Revisiting The Stoics, Towards Revising stoicism


My feelings towards the ancient Stoics have oscillated quite a bit over the years. I’ve never scoured their writings nor done scholarship on them but they’ve nonetheless had a big impact on me.

In the immediate aftermath of my deconversion, during my years of peak Nietzsche enthusiasm, I reflexively sided with Nietzsche when he lobbed barbs at them, viewing them as misguided in a way comparable to the worst of the body-hating Christians and overly rationalistic Platonists. However as soon as one starts really meditating on, and resonating with, Nietzsche’s themes of eternal recurrence and amor fati, it’s hard not to see how himself was a stoic of a sort. As was Spinoza, with whom I’ve also long felt an affinity.

Then I started teaching some Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus in my Ethics classes for a few sessions each semester. And the more I talked about them with my students the more persuaded of the merits of having a generally stoic set of attitudinal dispositions and habits I became. I’m not sure exactly what it was, internalizing stoic teachings or just turning thirty, but over recent years, I’ve developed incredibly fast emotional reflexes for quickly catching and neutralizing most of my feelings of frustration, anxiety, tedium, disappointment, regret, and anger before they overwhelm me. They start, I stop them, I take their stinger out, and then I rationally analyze them. What about this situation can’t I change? What must I resign myself to as simply my reality here? What about this situation can be changed? What are the most constructive attitudes and courses of action that I can take given the immovable realities and my resources? And then I move forward. And while there are a number of more dimensions to it, that is the core practice of my stoicism. It’s found in nutshell form in Reinhold Niebuhr’s magnificent little “Serenity Prayer”, so popular with 12 steppers.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

With no need (or ability) to get either serenity, courage, or wisdom as a divine gift, I’ve focused on cultivating these virtues as a central spiritual practice for years now. I even attribute a great deal of success to a distinctively stoically flavored philosophy towards life that I started centralizing in my mind in late 2012, wrote about shortly thereafter, and have lived by a most deliberate way ever since. I chalk up stoic ways of thinking to why I generally live more happily and productively than I had throughout my teens and twenties when my frustrations, anxieties, disappointments, and regrets used to paralyze me. If only I now knew stoic hacks for overcoming confusion, procrastination, and decision paralyses, I think I’d be unstoppable.

I’ve also come to appreciate Stoicism’s reputation as a distinctly non-Christian, venerable, moral tradition, too. While explicit atheists take quite an unfair beating from believers and the innumerable of journalists and intellectuals who love to pander to the prejudices of the masses, we’re nonetheless fairly often begrudgingly credited at least for some brave stoicism in our resolve to cope with things like the finality of death head on with no evinced need for comforting wishful thinking. Atheism gets maligned as a rootless sort of thing that has little of the (pseudo?) credibility that traditions stretching back millennia have. Ancientness is a powerful vouch for wisdom for most people. There’s a presumption that any ideas that can endure a long time must have quite a bit that is indispensably wise and vindicated within it. Any tradition that has survived so long must have accumulated countless treasures worth preserving.

And since explicit atheism was for a long time pretty risky to one’s prosperity or one’s neck for many centuries of religious hegemony in the West, it’s been hard for full-throated atheists to develop a popular, extensive, enduring tradition. So even though atheists continue a long line of skeptics, a long line of scientists and philosophers who advanced human understanding precisely by factoring gods out of the equation, a long line of humanists who countered the god-centered-to-the-point-of-anti-human tendencies within Christianity, and a long line of moral and political reformers who made huge progressive strides by taking on ecclesiastical authority itself or advancing radical heresies for their times, atheists get scoffed at as having contributed nothing to humanity.

So, in this mind, I was advising a recent deconvert from religion who was struggling to detox from a lot of spiritually abusive teachings—that are commonplace in traditional interpretations of the Abrahamic faiths—and I decided to introduce him to Marcus Aurelius. Forefront in my mind were the parts of his writings that had become such valued parts of me. I remembered, of course, that he technically makes some references to the gods—but I figured these would just read as outdated, useless, cultural baggage, that wouldn’t detract from his main points. And, of course, there was the infamous Stoic undervaluation of the emotions. Maybe a few passages would be strikingly extreme, but I expected to find them provocations for more tempered meditations in a helpful direction. And, yes, there were those ascetic and rationalistic streaks that Nietzsche had been a bit too uncharitable about. But for all this, I expected to encounter a helpful kindred spirit and a form of proto-humanism common in the classical world, which inspired the advent of Renaissance humanism among Christians rediscovering the “pagans” and which, through many iterations and secularizations has come down to us as contemporary humanism, with all its moral virtues.

And, boy, was I disappointed when I actually refreshed myself on Aurelius’s text and read it aloud in the context of trying to help someone retrain their mind from old school Abrahamic religious negativity. Between the many meditations that I’d chosen to remember were even more that I thought philosophically backwards, morally wrong, and/or harmful in precisely comparable ways to some of the worst of Christian tendencies. I was reminded, engaging the text, that the features I was thinking I could minimize as excesses or cultural baggage were really too integral to the text for me to recommend the Stoics without heavy qualification.

And so here I am, interested in taking some posts–I have no idea how many or how frequent they’ll be—to blog through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library), with the goal of articulating my own—decidedly more humanistic, secular, and contemporary—brand of stoicism. My goal is to engage in a dialectic that is both critical and grateful. Sometimes I will build on his ideas and sometimes I will try to offer an alternative. Sometimes I will draw connections between these discussions and contemporary issues and current events. And sometimes I hope to expand to cover the writings of other ancient Stoics and representatives of other Hellenistic schools of thought that to one degree or another rivaled them or paralleled them.

I am not a classics scholar or an ancient philosophy specialist. This won’t be an exercise in history of philosophy, but rather one of moral philosophy. I won’t treat the texts like artifacts for a museum. I won’t treat the Stoics like venerable wise men to be respected on account of age. While I will try to steer clear of any egregious historical errors, I will risk flagrant anachronism of contemporary application if need be. My concern will be less about ascertaining what might have been in the minds of the Stoic authors that is misrepresented on the page than what goes through my own mind as I read, and what would be likely to be going through the minds of contemporary readers as they read, and to talk about what I think would be positive or negative thing about that and, much more importantly, what sort of a stoicism would be either fuller or better for contemporary readers to embrace.

Your Thoughts?

Update: I have decided to run a 1 month long, live, interactive philosophy course on Stoic Ethics in February 2016. For full information on the class, click here

For a foretaste of what to expect in this series, I recommend my many dabblings in practical philosophy for living in my Philosophical Advice series and the following posts, most of which explore themes common to the stoics and some of which consider stoicism directly:

How To Live Happily: Have No Expectations
How To Live Happily: Truthfully Understand Yourself and Your Constructive Potential
I Am Interviewed About My Personal (Atheistic) Religiosity/Spirituality
Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Atheism, Catholicism, and Suffering
Oh You Can Get Good People To Do Bad Things Without Religion Alright…
In Defense of Taking Offense
You Don’t Kill Hateful Words’ Powers By Ignoring Them
Intent Is Not Magic, But It Still Matters
Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects
Atheist Humility
The Harmony Of Humility And Pride
Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved
On The End of My Adjunct Teaching Career

Full table of contents of posts in my Revisiting and Revising Stoicism series:

Revisiting The Stoics, Towards Revising Stoicism
“People Will Be Terrible. Deal With It.”
CWH Revised Stoic Meditation #1: On Frustrations with Other People
Which Motive Worsens A Bad Action More: Desire or Anger?


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