Frances Lyndale discusses the life of a 21st Century Stoic, exploring which aspects of Stoic philosophy can be particularly helpful for the fast pace of modern life. Frances’ piece raises interesting questions: how much Stoicism is enough? Should the whole of the philosophy be revived or just particular parts of it (in the which case, which parts?)…join the debate below!
The Life of a 21st Century Stoic
The revival of any ancient philosophy must be sympathetic to the original birthplace. Whilst we must acknowledge that Stoicism originates in antiquity, we are now existing in modern times; the era of developing technology, growing knowledge and expanding minds. If we are to produce a successful revival of Stoicism, we must make it accessible and functional in modernity. However, the transition from theoretical to practical Stoicism can seem a daunting leap for some 21st Century hopefuls. This is because it is an art, a practice, a way of life. This occurs not overnight, but as an ongoing process. The modification of Stoicism allows for the life of a 21st Century Stoic to become an actuality; a realistic and practical account of the reformation of an ancient Stoic.
This introduces a key concern at the heart of 21st Stoicism. If we choose to revive only the elements that are to our liking and relevance of the philosophy, then is this still Stoicism? The idea of cherry-picking favourable aspects calls for an evaluation of the philosophy itself. Here, we can make reference to the ‘Theseus Ship Paradox’ introduced by Plutarch and discussed by both ancient and contemporary philosophers (Plutarch’s Vita Thesei, 22-23). The summary of the paradox is that Theseus’ ancient ship is in need of some serious TLC and begins the road to recovery by replacing the old, decaying planks with new timber. If all of the parts of the ship are replaced, what then remains of the original ship? This provocative metaphor has been taken a step further by Hobbes, bringing a new dimension to the paradox; if the original decaying planks were somehow restored to make an entirely new ship in addition to the revived ship, then which ship is closer to the original? Perhaps it is exactly this reassembled model of the ship which retains the most rights to the original, since it is made of the same foundations, only constructed in a different way. Does it then follow that the 21st Century Stoic is entitled to claim themselves as an original yet ‘new and improved’ version of the ancient? Whilst it could be argued that what remains of the philosophy is not Stoicism, perhaps the beneficiaries of pursuing a life of fulfilment and happiness overrides the importance of originality. To prevent the literal and metaphorical disintegration of Theseus’ ship, it must be revived to keep in tune with the changing times; the philosophy of Stoicism is kept alive through the life of a 21st Century Stoic.
There are certain aspects of the ancient philosophy that may be harder than others to become integrated into modernity with a smooth transition, hence the popularised cherry-picking route. One of the founding principles behind Stoicism, for example, is to live in accordance with the cosmos. This is practiced by understanding yourself to be a part of a much wider picture; the unity of humanity. This perspective on the whole of nature is often likened to God’s perspective within the ancient philosophy, not unlike Spinoza’s mergence of God/nature. But we are finite beings, unlike the divinity, and so this is a difficult perspective to adopt. However, if we are introducing Stoicism into aspects of modern life such as through cognitive-behavioural therapy exercises, supported by the NHS, then topics such as ‘to live in accordance with nature’ may not be appreciated as they once were. Whereas other principles such as to ‘retreat into yourself’ coined by Aurelius in his Meditations, can be utilised within practices today such as mindfulness. Whilst I have been familiar with the practice of mindfulness for a few years, I met it with great scepticism at the prospect of paying someone to sit quietly in a room with 10 other people. But since discovering Stoicism and exploring the practice myself, I have experienced the benefits and witnessed the change. Intimidating as it may seem, mindfulness does not need to be an intense 5 hour session in order to gain the benefits of peace of mind. Mindfulness can intertwine with daily routines, easily in reach to any 21st Century Stoic – be it through mindful eating, mindful walking, or simple awareness of the pace of life and the capacity we share to enjoy the power of our minds. By connecting to the inner self and the present moment, this enables one to remain calm and rational when otherwise one could lose their grasp from the stress caused from externals. Rush hour, lateness, coldness, frustration at ‘one of those days’ – these are all excellent examples of when mindfulness can be practiced effectively and easily. Whilst there is not a definitive connection between ancient Stoicism and mindfulness, perhaps this modern practice is but one way we have adapted and borrowed techniques from the past to help us with the now. The 21st Century Stoic should help to alleviate the raised eyebrows and sceptical response to the revival of Stoicism.
Throughout the three years of my degree in Philosophy, I have been greeted with many curiosities and confusion by friends, family and the like. A typical question is; “A degree in Philosophy? Do you just sit around and think all day?” Whilst in some regard this is true, the complexities surrounding such a varied degree are difficult to confine in a small-talk conversation with your parent’s, neighbours, sister’s friend. Stoicism is but one branch of philosophy; the Hellenistic branch, introduced into the post-Plato world. This period had a unified aim to achieve tranquil lives through living the philosophy they propose. To re-introduce a philosophy of this kind into modernity, it must be explained with the understanding that there will be equal curiosity and confusion. It is almost as if we must create a proposal containing a bullet-point style CV filled with punchy one-liners to catch the attention of any possible interest. The difficultly here lies in whether the complexity of Stoicism can then be formulated into an A4 Microsoft Word document in Times New Roman, font size 12; and here we find ourselves back at Theseus’ ship. However, it is this method exactly that abides by the world we now live in; a competitive, technology-driven world with a desperate need for quick solutions to long problems. The idea of the renewed Stoicism ticks the right boxes and consents to modern day. It can be integrated into many aspects of contemporary life, from dealing with your temperamental work computer to using the ever unreliable city bus service, to the stronger emotion orientated situations such as coping with loss. I hope that the success of modern Stoicism will encourage us to be more open to accepting the once-unknown to help lead better, happier lives. It is in this respect that I welcome the 21st Century Stoic with open arms
More about Frances:
Frances Lyndale, 3rd year BA Philosophy Student at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Currently working on a dissertation on the revival of Stoicism in modern times.
There is of course a great deal to say about this subject – but i think these reflections are very well thought out – and welcome
“your temperamental work computer to using the ever unreliable city bus service”
-There is not point to anger… they are but things. There behavior is not there fault.
I liked these examples. Frustrating aspects of most daily modern life that we can embrace in order to practice Stoic philosophy.
I really love your piece. Through the practice of Stoic techniques (especially initiated by doing the Stoic week exercises) I have become a much calmer person and my emotional well being has dramatically improved. I agree wholeheartedly that it is a way of life, I think one grows into it if it feels right. For me it is a very private thing, I don’t talk about it or call myself a Stoic, I treat it like a security blanket for my soul. The last thing I would ever want to do is upset anyone in the Stoic community who is maybe much more committed than me and perhaps of stronger spirit. I hope we all can feel united in our love of the universe and our fellow citizens.
Thank you for your thoughts and kind words!
Ali – I like your phrase ‘a security blanket for my soul’ that’s a lovely way of looking at it. Of course, it is a very personal thing and commitment is not required, which is why I thought to write this piece from a more relaxed, open perspective, so it can reach more people than just the fully-committed. Just as the ancient Stoics did, the 21st Century Stoic likewise shares this unified aim of living better, happier lives – with this in mind, there is no hierarchy in humanity.
I’m currently reading a book called ‘Stoic Warriors’ – an account of James Stockdale who used Epictetus’ words to remain calm and centred throughout his 7 years as a Prisoner of War. It’s a really interesting read and provides just one of many examples of the power of the ancient philosophy being utilised in modern times. Really recommend it.
Another plug is for the book by Irvine, ‘A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy’. It reads very fluidly and is written in language accessible to all – good for the newbies. I would describe it as a very honest book. It initially sets out the assumptions and sceptical views surrounding the philosophy before correcting and highlighting modern practices that are shown to have borrowed ancient techniques.
Please continue to share and discuss!
Huge thanks Frances for the reading recommendations. I look forward to them immensely. I hope you will keep us all informed of your future work.
I do like your reasoned argument about the ship – it works if the ship is identical, but it does not if one chooses to leave the steering mechanism and the method of propulsion out. Leave out key elements and one ends up with something totally different.
As under another topic, I have no problem with people cherry picking Stoic ideas either for private use or to enhance CBT. Individual Stoic ideas are well worth considering. But when one takes the Stoicism of old apart and then rebuilds it piece by piece, if one has understood what one is dealing with and has done it properly, one ends up with exactly the same Stoicism but with new wording, just as the rebuilt ship is the same but with new timber.
Stoicism is a complete philosophy and to remove parts is to end up with something that is not a complete philosophy. Putting the whole philosophy on an A4 sheet of paper would be to dumb it down to the point of being useless. If prospective students of Stoicism cannot expend some energy in learning about Stoicism it is unlikely that they will benefit from it, albeit that once understood it is a very simple philosophy.
As to the ‘steering mechanism and the method of propulsion’, for Stoicism this is the recognition of the implications of us being a ‘spark of the Divine Fire’ and the need to live in harmony with Nature – that is the living conscious Cosmos. Denial of this is to miss the whole point of Stoicism – understanding our place within the scheme of things and so learning how to live harmoniously with all around us.
If people want to claim to be Stoics let them follow Stoicism in the whole. If they wish to cherry pick Stoic ideas let it be made clear that what they are offering is not Stoicism.
How can one claim that Stoicism is complete when we have access to only a small fraction of Stoic writings? An overwhelming majority didn’t survive. It’s not about rebuilding a complete ship. We are rather building a complete ship around the captain’s quarters and and the steering wheel without the mast, sails, rudder, and hull. We cannot possibly claim that we are building a complete replica from 1% of its parts.
It is not me that claimed that Stoicism comes as a whole system. It was the Stoics of old. And while much of what was written has not come down to us, much of what was written was just different people’s views of common ideas. If one looks, the whole Stoic teaching is available to us now.
There are enough writings available to understand what the Stoics of old considered to be the ‘whole’ Stoic spiritual and practical life philosophy. And the writings are clear that the ‘captains quarters and the steering wheel’ are the Divine Fire. (Thanks for picking out these two elements for you extension of the analogy.)
Stoicism does not need rebuilding, it only needs restating in today’s language.
Where is the point of ignoring a major part of what we have. CBT uses many ideas that have a common theme with those of Stoicism. Yet some studies appear to be showing that CBT does not have a lasting beneficial effect. No doubt this academic interest in Stoicism is in part to try to improve on CBT, to try to find out what it is that Stoicism has that CBT does not.
CBT does not have a world view – that is, an understanding of our place within the Cosmos. Stoicism does, and the Stoic world view is still as valid today as it ever was – science is only just beginning to get glimpses of that which Stoics have always known.
To fully benefit from the Stoic framework one needs to understand and internalise the principles surrounding the concept of the Divine Fire – the living conscious Cosmos of which we are a part.
To rejects or ignore part of what we know about Stoicism because it might offend those of the Atheist religion is unscientific. To understand the power of Stoicism one needs to look at all of its aspects.
Atheism is not a religion. There is plenty of room in Stoicism for atheists and agnostics. One only need observe there is a natural order to things. No divinity be required. Natural selection is self-organizing.
CBT is ill-defined as there are several ways to approach the topic. One can, for example, employ cognitive distancing or examination and analysis of thought patterns. It appears to me that Stoicism talks much of what we should do and think but not how we should go about it. Much Stoic advice is easier to give than to practice. Without mindfulness I feel as if Stoicism is an exercise in futility. Our thoughts are not so easily tamed that mere reflection is enough.
One can only guess at the teachings of some of the greatest and earlier Stoics. Any documents that survived are mere hearsay – which is by simple reasoning unreliable. The Stoics we know borrowed liberally from the other philosophical schools at the time. While we can adapt and mold the ideals to modern times, we cannot treat the Stoic texts as we would a complete work.
“Without venturing too far into the realm of the philosophical, we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of ‘ultimate concern’ that for her occupy a ‘place parallel to that filled by . . . God in traditionally religious persons,’ those beliefs represent her religion.”
“We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. See Reed v. Great Lakes Cos., 330 F.3d 931, 934 (7th Cir. 2003)
Your statement ‘One only need observe there is a natural order to things. No divinity be required. Natural selection is self-organizing’ is part of the Atheist religion’s creed.
I acknowledge that there are individuals who simply say ‘I do not believe in a god’ and leave it at that, just as there are some who state ‘ I believe there is ‘something’ akin to a consciousness that influences the nature of all that exists’ and leaves it at that. These are statements of belief and are not a formalized religion. But when Atheists start arguing against the beliefs of others, when they start setting up foundations to raise money to ‘educate’ schoolchildren into the beliefs of Atheism and when they start turning to the courts to protect their rights under laws that are there to protect the followers of a religious, then they are declaring that Atheism is a religion.
As to Stoicism and your suggestion that no divinity is required:
Seneca says ‘We do not need to uplift our hands towards heaven… as if in this way our prayers were more likely to be heard. God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… The holy spirit indwells within us. One who marks our good deeds and our bad deeds, and is our guardian. Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. … He it is that gives noble and upright counsel.’
And he says ‘nature as a whole is possessed of reason.’
Epictetus says ‘For I regard God’s will as better than my will. I shall attach myself to Him as a servant and follower, my choice is one with His, my desire one with His, in a word my will is one with His will.’
And Marcus Aurelius says ‘Cease not to think of the Universe as one living Being, possessed of… a single Soul; and how all things trace back to a single sentience; and how it does all things by a single impulse.’
He also says ‘All things are mutually intertwined, and the tie is sacred, and scarcely anything is alien the one to the other. For all things have been ranged side by side, and together help to order one ordered Universe. For there is both one Universe, made up of all things, and one God immanent in all things..’
What takes Stoicism beyond CBT and what makes Stoicism work as a life philosophy is the belief in that ‘consciousness’ that is ‘immanent in all things’. You say ‘Without mindfulness I feel as if Stoicism is an exercise in futility.’
If atheists reject the holy spirit that indwells within us, they reject that which makes Stoicism understandable as a philosophy ‘in the round’ – they reject the wisdom of Stoicism. For the Atheist a study of Stoicism is futile, unless of course within such study they awaken to the knowledge of their oneness with the Divine Fire.
As to the very idea of Stoic Atheism, it is as ridiculous an idea as Christian Atheism and yet even here the religion of Atheism is trying to infiltrate and subvert Christianity (Christian Atheists even have a web site) in order to spread the Atheistic doctrine and dogmas.
As may be gathered I object to any attempt to subvert, water down or render ineffectual such a great and sublime spiritual and practical life philosophy as Stoicism. Of itself it is not and probably cannot be an organised religion, but it is a belief system that offers support for those who hold a faith in ‘something’.
It has survived for millennia, so please do not try to destroy it by trying to turn it into something it is not.
My understanding is religion or the god concept is something that is usually based on faith. Consequently, it has a belief structure.
For me, Atheism is based on evidence as best available at this time. This evidence is based on the Scientific Method. Now, the scientific method is far from perfect but its the best we have at present.
The importance here is by following the scientific method in ones thinking, one is not following faith. The instance faith comes in then its a slippery slope to just passing over anything that is too hard to faith.
Is there a God. Holy cripes batman. Too hard! Let just believe. It easier.
Of course there are Atheists who are that way through faith. They believe there is no god and haven’t done the mental gymnastics to arrive at it. To them atheism is therefore a religion. To others is not due to the logic and reasoning applied to arrive at the conclusion.
The same thinking process that brings one to atheism can also take one to conclude theism. I personally have no problem with either, so long as you have thought about it.
Onto Stoicism. I am far from expert but my understanding is the live in agreement with nature part has two meanings with one of them being nature has given you a brain, use it.
If you truly use you brain, then faith has no part. We either know it or we can piece together a workable explanation from existing knowledge.
Now, we know more now than we did when Seneca was gracing us with his presence. To impede a whole philosophy due to the literal word of an Iron Age statesman makes no sense. Doing so casts aside the ensuing 2000 years of a considerable body of knowledge mankind has built up.
Now, if you have come to your holy spirit is core idea though logic and reasoning then that’s fantastic. For me, Stoic readings make perfect sense without it and in fact, if Stoicism is a greater ideal then organized religion, there ought to be room in it for both interpretations.
Finally, I repeat from before. Just because someone said something 2000 years ago does not lock down the system. Its the concepts that define the system and even then the concepts need to be malleable and alter when new knowledge comes to light. If not then it just becomes a quaint thing that the Greeks and Romans pursued a few millennia ago.
“For me, Atheism is based on evidence as best available at this time. This evidence is based on the Scientific Method. Now, the scientific method is far from perfect but its the best we have at present.”
There is no evidence for atheism – there is no scientific evidence that there is no God.
“If you truly use you brain, then faith has no part. We either know it or we can piece together a workable explanation from existing knowledge.”
Funnily enough this is what the Stoics have done – Stoicism offers a ‘workable explanation’
“Now, if you have come to your holy spirit is core idea though logic and reasoning then that’s fantastic. For me, Stoic readings make perfect sense without it and in fact, if Stoicism is a greater ideal then organized religion, there ought to be room in it for both interpretations.”
The belief in the nature of the Divine Fire is reached through logic and reason, as well as a study of what science is saying today about quantum theory etc.
Individual Stoic teachings may well make sense, but taken on their own they are no more Stoicism than CBT is. As the Stoics of old said, Stoicism needs to be taken as a whole if it is to be the effective spiritual and life philosophy that it is.
As to Stoicism being ‘a greater ideal then organized religion’, no Stoic would make such a claim. Stoicism may stand side by side with religions, but it also serves religions by explaining much that religions have often forgotten.
As to there being room for a theistic and an atheistic interpretation of Stoicism, the argument cannot really be couched in these terms. Stoicism on its own is more of a pantheistic belief, but it can offer much to a theistic belief. It can also offer much to beliefs such as Buddhism. In both cases there is a belief in ‘Something’ beyond that of mankind’s much vaunted ‘logical mind’. But Stoicism’s belief in ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ causes a conflict for ardent atheists for they cannot admit to the existence of a ‘consciousness’ that permeates the whole Universe for fear of this confirming the existence of a ‘God’. This is despite the fact that science is already demonstrating the need for such, if their BIG theories are to work.
While any debate over atheism may seem irrelevant to what Stoicism Today is trying to achieve, for it to be discovered if Stoicism has anything more to offer than CBT offers, one would need to investigate Stoicism as a whole – that is, one needs to take into account the ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’.
I have just 2 points
There are plenty of revered scientists out there that would disagree with you about a godlike organizer. There are also plenty who do conclude to the god idea.
My understanding is more conclude there is no god but I am happy to be shown to be wrong.
Consequently, I am not about to take your statement on that matter as being fact.
Greater then organized religion…
Every Stoic ought to be to do better than that and so I disagree with you and think many would make such a claim. Take the supposed official religion in my country – Christianity.
Apart from killing an estimated 17 million over the duration, it has an attitude problem.
When it became apparent the earth was not the centre of the universe, their action was to condemn and excommunicate those who made the exciting discovery. It still systematically condemns and excommunicates today.
It took the view that the earth was created in about 4600 BC and some flavours of it still teach that today. Despite knowing the half life of carbon 14 and the Rubidium (87) – Strontium (87) half life decay, they plough on regardless.
Of course then their is its text book with its few hundred contradictions. This results in its clergy only talking the official side. Shall shall not steal? Well actually the bible says you can steal. You can also kill for that matter. You will not hear that in a church even thought its in their text book.
Given the topic is life as a 21st century stoic, I still maintain Stoicism needs to properly reflect on the body of knowledge developed since Seneca and incorporate it. It needs to survive a certain degree of rigorous analysis. Blind faith is not good enough. Contradiction has no place. Since the jury is out on a godlike organizer, the philosophy needs to be practicable under both understandings.
Life is full of contradictions. We need philosophies that can cope with such.
Much of the modern science that supports Stoic understanding of the Divine Fire is being discovered by atheist scientists. They just will not admit to what they are discovering – yet!
Stoicism does not have a need to be practical for atheists. If atheists want to deny what science is discovering let them form their own philosophy – not hijack Stoicism.
In that case, best I go off and find myself another philosophy.
If you wish to read a very practical, modern permutation of Stoicism (which also includes elements of Epicureanism, Existentialism, and Empiricism), I strongly recommend a book called PRAGMATIC RATIONALISM by Frank Robert Vivelo (Verlaine Publishing, 2013), which is available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. It is the best guide for living well incorporating Stoicism that I know of, and it contains some surprising insights.