Mark Vernon argues ‘Yes’, Tim LeBon argues ‘No’.
The Argument For
In Praise of the Logos
Ancient Stoics believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction. The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that “moves through all creation”. He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos.
It’s worth reading this hymn in full, not only because it is the Stoic document closest to the founder, but because it conveys the crucial dimension of ancient Stoicism that, sadly to my mind, is ripped out today.
“Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Logos of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Logos of all came to be one.
This Logos, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Logos.”
To put it another way, ancient Stoics did not believe that it is possible to live contentedly by ignoring what you can’t control, as Stoicism is sometimes interpreted today. They did not presume that those most human of feelings, fear and anger, are simply our personal choices, to be turned off and on by some trained trick of the will. They saw that life can gradually be re-ordered to serve a deeper, divine imperative that runs through all things. Let go into that fundamental goodness, and whatever happens will ultimately be shaped after its beneficent, magnificent pattern. It’s a commitment of faith to a changed perception of life, not a commitment to reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment, again as Stoicism can sometimes seem by its modern advocates.
It was a question of knowing the divine in nature through felt experience as much as reasoned argument. Hence, Seneca, speaks of intuiting the presence of God in nature.
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God.
Seneca also seems to have felt he had a relationship with God. “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. “Philosophy is nothing if not a promise that we can know the deity, and not primarily by our efforts but because God wills to be known to us. In another letter, he writes: “God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men. No mind that has not God, is good. Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.”
Epictetus, too, had a powerful sense of God in his life. This is important to note because it is often from Epictetus that contemporary Stoics lift injunctions about how to live, though leaving the crucially divine setting behind – the metaphysical big picture that is required to make full sense of how we response to what happens. We are “children of Zeus”, he says, before addressing God as father in prayer, acknowledging God’s omnipresence, and God as the source and sustainer of our life. Indeed, our life is but a reflection of God’s life, which is why it makes sense to let go of our own striving and trust life: “If our souls are so bound up with God and joined together with Him, as being parts and portions of His being, does not God perceive their every motion as being a motion of that which is His own and of one body with Himself?” Knowing this fact in every moment of our lives is what secures the Stoic promise of tranquility and freedom. “You are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!” He adds: “Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your own genius is within.”
Our task in life is not only to know the divinity in the sinews of our being, in every breath we take, but also to fulfill our part in God’s purposes. This engages us in a struggle that is personal, not mechanical; there is a moral element of choice about how we might live, and struggle with yourself as well as with discerning the divine around and about, within and before. We are interpreters of God’s world and witnesses of God’s work. In a climactic celebration of Stoic life, Epictetus declares:
Why, if we had sense, ought we to be doing anything else, publicly and privately, than hymning and praising the Deity, and rehearsing His benefits? Ought we not, as we dig and plough and eat, to sing the hymn of praise to God? ‘Great is God, that He hath furnished us these instruments wherewith we shall till the earth. Great is God, that He hath given us hands, and power to swallow, and a belly, and power to grow unconsciously, and to breathe while asleep.’ This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and above all to sing the greatest and divinest hymn, that God has given us the faculty to comprehend these things and to follow the path of reason. What then? Since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be someone to fulfill this office for you, and in behalf of all sing the hymn of praise to God? Why, what else can I, a lame old man, do but sing hymns to God? If, indeed, I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God. This is my task; I do it, and will not desert this post, as long as it may be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.
Knowing that there is a God is, therefore, the first thing a Stoic must learn. Theology is not an optional extra for a few die-hard theists. It is the very heart and resting place of the Stoic view. Epictetus again:
[Stoicism] says that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like, for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God.
Today, it is religious scholars of the ancient world who understand this essential aspect of Stoicism and aren’t embarrassed to write about it. In his recent book on St Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, NT Wright summarizes Stoicism, observing: “Once one has this knowledge, one is ready for the philosopher’s specific active vocation: to be dispatched like a scout or a spy in a time of war, to search out what is really going on, and then to come back and explain to people that they are mistaken in their perceptions of good and evil, and to point out the truth of the situation whether people want to hear it or not. Philosophers… are to be like owls who see in the dark – and then like heralds who announce the message with which they have been entrusted.”
I’ve laboured the point about the theology, and included several key texts, because this is what you will miss if you read most introductions to Stoicism today. To be frank, I think it is dishonest to sideline the divine foundations. It turns Stoicism into an atmosphere without air, a sea without water. Such reductionism is doubly misleading when it comes to Stoicism because the Stoics prided themselves on their rational approach to life that adds up because all its different parts link together – physics, ethics and metaphysics. Drop one element and they felt you are on the way to losing the lot.
That, I fear, is what today’s atheistic interpreters of Stoicism risk doing today. Unfounded and ungrounded, Stoicism loses its promise, its efficacy, and its divine energy.
The Argument Against
In Praise of Modern Stoicism
How many twenty-first century readers can accept the claims made in the following ancient Stoic passage quoted approvingly by Mark Vernon?
“The whole universe, spinning around the earth, goes wherever you [Zeus] lead it and is willingly guided by you.”
How many of us can believe that the universe spins round the earth? How many of us believe that Zeus is in charge of our fate?
I imagine that very few modern-day readers will accept these and some of the other metaphysical claims made by ancient Stoics. Logic therefore dictates that we have a choice. We could discard Stoicism on the grounds that it is based on claims that we can no longer believe. The title of this article – “In Praise of Modern Stoicism” – suggests an alternative. Rather than abandon Stoicism we can and should develop and a modern, acceptable and helpful form of Stoicism. In this article I will be using the term “Modern Stoicism” to refer to the Stoic Programme developed by the Stoicism Today team since 2012, as described in the various Stoic Week Handbooks and associated material.
Two key questions for the modern practitioner of Stoicism are consequently:
1. Which parts of ancient Stoicism can be accepted? and
2. Which Stoic practices turn out to be helpful?
The first question has been well explored in an article on this site by Antonia Macaro. Macaro argues that a ”lot of [Stoicism’s] foundational beliefs, such as the ideas that our rationality is a fragment of the divine … clash with what we in fact know about the world.” She concludes however that some Stoic ideas are both acceptable and helpful.
“Most of us could probably benefit from adopting Stoic perspectives like questioning what is really valuable in life, reminding ourselves that a lot of the things we commonly worry about are not that important; the habit of scrutinising our emotions, remembering that we can have a degree of influence on how we feel by changing how we think; and accepting that much of what happens to us in life is beyond our control.”
Such philosophical arguments can be taken stage further by conducting empirical research. This is a key part of the Stoicism Today project. The results so far are encouraging. I have summarized the findings as follows in an article written earlier this year.
“Our findings supported the view that Stoicism is helpful – Stoicism passed its initial test. Participants reported a 14% improvement in life satisfaction, a 9% increase in positive emotions and an 11% decrease in negative emotions [after engaging in Stoic practices for a week].
( Lebon, T. “Does Stoicism Work? Stoicism and Positive Psychology.” )
The development of the SABS (The Stoic Attitude and Behaviours Scale) has enabled us to go further and begin to understand which parts of Stoicism are most beneficial as opposed to the elements which may not really be “active ingredients”. As I wrote in my 2014 article, our findings so far suggest that four elements of Stoicism are the most helpful.
- Stoic mindfulness – making an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
- Stoic disputation of thoughts – reminding oneself that an upsetting thought is just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
- Affinity with others – thinking of oneself as part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body.
- Stoic Premeditation – trying to anticipate future misfortunes and rehearse rising above them.
These four elements of Stoicism happen to be amongst those emphasized in what Donald Robertson has called a “Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism”. Key parts of this “Modern Stoicism” are the morning Stoic preparation, an evening Stoic reflection on the day, and practicing “Stoic mindfulness” throughout the day. I agree with Mark Vernon that some aspects of Stoic Metaphysics including the idea of a divine purpose feature much less heavily than Stoic ethics and Stoic practices in “Modern Stoicism”. As the research shows, however, this Modern Stoicism has proved to be very helpful to the majority of participants.
The analysis of SABS items also allows us to make a tentative judgment on the extent to which logos-related attitudes and behaviors may be helpful. The analysis of data relating to 2013 Stoic week suggests that logos-related beliefs are moderately helpful, but much less so than the Stoic ideas listed above. The belief that “ There’s no overall plan to the universe” was inversely related to flourishing by a factor of .14, so it would seem it is somewhat conducive to flourishing to believe there is an overall plan to the universe. For the belief that “The cosmos is a single, wise, living thing” there was a similar positive association with flourishing (.16). However, three other Stoic attitudes and behaviours were much more significantly associated with flourishing (factors of .34 and .32 and .31 respectively). These were
I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions.
When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent.
I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare.
These three most helpful Stoic attitudes and behaviours are, of course, taught as part of Modern Stoicism.
Some of Mark Vernon’s comments convey a false impression of the scope and nature of Modern Stoicism. Vernon claims that Stoicism without God and the logos aims to “[turn] off and on [feelings of fear and anger] by some trained trick of the will”. This is not true. Modern Stoicism is a training in virtue, not in willpower. The virtuous Stoic doesn’t have an urge to feel fear and anger which they then repel by willpower. Instead, they form different value judgments about external events, so they don’t feel fear or anger in the first place. Neither is Modern Stoicism a “reprogramming aimed at a personality adjustment” as Vernon suggests. Modern Stoicism involves character change rather than personality adjustment. The Stoic quotations and readings give the participant an understanding of acceptable Stoic ideas, particularly relating to ethics, nature, emotions and what can and cannot be changed. The meditations then give the participant the opportunity to develop the skills to be virtuous – they give you the chance to rehearse and reflect on your behavior. The Stoic Monitoring form is another tool to help people develop key skills, such as noticing what is within our control and what is not and responding appropriately. Use of social media allows people to discuss their progress with fellow participants. A virtuous character is being developed by a process of training and practice, based on Stoic principles.
So far I have argued that
1) Some parts of Stoicism, particularly those that relate to Zeus, fate and a divine purpose, will not be acceptable to many modern readers
2) The parts that remain of Stoicism form a substantial and coherent set of ideas and practices, as illustrated in the Stoicism Today blog and Stoic Week Handbook. This version of “Modern Stoicism” will continue to be refined and already includes some aspects of Stoic Metaphysics e.g. the ideas about nature and humans being social beings help reinforce Stoic Ethics.
3) Modern Stoicism aims to help people lead a flourishing life as well as be virtuous, and is committed to research to see whether its practices actually do work
4) The empirical research we have undertaken so far suggests that Modern Stoicism is indeed helpful
5) Whilst logos-related parts of Stoicism appear to be moderately associated with flourishing they do not seem to be the most “active ingredients” of Stoicism.
I will finish with three further comments in praise of Modern Stoicism and against the idea of including the logos in Modern Stoicism. Mark Vernon blurs the issue by referring to “God” rather than Zeus in his article. The ancient Stoics did not believe in the Judeo- Christian God. The Stoic god is wholly impersonal – it is just nature, doing its thing. You can’t pray to the Stoic god.
Of course Vernon or anyone else is quite entitled to propose a version of Stoicism that includes elements of Christianity, but then they can hardly criticize anyone else for being unfaithful to ancient Stoicism.
Furthermore, were the logos to be included in Modern Stoicism it would make it less inclusive as well as less credible. Many readers would struggle to get past page 1 of the Stoic Week Handbook were it littered with references to Zeus, a divine providential Fate or even God. By diluting the religious component, Modern Stoicism is following the path of esteemed writers such as Viktor Frankl and Stephen Covey. Both Frankl and Covey were religious – Frankl was Jewish and Covey was Mormon – yet their most famous works (Man’s Search for Meaning and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People respectively)– were based largely on principles that don’t require religious faith. You can be religious and follow Modern Stoicism, but you don’t have to be.
A final objection to Modern Stoicism, hinted at by Vernon, is that that it shouldn’t call itself Stoicism. Personally, I like the term “Modern Stoicism”. It accurately conveys the idea that was is being taught is not identical to ancient Stoicism. At the same time the name “Modern Stoicism” also implies that Stoicism is being adapted to be helpful in the modern world. Now it could be argued however that just as Buddhism without Buddhist metaphysics is called “mindfulness”, so Stoicism without the logos and other elements of Stoic metaphysics should be called something else, perhaps “Stoic Mindfulness”. But, as Patrick Ussher has argued “all Stoic mindfulness .. is really about is remembering the key precepts of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice (Ussher, P. Was there a Stoic Mindfulness? in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (ed. Ussher, P.)). That’s also a good description of what Modern Stoicism is all about – remembering the key ideas of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice.
Mark Vernon’s Response
Mark Vernon adds the following as a ‘right to reply’:
On testing the benefits of Modern Stoicism, I would add more scientific caution. For example, my sense is that the experience of empirically investigating CBT increasingly suggests that the harder the evidence, the easier statistics are to amass and the more readily headlines can be produced; but the less insight and quality the supposed findings offer. It seems that the difficulties of doing science in the domains of wellbeing and mental health emerge particularly in qualitative studies and over the long term.
On the subject of prayer and God, ancient Stoics most certainly did pray to and praise the logos. Seneca, for one, definitely has God in mind too, and he’s not much informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, about which he seems to have simply shared common Roman prejudices. I think the problem for us here is not just theological but also physical. The ancient view of nature is not the same as the modern scientific view, which is mechanical and dead, unlike the organic, living, soul-filled cosmos ancient ‘pantheism’ implies. Similarly, Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus needs to be read as metaphysical poetry not modern scientific theory, and perhaps moves even now when related to as such.
Moderns need to approach ancient ideas about reasonableness with caution too. For us, reason tends to mean justified deductions or detached proofs, whereas in the ancient world reason implies a harmonious attunement with, and participation in, a pattern – or logos – much wider than humans can fully grasp.
Tim LeBon waived his right to respond further.
About the authors:
Mark Vernon used to be a priest in the Church of England and is now a writer, pursuing the ancient philosophers’ great question, how to live? His books cover subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and meaning, and he edits two series from Acumen, The Art of Living and Heretics. He also writes as a journalist, his work appearing regularly in the Guardian, TLS, Church Times and on the BBC. He is a keen blogger, and has also appeared on a wide range of platforms including at the Hay, Edinburgh International, Oxford and Dartington book festivals. His books have appeared in translation around the world. His studies began with a degree in physics, before two degrees in theology, followed by a PhD in philosophy – an academic journey that took him from the universities of Durham and Oxford to Warwick. Having lived in Germany, the North East of England, and spent extended periods of time in France, he now lives in south London.
Tim LeBon is a UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) registered therapist and works in the NHS in IAPT (the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies scheme) using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which he combines with a private practice as a counsellor and life coach in Central London. He is the founding editor of the journal Practical Philosophy and author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001), and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014). His website is www.timlebon.com.