Modern and Ancient Stoicism

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Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Thu Dec 14, 2017 5:14 pm

Salvete amici!

Stoicism has recently become quite popular again and experienced a revival through Facebook groups, websites and other online communities.
However much of what passes these days as Stoicism has little to do with what the ancient Greeks and Romans meant it to be. In the following I would like to describe the main differences that I see:
  1. Modern psychologists like Donald Robertson see Stoicism as a form of psychotherapy (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy = CBT), while in antiquity it was a philosophy. Stoicism is ill-suited for people who are overly passionate or suffer from psychosis. Its practice like negative visualization can even worsen their mental disorder. If you want to follow Stoicism you should already have an inclination towards rationalism. Otherwise it is simply not for you.
  2. Modern Stoicism completely ignores the Greek Stoics and actual founders of the school like Zeno or Chrysippus and focuses instead exclusively on Roman Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. However Roman Stoicism was not very elaborated. M. Aurelius was first of all an Emperor, not that much a philosopher. His "Meditations" were a collection of trivial aphorisms that he came up with during his war campaigns. They do not contain any original philosophical argument or chain of logical reasoning.
  3. Modern Stoicism is exclusively about ethics, while ancient Stoicism also included physics and logic as principle disciplines. Since Stoic physics was completely flawed, as we know today, it should be the principle task of a modern Stoic to correct this part and apply the consequences of modern physics to Stoic ethics in order to form a new consistent philosophy.
  4. Most modern Stoics are politically left-leaning and try to include SJW doctrines into Stoic ethics. Stoicism however was traditionally a politically conservative philosophy with emphasis on conservative virtues. It taught acceptance of nature and human society as it was and did not attempt to change it.
  5. Many modern Stoics have an "anything-goes attitude". You can often hear phrases like "Stoicism does not mean having a stiff upper lip." In antiquity however Stoics were recognizable by exactly this attitude. This was what united them, more than adherence to theoretical doctrines. A New Age movement might be better suited for people who seek a "feel good philosophy". Ancient Stoicism was rather harsh.
  6. Modern Stoicism is a dead philosophy. Its adherents repeat quotes of the ancient philosophers like eternal and unchangeable truths. A philosophy however is not about divine doctrines, but requires the philosopher to think for himself and improve it. Many modern Stoics however expect it to be like a church and to tell them exactly what to do. You often hear questions like "What is the Stoic view on ...?" instead of making an argument like a true philosopher and entering a debate about it.
Stoicism is a philosophy worth to be revived in our modern times, but not in the way as it is done today by some psychologists from University of Exeter and in social media. A true Stoic should distance himself from modern movements that have, apart from the name, little in common with Stoicism as it was understood in antiquity.

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Lucius Livius Seneca » Thu Dec 14, 2017 7:21 pm

L. Livius v. c. C. Florio mag. sal.

The minor renaissance which Stoicism is currently enjoying is certainly a great boon. It represents, I believe, a significant impulse to wrest philosophy free from its hyper-academic bondage and restore it to its original purpose as a way of life. This popular turn also is an excellent, practical gateway for many into the world of Classical antiquity and its enduring relevance to civilization.

Nevertheless, I agree with you, C. Flori, that there are difficulties with how Stoicism is being propagated these days. The classical system (viz., an uninterrupted tradition of teaching from master to disciple) has unfortunately long since broken down. In its place, I find that modern propagators of Stoicism typically employ bite-sized YouTube videos, blog posts, or at best a short book. These may be useful morsels to tantalize the aspiring Stoic disciple, but they can never substitute for the years of study, reflection, discipline, and self-cultivation required of a true philosopher. As you say, ethical and therapeutic teachings are widely disseminated, while the rest of the school's doctrines are largely ignored.

I find your second point, however, somewhat unfair. The preference for Roman Stoics over Greek certainly is related to the availability of sources. With the exception of fragments, no single work of Zeno or Chrysippus has survived to our day. We have, at best, secondary accounts by ancient historians (e.g., Diogenese Laertius) and philosophical interlocutors (e.g., Sextus Empiricus), none of whom are anywhere near contemporaneous with these ancients. The Roman Stoics—Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and let us not forget my dear namesake, Seneca—on the other hand, have left numerous surviving primary sources. If we wish to hear Stoicism from the mouths of Stoics, then the whims of history force us to turn to the Romans.

As an aside, to condemn the Meditations as "trivial aphorisms" fails to recognize the genre of the work. Like any good Stoic, Marcus Aurelius was engaged in self-reflection, writing for himself. To dismiss his Meditations simply because they are not systematic is to ignore an invaluable living witness to the Stoic ethos.

Finally, to your sixth point, C. Flori, I think you are forgetting how pedagogy works. For many years a student must exist in a mode of receptivity before he is sufficiently familiar with an area of study to engage with it creatively and critically. It is only in recent years that students have been encouraged to audaciously criticize their teachers from the first day of class. Given the paucity of Stoic masters in the modern world, who could spark authentic innovation in the school's doctrines (especially, as you say, in the realm of physics), it is no wonder that most would-be Stoics currently remain in a receptive state of assimilating the existing tradition.

The Stoic revival we are witnessing is still in its infancy. My hope is that, at this still early stage, it might be steered away from the problems you have identified, C. Flori, and brought into closer contact with its ancient roots. Appropriation of the movement, rather than disengagement, I think is the more promising course. That being said, at the very least, we Romans can be proud that our philosophical heritage is still a lively flame in the modern world! As Seneca said, "Quae optima sunt esse communia," "The best [ideas] are common property" (Letter XII).

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Fri Dec 15, 2017 1:06 am

Salve Seneca!

I admit that perhaps it is in general positive that this new interest in Stoicism exists, even if it is not in a way I would have hoped for. At least it is a beginning that will make people rediscover ancient philosophy. Perhaps a lot needs to be forgiven considering that this renaissance is still in its infancy.

It is a valid argument that we have a lot of more sources from Roman authors than Greek authors. But still we know quite a lot of the teachings of the Greek authors from secondary literature.
The problem is not that there is a slight emphasis on Roman Stoics today, the problem is that the Greek philosophers are completely ignored, as if they had not existed. In the Stoicism Facebook group they started a poll about which Stoic philosopher had influenced the group members most. And there was not a single Greek Stoic in the whole list.
We know that historically Roman Stoics did not contribute that much to this philosophy. The Stoic school ended in 110 BCE with Panaetius of Rhodes as its last scholarch and did not formally exist anymore in Roman times. So how can so little importance be given to the actual founders?

I am aware that M. Aurelius certainly deserves to be called a Stoic. But his writings did not break new ground nor where they intended to do so. M. Aurelius knew quite well that he was not in the first place a philosopher with emperor being some hobby for his spare time when he was not busy philosophizing. He was first of all an emperor and general. And personally he found Stoic philosophy helpful in his life. This is why he wrote down his "Meditations". But they were not intended to serve us as the principle textbook about Stoicism. They were just some very personal writings, a recommended practice for Stoic students.

My last criticism about people asking questions like "What is the Stoic view about...?" is really a major problem in this community of modern Stoicism that has also been pointed out by others. Some people ask really ridiculous questions that are unrelated to philosophy, be it some Game -of-Thrones character or pizza or a football team. Still they demand a Stoic doctrine about it. This attitude will never produce a philosopher.
Of course it is necessary to listen and to try to understand, when beginning to learn something new. But after having understood the idea, it is necessary to question and verify it, and then to have own ideas and put them to debate. A philosophy teacher is not a guru. He should teach how to think for yourself and how to defend your conclusions in a debate. This is why the discipline of logic is so essential for Stoicism. It is a science that you have to learn like mathematics. There is no space for disputes. But once you have mastered the rules, then you apply them on ethics. And there everything is open to debate as long as it follows the rules of valid reasoning that you have learned before. Then you understand that the teacher is not all-knowing and possesses no divine revelation. Then you do not ask questions that demand a final answer from the teacher. Then you become part of a community that works together to seek solutions to philosophical problems.

However you are right. We should be happy that there is some renewed interest in classic philosophy at all. It could be the beginning of something better. The alternative would be that the knowledge of antiquity is simply forgotten and ignored.

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Lucius Livius Seneca » Fri Dec 15, 2017 6:15 pm

L. Livius v. c. C. Florio mag. sal.

Given the strange directions in which the neo-Stoic movement is headed, perhaps our little philosophical circle here can make some small contribution towards a course correction?

There are many possibilities ...

One of the more straightforward things we could do is simply commit ourselves to reading the primary sources. It is the best way to become acquainted with Classical Stoicism, rather than rely on the post-modern paraphrases offered in most corners of the internet. I for one would be interested in a reading group to work through Seneca's letters. They're short texts that can be read in a matter of minutes. Perhaps we organize a group committed to reading one letter biweekly, followed by some discussion? Your thoughts, magister?

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Fri Dec 15, 2017 7:37 pm

Good idea! However it depends all on the paeticipation of our socii.
Should we post one letter weekly in a thread? How do we get the others to enter the discussion?
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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Lucius Livius Seneca » Fri Dec 15, 2017 7:55 pm

L. Livius C. Florio sal.

I'd just start a new thread dedicated to the exercise, and give people some time to "sign up" for it (maybe include a list of minimum expectations?). I believe that anyone is able to post in a collegiate forum, including non-socii, so it could even be open to all citizens. Then, as you say, we post a letter, give one week for everyone to read it, one week to discuss any thoughts, and then continue until we're fed up with Seneca and move on! :P

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Thu Feb 01, 2018 10:23 pm

Salvete amici!

Meanwhile Social Justice Warriors have also found their way into modern Stoicism. The article below is a typical example. Stoicism and the renewed interest in this philosophy apparently seems too masculine to them, so they need to effeminate it.

http://donaldrobertson.name/2018/01/03/whats-the-difference-between-stoicism-and-stoicism/

Why it’s important to distinguish clearly between stoicism (small s) and Stoicism (capital S).


When it comes to mixing up the words Stoicism and stoicism, there are several problems.  Firstly, people often just equate it with mental toughness and so it’s not unusual for them to argue that people they revere as tough or self-disciplined are Stoic role models.  The UFC fighter Conor McGregor is a typical example people choose but there are many similar conversations on the Internet.  Now, it’s fair to say he may be someone tough and self-disciplined but he’s obviously very far removed from figures like Socrates [sic] and Marcus Aurelius, who were held up as examples of Stoicism in the ancient world.  He’s probably a better embodiment of stoicism than Stoicism.  He arguably doesn’t embody the Stoic virtues of wisdom and justice, or natural affection toward others and ethical cosmopolitanism [sic], in quite the way that Marcus Aurelius does. 

The word stoic also implies to many people some kind of suppression or concealment of unpleasant feelings: the stiff upper-lip notion.  Boys don’t cry, etc.  That’s particularly problematic, though, because it’s well-known from large volumes of modern research in the field of psychotherapy that the suppression of negative feelings can be quite harmful. 

The author of this article, Donald Robertson, is unfortunately even farther removed from philosophy than any UFC fighter could possibly be.
First of all Socrates was no Stoic. Since all we know about him was written by Plato, the founder of the Academy, he is probably closer related to this philosophical school. Whatever we know today about his teachings is certainly Platonist, not Stoic. The inability to distinguish two totally different philosophical schools makes it rather unlikely that the author can distinguish the even more subtle differences between "stoic" and "Stoic".
It is then true that there are indeed two known occasions where Stoics as well as Cynics called themselves cosmopolitans, but it was never meant to be a Stoic virtue. Neither M. Porcius Cato Minor nor Emperor M. Aurelius could be called cosmopolitans. The postmodern concept of "diversity" as ethical value did not exist in antiquity, and "justice" did certainly not mean "social justice" as the author wants to hint at.
Affection is a passion and therefore the antithesis of Stoicism.
And the reference to "boys" in the article is the last proof of its feminist agenda, if we still needed one.
The actual virtues of Stoicism were wisdom (sophia), courage (andreia, conveniently omitted in the article as too masculine), justice (dikaiosyne, in the meaning as described in Plato's Politeia), and temperance (sophrosyne), all of them deducted from the one principle virtue, which is living according to the logos, the natural laws of reason and logic that bind the world together.

Apart from the aforementioned misrepresentations of Stoic philosophy, it  is a common misconception that a modern Stoic has to follow the writings of M. Aurelius and Epictetus literally in order to deserve the capital S. This would be an argumentum ad verecundiam (argument from authority) Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religious revelation.
Along with our advance in science  philosophy necessarily has to advance too. Stoic physics in the time of Zeno and Chrysippus for example was based on the five elements (earth, water, air, fire, aether), but today we have a better understanding of nature. Therefore the theoretical background of Stoic philosophy has to change too.
Even Roman Stoicism, which today is almost exclusively quoted as example of Stoic philosophy, was very different from Greek Stoicism, which is today mostly ignored. In the same way modern Stoicism needs to be different.
What always remains the same however is Stoic practice, what the article calls "stoic" with lower case s. This attitude of apatheia (the stiff upper lip) is what remained the same throughout the centuries. It is the true core of Stoicism, because this has always been the trademark of Stoicism. Not obsolete beliefs in the pneuma, the aether, and determinism are what Stoicism is about, but the rejection of passions and emotions and the dedication to the logos, which is reason and logic.
This is what Stoic virtue (arête) is about. This is in no way different from the meaning of lower case stoic only that it also includes the mathematical discipline of logic, which remains valid since the time of Chrysippus.
Stoicism is not psychotherapy (The author of the article above however is a psychotherapist.) or a feel-good New Age movement where anything goes. Stoicism is strict self-discipline and effort to the degree of asceticism, but it is also very rewarding for those who master it and reach ataraxia. Because after all philosophy should be the path to eudaimonia.

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Spurius Iuventius Catulus » Thu Mar 01, 2018 8:41 pm

I've been traveling much of February, and so I'm only really sinking my teeth into this discussion.

One thing that stands out to me, however, is some of the language being used to describe modern shifts in priorities within Stoicism by using the concept of "feminine" as perjorative, or claims that "Social Justice Warriors" -- again, perjorative -- are trying to wrest Stoicism from some hypothetical idealized anti-Progressive position.

I'm curious about this, not just as a person in leadership in this forum -- and thus a person for whom ensuring that ALL can participate if they so choose is a duty -- but as someone who joined this because of its statements in favor of inclusivity.

I am, obviously, one whose person might be problematic in Ancient Rome -- I am unabashedly pansexual, transgender, a barbarian, and a witch -- but given that we are in the modern age with centuries of human exploration, learning, and development under our belts. Just as I would expect a physician to treat me with modern expertise instead of according to Pliny's imperfect understanding of the body, I expect better of us.
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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Fri Mar 02, 2018 10:57 am

Salve Catule!

I was not aware that the term "Social Justice Warrior" is pejorative. What is the self-denomination of this movement?
I did not use the term "feminine" in a negative context, only the term "effeminate", which means weak/ soft/lacking the ability to endure hardships, clearly no attributes you would expect from a Stoic. Nevertheless there can of course be female Stoics.
There is a tendency in this movement that I called SJW, in lack of a better word for it, to be biased against classic Stoic attributes, because they are supposed to be masculine, which is perceived as negative. This becomes clear in the text I quoted when the statement "Boys don't cry" was judged as wrong, although such a stance would certainly be a Stoic attitude.

By the way, witches (veneficae) were frequently purged from Rome by the aediles, because they were often involved in poisoning, which I would still consider a crime. Even today we have strict regulations when it comes to handling drugs. So the Roman policy is not obsolete yet.

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Re: Modern and Ancient Stoicism

Postby Publius Sextius Laevus » Fri Mar 02, 2018 9:12 pm

Salvete Omnes,

Before this thread descends further into petty squabbling, please refrain from the choice of words that are inaccurate and only serve to push peoples buttons and derail the topic of conversation (Modern and Ancient Stoicism).

The term "effeminate" does not mean weak/soft/lacking the ability to endure hardships, it means of a man, having or showing characteristics regarded as typical of a woman; unmanly (late Middle English: from Latin effeminatus, past participle of effeminare ‘make feminine,’ from ex- (expressing a change of state) + femina ‘woman.’). On-line dictionaries can help with this.

The classical assumption being that women are not fully human because they lack 'those things' that are the means of producing the testosterone it takes to be strong/hard/endure. (I might insert, that it is just 'those things', especially when used as a brain, that make stoic thinking impossible.)

There are many people who are physically weak/soft in demeanor who endure hardships and certainly what you might call 'effeminate' men, men who identify/pass as women, who through strength of character, hardness of will, have endured constant hardship throughout their lives with dignity.

This is not an argument for 'Polically Correct' language. I am not the 'word police'. It is an admonishment to be accurate in what is stated, so that people understand correctly that which we intended to say. Words, especially those being used in the current civil unrest, carry over-loaded meanings and arguments as heavy baggage that are not relevant to what is intended to be said.

It seems apparent to me that stoic philosophy has been taken up by the full spectrum from left to right - it is a method, not a belief - with their divergent results stemming from imperfect assumptions and faulty logic, and the desire to justify predetermined ends.

It therefore is of the greatest moment that we educate ourselves in this stoic method so as to detect and correct these assumptions and logic. (http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/sen/seneca.ep1.shtml, Seneca Epist. IV [1] "Persevera ut coepisti et quantum potes propera, quo diutius frui emendato animo et composito possis." Persevere that as you began and might absorb quickly that which daily you might be able to enjoy improving/correcting and arranging/ordering the mind.)

A good place to start is at the beginning. We should list references & chronology (with Greek, Latin, English, Russian language links if possible) of the primary stoic canon that has come down to us today, Greek fragments and Roman documents.

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