Friday, 13 November 2015

Stoicism and Eudaimonistic ethics

                                                                 Where's Zeno...?

After reading a report from STOICON 2015 (ie a conference on Stoicism) (here) I tweeted the following question:

Reading report from STOICON wonder here about relative attractiveness of Stoicism vs Ancient Philosophy in general. Arguably all Ancient Philosophy is therapeutic, but what is it about Stoic therapy that appeals? (Why eg don't we take Platonic injunctions to mathematics or even theurgy as seriously?) For a modern 'therapeutic' Platonism see

(That provoked a very helpful exchange mostly with Cathy Barry (@Cathyby) with Jules Evans (@julesevans77) joining in at the end to which I'm grateful for prompting me to further thought.)

The original question wasn't (purely anyway) rhetorical: Stoicism does seem peculiarly attractive to many moderns and I'm not sure exactly why. In the report I linked to above, much of what is valued in Stoicism is common to much ancient philosophy. For example, most ancient ethics is therapeutic in the sense that it offers to improve your life: to make you eudaimon (flourishing). Moreover, it is focused primarily on internal goods (the virtues) rather than external goods (stuff, social status). To the extent that Stoicism tends (more than other schools) to be (at least) deistic, perfectionist, rationalist, suspicious of emotions and utterly dismissive of external goods (you can be as eudaimon on a rack as you can be watching TV with a good whisky), it might well be thought to have particular difficulties that make it less attractive to the modern mind than other ancient ethical approaches.

I'm pretty sure that most of the answer lies in the peculiarities of Roman Stoicism, and in particular the philosophers Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Roughly, all of these tend to be much more interested in practical techniques rather than in the more foundational questions raised by the earlier Greek Stoics. Moreover, to the extent that Stoicism in general rejects external circumstances as an element in flourishing to a quite unusual degree (certainly when compared to the Peripatetics), it is peculiarly compatible with any modern lifestyle: why change your life when you can just change your mind?

Now, I have two related worries about this. First, technique without asking serious questions about what purposes those techniques serve isn't philosophy , certainly not in a sense that Socrates or a modern academic philosopher would recognize it. (Indeed, were I to be waspish, Plato might well find a combination of marketable techniques and the promise of success in the everyday world rather more characteristic of sophistry than philosophy.) And to the extent that philosophy, that personal, desperate grappling with truth, is part of the good life, then a focus on technique together with a distraction from the pursuit of truth is at least unfortunate and perhaps harmful. Secondly, to the extent I've reflected on the ethical claims of Stoicism, I'm pretty sure they're wrong. In ancient terms, I suppose I'd count as close to a Peripatetic (ie Aristotelian) with a consequent emphasis on the need for reforming the political space, a focus on good upbringing, the cultivation of appropriate emotions (including anger)  and contemplation of 'divine things' as the perfect life. Whether I'm right in that judgment isn't terribly important: what is important is that many of the specific claims of Stoicism are by no means clearly correct and if the techniques recommended actually do have an effect, they may well be producing vice rather than virtue.

I suppose at the end I'm left with wondering what would be lost or gained if we didn't have conferences like STOIKON or events like Stoic Week, and instead had VIRTUEETHICSCON or Eudaimonia week. What would be lost, I think, is the coherence of a brand: here is something with a fairly coherent message and with immediate, relatively easy instructions for getting involved at once. You don't have to think much: you just have to be attracted and act. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: we all have to start somewhere and most of us have stumbled onto the deeper things that inform our lives by some sort of combination of luck and immediate (erotic) attraction. I'm not sure that any other school of ancient philosophy can do that quite as easily as Stoicism (although Mark Anderson has a damn good go for Platonism) even if I'm pushed to be absolutely clear as to why that's the case. (Another suggestion that crosses my mind is that it is to do with the occasional, conversational style of Roman Stoicism (esp) Seneca, quite apart from the issue of content. Much more engaging than (say) the 'contents of an academic's wastebin' style of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But anyway...) But I think it would be terribly sad if you stopped there and didn't explore ancient ethics further and, in particular, when examining Stoic claims, ask: Is this true? Is this truly virtuous?

Why does any of this matter, except to those (undoubtedly a minority) who have an existing interest in ancient philosophy? There are a number of possible answers to this, many centring on the general role of classical studies in modern education. But let me give a more narrowly philosophical answer. There is a view (one I largely share), developing from Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre that there is something radically amiss with modern moral philosophy. (Anscombe's paper of that name is the locus classicus for this analysis.) In essence, both advise a return to eudaimonistic ethics, an ethics based on human flourishing and the virtues. If anything along those lines is right, then adopting the correct view of eudaimonia and its attainment is of central importance not only to each individual's life, but also to our wider society. Stoicism may well be an excellent introduction to that ressourcement and the general pattern of eudaimonistic ethcs, but it is one that we Aristotelian-Thomists at least would like to see subject to philosophical challenge and ultimate abandonment.