A sad fact in the Stoic community came to pass in the final weeks of the year 2018. In the evening of the Thanksgiving Day, November 22, at around 9.45 PM local time, professor Lawrence C. Becker died in his home in Roanoke, Virginia.
It is an understatement to say that Becker was a key figure in the modern Stoic movement. He was more than that. He was one of our founding fathers. His 1999 book A New Stoicism remains a landmark work for the whole Stoic industry, for the Stoic movement, and the modern Stoic way of life in general. It is one of the first works proposing a comprehensive framing of Stoicism not as a chapter from an antiquity textbook, but as a philosophy of life which is viable and relevant today. Some would even say it is the most important work which prepared the ground for the Stoicism of the 21st century.
I will certainly assent to that and I must admit here that I had the privilege of knowing Lawrence Becker personally. Since the beginning of this decade he generously offered me guidance and intellectual patronage in the rocky waters of my early Stoic adventure. After all, we all need to navigate them before we get to the Marcus Aurelius’ “all smoothly strewn and a waveless bay” (Meditations, XII.22). I will forever remember our long conversations in his cozy study and the black tea he always made sure was available for my visit.
There is one fact about Lawrence Becker which has been of semi-public knowledge for years but might be said today in full voice. He was also a polio survivor. He suffered from the disease in the 1950s, not long before vaccination was made widely available. Polio left him with paralyzed hands, arms and torso. Lawrence Becker went on to have a half-century-long successful teaching and writing career with – literally – no ability to move his fingers. He never stated that he got interested in Stoicism because of this hardship, not to mention that there is a forty years span between his contraction of polio and the publication of the Stoic book. Yet, in retrospect, it is indeed a great testament to the utmost Stoicism of both flesh and spirit.
According to Diogenes Laertius there was an adage in antiquity, that “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would be no Stoa.” Today we are all in a position to say that had there been no Lawrence Becker, there would be no modern Stoicism as we know it.
Maybe it is a coincidence – or maybe it is not – that Lawrence Becker had the same birthday as Marcus Aurelius, April 26, 1939 and 121 AD respectively. Either way, they are now “levelled in death, for they were either taken up into the same life-giving principles of the Universe or were scattered without distinction into atoms.” (Meditations,VI.24)
Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (Sztuka życia według stoików). He has recently published Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? on Stoicism and Artistic Creativity.