Adapting Stoicism Today I: 'Which Stoicism?' by John Sellars

In the first article of our new ‘adapting Stoicism today’ series, which discusses how best Stoicism can be adapted, the need for discernment, and potential difficulties, John Sellars, lecturer of philosophy at Birkbeck College London, asks ‘which Stoicism’?

Which Stoicism?

by John Sellars

Around 300 years separated Chrysippus from Epictetus (both pictured above). 

The aim of the ‘Stoicism Today’ project is to highlight ways in which ancient Stoicism might be of use to people as a general guide to life or might contribute to a therapeutic response to specific problems. Some critics might object that the version of Stoicism being offered bears little relation to the Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno and developed by Chrysippus and others (see e.g. Williams on Nussbaum (LRB 16/20 (20 Oct. 1994), 25-6) and Warren on Irvine (Polis 26/1 (2009), 176-8)). As Williams quipped, what use is Chrysippus’ logical theory in learning how to live?

The project, by contrast, has been inspired primarily by a study of Marcus Aurelius and the materials prepared for the project draw on the works of Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus – all later Roman Stoics. This is not just because the works of these later Stoics survive and those of the earlier Stoics active in Athens do not; it also reflects the fact that these later Stoics focus their attention on what we might call ‘Stoic practice’. They offer a wide range of practical guidance designed to contribute towards the cultivation of tranquillity or what Zeno called ‘a smooth flow of life’. It is hard to know to what extent these sorts of practices figured in early Stoicism: we know that early Stoics wrote books on mental training (askêsis) and we also know that this featured prominently in Cynicism, an important influence on the early Stoics. Ultimately the evidence is just too thin for us to know for sure.

It may be that this concern with practices (what Pierre Hadot called ‘spiritual exercises’) did not figure much in early Stoicism and it may have been a Pythagorean theme in later Stoicism introduced by the Roman Stoic Sextius, who influenced Seneca. That view would hold that there is a marked difference between early Hellenistic Stoicism and later Roman Stoicism (although in my own book Stoicism (2006) I consciously tried to downplay such a division by treating the ancient Stoic tradition as a continuous whole). But even if one did take that view, the later Roman Stoics were indeed Stoics – they self identified as Stoics and others in antiquity described them as Stoics. If their use of practices counts as an innovation in the history of ancient Stoicism that does not stop them being fully paid up members of the Stoic tradition. The Stoicism that the ‘Stoicism Project’ draws on is this later variety of Roman Stoicism.

Having said that, it may be that the difference between early and later Stoicism is not as marked as some may think. As I have already noted, ultimately it is hard to know for sure given the fragmentary nature of the evidence for the early Stoa but we do know that the Cynics engaged in these sorts of practices and recent scholarship has rightly stressed the Cynic influence on all the early Stoics (e.g. Goulet-Cazé’s Les Kynica du stoïcisme, 2003). If the Cynic teachers of the early Stoics engaged in these practices and later Roman Stoics did too then it is not unreasonable to think that the early Stoics in between might have also, although we cannot know for sure.

Even so, the ‘Stoicism Today’ project is primarily concerned with drawing on the surviving works of the later Roman Stoics who do outline a variety of practices designed to cultivate well being. The project could have been called ‘Roman Stoicism Today’, but ‘Stoicism Today’ is far from misleading.

There is a separate question about the extent to which it makes sense to call these practices ‘Stoic’ if they are divorced from the rest of Stoic philosophy. Are these practices essentially Stoic or only contingently so to the extent that later Stoics happened to make use of them? My own view is that these practices only count as philosophical practices when done in the light of some of the central tenets of Stoic philosophy – especially their theory of value and perhaps also their determinism. However one of the striking features of the Roman Stoics – Epictetus to an extent, Marcus Aurelius even more so – is the thought that these practices can benefit people even if they are not yet fully committed to the full range of Stoic doctrines. The beginning student, suggests Epictetus, can benefit from these practices before they have studied the full range of Stoic doctrine, and the cautious student of Nature, Marcus says, can pursue well being even if they remain unsure whether Nature is governed by providence or is merely chaotic. In short, the Roman Stoics offer a helpful model of how one might start to draw on these Stoic practices even if one is not yet fully committed to the Stoic philosophical system. One might say that simply embracing some of these practices does not make someone a Stoic if they do not also embrace all of the doctrine, and that is fine: the aim of the project is not to create a new sect of doctrinaire Stoics but rather the more modest goal of drawing on Stoic practices to the extent they might help people in their everyday lives.

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