Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.12

Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1998.  Pp. ix, 217.  ISBN 0-691-01660-7.  $29.95/£22.50.  

Reviewed by R.W. Sharples, University College, London
Word count: 2484 words

Ancient philosophy is one area of classical studies where contemporary relevance can hardly be denied. Philosophers still study their ancient predecessors, in order to gain from them the combined inspiration and irritation that have been central to philosophy since the Presocratics. There may be a distinction between those whose interest in the ancients is primarily philosophical and those for whom it is historical; but both groups have much to learn from each other.

It was once a commonplace of scholarship to say that Epicureanism and Stoicism sought to provide individuals with guidelines for living after the old certainties of the city-state had been swept away by Alexander the Great. Like all commonplaces this is only partially true, and provokes a natural reaction; the city-state had not, for centuries if ever, provided that much certainty, and Plato and Aristotle too were concerned with how life should be lived, not just with conceptual analysis. But that hardly means that Stoicism may not have something to say about how people should live, in antiquity and even now, whether in a direct way -- as is suggested by the popularity of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in the nineteenth century and indeed more recently1 -- or indirectly, as providing grist for the philosophical mill. The end of the twentieth century is a time at least as much in need of moral guidance and a sense of values as the third century B.C. It may be no accident that a scholarly debate has recently developed over just how close the link is between Stoic ethics and Stoic physics,2 given that no-one would propose reviving the latter.

In this context B(ecker)'s book is an audacious thought-experiment. Imagine that Stoicism had survived from antiquity, and had adapted itself to subsequent discoveries in natural science and psychology; or else -- what B. in ch.2 describes as his own less ambitious project -- simply try to construct a Stoicism for today. What would it look like? What might it have to offer us? What features would be needed for it to qualify as Stoicism at all? And what does B.'s book have to offer the historian and classicist, as opposed to the twentieth-century practical moral agent?

For B., a Stoic moral philosophy is one that sees virtue as the one value with which no others can be compared, and interprets virtue in terms of an individual's organised and coherent plan for living his or her own life, based on an understanding of the natural world, of which we are a part, even though that world can no longer be understood in the ancient way as teleologically organised. Stoicism therefore denies that facts and values are ultimately distinct; and it emphasises the individual's particular nature and situation,3 while stressing that ethics should be concerned with an individual's whole life: "Living virtuously is the process of creating a single, spatio-temporal object -- a life" (p.20); the Stoic sage is, precisely, the virtuoso performer in life (pp.106ff. But too much attachment to a plan is counter-productive, pp.141, 157; the Stoic must be adaptable.) As for the ancient Stoics, it is the way you live and what you try to achieve that matters, not what you actually achieve, for that is beyond your control. What an individual's aims should be is determined by an understanding of human nature and psychological development, B.'s modern equivalent of the ancient theory of oikeiosis or "appropriation".

B. sets out his theory in chapters each followed by a Commentary, which includes consideration of the relation of B.'s theory to ancient Stoicism in so far as we can reconstruct the latter. It is therefore in the Commentaries that discussion, often extensive and with copious quotation, of the ancient material is to be found. After two brief introductory chapters, one sketching the historical influence of Stoic ideas and the second outlining the possibilities for Stoic treatments of ethics today, ch.3 argues that ethics should be based on our knowledge of the world, and examines the way in which agents can or should calculate the way in which they should behave in each situation. "Practical reason assesses the soundness of normative propositions for various purposes. Ethics tells us which ones are sound all-things-considered" (p.14). Individuals operate within institutions of various types; a terminology for the types of rules that characterise these is developed (p.18). And concern should be with one's life as a whole, not just with individual situations.

On p.21 B. argues that concern for a whole life sets Stoic ethics apart from Epicureanism. An Epicurean's life is indeed, as B. notes on p.148, not going to be such a complex overall project as a Stoic's, just because, as Martha Nussbaum has rightly complained, Epicureanism models ideal human life on that of the Olympian gods to whom rather little that matters ever actually happens.4 Nevertheless, a recent discussion of Epicurean katastematic pleasure by Jeffrey Purinton5 does see it precisely as the overall aim to which individual kinetic pleasures contribute if properly selected. And Epicurus as well as the Stoics argued that the sage will be happy on the rack (Diogenes Laertius 10.118, cf. B. pp.146-148; Cicero, Tusculans 5.(XXVI).73, cited by B. on p.153).

The Commentary to ch.3 surveys the sources for ancient Stoic ethics, and explains B.'s decision to avoid Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius because of their emphasis on theology and practical therapeutics rather than on moral theory, suggesting that this may reflect Arrian, Epictetus' reporter, rather than Epictetus himself. B. then surveys the modern literature on the relation between physics and ethics in ancient Stoicism, and considers the relation between the ancient Stoic emphasis on particulars and their corporealism, arguing for a non-reductive materialism as the modern equivalent.

Ch.4, together with an appendix which is definitely for formal logicians only, outlines the logical mechanisms by which "ought" is to be derived from "is". B.'s "normative logic" involves three normative operators, "ought", "requirement", and "indifferent". The logic provides a calculus of what happens when different norms conflict (including a requirement to choose arbitrarily when there is no reason to rank one course of action above another, the Buridan's Ass situation: p.40), and takes account of the requirements that arise from participating in a particular institution. Moral propositions are normative ones that take all considerations into account, "all-things-considered", and there are no norms superior to those generated in this way (p.42).

Ch.5 develops the interpretation of following nature as following the facts, and rightly argues that Stoicism is neither fatalism nor romantic heroism (p.44). One might however question B.'s "Stoics would not now (if they ever did) infer that we ought, all-things-considered, to serve as designed" (p.43; my emphasis). For ancient Stoics would I think argue that if we understood the full plan of providence for the universe we should "serve as designed" (i.e. as providence has designed life for each individual one of us). But, because not even the sage has such understanding (only God does), even on the ancient view we have in practice to use a calculus like B.'s, based on the limited amount we do understand.

B. proceeds to discuss the operation of practical reasoning, now applying the logic developed in ch.4 to psychological contexts, and to restate in modern terms the process of "appropriation" (oikeiosis), i.e. the development of our attachment to various satisfactions, and ultimately -- in some cases -- virtue. B. argues that this is "roughly consistent with contemporary developmental psychology" (p.56) and that oikeiosis to knowledge, in particular, is borne out by "modern studies of cognitive development" (p.57). Individual autonomy and responsibility are not excluded by determinism, and even Calvinistic predestination does not alter the quality of a life (pp.63-68).

Ch.6 continues the psychological analysis of agency and the development of character traits. Psychological fitness is enjoyed like physical fitness, and what it is will vary according to social roles, even for the sage (pp.105ff.). Extreme antisocial dispositions exclude healthy agency, though healthy agency, as opposed to virtue, is compatible with "a good deal of criminal conduct" (p.104). It is just because virtue is concerned with all the projects in one's life as a whole that it is the perfection of agency, at least for those whose psychology has developed in the best, i.e. natural and Stoic way (pp.114-118).

An aspect of the Stoic sage that has seemed repellent to many both in antiquity and more recently is his rejection of pathos. As B. (pp.128-9) along with other scholars points out, it is incorrect to describe this as a rejection of emotion; alongside the excessive and misguided emotional reactions which they rejected as pathe, the Stoics recognised eupatheiai or "good emotional states". One may sympathise with B.'s rejection of emotional vulnerability as a part of excellence of character: "is there some good reason for wanting people to be hurtable?" (p.109). What may raise eyebrows, however, is B.'s emphatic rejection of the idea that the sage is unfeeling. On p.98 (and similarly on pp.109 and 145) B. argues that what is at issue is not the repression of emotions, but feeling emotions "as long as the agent is dispositionally equipped to modulate those emotions when circumstances change", and on p.100 that it is virtuous to have deep attachments provided they do not impede appropriate action, his example being parents who can rescue one child even though the other has died. At p.131 he maintains that a Stoic sage could have emotions more extreme than would be allowed by Aristotelian "moderation of the passions". To be sure, B. does not claim that his picture is that presented by ancient Stoicism; on this as on other issues it is part of his basic hypothesis that Stoicism can change and develop, and that if history had been different it would have changed and developed, while remaining Stoicism. He traces the emphasis in ancient Stoicism to "ancient preoccupations with self-sufficiency" (pp.109-110; see also pp.131-132). If the scope in ancient Stoic doctrine of the eupatheiai, joy, watchfulness, and wishing, was restricted to true good and evil as its proper objects, so that the only proper objects for joy are one's own and others' virtue, the Stoic approach may seem even more remote from ordinary ways of thinking.6

If virtue is the organising of one's own life, we need an account of why justice is an aspect of virtue. The answer is grounded, for B. as it was for the ancient Stoics, in human nature and development:7 virtuous people will "act in a principled way towards others" and will co-operate with one another as a result of "both their primal benevolence and their narrow self-interest", and "they will find solutions to distributive questions that are rational and stable in a given social environment with a given set of resources" (p.112). "Genocidal projects based on false anthropology are logically unsound, among other things" (p.48).

There are two problems here. One is why, in this case, injustice is so common -- though this problem is less for B. than it was for the ancient Stoics, whose critics found it easy to taunt them with the question why, in what the Stoics regarded as a providentially organised universe, the sage was as rare as the phoenix. The other is that B.'s Stoicism does not prescribe any particular solutions to the question of how societies and their economies should be organised -- of what arrangement or arrangements actually are just, as opposed to why justice is important or what is involved in claiming that an arrangement is just. In this B.'s Stoicism is a true heir of ancient Stoicism, whose lack of practical political theory has been pointed out by Julia Annas.8

B. might well reply that his book is concerned, precisely, with a general moral theory and that answers for particular situations are precisely, as he throughout stresses, particular. However, both B. and the ancient Stoics have more to say, even if in general terms, about individual conduct than they do concerning political organisation; and this emphasis can easily lead to an acceptance of the status quo for society as a whole.9 Put it in another way, emphasis on reforming individuals as moral agents functioning within institutions can lead to a failure to criticise those institutions themselves. B.'s revived Stoicism seems limited in what it has to offer to a world where not just standards for individuals' conduct but ones applied in public policy are urgently needed to replace, or supplement, the moral vacuum of the market.

The short final chapter is concerned with one of the most distinctive, and most criticised, doctrines of the Stoa in antiquity, the claim that virtue alone is sufficient to ensure happiness. B. shows a certain impatience with protracted discussion of this issue (p.138); in antiquity too the issue may well have been one that interested critics more than the Stoics themselves. (Another example, pointed out by B., is that of determinism; pp.67-8.) B. rightly argues that for the Stoic virtue and external "goods" (or in his terminology "non-agency goods") are not always alternatives (p.140). Nevertheless, where we can have only the former but not the latter, "the effective exercise of agency always brings joy, even in the midst of misery. Its sustained exercise in difficult, complex, richly varied endeavours is deeply engrossing and profoundly pleasurable. Sustained over a whole life, it is, in the end, satisfying for most of us -- nonempty, surely, even if trivial on a cosmic scale" (p.148). That, for B., is just how human life is. One might observe here that if, as suggested above, Epicureanism shares more with the Stoic position than B. allows, this reinforces B.'s claim that the Stoic approach is the one suited to human nature; and one might also observe that, in the absence of a religious belief such as the Christian doctrine of grace, it may not make that much difference in the end for how we live our lives whether we agree with the ancient Stoics that this world as a whole is well-organised, or whether we simply accept that it's the one we have to live in. The facts about what will and will not work remain the same.

What, though, is the interest of this book for professional classicists? B. is well-informed both about the sources for reconstructing ancient Stoicism and about the most recent scholarly discussions. His book could hardly be recommended as an introduction to ancient Stoicism for beginning students -- the interplay between ancient and modern would get too much in the way for that. But this is not the book's intention. Those who are already familiar with ancient Stoicism will find that B.'s discussions throw much light on the significance, and sometimes the shortcomings, of points of the ancient theory. Moreover, much of our evidence for the ancient Stoa is hostile; B.'s treatment, in the first person, can give us an idea of what Stoicism might be like from the inside, as it were.


1.   Cf. Vice-Admiral James Stockdale, quoted in Epictetus: The Discourses, ed. C.J. Gill. London: J.M. Dent, 1995, 347-349.
2.   Cf. especially Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 173-176, and the other literature noted by B. pp.25-26.
3.   Something which, as B. notes (p.77), Bernard Williams has repeatedly advocated; for criticism of Plato and Aristotle on this score cf. his Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, 94ff., 159ff.
4.   Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, 212-238.
5.   Jeffrey S. Purinton, 'Epicurus on the telos', Phronesis 38 (1993) 281-320.
6.   Cf. Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics. London: Routledge, 1996, 70 and 141.
7.   Cf., Cicero, De officiis 3.21 with Gisela Striker, Essays on Hellenistic Ethics and Epistemology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 180,.
8.   Cf. Annas, above n.2, 306-311.
9.   Williams, Shame and Necessity (above n.3) 115-116 describes the Stoic claim that the slave's mind is free, even if his body is not, as "repulsive" and a "fantasy". W. describes the Stoics here as arguing that "life cannot be ultimately or structurally unjust". But, if the identity of providence and fate is to be given full weight, the ancient Stoics are committed to more than that; it is not just that this slave, here and now, can be free in spirit though not in body, but also that it is better for the world as a whole that he should not be free in body. Cf. my comments at Phronesis 38 (1993) 345.

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