/ Modern Stoicism

What is Modern Stoicism?

You have probably heard this term thrown around quite a bit, "Modern Stoicism", but what does it actually mean? Much digital ink has already been spilled discussing this topic in depth, but I wanted to give my own perspective on the matter.

The wiki article on Modern Stoicism overall says it best I think:

Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular movement in the late 20th and early 21st century which attempts to revive the Stoic philosophy in the modern setting. It is not to be confused with Neostoicism, an analogous phenomenon in the 17th century. The term "Modern Stoicism" covers both the revival of interest in the Stoic philosophy and the philosophical efforts to adjust Ancient Stoicism to the language and conceptual framework of the present. 'The rise of Modern Stoicism' has received attention in the international media since around November 2012 when the first Annual Stoic Week event was organized.

I think it makes a lot of sense to call Modern Stoicism a movement. It is far too varied and fluid to actually be considered something as definitive as a philosophy itself. I am hesitant to call anyone a 'Modern Stoic' because it is unclear to me as to what that would even mean.

The only thing analogous I can think of is that we often talk about Ancient Stoicism or the Ancient Stoics, which generally refers to those who practiced Stoicism between 300 CE, when it was founded by Zeno of Citium, and 529 CE, when Emperor Justinian order the closing of all pagan philosophy schools, although the Stoic school of philosophy had already been in decline since around 300 CE. Since this is such a wide period of time, it is generally broken down into the early, middle, and late Stoa.

Then as previously noted, Neostoicism emerged around the 17th century, which was an attempt to revive ancient Stoicism in a form that would be acceptable to a Christian audience.

If we follow the formula then, it seems like we could define Modern Stoicism, and Modern Stoics, as anyone who practices some form of Stoicism since the modern movement started in the late 1900s. The Modern Stoicism movement is also sometimes referred to as "The Fifth Porch" to distinguish itself from the four pervious periods in history. In that sense, perhaps we can call someone a 'Modern Stoic'.

Donald Robertson, one of the leading members of the Modern Stoicism movement thinks that:

“Modern Stoic” refers to anyone who’s into Stoicism and hasn’t been dead for several hundred years.

While that definition is somewhat humorous to ponder, it seems all together too loose of a definition for me. From what I have seen, it really appears as if there is something of a split between those who are 'practicing Stoicism' and those who are simply 'interested in Stoicism' or 'use Stoic techniques'. But is it really worth making a distinction here?

I am sympathetic to Greg Lopez's response when he is asked what Modern Stoicism is:

But what’s Stoicism? Who is and isn’t a Stoic? If you’re plagued by these questions, I would caution you to examine the kind of language game you’re playing, as it’s likely one of exclusion. That can be useful in some situations. But in many others, it’s either a waste of time if the inquiry yields no actionable fruit, or against Hierocles’ take on oikeiôsis if it’s meant to separate who’s in the cool kids club from who isn’t.

Perhaps making a distinction between a 'practicing Stoic' and 'someone who uses Stoic techniques' isn't entirely helpful.

In The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth says that

I regard a practicing Stoic as someone who tries to remember the wisdom of the Stoic when dealing with life and thinking about thinking - one attracted to Stoicism not as a creed or theology but as a valuable counsel and as a form of psychological hygiene.

Again, I understand his point, but I personally think his definition of a 'practicing Stoic' is far too loose. By that account, I could at the same time also be considered a practicing Buddhist or a practicing Taoist, in addition to being a practicing Stoic, even though at some point, these ideas are probably going to conflict with each other.

Farnsworth goes on to say

Nobody should care much anyway about being called a Stoic or not a Stoic. There are no membership benefits that I am aware of.

I think this brings me to the point as to why I consider it somewhat helpful to make a rough distinction between a 'practicing Stoic' and 'someone who uses Stoic techniques'. I do agree that nobody should care much anyway about being called a Stoic or not a Stoic, however I do think that there are, in a sense, membership benefits to calling oneself a Stoic.

The benefits being that it commits you to a certain philosophical view that eclecticism does not. Often the default position of just taking what works for you, being eclectic, seems a bit too wishy-washy, and is more prone to internal contradiction. I could take great ideas from Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Taoism, throw them all into some personal philosophy and make them work for me, but honestly, this is pretty difficult to do in a way that is consistent, with a danger of simply shifting between philosophies whenever it seems to suit me. Calling yourself a Stoic, being a practicing Stoic, gives you a little more grounding, and while it isn't necessary to use the wisdom of the Ancient Stoics, it still holds some value in that sense.

For myself, I would consider a practicing Stoic to be someone who:

  1. Agrees with the idea that virtue is the sole good and vice is the sole evil.
  2. Agrees with the idea of preferred and dis-preferred indifferents.
  3. Agrees with the idea of the Dichotomy of Control.
  4. Attempts to integrate these ideas into their life and practice them on a regular basis.

That being said, the Modern Stoicism movement itself is wide open to people of all kinds. Whether you consider yourself to be a practicing Stoic, are interested in using Stoic techniques to help you in your everyday life, or have just heard about Stoicism and are interested in learning a little more about it, the movement and the communities formed around it probably have something for you.

It is interesting to note that the Modern Stoicism movement does appear to of gained even more traction over the past few years. Back in 2016 the Stoicism Group on Facebook was at around 17,000 members, and has since grown to nearly 40,000 members. Similarly, the subreddit r/Stoicism which was at around 38,000 subscribers, has since grown to 91,000 subscribers. This means that memberships in both communities have more than doubled over the past two years, which is pretty amazing.

The members of these groups come from a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs, and faiths. Are they all Modern Stoics? Does it even really matter? Here is a passage I bumped into recently, which I think summarizes how we should generally think about this.

Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct, and the same conduct may be determined either by feeling or by thought. When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which Religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary; and if you wish to grasp her essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements. - William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), Lecture XX, "Conclusions"

What ultimately matters is not whether you call yourself a Stoic or not, but rather, how your conduct, your character, and your life, is changed for the better by these ideas and others.