/ Modern Stoicism

What is Secular Stoicism?

So by now you have hopefully noticed the name of this website and the name I post under both refer to a "Secular Stoic". What is that all about? Is there even such a thing as Secular Stoicism? Well, yes and no.

When I talk about Secular Stoicism, or being a Secular Stoic, I see it as very much akin to the Secular Buddhism movement, and perhaps even the Secular Humanist movement. It is a version of Stoicism that attempts to replace the Logic and Physics of Ancient Stoicism with our more modern understanding of these two topics. It largely discards the cosmology and theology of Ancient Stoicism for a more updated view of the world, supported by modern Science.

I would argue that the Modern Stoicism movement is largely secular in nature already. By this I mean that it presents Stoicism in a way that pretty much anyone could practice it. Whether they are a Theist, Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, etc...often referred to as "big tent" Stoicism.

This is not to downplay the original, more religious nature of Ancient Stoicism. In-order to properly understand the ancient stoic texts that have survived up until now, it is often vital to have an understanding of what the ancient Stoics did in fact believe in the areas of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology, during ancient times.

For the ancient Stoics, the universe was equivalent to God, or Zeus, in a way that can be thought of as pantheistic today. They believed that both souls and God were real, but that they were corporeal, and made of physical stuff, not immaterial as many modern day religions believe. The ancient Stoics thought that the universe was providential, that it always acted in a way that was best for itself, and as such, that the universe is the best possible version of itself. They also thought that the universe went through periodic cycles of destruction and re-creation via a great fiery conflagration, but that after each re-creation of the universe, it would repeat itself in exactly the same way, since it was already the best possible version of itself the previous time around. These ideas are important to understand when reading through ancient Stoic texts such as Epictetus's Discourses or Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, as they often talk about God, Zeus, and the universe interchangeably in this way. If you read a modern monotheistic conception of God into these texts, you will arguably be missing some important insights into what they are really saying.

The issue then here is that many of us moderns reject some, if not all of these claims, but still attempt to practice Stoicism in an effective and coherent way. I think it is also important to note however, that there is a Traditional Stoicism movement that accepts, and indeed argues for many of the ideas that I just went over, such as a pantheistic and providential view of the universe. Many modern Stoics on the other hand argue that the ancient Stoic conception of logic and physics is not essential to a modern practice of Stoicism, and that it infact underdetermined their ethics, which is generally held to be more important. Personally, I agree with the latter group, hence my take on a "Secular Stoicism".

I think that Ward Farnsworth in his book The Practicing Stoic puts it fairly well when he says the following:

Such is the argument of this book: that the writings of the Stoics have retained vitality not because their beliefs about the cosmos still have resonance but because their insights about human nature do.

I do not mean to suggest that the Stoics have nothing worthwhile to say about the largest problems of life. On the contrary, Stoicism is rewarding in part because it addresses some of the same questions about how to live that many religions do, and sometimes reaches similar conclusion, but it gets there by observation and reason alone. Or rather it can. The Stoics did have a theology, as I've said, but you may remove that pillar and and the temple still stands; their analysis and advice hold up well enough without it. To put the point differently, the Stoics, when speaking in the manner shown here, will sometimes be found to arrive at the same summit as the followers of other philosophical or spiritual traditions, but they go up the mountain be a different face. Their way will be congenial to many modern readers. It is the path of logic, reflection, and knowledge of humanity.

Indeed, the idea that Stoicism is open to change and revision is often cited by many modern Stoics, with some support from Seneca when he says:

What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover. - Letters to Lucilius, 33.10

This idea of Secular Stoicism reflects the way in which I imagine my own practice of Stoicism. That it is a practice without a theology, that it can be practiced by nearly anyone, and that many people can find some benefit in it.

Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it. - Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 6.4

If these ideas seems appealing to you in any way, stick around, and lets explore what this might mean, together.