Arguing in the stoa

Several times recently I’ve come across friends mentioning neo-Stoicism as an increasingly popular movement. This is perhaps an aspect of a wider revival of interest in the Hellenistic philosophies of the later Greek and Roman times (Stoicism, Scepticism and Epicureanism) as practical ways of life, perhaps developing out of frustration with the dogmatic limitations of analytic philosophy on the one hand and established religions on the other. Coincidentally, too, I’ve recently been teaching about these Hellenistic philosophies in an adult education class, and finding they raise a lot of interest in the students. This revival of interest may well have a lot to do with a search for the Middle Way, integrating experience and avoiding both positive and negative dogmas. But there are also limitations in the traditions of the Hellenistic philosophies themselves that carry the danger of them becoming new dogmas for the people that adopt them.

Perhaps I’ll write some other blogs in the future about Scepticism/ Pyrrhonism and Epicureanism, but here I want to focus on Stoicism, which seems to be the most popular of the three at present. Stoicism is a long and influential tradition, beginning with Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), popular amongst educated Romans, and marked by such famous figures as Chrysippus, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The term ‘Stoicism’ came from the stoa (porch or colonnade) where the earliest Stoics used to hold their discussions. It also had a major influence on the development of early Christianity. zeno_of_citium

What might be attracting people to Stoicism today? I suspect that the integration of philosophical theory with moral and spiritual practice is a key element. Established modern thinking has suffered so much from the unnecessary disjunction of facts and values, and accompanying impoverishment of ethics, that people would have good reasons for yearning for a philosophical era before the breach occurred. But meaningful ethics is also an activity needing practical support rather than just instruction.

Writers such as Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum have done a great deal to raise awareness of the spiritual and therapeutic practices in Stoicism, which have a great deal in common with Buddhist practice. For someone with a background in Buddhist meditation, the Stoic practice of prosoche sounds very much like mindfulness, and oikeoisis very much like loving-kindness meditation. There is also an attractive meditation exercise called the ‘flight of the soul’ or ‘view from above’, in which you put your life into perspective by imagining a flight into the sky and look down on the circumstances of your current life. For more on Stoic practices, see this excellent booklet by a number of collaborating academics.

It would be quite possible to make use of such practices without necessarily accepting Stoic philosophy, and indeed, I would argue with Stoicism (as with Christianity, Islam or any other tradition) that one is responsible for one’s own interpretation of it, and can always make use of the resources that it offers whilst taking care to avoid its absolutisations. However, I think it is important to be aware that Stoicism is also a dogmatic philosophy. There is always a danger when people adopt such material from another context that they will gloss over the dogmatic elements, which may seem to have a much more limited practical impact than the more obvious dogmas today coming from evangelical pulpits or the propaganda of groups like Daesh/ Isis. Even if we take such dogmas on board only because they seem to be part of the deal in a practically useful package, there is still a danger that they can be used to support unhelpful absolute judgements further down the line after the approach has become more established and enculturated.

The central dogma of Stoic philosophy is the metaphysical belief in the logos or rational ordering of nature. The universe is believed to have a purpose, and human beings to be too easily distracted from that purpose. Nevertheless, Stoic practice is believed to help us develop the orthos logos, or natural order within each of us as individuals, which then fits into the cosmic order. To do this we can use integrative practices and become aware of our biases. There seems to me here an obvious dogmatic leap: because we overcome our biases and become more objective in our judgement, we do not necessarily participate in a natural order. Given that the appeal to a natural order is so frequently the basis of biased assumptions and fallacious reasoning, a dangerous contradiction thus lies at the heart of Stoic thinking.

The links between Stoicism and early Christianity should also be evident here. Christians have often taken the Stoic logos and merely installed God as the overseer of this natural order. But whether or not there is a personality at the head of it, belief in and absolute order of nature raises the same problems, foremost of which is the problem of evil. If the order of the universe is ultimately good, why do we encounter so much evil in it? The same theological arguments found over evil in Christianity are also found in the Stoic tradition, and they seem to me to arise not because there aren’t hidden benefits to what we take to be ‘evil’ that we would do well to recognise, but because the goodness of nature (with or without God) is absolutised. Whatever explanations for evil and suffering we come up with, they are never likely to fully vindicate the extent of it that we encounter. But we have no need to adopt this belief in absolute cosmic good in the first place when it tends to lead us into defending and vindicating evil.

Together with the metaphysics of logos in Stoicism, there is also an epistemological dogma: the phantasia kataleptike. This is the belief that, despite sceptical arguments to the contrary, it is possible to gain certainty in our beliefs about the cosmos, because our language is capable of representing the truth as long as it is fully formed into propositions, justified by experience in normal reliable circumstances and known by a wise man. This is an approach that closely parallels that of scientific naturalists today, who tend to dismiss sceptical arguments that cast doubt on claims to knowledge by assuming the reliability of normal observation and demanding positive reasons to justify doubt. The trouble is, of course, that we have no way of knowing whether or not our observations take place in ‘normal’ circumstances, and all the evidence about the way we process the meaning of language suggests that it does not simply form truth-correspondent propositions that can be reliably verified. Without a wider sceptical perspective we are liable to get stuck in the most basic cognitive bias of them all – confirmation bias. The Stoics may well believe the universe is ordered because they interpret the world they observe in those terms, which then reinforces their belief that the universe is ordered.

I find that when raising issues like this about any tradition of thinking, they are readily dismissed as philosophers’ quibbles. But, particularly when a tradition has been revived or reinterpreted relatively recently, it seems a great shame if people nevertheless adopt dogmas from the past rather than taking the opportunity to correct past mistakes. To do so doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning a tradition one has found fruitful, together with its potentially helpful cultural, practical and social elements, but it may mean going through a rigorous critical process to distinguish what caused things to go wrong in the past and may do so again. Most basically, I would warn that any absolutisation can be used as a shortcut to justifying the use of power. In Stoicism, for example, one can readily imagine someone claiming to be a ‘wise man’ with claimed true representations of the cosmic logos (functionally indistinguishable from religious revelations) starting a neo-Stoic cult. The best way to stop that ever happening is to ensure that absolute beliefs about the natural order are no longer part of Stoicism.

But in the meantime, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from engaging with the rich resources of Stoic practice if they find it helpful to do so, provided they do so also with critical discrimination. Indeed, the Hellenistic philosophies in general offer a great field of cultural and philosophical resources that until recently was largely forgotten and misunderstood by Western philosophers. I’d particularly recommend Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire to anyone wanting to engage with the Hellenistic philosophies as practice.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “Arguing in the stoa

  1. Alright… I’ll bite!

    I’m one of these modern Stoics who is going through the process of absorbing the tradition. I’ve identified half dozen or so potential “problem areas” in Stoicism that I’ve had to consider carefully before I could call myself “a Stoic.” You’ve hit on at least two or three of them. So here’s my thoughts on each of your main points:

    Re. Hadot and Nussbaum: you nailed it. While some people come to modern Stoicism mostly for its purported therapeutic benefits, many of us are attracted to it because it offers moral philosophy as “a way of life.” Personally, Hadot was instrumental in turning me on to Stoicism.

    Re. dogmatic philosophy: I’m a little confused. You don’t seem to draw a distinction between “dogmatic” in the ancient sense of “there are things that we believe are true,” and in the modern, pejorative sense of “you MUST believe these things without thinking about their justification, OR ELSE.”

    I’m not familiar with this site or the “Middle Way,” but is this part of your world view? Do you lump anyone who is not a Skeptic into one giant pejorative category—so that ISIS, the Pope, and Freethinkers are all one in the same?

    So far, modern Stoicism has by-and-large enthusiastically embraced a critical, even proudly heterodox approach to the tradition. Many insist on a very minimal definition of Stoicism, so as to make it as “big tent” a movement as possible (see, for instance, my post on how modern Stoics handle the God issue: https://ericsiggyscott.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/zeus-for-atheists/). We love to pass around quotes from Seneca that encourage us to think for ourselves and make up our own mind on Stoic doctrines. We cheerfully reinterpret the Logos in an atheistic & evolutionary light. We emphasize how much classical Stoicism changed over its 800 years stint, to the point that it was defined more by a family resemblance than a creed—and people love to say things like “if the Stoics were still around today, they would have adapted themselves to the latest scientific discoveries,” etc. Even religious Stoics will emphasize that Stoicism has no concept of divine revelation or mysticism, and that we ought to test their doctrines with reason and make up our own minds.

    So far, while there have been plenty of internecine debates on what makes Stoicism Stoicism, dogmatism (in the pejorative sense) really hasn’t been a problem, AFAIK. All subgroups—even the pantheistic Stoics who call themselves “traditional,” and who find value in having a larger system of thought as a “package deal”—view philosophy as a living tradition that we everyone is free to criticize and modify as we see fit.

    Re theodicy: I’m more-or-less on board with you here. I appreciate the Stoic view that we can “love fate” by falling in love with virtue as the only good—it can be an exciting source of joy to reflect on, even for an atheist like myself. But I do think it’s important to sometimes say “I’m not going to try and tell you that [horrible event X] is good in the grand scheme of things. It’s pretty clear that the universe doesn’t care about us. But hey! We still have virtue!” It’s not clear to me how exactly this can (or cannot) be squared with a pantheistic view of Logos-as-Providence.

    Re a Stoic cult: you assumed two big preconditions in your hypothetical example: A) that some Stoic would claim to be a Sage, and B) that they would invent a new kind of Stoic mysticism. (A) is strongly condemned by both ancient and modern Stoicism—they loved to mock Epicurus for claiming to be wise, for instance. And re. (B), ancient Stoicism had virtually no mystical tendencies (especially when compared to Neoplatonism), and modern Stoicism (even in its religious varieties) tends to be even *more* rationalistic. So there is a huge ideological chasm to get across before your two “ifs” could be satisfied.

    Cheers!
    Siggy

  2. Hi Siggy,
    Thanks very much for your comments. The sense of ‘dogmatism’ as I’ve used it here is identical to that of absolutisation and metaphysics, some of the key elements being the repression of alternatives, intense rejection of the opposite, lack of incrementality (seeing things as a matter of degree) and dependence on group power. That’s a central aspect of the Middle Way approach, that we seek experiential ways forward by avoiding absolutisations whether negative or positive. There are lots of further resources on this site about that, including the introductory videos that you’ll find above on the ‘media’ menu (especially the agnosticism section). So of the two descriptions of dogmatism you offer I’d say the first is sufficient without needing to limit ourselves to the extreme case of the second, but it depends very much on the mental state in which the idea of ‘truth’ is interpreted.

    My hypothetical case was intended to just give some kind of indication of the very unpredictable circumstances in which dogma has a practical effect that a wide range of people would readily recognise as negative. I’d agree with you that those circumstances seem unlikely at present, but on the other hand more subtle negative effects are more likely. Those might include, for example, entrenched arguments that strain relationships, or simply not being aware of alternative views when they would be more useful, because they’ve been shut out by a dogmatic set of assumptions.

    I’m glad to hear that neo-Stoics including yourself are taking a critical attitude to the traditional metaphysical positions, but it also sounds from what you’ve written (if I’m interpreting you correctly) as though you may also be committing yourself to belief in the logos in some sense. My suggestion would be that it is quite possible to find the logos meaningful and use it as an archetype, as one might with God, without ‘believing’ in it. It sounds as though you are recognising some of the problems that ‘believing’ in such things raises.

    Unlike you I don’t use the term ‘mysticism’ (what I take to be) negatively or interpret the mystical tradition as a problem. In fact you could make a good case for the Christian mystical tradition being partly a result of the impact of Hellenistic philosophies on the Christian tradition. Mystics tend to be people who value experience over dogma. (see http://www.middlewaysociety.org/mysticism/).

    1. Robert,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my comment and to write a patient reply.

      “My suggestion would be that it is quite possible to find the logos meaningful and use it as an archetype, as one might with God, without ‘believing’ in it.”

      If I understand you correctly, I definitely agree. For me as an atheistic Stoic, the Logos is at best a kind of metaphor—a sort of different way of looking at the same reality. The point, after all, is to use your contemplation of the cosmos to transform yourself! I don’t fully understand what Providence or the Logos meant to the ancients (pantheism is rarely a simple idea, after all), and perhaps that’s a bit of a blessing—it’s hard to invest something with dogmatic authority when I can’t even grasp what it is!

      “Unlike you I don’t use the term ‘mysticism’ (what I take to be) negatively…”

      You certainly have a point there. It’s probably no accident that some of the greatest (and most independent) thinkers in Islamic history, for instance, were Sufis!

      Mysticism can be problematic when someone says “I have connected with the mystical secrets, and you haven’t, so you should listen to me uncritically!” In fact, however, most mystical authors I’ve read say something more like “I can’t really explain to you what I’ve experienced—I’ll do my best—but really just take this as pointers that you can use to try and follow your own path to the divine!”

      Pleasure engaging with you,
      Siggy

    2. PS: It occurs to me that, when it comes to speculating on how the Stoic notion ‘Logos’ could be abused, maybe the way the notion of the ‘Dao’ was used in Han dynasty China would be a better analogy than “cult leader” or “mystic.”

      Consider this quote, for instance:

      “The basic doctrines that justified this new order [of the imperial Chinese government] asserted that it reflected the eternal and regular order of the cosmos, the Dao. This sweeping claim wiped away the need to justify enactment one by one. The form of government was supremely natural; any recalcitrance or opposition was by definition unnatural, and bound to fail. Just as direction emanated from government to people, the emperor drew spiritual power from his special relationship to the cosmos and with it vivified his large administration.”

      —Theodore et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition v. 1, p. 236 (https://www.amazon.com/Sources-Chinese-Tradition-Vol-1/dp/0231109393).

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