Updating Epictetus And Stoicism For the 21st century by Massimo Pigliucci

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Massimo Pigliucci, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

There has been much talk of late regarding the possibility, and even desirability, of updating Stoicism for the 21st century. So I gave it a try with my new book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living, which is nothing less than a section-by-section rewrite of one of the classic texts of Stoicism: Epictetus’ Enchiridion.

Two questions immediately spring to mind: first, why? And second, who the hell are you, Massimo, to pretend to update none other than Epictetus? I’m glad you asked.

To begin with, does Epictetus, or Stoicism more broadly, actually need an update? Yes. And this should not come as a surprise at all. Stoicism is a philosophy of life, similar to Buddhism, Confucianism, Epicureanism, and so forth. It is also similar to a religion like Christianity, not in the sense that Stoics go to temple to venerate Zeus (Cleanthes’ hymn notwithstanding), but because religions themselves are types of life philosophies.

Typically, religions and philosophies of life come equipped with three components: (i) a metaphysics, that is, an account of how the world works; (ii) an ethics, that is, an account of how we should behave in the world, more or less connected to the metaphysics; and (iii) a set of practices to help us live our chosen ethics.

For instance, Christianity’s metaphysics includes a creator God who is benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent; an ethics informed by the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus; and a set of practices that includes reading Scripture, going to Church, praying, and so forth.

Similarly, Stoicism provides us with a metaphysics that is based on universal causality, materialism (in the sense that everything with causal powers is made of stuff), and a view of the cosmos as a living organism endowed with reason (the Logos); in terms of ethics, Stoics work on their character by being mindful of the four virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, and they consider themselves cosmopolitans; and Stoic practice features a number of exercises, from mindful journaling to mild self-deprivation, from meditating on the cosmos to contemplating adversity.

But the fact is that nobody living today is a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Confucian, in the same exact way in which people were Christians, Buddhists or Confucians two or two and a half millennia ago. Philosophies of life (and religions) evolve.

Indeed, Stoicism began to evolve almost from the get go. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, tells us of the disagreements among Zeno of Citium, the founder of our sect, and his first two successors, Cleanthes and Chrysippus (VII.89). We know of an early Stoic named Dionysius the Renegade, who also disagreed with Zeno (VII.165). Ariston the Bald, ailing from Chios, rejected the crucial Stoic concept of preferred and dispreferred indifferents (VII.160), while the middle Stoic Posidonius maintained, with Aristotle, that externals are goods (VII.103).

As John Sellars documents very nicely in his The Art of Living, the Stoics also altered their positions over time in response to external pressure from other schools, for instance the Skeptics, who were doubtful about the alleged infallibility of the Sage. Perhaps it is for this reason that we hardly hear about that mythical figure in later Stoics like Epictetus.

In fact, Seneca explicitly tells his friend Lucilius that we should consider new paths and new knowledge, if and when they become available to us:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.

Letter XXXIII.11

Assuming I have made a decent argument that change is inevitable for life philosophies, and that Stoicism is no exception, the question still remains about my own impudence on the matter. Well, perhaps I am indeed more than a bit impertinent, but at least I’m in good company!

Just the Enchiridion has been updated or rewritten several times. Four different versions were produced to train Christian monks, in the 10th, 11th, 14th, and 17th centuries. And of course Sharon Lebell produced her version as recently as 1995. Moreover, Stoicism in general has been updated by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) during the Renaissance and in modern times by my friend Larry Becker.

Also, I’m going about this not just by way of books aimed at a general public — which I do regard as of crucial importance — but also at the scholarly level, with a number of publications aimed at making a more technical philosophical argument for what I call Stoicism 2.0, or the Fifth Stoa (the other four being the early Stoa of Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus & co.; the middle Stoa of Panaetius and Posidonius; the late Stoa of Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, Hierocles, and Marcus Aurelius; and the fourth Stoa of the above mentioned neo-Stoic, Lipsius).

The above said, in order to understand where I’d like to bring Epictetus for the 21st century we need to recap where the original stood back in the early second century. Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism hinges on a number of reformulations of early Stoic ideas as well as innovations brought forth by the sage from Hierapolis.

Broadly speaking, there are three fundamental concepts on which Epictetus’ philosophy is based:

(i) The so-called dichotomy of control
(ii) The three disciplines
(iii) His formulation of role ethics

The dichotomy of control goes back to the very beginning of Stoicism, but Epictetus makes it a fundamental aspect of his approach, as famously laid out right at the beginning of the Enchiridion:

Some things are up to us, while others are not. Up to us are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (1.1)

I like the “some things are / are not up to us” rendition far better than the use of the word “control,” which opens up all sorts of misunderstanding, along the lines, for instance, of Bill Irvine’s questionable trichotomy of control: what we control, what we don’t, and what we merely influence. We don’t need a trichotomy because anything we influence is in turn the result of some things that are up to us and some that are not. For instance, I can influence, yet do not completely control, my chances of getting hit by the corona virus. But this influence is a combination of things that are not up to me (the pandemic, the biology of the virus, my immune response system, other people’s behavior, etc.) and things that are up to me (washing hands, wearing a mask, social distancing, etc.).

Indeed, the dichotomy control is best understood as an invitation to shift our attention from outcomes to efforts, that is, to internalize our goals, as famously described by Cicero by way of a metaphor involving an archer:

If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight. … Yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose … the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’

De Finibus III.22

The three disciplines are those of desire and aversion, action, and assent. These are the three areas of our behavior in which we should focus our efforts, according to Epictetus. The discipline of desire and aversion trains us to desire what is truly good for us, as opposed to what other people tell us is good, as well as to develop aversion toward things that are truly bad for us, and not those things other people tell us to avoid. Essentially, this means that we should only desire good judgments and only be averse to bad judgments, because those are, in the end, the only things that are truly up to us. And also the very things from which everything else in our life stems.

The discipline of action then teaches us how to apply our judgment to our behavior toward both ourselves and other people, while the discipline of assent refines our ability to reason about things and, again, arrive at good judgments and minimize bad ones.

As for Epictetus’ role ethics, this is the notion that in life we juggle three categories of social roles: that of a human being, a member of the human cosmopolis; roles that we are assigned to by the circumstances (e.g., being someone’s daughter or son); and roles we choose for ourselves, given our circumstances (e.g., being a mother or father, a friend, and so forth).

Epictetus teaches that the role of a human being is fundamental and trumps all others. We should never do anything that undermines the human cosmopolis (think about that the next time you engage in an activity that contributes to global warming, for instance). The other roles need to be balanced according to the circumstances and to the various duties we have toward others (as mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, etc.).

Finally, let me get back to my Field Guide, so entitled because life happens “in the field,” not in the armchair of the theoretical philosopher. Its core is structured in six parts, dividing up the 53 sections of the original Enchiridion in a fashion proposed by John Sellars in his The Art of Living:

  • Setting Things Straight: Where We Learn the Most Important and Practical  Lesson of Them All. (Section 1)
  • Training Our Desires and Aversions:  Where We Begin to Reorient Our Likely Misguided Desires and Aversions. (Sections 2-29)
  • Training to Act in the World: Where We Prepare Ourselves to Behave Justly Toward Other People. (Sections 30-41)
  • Training Ourselves to Think Better: Where We Prepare Ourselves to Improve Our Judgments About Things and People. (Sections 42-45)
  • Training to Live Well: Where We Prepare Ourselves to Practice the Art of Living. (Sections 46-52)
  • Four Pieces of Advice from Epictetus: Where We Listen to the Master. (Section 53)

Throughout, I update not just Epictetus’ language and examples but, in several cases, his ideas. In particular, there are six areas in which I depart more or less from the original, with each departure and its rationale detailed at the end of the book, for ease of comparison between Stoicism 1.0 and 2.0. Here is a taste:

Externals don’t need to be despised. Epictetus, and even more Seneca, encourage us to “despise” externals, because they get in the way of virtue. To be fair, that’s the word used by Seneca, but nonetheless Epictetus clearly represents the more “Cynic” wing of ancient Stoicism, encouraging a strongly minimalist approach to externals. Yet the fact is that — as Epictetus himself admits at times —virtue cannot be practiced except on externals. It is still the case that, contra Aristotle, externals remain preferred, not necessary, for a eudaimonic life, but the modern Stoic doesn’t need to shy away from them, so long as she owns them and not the other way around.

No need to cultivate indifference to human loss. To embrace — not just endure — the death of a loved one, as Epictetus urges us to do, may appear callous. But Epictetus believed in Stoic Providence, which made it reasonable for him to advocate what Nietzsche later famously referred to as amor fati. Most of us moderns, however, don’t have the luxury of believing in Providence. Consequently, fate needs to be accepted and endured, but we cannot be expected to embrace it.

Live according to nature. Nature, for the Stoics, consisted in a living organism participating in the Logos, the ability to be rational. By contrast, nowadays we think, in accordance with evolutionary theory, that rationality evolved locally (on planet Earth, and perhaps in a few other places) as a result of a series of historical twists and turns. There is nothing inevitable or cosmic about it. In modern parlance, then, to live according to universal nature just means “follow the facts” (of science) as Becker puts it, while living in accordance to human nature means to practice and augment — by way of reason — our innate prosocial and cooperative tendencies as primates.

Questionable science or metaphysics. The ancient Stoics believed in divination, which for them was a reasonable corollary of the notion of a universal web of cause-effect. We believe in the latter, but not the former. Similarly, there are a number of other aspects of ancient Stoic “physics” (i.e., a combination of science, metaphysics, and theology) that we can no longer endorse because of progress in both science and philosophy in the intervening centuries. (Fun fact: unlike the Stoics, we also don’t think that the seat of the hegemonikon, our ruling faculty, is the heart. It actually pertains to the brain.)

God or atoms. Despite a surprising number of attempts by some modern Stoics to recover the ancient concept of a Universe-God, there is no basis in modern science for the idea that rationality is a characteristic of the universe, or that the world is akin to a living organism. In fact, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and Epictetus used an argument from design to arrive at their conclusions, but David Hume and Charles Darwin definitively put to rest any such argument. Fortunately, as Marcus Aurelius himself realized, nothing much of consequence follows from this, in terms of ethics, except for the abandonment of the above mentioned amor fati.

Local customs are neither universal nor immutable. The Stoics were, naturally, people of their time. For instance, while they did regard women as intellectually endowed as men (as Seneca says in his letter to Marcia), they still endorsed a number of social customs (e.g., for the Roman Stoics, sex only for procreation, within a marriage) that no longer make sense to us. And bits of Epictetus and Seneca are positively cringeworthy, by our standards. Accordingly, modern authors like Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford have been exploring new Stoic thinking about feminism.

Justice at a societal level. Similarly, the ancient Stoics did say that slavery, for instance, is an evil; they did fight against tyranny and oppression (the “Stoic opposition”); and they were cosmopolitans. But they had no concept of justice at a societal (as distinct from individual) level. Modern authors are now reflecting on how a Stoic framework can inform issues of justice and environmentalism (e.g., Larry Becker, Chris Gill, Gabriele Galluzzo, Kai Whiting).

Stoicism has always been, and will continue to be, a living, evolving, ethical, and practical philosophy of life. A Field Guide to a Happy Life is just the latest attempt to keep it meaningful for contemporary practitioners. It is not, and should not be, the last one.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His academic work is in evolutionary biology, philosophy of science, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. His most recent book is A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living. You can find more by Massimo here

7 thoughts on Updating Epictetus And Stoicism For the 21st century by Massimo Pigliucci

  1. PeterD says:

    I have read Massimo’s book and very much agree with his overall approach. His book is very helpful in that it simplifies and expresses the Encheiridion in modern language which is easy to follow and I also like his updating of the ideas of Epictetus in several areas. The comments in the Handbook on nonchalance in the face of the death of a child have righty been attacked by many as repulsive. But they are also totally unrealistic. The gods may be able to behave like this but not us mere mortals. The critical comments on the Logos are also timely at a time when the incoherent idea of panpsychism is gaining ground. I also like his swipe in the book, although not in this short article, at transhumanism and its fantasies of cheating death through technology.

  2. Jim Murray says:

    Excellent article by Massimo Pigliucci. And, his book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living, which I have just read, is wonderful; thought-filled, accessible, entertaining, and excellently presented. Thank you for posting this article and thank you Professor Pigliucci for another exceptional book on modern Stoicism.

  3. Pat Kennedy says:

    This may be a tough go, detachment from feelings in the 20th century may leave little wiggle room. Obviously being inclusive, who is to say who’s being is more relevant than another aka social alleged norms. Stoicism even in the beginning had such feelings, like patriotism, superiority and the like. An interesting read I hope with robust feelings.

  4. E. Zane Wood says:

    I like Massimo. I have read many of his helpful works. That being said, this new version should add somewhere the assumption that there is no “God” whatever way one may conceive.
    It is also an assumption there IS a “God”. In other words Atheisim or “God”. Choose. Or not. Both will be helpful, but seems to me, without a cosmic concept, it is self help just like any other self-help books published. I read it with exception; knowing its underlying axiom. I.could be wrong, since our explorations and conclusions are all opinion.🙂

  5. Michael Kalish says:

    Interesting read. My take away – “Stoicism 2.0” reads a lot like Spinoza’s reworking of Stoicism especially in the replacement of an anthropomorphic deity with non-teleological “Nature”. An enjoyable read.

  6. […] “Updating Epictetus And Stoicism For the 21st century.” About A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Massimo Pigliucci—”A brilliant philosopher reimagines Stoicism for our modern age in this thought-provoking guide to a better life.” “For more than two thousand years, Stoicism has offered a message of resilience in the face of hardship. Little wonder, then, that it is having such a revival in our own troubled times. But there is no denying how weird it can be: Is it really the case that we shouldn’t care about our work, our loved ones, or our own lives? According to the old Stoics, yes. In A Field Guide to a Happy Life, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci offers a renewed Stoicism that reflects modern science and sensibilities. Pigliucci embraces the joyful bonds of affection, the satisfactions of a job well done, and the grief that attends loss. In his hands, Stoicism isn’t about feats of indifference, but about enduring pain without being overwhelmed, while enjoying pleasures without losing our heads. In short, he makes Stoicism into a philosophy all of us — whether committed Stoics or simply seekers — can use to live better.” […]

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