Retaining the Soul of Stoicism
Modern popularizations of Stoicism, which ignore physics, diverge from the historical understanding of Stoicism in a dramatic way to accommodate a secular worldview. Unfortunately, such departures strip Stoicism of its soul. What remains is often only a shell of the deeply spiritual, philosophical system which inspired the lives, writing, and teaching of Stoics like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism is a holistic philosophical system, and it takes only a minimal amount of time and effort to discover that scholars consistently recognize it as such. Even a quick search on the internet produces the following:
The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, monistic physics and naturalistic ethics.
The Stoic doctrine is divided into three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. Stoicism is essentially a system of ethics which, however, is guided by a logic as theory of method, and rests upon physics as foundation.
Since the Stoics stress the systematic nature of their philosophy, the ideal way to evaluate the Stoics’ distinctive ethical views would be to study them within the context of a full exposition of their philosophy.
Therefore, one doesn’t need to search scholarly works to verify the consensus about the systematic nature of Stoicism; it is clearly evident even in reputable internet sources. Moreover, pick up any reputable book on the history of philosophy and the description of Stoicism will be essentially the same. Nevertheless, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some modern agnostics and atheists argue the Stoic worldview (physics) is not essential to the Stoic system or its practice. They claim it is unnecessary baggage that can and should be abandoned. Why? Because they are atheists or agnostics and any concept of divinity is incompatible with their worldview. However, they are mistaken to assert we can simply redact the Stoic worldview from the Stoic system without changing the essential nature of the philosophy. Even Lawrence Becker recognized this challenge while writing his book, A New Stoicism. He wrote,
It seems that the book cannot be a work of stoic ethics without the cosmic teleology, but that it cannot be a credible work of ethics with such a cosmology.
He then admits his book is “less ambitious” than the complete rewrite of the Stoic system he imagined on the previous page, and suggests his is limited to “a contemporary version of stoic ethics, not a reconstruction of the ancient one.” I am a huge admirer of Becker’s work because I was an atheist when I approached Stoicism in 2011. His book was instrumental in reaching me where I was at that time. That is why I am sympathetic to efforts by popularizers to create a version of Stoicism, which is compatible with atheism. However, presenting modern versions of Stoicism as essentially the same as the original is misleading. Likewise, efforts intended to convince people Stoic expressions of piety are no more than religious sounding language, or that Zeus was no more than a metaphor used by the Stoics to trick people into believing they assented to the Gods, misrepresent the religious sentiments of the Stoics. Finally, attempts by some atheist and agnostic popularizers to discredit traditional Stoicism by suggesting it is wholly outdated, or that it is “unreasonable” for a modern person to assent to the Stoic conception of divinity are divisive. Not to mention the fact that they belie simultaneous appeals to an ecumenical spirit or “big tent” Stoicism. I will have more to say on that topic in future posts.
Regarding Becker’s work in particular, it is important to consider what remains of Stoicism by the time we turn the final page. Becker redacts more from Stoicism than most people realize to free it from its teleology. A good argument can be made that what remains is no longer recognizable as Stoicism. I will address this topic in a future post. In the meantime, I will simply point out two facts about Becker’s book. First, he did not claim to create a new synthesis of Stoicism; he claimed to create a version of stoic ethics only. He even chose not to capitalize the word “stoic” in his work to differentiate his version of stoic ethics from that of the ancient school. Secondly, he was intellectually honest about his divergence from Stoicism. It seems reasonable to ask other popularizers of Stoicism to follow Becker’s example and openly admit their divergence from Stoicism rather than attempting to conceal it with a veil of sophistry as some do.
At this point, adherents to “modern” Stoicism may be inclined to ask, so what? Why should a twenty-first-century practitioner of Stoicism be concerned with ancient, pre-scientific, physics, cosmology, and theology? That is a fair question as long as its expression is the result of reasoned study and consideration rather than ignorance of Stoicism. Nevertheless, there is no way to persuade a staunch atheist, who is unwilling to challenge his worldview, that assent to a providential cosmos can provide them with the “ethical and emotional support” it provided Marcus Aurelius. Nor is it possible to convince an atheist the “confidence this outlook engendered” has any value for them. Finally, the assertion that, “ethics is better understood and more stable in the agent’s psychology when integrated with physical conclusions about Providence” is meaningless to a committed atheist.
Atheists often refuse to accept that a person can be intelligent and rational if they disagree with the reductive, materialist conception of reality. In contrast, most fair-minded people realize that after giving due consideration to all currently known facts about the nature of reality, we still face a choice between two unprovable assumptions. It is essentially the same choice Marcus Aurelius faced: either providence or atoms. One either assents to the axiom that some form of divine intelligence guides the cosmos, or they assent to the equally unprovable assumption that the known universe, including conscious humans capable of creating a philosophical system like Stoicism, are the result of unguided, serendipitous chance. Either way, one’s worldview rests on an unprovable axiom.
Modern Stoics are doing more than redacting the providential cosmos from Stoicism; they are replacing it with the materialist, mechanical model of the universe which has a stranglehold on both academia and the sciences. This scientific orthodoxy serves as the ideological foundation of atheism and scientism. Fortunately, that model is finally coming under serious scrutiny by eminent thinkers, from a variety of fields, who realize the reductionist materialism we have been beholden to for more than a century has led us to a dead-end regarding the hard and important questions about life. It appears the materialist, reductionist model of reality may have run its course and has left many, including some forward thinking scientists, wanting. Over the shrill cries and denouncements of New Atheists on one side and religious fundamentalists on the other, a few prominent thinkers are beginning to consider possibilities that may finally provide a viable model for human consciousness and a deeper understand of our human nature and Nature as a whole. Unfortunately, there are inherent dangers in avoiding the extremes of scientism and fundamentalist religion. When any open-minded thinker steps in the open space between these perpetually warring factions, they will likely receive hostile fire from both sides.
Moreover, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some prominent atheists are beginning to realize the void left by the “death of God” and abandonment of religion has left them wanting. Some are seeking the form of connection found in religious communities. Some atheists are forming churches, and well-known atheist Alain de Botton wrote Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Therefore, there is a reason to believe open-minded seekers will appreciate the psychological consolations of the traditional Stoic path. While, many will be satisfied with what they find in the shallow waters of modern Stoicism, some are looking for more. They seek deeper waters—a philosophical way of life which provides real meaning to their life and allows them to put the vicissitudes of human existence into perspective. Traditional Stoicism offers a viable path for those people who suspect there is more to reality than what meets the eye. Those who believe we are not reducible to the mere firings of the neurons in our brains. Traditional religion may have left them wounded, and the reductionist, materialist conception of reality might be leaving them wanting. Deep inside they may sense what Einstein described,
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.
Like Einstein, some people are open to this “third stage of religious experience” he called “cosmic religion.” Stoicism fits that model of spirituality which can be called a personal “cosmic religion.” A religious sentiment that inspires reverence for Nature and humankind, without the dogma of organized religion. That form of piety and reverence is clearly evident in the writings of Seneca,
The god is near you—with you—inside you. I mean it, Lucilius. A sacred spirit dwells within us, and is the observer and guardian of all our goods and ills. (Letters, 41.1)
Are you astounded that a human being can go to the gods? God comes to human beings. No, it is more intimate than that: God actually comes into human beings. For excellence of mind is never devoid of God. (Letters, 73.16)
In the Discourses of Epictetus,
But God has brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them. (1.6.19)
In your social relationships, in your physical exercises, in your conversations, aren’t you aware that it’s a god whom you’re feeding, a god whom you’re exercising? You carry God around with you, poor wretch, and yet have no knowledge of it. (2.8.12)
The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe, and that it is impossible to conceal from him not only our actions, but even our thoughts and intentions. (2.14.11)
And in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,
…there remains the special characteristic of a good person, namely, to love and welcome all that happens to him and is spun for him as his fate… (3.16.3)
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O nature. All proceeds from you, all subsists in you, and to you all things return. (4.23)
Live with the gods. And he is living with the gods who constantly displays to them a soul that is satisfied with the lot assigned to it, and who is obedient to the will of the guardian-spirit which Zeus has granted to each of us as a portion of his own being to serve as our overseer and guide; and this guardian-spirit is the mind and reason of each one of us. (5.27)
Some of those intrigued enough by the Stoic path toward virtue and the promise of a flourishing life (eudaimonia) to open-mindedly consider the holistic system of Stoicism may find compelling reasons to assent to the conscious and providential cosmos—the soul of the Stoic system. If they do, they will discover the ethical and emotional support, and psychological consolation that enabled the Roman senator Seneca, former slave Epictetus, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to lead lives which still inspires us nearly two thousand years later.
 Becker, L. (1998). A New Stoicism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, p. 6
 Gill, C. (2013). Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Book 1-6, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. lxix
 Long, A. A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 23
 Annas, J. (2007) ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52: 58-87, p. 71
 Einstein, A. in New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930, pp. 1-4. Reprinted in Einstein, A. (1954) Ideas and Opinions, New York: Random House, p. 38