What would stoic ethics be like today if stoicism had survived as a systematic approach to ethical theory, if it had coped successfully with the challenges of modern philosophy and experimental science? A New Stoicism proposes an answer to that question, offered from within the stoic tradition but without the metaphysical and psychological assumptions that modern philosophy and science have abandoned. Lawrence Becker argues that a secular version of the stoic ethical project, based on contemporary cosmology and developmental psychology, provides the basis for a sophisticated form of ethical naturalism, in which virtually all the hard doctrines of the ancient Stoics can be clearly restated and defended.
Becker argues, in keeping with the ancients, that virtue is one thing, not many; that it, and not happiness, is the proper end of all activity; that it alone is good, all other things being merely rank-ordered relative to each other for the sake of the good; and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Moreover, he rejects the popular caricature of the stoic as a grave figure, emotionally detached and capable mainly of endurance, resignation, and coping with pain. To the contrary, he holds that while stoic sages are able to endure the extremes of human suffering, they do not have to sacrifice joy to have that ability, and he seeks to turn our attention from the familiar, therapeutic part of stoic moral training to a reconsideration of its theoretical foundations.
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About the Author
Lawrence C. Becker is a fellow of Hollins University and professor emeritus of philosophy at the College of William & Mary. He was an associate editor of the journal Ethics from 1985–2000, and the editor, with Charlotte B. Becker, of two editions of the Encyclopedia of Ethics.
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After five hundred years of prominence in Greek and Roman antiquity, Stoic ethics was pillaged by theology and effaced by evangelical and imperial Christianity. A few Stoic philosophers survived, most of them by providing analgesics for use in pastoral counseling, the military, and what then passed for medicine and psychotherapy. Only those shards of our doctrines were widely seen during the Middle Ages, and the term Stoic came to be applied merely to people who used our remedies. This confusion persists.
In the Italian Renaissance there was a brief effusion of interest in our historical roots, and some of us were emboldened to publish the work we were then doing. A living philosophical tradition changes, and Renaissance neostoicism, as it is now called, quite naturally bore only a strong family resemblance to that of Zeno and Chrysippus. This wider interest in our views soon dwindled, however, and in still smaller numbers we again went back to private practice. A few major figures in modern philosophy continued to use our doctrines in their ethical theories, typically without attribution, and just as typically denounced us for good measure.
Modern science presented significant challenges to our metaphysical views, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries we gradually abandoned our doctrine that the universe should be understood as a purposive, rational being. With that, we lost contact with theology of all sorts. Moreover, we continued to organize ethical theory along eudaimonistic lines and thus lost contact with the secular side of moral philosophy as well, mobbed as it was (and is) by people clamoring for a priori principles, sentiment, commonsense virtues, utility, rights, duties, and justice in contractual arrangements. Our obliteration began in this period, with the emergence of claims for the autonomy of ethics.
Even our analgesics were discarded in the nineteenth century, largely due to the rise of romanticism. This Barmecidal substitute for religious fervor was (and in its current decadence still is) contemptuous of stoic moral training. But it was philosophy in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that finally laid waste to our project — not in direct attacks on stoicism's intellectual merit but in a blizzard of fads that undermined commitments to reason and nature. The social sciences bought the fact-value distinction, and philosophy peddled it to them. Nonnaturalism arose, collapsed into noncognitivism, and rose again as intuitionism and constructivism. Moral truth was given a coherentist interpretation. Pluralism, relativism, and irony abounded, alongside various forms of dogmatism about natural duties and the intrinsic moral worth of human beings.
Only three small groups will now say anything in our favor. Some soldiers, actual or spiritual, still prefer our psychotherapy to morphine and mood enhancers. Logicians appreciate our early work on the propositional calculus. Hellenists admire the Stoics of antiquity and argue that their ethical doctrines were not (for their time) foolish.
It is a complete disaster. Only a few are escaped to tell you.
A New Agenda for Stoic Ethics
In academic philosophy, Stoicism has long been identified with a discredited form of naturalistic ethics — one in which the supreme principle is "follow nature." The ancient Stoics apparently believed that nature was a teleological system — a vast goal-oriented entity. They apparently believed that within this vast entity, and with respect to its goal or end, humans had a discoverable role, both as a species and as individuals. And they apparently believed that following out one's natural role, immunized so as to be able to live contentedly whatever one's circumstances, was demonstrably the right way to conduct one's life.
These beliefs are now widely thought to be flagrant and uninteresting errors — errors that make Stoic ethics wholly insupportable. Thus philosophers generally relegate serious work on Stoicism to experts on Hellenistic philosophy, regard the medicinal properties of Stoic training as mere placebo effects, and reject the ideal of the Stoic sage (contentedly accepting her assigned role, immune from most suffering and able to endure the remainder) in the same gesture that dismisses tranquilizers and prefrontal lobotomies as means to a good life.
But suppose there were a book about virtue, happiness, and the good life that identified them all with living well — that is, with excelling or flourishing in terms of the available resources. Suppose this book were to argue that living well in that sense was the product of following the final, all-things-considered normative propositions of practical reason, and that those normative propositions could not be constructed a priori but rather depended crucially on the fullest available knowledge of the natural world. Suppose the construction of those propositions always began in the particular — with what is possible for a particular agent with a particular history, character, and range of choices; that such particulars were generalized only to the extent that agents had a common history, nature, and situation. Suppose those propositions were rarely egoistic, in the sense of ratifying the agent's narrow self-interest, but rather that in typical cases following them meant realigning or overriding many of one's dearest wishes. Suppose the book described a character-building regime for this purpose, emphasizing control of one's mental states as a means of overcoming obstacles to living well. And suppose the book made clear how natural endowments and circumstances determined whether living well was compatible with intense longing, passionate commitments, grand gestures, reckless adventure — or whether it always required the colorless, cautious existence described in contemptuous essays on Stoicism.
That book would be in the Stoic tradition, in the sense that it put forward a cluster of doctrines traceable to central elements of classical Stoic ethics. It would be eudaimonistic, in identifying the good life or happiness with flourishing — with being excellent-of-one's-kind. It would be intellectualistic, in identifying virtue with rationality — with carrying out the normative propositions of practical reason and wisdom. It would be naturalistic, in its insistence that facts about the natural world were the substance of practical deliberation. And because the book would argue that virtuous conduct was always the same one thing (namely, conformity to practical reason and wisdom), the book, like the Stoics, would propound the formal unity of the virtues. Moreover, the book's focus on the full particularity of each agent could be seen as a remnant of the Stoic notion of a role for each of us in the grand system of nature. The emphasis on self-mastery would also be familiar.
Many ancient Stoic ideas would be missing, of course, and a major one would be cosmic telos — the notion that the natural world is a purposive system with an end or goal that practical reason directs us to follow. How could a book be a work of Stoic ethics without such a doctrine? How could it solve the is/ought problem without it, or give plausibility to the "follow nature" motto? 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. Yet it is interesting to try to imagine what might have happened if Stoicism had had a continuous twenty-three-hundred-year history; if Stoics had had to confront Bacon and Descartes, Newton and Locke, Hobbes and Bentham, Hume and Kant, Darwin and Marx, and the vicissitudes of ethics in the twentieth century. It is reasonable to suppose that Stoics would have found a way to reject teleological physics and biology when scientific consensus did; that they would have found ways to hold their own against the attacks on naturalism launched in the modern era. And it is reasonable to suppose that the sheer variety of self-identified Stoics over the centuries would have prevented, as it did in antiquity, the view that a Stoic life is typically a bleak one.
The book that follows is less ambitious than the one we have just imagined, but it is in the same line of work. It outlines a contemporary version of Stoic ethics, not a reconstruction of the ancient one. It does this in three steps: The first is a swift, largely declarative survey of the possibilities that remain open for stoicism (chapter 3). The second is a compressed but detailed presentation of the logic and general character of a Stoic form of naturalism (chapters 4 and 5). The third step is a schematic account of virtue and a good life, designed to address persistent prejudices about Stoic doctrine (chapters 6 and 7). The book is thus neither a comprehensive ethical theory nor a practical handbook. It is rather an investigation of neglected possibilities, written by a stoic who is merely trying to show a skeptical audience that his ethical theory is philosophically viable.
A final warning label: this book is not an exposition or defense of ancient Stoic texts. It does, however, aim to explain itself to loyal readers of those texts (readers not themselves Stoics, which makes them all the more loyal to the texts). Such readers will want to know in detail how this work can justify calling itself stoic, and they will find such detail in commentaries appended to subsequent chapters. Hostile readers of the ancient texts — readers who find little in them worth admiring — will want to know why a revival of stoic ethics should even be attempted, and readers who are skeptical of brand-name ethics altogether will want to know whether a work on stoic ethics advances the enterprise of ethics, period. Chapter 3, including its commentary, is addressed to those dubious readers and will complete the introductory part of the book. Like any introduction, it is meant to encourage people to read further. It does not offer an overview of the book but rather aims to show that a philosophically respectable version of stoic ethics is both possible and interesting.
The Ruins of Doctrine
To many of our critics, it seems that what is defensible in stoic ethics is not unique to it, but merely a reprise of various ideas drawn from other ancient sources. What is uniquely stoic, they say, is only a collection of very peculiar and ultimately indefensible doctrines. We continue to hold most of those peculiar doctrines. We hold, for example, that the only thing that is good in itself is virtue; that virtue does not admit of degrees, but that progress toward it does; that sages are happy just because they are virtuous, and can be happy even on the rack; that they must be able to say of everything other than their virtue (friends, loves, emotions, reputation, wealth, pleasant mental states, suffering, disease, death, and so on) that when they are lost, it is nothing to them. All this and more we will recast and argue for in due course. We will also assume, and support more obliquely, some things that are not unique to stoic ethics but are nonetheless central to its project. Here, more in the form of announcement than of argument, are some of those assumptions, mixed with other preparations.
Science, Logic, and Ethics
Natural science no longer gives grand teleological explanations. Thus we cannot plausibly propose to "follow" nature, as the ancient motto had it. Yet for stoics, ethics remains subordinate to science and logic in a way that separates us from most other contemporary ethical theorists. Nonstoics now typically want to maintain a sharp distinction between science and ethics. In fact, it is commonplace in modern philosophy to hold some version of the thesis that ethics is an autonomous enterprise. There is wide agreement that ethics is independent of religion. (And we certainly concur.) Moreover, ethics is meant to be about what ought to be the case, not about what is the case, so it cannot simply be a science, as we now use that term, and many philosophers reject the notion that ethical truths can even be derived from facts about the world at all. Some follow (or perhaps misinterpret) Hume in holding that "ought" cannot be derived from "is." Others follow Kant in rejecting the relevance of empirical knowledge altogether, at least for the foundations of ethics, by insisting that fundamental ethical truths are discoverable a priori. Intuitionists reject all inference at the foundational level, insisting that the right (or the good) can be known immediately. And noncognitivists of various sorts insist that ethical judgments are linked to empirical truths only psychologically, not logically. Even those nonstoics who want to endorse the importance of empirical knowledge are not typically prepared to say more than (roughly) this:
Ethics is not a science; it is not descriptive, explanatory, predictive; not pursued by the experimental method. But beliefs about the natural world, human nature, social institutions, and psychological processes have an impact at the very foundations of ethics. Among such beliefs as might be held, it is scientific ones (rather than religious, cultural, or idiosyncratic ones) that ethics should use.
Ethics is not mathematics. There is no moral geometry that proceeds with deductive certainty from one necessary truth to another. Ethics is based on facts about the world and proceeds from one contingent truth to another. But among the ways we might proceed from truth to truth, it is those defined by the canons of logic that ethics should use.
This is something consequentialists, contractarians, pragmatists, evolutionary theorists, and perhaps many others can accept. But it will not do for a stoic.
We say that ethics is the last, and least, of the branches of human inquiry. It is last because it cannot begin until all relevant description, representation, and prediction are in hand, all relevant possibilities are imagined, all relevant lessons from experience, history, practice are learned — until, let us say, the empirical work is done. It is least because it has no unique subject matter or methods, and in practice often adds nothing but a unique purpose to the empirical work. We also hold, in no way paradoxically, that ethics is the first, final, and foremost human enterprise. The general line of argument we offer in support of this proceeds in five steps, roughly as follows.
First, ethics is subordinate to science and logic. (a) The subject matter of ethics is human character, conduct, and associated mental and social phenomena. It shares this domain with narrative art, history, and social and behavioral science. (b) The methods of ethics are those of logic and reasoned argument, in the broad sense in which the elements of various systems of assertoric and normative logic can themselves be subject to reasoned inquiry. These methods it shares with all the liberal arts and sciences, and (in an informal way) with all literate, intellectual inquiry. (c) The general purpose of ethics is normative — to say what people ought to do and be, rather than to imagine, describe, explain, or predict their lives. This general purpose it shares with all practical advice-giving endeavors (e.g., etiquette, coaching, medicine, psychotherapy). (d) The unique purpose of ethics is its attempt to construct an account of the norms that are overriding — the norms that take priority over all others. (e) In practice, ethics often has little work to do beyond organizing fact-finding expeditions and sifting the results through a logical sieve. Careful empirical work and a thoroughgoing, reasoned attempt to discover the overriding norm for a given agent or group in a given case often reveal that the agents involved have no room for maneuver, and thus that further ethical inquiry is superfluous, or that the choice between available options is a matter of indifference.
Second, ethical judgments are nonetheless overriding and final. We identify ethical reasoning with the most inclusive sort of practical reasoning anyone can do: ethics is the attempt to say what we ought to do or be, all things considered. Ethical judgment is thus overriding because it subsumes all other relevant practical considerations (self-interest, altruism, prudence, etiquette, and so on) into one final judgment. This is consonant with the Socratic tradition, and thus with ancient Stoicism. Aristotle gives it a twist by defining ethics as prior to politics and giving the claim of finality to the inclusive enterprise (see the Nicomachean Ethics beginning at 1094a26). But it is hard to take that as a rejection of this aspect of the Socratic tradition.
By contrast, many contemporary philosophers adopt a special or narrow conception of ethics, identifying it with practical reasoning about a special domain, or from a special point of view, or from a special set of commitments, usually labeled "moral." The special moral domain, for instance, might be defined as consisting exclusively of universalizable prescriptions about matters that have a substantial bearing on human well-being; the moral point of view might be defined as that of an omniscient, impartial spectator, or that of a rational contractor disposed to cooperate; the special set of moral commitments may be defined in terms of ends such as maximal happiness, principles such as prima facie duties to keep promises, or traits such as beneficence.
Excerpted from "A New Stoicism"
Copyright © 2017 Lawrence C. Becker.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the Revised Edition ix
PART ONE: THE WAY THINGS STAND
1 The Conceit 3
2 A New Agenda for Stoic Ethics 5
3 The Ruins of Doctrine 8
Science, Logic, and Ethics 8
Norms and Moral Training 14
Virtue and Happiness 20
PART TWO: THE WAY THINGS MIGHT GO
4 Normative Logic 37
Norms and Normative Propositions 38
Normative Constructs: Getting from Is to Ought 41
Axioms of Stoic Normative Logic 44
5 Following the Facts 46
A Posteriori Normative Propositions 49
Motivated Norms 56
A Developmental Account of Moral Motivation 60
Heteronomous Endeavors, Autonomous Agency, and Freedom 64
6 Virtue 89
Inseparable Agency, Virtue, and Eudaimonia 89
The Development of Virtue through Agency 91
Moral Education and Divergent Paths to Virtue 127
The Argument for Virtue as the Product of Ideal Agency 128
Exalted Virtue 132
7 Happiness 155
A Whole Life 155
A Controlled Life 159
Life on the Rack 163
A Good Life 166
Appendix A Calculus for Normative Logic 193
Notation and Interpretation 193
Basic Definitions, Rules, and Axioms 197
Normative Constructs 201
Axioms of Stoic Normative Logic 214
Immediate Inferences 215
Postscript to the Revised Edition 225
The Virtues of Virtue Ethics in the Stoic Tradition 225
Stoic Politics and Virtue Politics Generally 227
Stoicism as a Guide to Living Well 231
What People are Saying About This
From the beginning to the end of this compact but lucid book, Becker skillfully brings to life both the arguments and the intuitive appeal of stoicism.... In its essentials [the new stoicism] is recognizable, with its particularly astringent rational charm enhanced by Becker's focused and self-disciplined argumentation. Zeno, I suspect, would be pleased.
A stimulating discussion of ethics that is free of the jejune or overly technical attitudes characteristic of much current writing on the subject.