- what modern Stoicism includes
- what (if anything) it excludes
- how it differs from “traditional Stoicism” (if one thinks it does)
In the interests of continuing the discussion of what many think to be a very important and contested question – what is “modern Stoicism” – below you will find John Sellars’ contribution to that, followed by my own.
The phrase ‘Modern Stoicism’ is widely used in two distinct senses: first, simply to describe the recent twenty-first century revival of interest in Stoicism; and second, to refer to an updated version of Stoicism, designed to fit better with our modern world view. I am quite happy using the phrase in the first sense, but I have some reservations about using it in the second sense. I’m not sure how helpful the idea of an ‘updated’ version of ancient Stoicism really is.
Why? Stoicism was a philosophy, not a religious movement. There was never, so far as I can tell, a fixed, monolithic set of Stoic beliefs to which every self-describing ancient Stoic committed themselves. To be sure, there was plenty of common ground, but one can find leading ancient Stoics rejecting many key doctrines, and yet remaining Stoics. Don’t like pantheism? Nor did Boethus of Sidon in the second-century BC, yet he remained a Stoic. In other words, the ancient Stoics all thought for themselves and didn’t feel bound by a fixed belief system.
So, in the spirit of ancient Stoicism itself, I think it might be a mistake to try to update or amend ancient Stoicism (if there ever was such a single monolithic thing) in order to come up with a set of beliefs that might be attractive to people today. I think it is, in many ways, a virtue that some aspects of ancient Stoicism now seem implausible (e.g. in physical theory), because this helps us to maintain a critical distance from the material and encourages us to think more carefully about what we think is cogent, what is not, and how these might be related to one another.
I think that one of the attractive things about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is that we can see him doing this himself in his own reflections on various Stoic ideas. Unlike the much earlier Stoics in Athens, Marcus was never a member of a formal Stoic community; he simply self-identified as a Stoic after having read books by Stoic authors whom he had never met. He found the general thrust attractive, but downplayed some aspects, and questioned others. In that respect people drawn to Stoicism today are no different.
The same could be said for much earlier Stoics who were part of a more formal community, such as Panaetius and Posidonius, who were also very clearly thinking for themselves within an ongoing tradition. That strikes me as a pretty good model for how people might approach Stoicism today: read, think, adapt, apply. It’s not eclectic or unorthodox; it’s just how it’s always been.
In this sense, then, I don’t think we ought to think of ‘Modern Stoicism’ as something distinct from ancient Stoicism. It’s all one long, albeit discontinuous, tradition. I’d be wary of trying to come up with a rigidly defined updated Stoicism too. Much better that we each work that out for ourselves, without expecting that we’ll all agree. ‘Modern Stoicism’ is for me simply a helpful chronological label to point to the community of modern Stoics active today.
When I started seeing recurring discussions on the Facebook Stoicism group focused on the question of what “modern Stoicism” either is, or ought to be – and when I noted that thinkers central within contemporary Stoic communities were weighing in on the matter- I was reminded of a set of debates and discussions that I did a lot of research on in the first decade of the 2000s. Some of that research eventually went into my first book, Reason Fulfilled By Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France.
Now you might say: what’s that got to do with Stoicism? We might be talking about philosophy, but we’re definitely not talking about Christians or the French – so what gives? Well, what I see taking shape is a similar dynamic, having to do with self-definition within a diverse community or movement. It is also a dynamic, I should add, that I’ve seen develop in recent years in other circles. There was a very interesting set of back and forth discussions starting in the 1990s, focused on the very notion of African-American (and Africana) philosophy – just to mention one example.
In each case – “modern Stoicism,” “Christian philosophy”, “African-American philosophy,” – there are several elements that go into that dynamic. A term exists that people have employed for some time, using it to describe something they and others are engaged in. As the term gains more prominence, it gradually becomes apparent that people mean quite different things by it. They stake out differing claims within discussions about what that term can or should apply to, what it involves or excludes, and whether it is even a legitimate term to use. Typically, there will also be some people who entirely reject the term, or consider it redundant, or who regard it as applying to something they consider wrongheaded.
Once this becomes apparent, well, the debates are on – often before those involved fully realize the scope of what they’ve managed to get themselves involved in! In the case of the French debates, they drew in dozens of Francophone philosophers and theologians of major stature, generated a number of books and hundreds of articles, spurred the convening of conferences, and continued on as a major issue of discussion for about five years. They never did end up producing a universal consensus, but the participants did manage to clarify their own positions, make some cogent critiques of other positions, and move the discussion much further along.
I envision that something like that is taking place with this phrase “modern Stoicism”. I suspect that although the phrase has been around for quite some time, we are at a rather early stage in what will develop into further discussions, and quite likely some debates. I’m actually quite happy to see a variety of viewpoints articulated about just what “modern Stoicism” means, because to me that is a sign of the vitality of that contemporary community of practice and thought.