistic popular ‘stiff upper lip’ stereotype of the sect. Stoicism, we learn, teaches not that the philosopher should always control his response to any impulse, but that he can ‘withhold assent’ to inevitable involuntary responses: he knows his bodily reflexes are just that, and he can put them in perspective.

Even though a storm can make a terrifying impression on the philosopher, he really knows that this is merely an impression (a ‘phantasia’), and even though his mind cannot force his body to behave reasonably, his judgment is not clouded by its emotions. He cannot help being afraid, but he is fooled by his own fear no more than we are when we are watching a scary horror movie.

Stoicism is about being honest about what is under your control, and then exercising that control virtuously. This seems unobjectionable, timeless even. And indeed, there are quite a lot of people who have invested in translating a Stoic philosophy of life to modern times. It is on this phenomenon that I want to reflect here. Does Stoicism indeed have something on offer that is or remains valuable in the 21st century, or has the passage of time made it untenable?

Some problems for postmodern Stoics

One novel problem seems to be that in Antiquity, Stoic ethics was supported by a specific view of the world, according to which Reason governed both human decisions and the universe at large. This convergence of the deepest nature of the cosmos with the highest faculty in humans is not, for most people, a live option anymore. This is a problem, since Stoic ethics is famously naturalistic: quite literally, we are encouraged to “live according to nature”.

Lawrence C. Becker, a systematic and very careful advocate of an updated Stoic ethics, saw the problem; he confesses in his A New Stoicism (1998) that such an ethics would be much better off without the “follow nature” slogan.[2] He is not too somber about the ramifications of the present impossibility of a teleological vision of the universe, however. Even if the universe were teleological and humans were designed to a specific end, it would still not follow that we had to serve this end. Our living in a specific kind of universe is, basically, just one fact among many; ‘following nature’ means that we take objective facts into account, not that any subset of these facts can serve as a normative trump card.

In spite of their naturalistic commitments, then, Stoic ethics may turn out to be at least relatively independent of one’s particular metaphysical bent. But in a way, this brings us to the next problem: what the content of Stoic ethics has been, in practice, who it attracts and why. In particular, progressives may wonder why ancient Stoics never thought to question institutions that we self-evidently consider problematic or worse.

For instance, there is nothing in the way of systematic criticism of slavery, no mention of animal welfare, and little feminism. The shining exception to prove this last rule is Musonius Rufus, who lists body parts and mental faculties that men and women have in common, reasons that virtue isn’t gendered, and concludes that it is good for women to be educated in philosophy. Musonius even allows for the possibility that some men might be better suited to feminine tasks, and some women to male; but even he is, all things considered, socially conservative, and emphasizes that Stoic women are of value to their husbands.

Now, it is one thing to be historically sensitive enough not to expect too many progressive opinions from imperial Romans; another to regard their philosophy of life as worth emulating in spite of its evident blind spots. The question, it may seem, is whether these blind spots are intrinsic to Stoicism; does it inevitably come with status quo bias, for instance, or even with misogyny?

In an article about this question, Emily McGill and Scott Aikin sum up the “uneven track record of Stoicism” in this regard: ancient Stoic writers exclusively address a male audience, casually blame women for their sexualization and objectification by men, and envision their continued subordination and restriction to a separate sphere. McGill and Aikin consider the Stoics’ ‘progressive’ views of women’s capacities and their conservative views of social roles to be consistent (not self-contradictory), but morally unacceptable. They are also optimistic, however, about the extent to which Stoic ethics can be adapted to be respectful of the individual autonomy of women.

That is nice. It also feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse; aren’t ethical philosophies here to help us form, conceptualize, criticize or improve our moral beliefs and acts, not the other way round? Otherwise what would their use be? But let’s remember that one of the reasons people labor to reinterpret Stoicism is to imagine what it could or would be like if it had remained a living tradition until the present day. There may be wisdom in its tradition already, but it obviously needs to be improved, in so far as possible, by interaction with (post)modern ideologies and sensibilities. (Also, let’s remember that Stoics are known for tying animals behind carts.[3])

Old-fashioned heroes

And yet. When reading present-day Stoic writings in preparation for this column, I was struck by their appeal to models of Stoic courage, many of which boil down to fearlessness and discipline in the face of bodily harm and violence. In his book How To Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci can’t look away from a military hero whose familiarity with Epictetus helped him to survive solitary imprisonment and torture. I’m hesitant to call these things out for being traditionally masculine virtues – they don’t have to be, and nobody seems to be saying girls are not allowed in their models of fortitude. But I can very well imagine Stoicism being attractive not only because of its cosmopolitanism and its high-minded view of individual agency and human reason, but also because of its promise of charismatic heroism. That promise reeks of machismo. Even though it isn’t necessarily toxic, it doesn’t transfer well to the demilitarized societies most of us actually live in.

These days, where there is an insistence on respecting facts of nature, on ordering your own life, on steeling yourself, there is the shadow of Jordan Peterson. Indeed, several self-identified Stoics have decided where they stand on the Peterson thing. They have come down on both sides of the fence. On modernstoicism, Justin Vacula juxtaposes Peterson’s ideas with quotes from ancient Stoics, finds a lot of parallels – except where he thinks Peterson is angrier and quicker to judge than the ancient authors – and invites Peterson to engage with the Stoic community. On the same platform, Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantankos criticize Peterson’s stances on issues such as the gender pay gap and gender neutral terminology, but also consider his work “certainly not un-stoic”.

On his blog howtobeastoic, however, Pigliucci leaves no doubt that as far as he is concerned, Peterson is not welcome in the Stoic club. Peterson’s life rules, says Pigliucci, are mere common sense, as was his cool demeanor during that unfortunate Channel 4 interview. His reasoning is often sloppy and faulty, something no Stoic would stand for. In a footnote, Pigliucci, who has PhDs in biology and genetics as well as in philosophy of science, makes short work of Peterson’s tendency to pontificate about lobsters’ sensitivity to hierarchy, as if this teaches us anything interesting about human social relations. “Lobsters are invertebrates”, Pigliucci rules. Peterson’s science is bad, and bad science is un-Stoic.

This is satisfying. Still, it’s risky for present-day Stoics to make too much of the distinction between a full-fledged Stoic philosophy, capital S, and a plain old commonsensical ‘stoic’ attitude. After all, much of the present appeal of the Roman Stoics concerns particular ethical maxims, sometimes in spite of their problematic intellectual context. What is more, some of the twelve ‘exercises’ (derived from Epictetus) which Pigliucci presents in his Stoic self-help book exhibit more than a little overlap with Peterson’s twelve ‘rules for life’. For instance, Pigliucci and Peterson agree that you should choose your company carefully, citing the old Senecan concern that the wrong people may just drag you down to their level.

It’s easy and lazy to look down upon self-help advice like this. I would be dishonest if I suggested that none of Epictetus’ or Pigliucci’s (or even Peterson’s) maxims resonated with my own attitudes and thought processes. Still, this moral germaphobia has always puzzled me slightly: I get that we shouldn’t fancy ourselves to be sages, but doesn’t a fear of contracting vice itself affect our capacity to act virtuously?

Virtue and happiness

Some of my confusion stems, I suspect, from the fact that Stoics themselves tend to conflate virtue and happiness, and to identify happiness with mental serenity or imperturbability. These ‘Stoic paradoxes’ were hard to maintain even in Antiquity; and I think they are harder to maintain now, in a postmodern universe where we have to be modest about our claims about hierarchies of value. We can’t anchor ourselves to something that exceeds everything else in importance. We have only contingent stuff and mortals around us, and it simply will not do to call all of these ‘preferred indifferents’. We ourselves are contingent and mortal beings, and it will certainly not do to suggest that our individual state of mental comfort or anxiety is of higher moral significance than any other fact about the world.

So why, I wonder, the Stoic fascination with responses to stressful situations? Pigliucci’s book has two anecdotes where he marvels at his own calm in a helpless and possibly dangerous situation. Surely, such calm is often commendable, and I readily believe that Epictetus has helped him achieve it. But my beloved scared-Stoic-on-a-ship also reminds us that this calm is not, in the end, under our full control. None of us can be sure we won’t under any circumstance be overwhelmed by strong negative emotions. Holding that up as the highest goal is desiring the impossible.

The best safeguard to serenity is a quiet life. This is the way of the Epicurean, not the Stoic; Epicureans, as their Roman advocate Lucretius said, were smart enough not to board ships, content to watch them from afar and reflect upon the troubles they had been spared.[4] Sure, the philosopher on our ship knew how to interpret his emotions; but this must have required a lot of work that could have been easily avoided by staying at home and tending to his garden.

Stoics don’t think of shying away from trouble as the admirable choice. According to Becker, Stoic virtue consists in the virtuoso exercise of agency. Traits such as courage, endurance and perseverance denote the ability to act in spite of fear, pain or disappointment. I see this as the honest Stoic promise – more honest than its look-how-steady-my-hand-is anecdotes. Stoicism offers ways to perfect your development into a mature agent, even if that could make your life less comfortable in some ways. Primarily, Stoicism seeks to make you virtuous; its promise that it will make you happy as well means that it hopes you will come to agree that the meaning derived from acting well is a better good than comfort physical or mental.

I hope this is a fair, albeit sweeping characterization. In my opinion, it should follow from this that Stoic character-building cannot be a merely aesthetic exercise. We don’t need to ‘grow up’ simply because being an adult looks or feels nicer; we need to grow up because being morally mature enables us to be a better person in the lives of others. Maybe this goes to show that I simply don’t understand the point of virtue ethics, but I think that in our universe, Stoicism requires a healthy dose of consequentialism. Otherwise it is just people “in love with their own righteousness” (I borrow the phrase from an admirably self-critical paragraph in James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty).

The promise to help you act rightly and hopefully be a force for good in the world while also working on yourself is obviously attractive. Something about the cosmopolitanism of Hellenistic philosophy shines through here, which feels at home in the 21st century without being trivial; Stoicism doesn’t seem to think we have overriding parochial commitments, just a duty to do right to everyone including ourselves. Then again, it treats this duty in a highly individualistic way, and has little (though not nothing) to say about collective action, politics and ideology, or cultural and ethical dilemmas. Be virtuous, is its core message; and, giving us control over our lives, it has preciously little to say about how we should exercise that control.

Perhaps we aren’t convinced that being virtuous and being happy come down to the same thing; perhaps we don’t imagine a call to virtue to solve all the problems of our time. But at least the Stoics remind us that being virtuous, whatever that means exactly, is something worth pursuing over comfort. Hopefully their followers in our time will foster its tendencies towards effective altruism rather than its more romantic and self-involved inclinations.

[1] E.g. Augustine, City of God, 9.4

[2] Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism. Princeton University Press (Princeton) 1998: 43.

[3] The Hellenistic philosophers, Volume 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary, by A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 62a: “When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.” (via https://www.iep.utm.edu/chrysipp/).

[4] De rerum natura, 2: 1-4.