On Why I Am Not A Stoic

Here are the first couple of paragraphs from the Introduction to my book project; the research and motivation behind this blog! This will give you some sense of my actual esteem of Stoic thought, as well as my ultimate contention with certain underlying positions, and their implications. Enjoy! (…or maybe not)

Introduction

Stoicism has had a resurgent life starting two decades ago, now occupying the front stage with numerous books[1], forums[2] and star-lights, like Nelson Mandela, and Tim Ferris, who pledge their success in life to following some of the most basic Stoic rules, exercises, and principles in their everyday lives. Oddly enough I’d like to confess my patronage to Stoicism, spread out to include most aretic philosophical programs from Socrates to the Hellenistic tradition. I could, in fact, include in the mix a perhaps controversial addition predating Socrates: Heraclitus.[3] But that for another day. My esteem for these ancient works is in their practicality, adeptness (which is not the same thing as universality), gainful simplicity and rendition of morality in terms of living a good life incumbent upon a rich understanding of the human psyche that is constitutive of the social thread from which it is fully woven. Stoicism also seems to have arrived at a most opportune time when nihilism, which for years has been eating away at the socio-political fabric of our lives, is now, full Monty, banging at the front door. So though I am a confessed Stoic agitator, I hold ancient and modern Stoics in high regard. It’s not so much that I am an anti-Stoic – well no more than I am an anti-anything – but a non-Stoic. The systematization of any philosophy comes with a warning leeringly captured in Nietzsche’s attempt to hammer away at all intrusive impositions upon human understanding. He says, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system, is a lack of integrity.”[4]  Nietzsche wrote the Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize With a Hammer in just over a week, as if in a frenzy waging war on all paradigms that threatened with illusory incarnation to fashion human understanding in their image. The systematic workings of such paradigms came to arrange and order all strands of human experience in accordance with constitutive rules and laws such that anything that didn’t quite fit would be rejected as illusory, or revamped to sit in stifling reverence of that order. To this, Nietzsche objected, aiming to deploy his hammer to do the work of a tuning fork, namely to sound out hollowness wherever it mocked truth.[5] Reason, hedonism, Christianity all have sat in to rename reality, threatening human consciousness with habituated, passively relegated, ways of living. So what of my patronage?

Before philosophy became a “science” in the service of academic institutions, and before philosophers became academics in the service of the proliferation and “advancement” of this science-form, philosophy was in the service of humanity. Soon only moral and practical philosophers, as well as social and political philosophers, raised issues of practical concern to everyday living. And even then, philosophers tended to kindred folk, writing for their own. Specialized topics, with a not-so-commonplace entourage of terms and concepts, soon swamped the field. Didactic marginalization seemed to make it the exclusive authority of academics to work moral issues out between themselves where the everyday Jo would be taunted into conversation only when the holier than thou took it upon herself to write for the common people. Blogs, social media platforms, magazine and newspaper columns, not to mention YouTube channels have become noticeably fashionable. With this, more and more academic philosophers have been brought into the fold. This has in many instances made everyday conversation all the richer for it; but it has not been without detractors who wish to maintain providence of voice within the academic institutions for fear of lowbrowing the entire discipline. Still, prominent figures in the discipline including Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, Charles Taylor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Martha Nussbaum[6], all plethoric writers, have made distinguished contributions to the general public[7], often spurred by their keen interest in addressing issues which they themselves have grappled with in a manner and tone accessible and relevant to humankind. At the core, each in their own way, has come to put their philosophical energies into tackling issues close to their hearts due to some moralized notion regarding how to best live. I am, however, being a bit unfair and a trite inaccurate given that there are certain schools of thought that have been more conducive to engaging the general populace, and still others hell bent on bringing philosophy to the people. Such schools might include American Pragmatism and Existentialism, even though, many pivotal figures amongst them have been accused of obscurantism, Heidegger specifically for his “torturous prose”.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy which didn’t yet make that distinction between academic and practical philosophy, where still philosophy’s ultimate aim was for the betterment of humankind. Of course, certainly since Plato, and systematically with Aristotle, philosophical questions branched out into distinct areas of inquiry, themselves quite divorced from the more practical concerns of everyday living. Logic, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, not to mention rhetoric and psychology, blossomed into disciplines with a scope and method quite out of step with anything the layperson might be drawn to consider. Stoicism recruited three general areas of philosophical investigation – logic, nature and ethics –which, together, make up a philosophy of life. Today, especially amongst Modern Stoics, there is considerable lenience in foregoing Stoic natural philosophy, but I hope to show how shortsighted this move is, and how, in fact, it is in noticing this, that I am a self-proclaimed Stoic agitator.[8] Of course the Stoics are not the first or last to tie their philosophical predilections to the good life. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Sceptics, Cynics, and Epicureans were all of the same mind. The Stoics stand out both because of the commonsensical manner with which they address life’s quandaries, and for the explicit and accessible manner of application. Before addressing my reservations and ultimate disassociation from Stoicism, I shall plant the roots of Stoicism firmly in the ground by addressing the four aforementioned advantages of this particular brand of philosophy: (i) practicality, (ii) adeptness (which is not the same thing as universality), (iii) gainful simplicity (inaccessibility) and (iv) rendition of morality in terms of living a good life.

Footnotes

[1] On How To Be Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci; Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Donald Robertson; The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday; The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday; Stoicism: Introduction to the Stoic Way of Life, Ryan James; William B. Irvine, Art of the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, OUP, 2009. Also see Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue,

[2] Stoicon, an annual conference, and Stoicon-x, organized by Modern Stoicism (includes Stoicism Today blog), Stoic Leaders, Stoic Week.

[3] Long acknowledges the indebtedness to Heraclitus; see pp. 112, 145.A. A. Long Hellenistic Philosophy, 2nd edition, U of California Press, 1974.

[4] F. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophize With a Hammer, Oxford World Classics, Intro. Duncan Large, OUP: Oxford, 1998, p.8.

[5] “This little essay is a great declaration of war; and regarding the sounding out of idols, this time they are not just idols of the age, but eternal idols, which are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork: there are no idols that are older, more puffed up – and none more hollow.” Ibid.

 

[6] See The New Yorker article on Martha Nussbaum, by Rachel Aviv, The Philosopher of Feeling. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/martha-nussbaums-moral-philosophies. There she admits: “Her father’s ethos may have fostered Nussbaum’s interest in Stoicism. And also: “She was frustrated that her colleagues were more interested in conceptual analyses than in attending to the details of people’s lives.” And: “Respect on its own is cold and inert, insufficient to overcome the bad tendencies that lead human beings to tyrannize over one another,” she wrote. And:  In “Sex and Social Justice,” published in 1999, she wrote that the approach resembles the “sort of moral collapse depicted by Dante, when he describes the crowd of souls who mill around in the vestibule of hell, dragging their banner now one way now another, never willing to set it down and take a definite stand on any moral or political question. Such people, he implies, are the most despicable of all. They can’t even get into hell because they have not been willing to stand for anything in life.” See also http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR28.5/nussbaum.html

[7] https://thevimblog.com/2017/09/22/what-philosophy-owes-society-iii-a-new-public-philosophy/amp/

[8] There is some disagreement over whether one can be a practicing Stoic and reject their natural philosophy. I will argue that this position cannot be properly defended and that all three aspecs of their philosophy are integral to their teachings and the reasoning befitting moralized enactments of how to best live. Quoting Diogenes Laertius, “No part of philosophy is separate from another part; they all combine as a mixture (D.L., vii 40), Long argues: “These three subject headings, logic, physics, and ethics, were adopted by the Stoics for the purpose of expounding their system, and I will adhere to their methodology in the following pages. But the division of philosophy must be interpreted as purely as a methodological principle. It is not an affirmation of three discrete subjects of study. On the contrary, the subject matter of logic, physics and ethics is one thing, the rational universe, considered from three different but mutually consistent points of view. Philosophy, for the Stoics, is ‘the practice of wisdom’, or ‘the practice of appropriate science’ (SVF ii 35, 36)…”. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, A. A. Long, 2nd edition, University of California Press, 1986, p.118 & 119.


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