Lawrence Becker – In Memoriam by Piotr Stankiewicz

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.

5 thoughts on Lawrence Becker – In Memoriam by Piotr Stankiewicz

  1. Adrian Lever says:

    As an aside to this heartfelt eulogy for a person of distinction, I was surprised to see the following statement:
    “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.”
    Since when has Stoicism become an ‘industry’?
    This one phrase seems to suggest that ‘Modern Stoicism’ is deemed to be a platform for many to make money through the writing of books etcetera and that the Stoic beliefs are of secondary concern.
    I have noticed over the years a gradual shift in the Stoicism Today blogs from looking only at the Stoic training to reign in the emotions towards talking of the need to include the Stoic aim of living virtuously as part of what will progress a person towards a state of eudaimonia.
    But there has always been an undercurrent that Stoicism can be developed as a therapy system to be pitched to the NHS and other health organisations whereby such may improve on the CBT already on offer.
    We have often been told, the Stoicism Today team has until recently been a group of volunteer interested academics and professionals who were only interested in developing a better understanding of how Stoicism is such a powerful psychological help to its followers.
    Yet now we are now told that it is part of an industry. Is this new thinking the result of people seeing the setting up of Modern Stoicism as a legal ‘not for profit trading’ entity? Or is it a subconscious acknowledgement that many an academic is just using Stoicism as a platform to improve their own finances by selling their own take on Stoicism in what they hope will be ‘popular books’ in the self-help market?
    I am sure that Lawrence C. Becker would not have associated himself with the concept of Stoicism being an industry.
    Adrian Lever

    • Heidi Schmidt says:

      “I am sure that Lawrence C. Becker would not have associated himself with the concept of Stoicism being an industry.”
      Indeed, I agree, he would not. Having reinvigorated the discipline of stoicicm was his life work; the idea of a stoicism industry would have made him laugh and given him concerns in equal measure.
      Becker is indeed a founding member of modern stoicism – his commitment to equality would deny the use of the term ‘father.’
      I too spent time in Becker’s study, sipping tea or water as we discussed principles, upcoming conferences, movies, or politics. I share Piotr’s assessment of Becker’s contributions to the school of stoic thought and to the discipline of philosophy.

    • Well, Adrian, you already know better – from studying Stoic philosophy – than to make sweeping assumptions, or to read far more in (and in such cynical – modern sense of the term – manners) to one term than a reasonable interpretation would do.
      Rather than fixating on one term, you might look at the phrase Piotr used, and which I have zero problem with: “whole Stoic industry, for the Stoic movement, and the modern Stoic way of life in general.” Three things there.
      There is definitely a Stoic “industry” out there – though you really do have the wrong targets in mind in your comment. I took Piotr’s remark as a bit double-sided, and when editing decided after thinking about it to keep the term. I’ve seem many “entrepreneurs” who really are just trying to make a buck, and who seem to have just the thinnest veneer of Stoicism, put Becker’s book into their lists. He’s not off-base in talking about an industry.
      If you still feel the need to cast unfounded aspersions on the Modern Stoicism team, you can come directly after me as editor, and leave the rest of the team out of it. Or do it elsewhere

  2. Nathan says:

    I think Piotr probably would have chosen a different word if he were a native English speaker. Be kind.

    • Adrian Lever says:

      Hi Nathan,
      I would be happy for Piotr to explain what he meant.
      I just felt that it was an unfortunate use of words and explained why I thought so. I would have hoped that the editor would have looked to what was being published and would have sought clarification in advance. In that such did not happen one can only assume that the word ‘industry’ was acceptable to the Modern Stoicism team.
      This certainly seemed to be confirmed in that the very next post was a video of Donald Robertson discussing his new book and two posts later we have another plug – this time for a talk and book signing where Donald Robertson was to be presenting a revised second edition of one of his previous books.
      So we are looking at quite an ‘industry.’ 🙂
      Adrian Lever

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