Symposium: What is Modern Stoicism?

In Stoic forums, meetups, events, and online media, a question persistently arises: just what is Modern Stoicism?  As the editor of Stoicism Today, and a participant in multiple online and face-to-face communities focused upon Stoicism, I see a number of different – and sometimes incompatible – answers getting proposed to this question.

It struck me that although these certainly aren’t the only people who have interesting and well-thought-out answers to this question, it could be very useful for our readers to have the members of the Modern Stoicism team weigh in on the matter.  So I proposed a sort of virtual symposium to the Modern Stoicism team, focused precisely on that question, but expanding it a bit, to include

  • what they think modern Stoicism means
  • what modern Stoicism includes
  • what (if anything) it excludes
  • how it differs from “traditional Stoicism” (if one thinks it does)
  • and anything else relevant I might have left out about the topic.

Below you’ll see a set of seven excellent responses from the Modern Stoicism Team.  You’ll notice that they are not all in lock-step agreement on every single point, feature, or issue – and we should hardly expect them to be!  After all, there were some interesting divergences and disagreements within the Stoic school as it developed over the course of centuries, and across multiple cultures, during antiquity.

I know that I myself have enjoyed reading, reflecting upon, and rereading these contributions by my colleagues.  I hope that they prove to be stimulating, illuminating, and even challenging for you, the readers of Stoicism Today.  I don’t imagine even for a moment that this will be the end of the discussion – in fact, I suspect that this very piece may be looked at in years to come as the official starting point of a larger and longer conversation within the worldwide modern Stoic community.

So, with no further ado, here are those seven sets of reflections upon the topic by the members of the Modern Stoicism team:

Christopher Gill

Like some others writing on this topic, I do not see modern Stoicism as fundamentally different from ancient Stoicism – there is just ‘Stoicism’, which we, obviously, view from our own modern standpoint. As in the ancient world, different writers and thinkers emphasized different sides of Stoicism, so too do modern writers on Stoicism. However, certain teachings were seen as core distinctive Stoic doctrines in antiquity and I think we would do well to regard them in this way, if we are to get the most out of Stoicism.

Here I pick out three distinctive Stoic themes, which were regarded as crucial in antiquity and which can have great value for us too.

One is a very strong belief in personal agency, which rests on the claim that the basis for happiness or the good life depends on us. In fact, this claim is shared by other ancient philosophies; but the distinctive Stoic version of this claim depends on the idea that happiness derives solely from virtue and not from other so-called good things. This is coupled with the idea that all human beings are naturally capable of developing virtue. Some modern thinkers (including Kant, Sartre and Nietzsche) lay great stress on personal agency; but I think the Stoic way of grounding this claim remains cogent.

A second striking Stoic theme is stress on our nature as social as well as rational animals, naturally inclined to care for others as well as ourselves. This care for others extends in principle to all human beings as such (regarded as our relatives or fellow-citizens of the world). I think the Stoic way of thinking about our relations to others offers a good alternative to some modern ways of regarding this (for instance, in terms of the contrast between egoism and altruism), and that the idea of the brotherhood of humanity has a powerful resonance in the modern ‘globalised’ world.

The third theme is that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole, and that our ethical life is compatible with our existence as an integral part of nature. This theme is the most challenging for moderns, because our world-view is very different from theirs. However, several modern thinkers also maintain that our beliefs about ethics should be compatible with our understanding of nature – at least of human nature. The Stoic version of this theory is sophisticated and instructive, even if we begin from a different picture of the world. Also, the Stoic belief that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole is highly suggestive for reasons that the ancient Stoics did not have. This derives from the great damage moderns have done to the natural environment and the obligation we have to do all we can to repair this. The Stoics were not in the same position as us in this respect; but their view of human beings as an integral part of nature can help us to recognise this obligation.

So ‘Stoicism’ can take in a new significance in the modern world; but it is one that derives from going back to ancient Stoic ideas and thinking out afresh their meaning for us.

Donald Robertson

I use the term “modern Stoic” to refer to anyone who’s into Stoicism and hasn’t been dead for several hundred years.  (I guess strictly-speaking the m should be lower case because it’s not really a proper noun, except in the name of our organization.)  We could, and sometimes do, just say “Stoicism” when talking about the same thing.  However, people sometimes tend to assume you’re referring to ancient Stoicism when you do that, so it’s necessary at times to qualify it if you’re specifically talking about contemporary uses of Stoicism.

I don’t think there’s any doctrinal difference between ancient/traditional Stoicism and modern Stoicism because “modern Stoicism” doesn’t really exist except as a loose term for everyone who’s currently interested in the subject.  That definitely includes both religious and non-religious Stoics, academics and laypersons, etc.  Our Modern Stoicism conferences and courses are deliberately inclusive and open to everyone – they’re not limited to any sub-groups with particular beliefs or interests.  In particular, I think it’s necessary to refute the misconception I sometimes come across online that “modern Stoicism” might refer specifically to atheist/agnostic approaches to Stoicism.  It’s just a blanket term for everyone, we have many “religious” Stoics, of all kinds, in our groups, courses, and conferences.

We’ve deliberately gone out of our way to embrace diversity and encourage people of different philosophical orientations to engage with our work on Stoicism.  For example, we’ve had several excellent speakers on Stoicism and religion at our Stoicon conferences.  Modern Stoicism is for everyone and attempting to drive a wedge through the community would, IMHO, be a terrible idea.  We don’t need splits or schisms.  We can and should all be working together to understand Stoicism and consider its relevance to modern life.  Some people adapt or modify Stoicism considerably; others keep very close to the ancient sources.  However, they’re all in the same boat.  Modern Stoicism is just Stoicism, being studied by people in the modern world.

One fairly trivial difference I would perhaps note is that today there are tens of thousands of people, that we know about, who are into Stoicism.  In the ancient world, it’s likely to have been a more select group of students.  So unless we want to use the tongue-twister of always referring to “Modern students of Stoicism” every time we mention them, for simplicity, we tend to refer to them collectively just as “Stoics” or “Modern Stoics”, although a lot of them are perhaps just people who have read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and felt a deep connection with it, but don’t know much more about Stoicism beyond that.  So there is inevitably a need to use the term in a diluted sense to refer to a larger group of people but that’s bound to happen because otherwise it just becomes unnecessarily long-winded trying to talk about them.

Piotr Stankiewicz

Modern Stoicism is a system of thought and conduct for living a happy life. This happiness is achieved, as I take it, by continuous employment and enjoyment of one’s agency. In this regard, modern Stoicism mirrors its ancient counterpart, though terminology may differ.

And yet, the relationship between modern and ancient Stoicism is neither clear nor settled. Some of us hold that a major overhaul of the ancient thought is required so that it fits the present‑day circumstances and conceptual framework. Some hold that no such transformation is needed. I find myself in the former position.

Whenever I think of it I usually refer to one of the opening passages of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism. I like to call it the manifesto of reinterpretation. The gist of is this. “It is interesting to try to imagine what might have happened if Stoicism had had a continuous twenty-three-hundred-year history; if Stoics had had to confront Bacon and Descartes, Newton and Locke, Hobbes and Bentham, Hume and Kant, Darwin and Marx.” This is precisely what interests me most.

The single greatest challenge to us, modern Stoics, is – in my view – our interpretation of ancient Stoic naturalism. I have serious doubts whether “nature” and the principle of following it can be ethically relevant today. Particularly the confrontation with Darwin and Marx is challenging to the traditional view. From Darwin we learn the lack of purpose in the natural world, while from Marx we learn that human nature is much more malleable than we previously thought. All told, I detect a degree of confusion or redundancy here. One possible interpretation is Becker’s idea of translating “following nature” into “following facts.” This is sound and promising, but doesn’t solve everything still.

Turning now to the specifics, I found, paradoxically, that the particulars of modern Stoicism can be well spelled out through rejecting certain stereotypes and misconceptions. In my other works I’ve coined phrases “conservative misinterpretation” and “ascetic misinterpretation.” The former one relates to the widespread (but wrong!) idea that a modern Stoic needs to be of necessity conservative politically and/or that she needs to live a detached life of low achievement. This is something I staunchly oppose. The ascetic misinterpretation, in turn, represents another popular and wrong idea that a Stoic has to abstain from the ordinary joys of food and drink, alcohol, rock&roll all the funs and games of human life. The truth is: she doesn’t have to. Of course, a Stoic focuses on strengthening and cherishing her virtue and moral character, but, importantly, this doesn’t necessarily translate to any simplified stereotype of a monk-like life. A modern Stoic has a wide variety of political and private choices available. Almost all walks of life are on the table. She can be a philosopher or a poet, a doctor or a soldier, a stand-up comedian or an IT specialist, an entrepreneur or a social reformer. And politically she can be almost anyone… within reason of course.

This is just a scrap of my views on modern Stoicism and I’ve already used up the agreed-upon word-count. Let me just say then, that I’m perfectly aware that these are “views my own,” as they say on Twitter. Others will disagree and there is virtue in disagreement. It’s a major perk of Stoicism that we are aware of the differences and that we don’t shoot for any enforced unity. We need a debate, not a monolithic church. Or, at least, this is what I think we need.

Massimo Pigliucci

Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us that no interestingly complex concept can be reduced to a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions in order to be precisely defined. His example was that of “games.” Try and see if you can come up with a compact definition of what a game is and include every activity that normally falls into that category, while at the same time excluding everything else. It’s impossible. For every criterion you can think of (it’s done for fun!, it has rules, it’s a competition) there will be exceptions both ways: some games will fail to satisfy the criterion (solitaire is not competitive), while some non-games will meet that same criterion (your job may be competitive, but that doesn’t make it a game). Even so, Wittgenstein argued, we know what does and does not count as a game, though we can have meaningful discussions about borderline cases (war “games”?).

I believe something like that applies to the distinction between Ancient and Modern Stoicism, with one important caveat to be discussed shortly. There is what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” between the two versions of Stoicism, meaning that they sort of look alike and yet are not the same, like a daughter and her mother.

Unlike other philosophical traditions, say Buddhism, Stoicism has not evolved continuously: its development was “interrupted” by the rise of Christianity, and although Stoic ideas have influenced plenty of philosophers since (including many Christian ones), we pretty much jumped from the 2nd to the 20th century with little in between (except for the brief interlude of Renaissance “Neo-Stoicism”). The world we live in now is in some respects very different from that of the ancient Greco-Romans (they didn’t have internet and social networks!), though in other respects it’s pretty much the same (Seneca, in a letter to Lucilius, complains of unbearable noise coming from the street, which made it difficult for him to write — I can relate).

There are, accordingly, a number of notions from Ancient Stoicism that I think are negotiable for Modern Stoics. The idea of the universe as a living organism characterized by diffuse intelligence (the Logos), for instance, with its corollary of pantheism and the concept of a “providence” that, though very different from the Christian concept, still sets things in the best possible way at a cosmic scale. I think that a Modern Stoic can be a pantheist, a theist, an agnostic, or an atheist, and still arrive at a reasonable reconstruction of what the Logos means (elemental consciousness, the word of God, the logical structure of the laws of nature).

Much of Stoic “physics,” of course, has been superseded by modern science, and it won’t do for us to cling to notions that are contradicted by the advancements in human knowledge of the last 18 centuries. We know a lot more than Posidonius and Seneca on eclipses and comets. Fortunately, the details of Stoic physics underdetermine the important bit, Stoic ethics.

Even Stoic logic, as groundbreaking as it was at the time, and as influential as was until the 19th century, has been surpassed by its modern counterpart, especially if we don’t limit ourselves to formal logic, but broaden the scope of the field in the way the ancient meant, to include every aspect of human reasoning (and hence cognitive science, applied psychology, even neuroscience).

Politically, some Stoics were what we would call “conservatives” (Cato the Younger), others were pragmatists (Marcus Aurelius), and some were “progressive” by the standard of the time (Musonius Rufus, who advocated teaching philosophy to women). So Modern Stoics may also come from pretty much across the political, not just the theological, spectrum. (There are some exceptions: I’m pretty sure racism is not a Stoic value, for instance.)

All of the above said, one could reasonably ask whether “Stoicism” is then such a flexible concept that pretty much anything, or almost anything goes. I don’t think so, and here comes the aforementioned caveat, the exception to a Wittgensteinian view of the relationship between Ancient and Modern Stoicism. If there was one thing I would have to pick that I believe defines the core of Stoicism, and without which it begins to make little sense to call oneself a Stoic, is the primacy of virtue over externals (or “preferred indifferents”). “Happiness,” meaning eudaimonia, the life worth living, for a Stoic means a life of as much moral integrity as one is able to muster. Everything else, including material things, and even relations, is secondary. Not in the sense that it is to be discarded (we are not Cynics!), but in the sense that it can never be traded off with virtue. Why? Because we want to live according to nature, which especially in a modern context just means to take seriously the two fundamental characteristics of humanity: we are social animals capable of reason. So, as Marcus puts it “Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires” (Meditations IV.24).

Tim LeBon

In many ways Modern Stoicism is similar to ancient Stoicism:

  • Both advocate a virtue ethics in which flourishing is achieved by living like an excellent human being rather then, for example, trying to maximise happiness or follow a set of rules.
  • Both deem virtue as necessary and sufficient for flourishing. Whilst some other virtue ethics such as Aristotle’s argue that some external goods (such as friends, health and wealth) are necessary for flourishing, for both ancient and modern Stoics, external goods are “nice to haves” but not essential.
  • Like Ancient Stoicism, Modern Stoicism has a particular emphasis on wisdom as the foundational virtue. The distinction between what we can control and what is cannot control is a crucial part of wisdom.
  • Both are practical philosophies, designed to help us live well rather than just provide theoretical understanding.
  • There are also some important differences

To begin with the most obvious point , Modern Stoicism uses English (mainly) rather than ancient Greek or Latin. This is not an entirely trivial point since language undoubtedly affects our sense of key concepts such as virtue and emotion. Similarly Modern Stoicism is conducted largely through means of communication unavailable to the ancients – such as social media, the internet and audio recordings.

Modern Stoicism focuses mostly on the big Three Roman Stoics – Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and their interest in ethics and what we would call psychology more than for example ancient Greek Stoics like Zeno or Chrysippus and other areas of interest to ancient Stoics such as Stoic physics, cosmology and logic.

Some modern Stoics try to update Stoicism to take into account contemporary scientific knowledge. This includes neuroscience, psychology and the use of modern research methods.

It would however be a mistake to see Modern Stoicism as a homogenous group Some Modern Stoics see their role as faithfully bringing the ideas of the ancient Stoics to a modern audience in an accessible manner, interpreting the ancient thinkers in a way that makes their ideas most appealing and logical. Others wish to develop a “new Stoicism” which may well contradict some ancient Stoic ideas such as “The cosmos is a wise living thing”. They may replace a dichotomy of control with a trichotomy of control. A third wing of Modern Stoics take a strong interest in Stoic ideas and practices without necessarily endorsing all of its doctrines, such as virtue being sufficient as well as necessary for flourishing. This third group may not identify themselves as Stoics but are nevertheless keen to incorporate some Stoic ideas into a practical philosophical and psychological system and practice.

The beginnings of “Modern Stoicism” could be traced to a number of events, including no doubt books written by Irvine, Robertson and Becker. My own introduction to Modern Stoicism began when I was invited to a seminar at the University of Exeter by Professor Chris Gill back in 2012. We were a small group, with low expectations and little idea that “Modern Stoicism” would capture anyone’s imagination.

In my view a key part of Modern Stoicism’s success so far has been its non-doctrinaire approach. Philosophers and psychotherapists have been invited to write articles and talk at conferences because they have something interesting and, hopefully, constructive to say about Stoicism, whichever “wing” of Modern Stoicism they would identify with. I like to think of Modern Stoicism as a meadow full of many beautiful but different flowers. Let them all bloom.

Gregory Lopez

I’m personally influenced by the later Wittgenstein; what “modern Stoicism” means depends on the language game being played at the time and in the situation in which it’s being used. I could stipulate a definition, but that would bring its own problems to the fore. Any stipulated definition that provides necessary and sufficient conditions for “modern Stoicism” will break if pushed too hard, will never be agreed upon by all people, and will not really resemble how the term’s used in all cases. So I won’t be addressing the question of what “modern Stoicism” means since I don’t think it’s addressable.

What I can address is the direction I’d prefer the Modern Stoicism organization to take: I believe it should help people learn about and practice Stoicism in the modern world. Pretty straightforward.

But what’s Stoicism? Who is and isn’t a Stoic? If you’re plagued by these questions, I would caution you to examine the kind of language game you’re playing, as it’s likely one of exclusion. That can be useful in some situations. But in many others, it’s either a waste of time if the inquiry yields no actionable fruit, or against Hierocles’ take on oikeiôsis if it’s meant to separate who’s in the cool kids club from who isn’t.

I’d prefer that the Modern Stoicism organization “collect the circles to one center”, to borrow Hierocles’ phrasing. So if you’re interested in Stoicism, hop on board and enjoy the ride.

William Irvine

Ancient Stoicism is often characterized as a collection of views regarding logic, physics, and ethics. Stoic logic concerned itself with sound argumentation, physics with the way the world works, and ethics with having a good life. We need to keep in mind, though, that there were rival philosophies that concerned themselves with these topics. Furthermore, Ancient Stoicism was by no means a monolithic doctrine. As soon as Zeno of Citium gained followers, differing interpretations of the philosophy started to emerge. And as the audience for Stoicism changed, so did the philosophy. In particular, Stoicism’s move from Greece to Rome was accompanied by a major shift in emphasis: the Romans placed a higher value on attaining and then retaining tranquility than the Greeks had.

Modern Stoicism has likewise been influenced by the world in which it is practiced. It has turned the study of physics mostly over to natural scientists, turned the study of logic over to logicians, and focused its attention on ethics. Along these lines, it has developed, refined, and propagated psychological strategies for preserving our tranquility in this rough-and-tumble world.

Successful employment of these strategies, however, requires a willingness to take responsibility for one’s mental state, and this is something that many of today’s young adults are unwilling to do. They have been encouraged to think of themselves not as targets of injustice but as victims, and they are therefore quick to adopt a “victim mentality” that is likely to make them miserable. It is conceivable that Modern Stoicism will be able to transform these individuals. There is also a chance, though, that they will instead transform Modern Stoicism into a doctrine that, because it ignores the role we play in our own well-being, will be incapable of preserving the tranquility that the Ancient Stoics so valued. Time will tell!

You can learn more about all the members of the Modern Stoicism team here.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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3 thoughts on “Symposium: What is Modern Stoicism?”

  1. Thanks to all you guys. I’ve been studying Stoicism for several years, with your help, and I find it to be quite powerful.

    I’ve got two wishes, though.

    One is that someone would find a way to break with the past and present a modern version for modern audiences that doesn’t use the ancients as its starting point. We should be able to do this on our own, without having to refer to ancient texts the way that Sunday School classes refer to Scripture.

    Second, it would be great to hear more about the joy, the serenity and the love of humankind that flow from Stoicism. More about the development of character excellence, too. I’m not suggesting we put the cart before the horse, because obviously we have to traverse the wilderness to reach the pleasant glade on the other side. But too often, Stoicism comes off as a way to cope with adversity, when it’s much more than that. I can think of passages in Meditations and in Seneca’s essays that are supremely inspiring.

    Finally, some Stoics might not like this idea much. But would it be worth moving Stoicism slightly off its ancient foundations to take in useful concepts and practices from other schools? For instance, there’s a certain sweetness about Epicureanism that might enhance Stoicism’s appeal in the modern world. The pleasure of simple existence is, after all, a real thing. Why not find a way to embrace it as part of modern Stoicism?

  2. This has been one of the most interesting articles for a long time with lots of important thoughts.
    It is indeed amazing to see how Stoicism has changed over time and in which way Greek and Roman Stoicism differed from each other. It was very important to remind us of the essence what is Stoicism, and it was fascinating to read the different answers.
    A big “thank you” to all contributors!