Is stoicism a viable philosophy today?
Eduardo Villagomez ∙ 8 min de lectura
In this paper I will argue that when reading the question that I’m proposing, there is a wide range of possible interpretations that come to mind, therefore, I will begin by explaining the origins of Stoicism, what makes it a great field of interest, and to highlight that the core virtues of Stoicism are very valuable for the behavior of people in general. This can be very significant in today’s world and people should get to know more about this philosophy. On the other hand, I will expose that Stoicism has some deficiencies in the way that it’s presently constituted, and this can produce some misunderstandings in today’s way of living, one example being capitalism, which represents in some ways, our present world order. The modern world has some distinct requirements when compared to the ancient Greek world, so, there has to be a difference form “Absolute Stoicism”, which is, an unviable philosophy today. Hence, I will propose that there has to be a new form in which Stoicism could be used today, and I will call it “Mutable Stoicism”. In Stoicism we find a conception of phyisicalism (or philosophical materialism) that states that all problems, such as happiness and sadness come from nature, making it quite problematic due to the fact that every person thinks and sees the world in a very different way. The plan for this paper is first to(I) properly explain, the schools of philosophy that were created in the Hellenistic period. Second (II) explain how Stoicism has some variants that people can use today and some deficiencies, and finally (III) present my conclusion.
(I) Hellenistic Period
The knowledge left by Socrates was essential to understand how much influence it had in the field of philosophy. The Greek culture and all the existing philosophy in that time, started to dissipate as all the knowledge began to combine with modern thoughts of that era. In consequence, the Roman Empire started to adopt a new way of doing philosophy. Consequently, a new phase began, which was later recognized as the “Hellenistic period”. Socrates had a phrase that he always said in order to challenge people for a better understanding of the world, it was “I only know that I know nothing”, this was a starting point for the Romans to create three new philosophies. The first one is Epicureanism, which is known today as Hedonism, the name comes from one of the most influential philosophers in that time, he was Epicurus (341-270 BC), and if we think that “I only know that I know nothing” Epicureanism proposed only one solution, and that was to follow pleasure, this means that the main goal of human beings was the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, and to avoid all the problems that have to do with pain, both mentally and physically. The philosophy of Epicurus was immersed in empiricist knowledge, this means that all atoms have been connected since the creation of the Earth, until the first kind of human civilization that appeared and lived in the world.
Consequently a second philosophy appears with the name of Skepticism, and if we apply the phrase “I only know that I know nothing” the central idea was that every type of knowledge is questionable, meaning that knowledge required a justification that could validate it, the claim that is being made was not enough, hence two types of doxastic attitudes were basic in skepticism, belief and disbelief. Some philosophers discovered a third possible doxastic attitude that can admit a different kind of proposition called “suspended judgment”, “Suspension of judgment is thus a “bona fide” doxastic attitude alongside belief and disbelief, and is not to be educated with the failure to adopt any doxastic attitude”. Finally a third philosophy was born in this period and is called Stoicism. The origin of the word Stoicism comes from “The porch (stoa poikilê) in the Agora at Athens decorated with mural paintings, where the members of the school congregated, and their lectures were held”. If we think that “I only Know that I know nothing” Stoicism indicates that all the people should have to forget or lose all kind of emotions and focus only in their virtue. We could define virtue as “the only good for oneself, and vice is the only evil, and that everything else is indifferent so far as one’s happiness is concerned, that is to say, only virtue can contribute to our happiness; only vice can contribute to our unhappiness”. Therefore, all people that practice Stoicism or want to practice it, should know that they would control their emotions to a level that nothing matters more than keeping their virtue, hence they should start to pursuit some core virtues like courage, which means that a person should have the will to learn how to live in peace with death, to hang on to the truth, and to have courage in the most difficult times. The second core virtue is temperance, namely, as in the capacity to be in peace with oneself, avoiding the emotions that can interfere with self-control. The third core value is wisdom, which is the virtue that enable us to investigate new fields of knowledge, the characteristic of being curious and to have an open mind to practice truth, learn and study. Finally the most important virtue and “the source of all the other virtues” to Marcus Aurelius was justice, which can be defined as “the principle which constitutes the bond of human society and of a virtual community of life”. Now that I have made a proper introduction to the Hellenistic period, we can move towards a more contemporary approach to Stoicism.
(II) How Stoicism has some possible/viable formulations and some philosophical deficiencies if applied today in its original formulation?
Compared to the previously defined Hellenistic philosophies, I want to highlight that Stoicism has several positive aspects. First I will elaborate on the idea that practicing and living with a sense of truth and being honest with oneself with the virtue of Justice that Marcus Aurelius refers to, can benefit the way in which we relate with other people and especially with ourselves. Then I will make a claim that not all people can have access to these core virtues, because of several human factors, such as the level of intellectual education, the social class in which we find ourselves, the way parents have educated us and the love given by our loved ones. These factors affect the way we behave and the way we see and live life; therefore this practice should be reformulated because in its original form it is not a viable philosophy today. Another good point in favor of Stoicism is that it encourages people to be wise in various fields such as physical training, philosophy, politics, mathematics, and dialectics. This is a reference to what Plato mentions in The Republic as “the philosopher king” and this proves that Marcus Aurelius practiced Stoicism on his path to become emperor of Rome. This is a really motivating thing to do but for whom? Who can really study all of this, and have the will, money, and time to become a philosopher king in today’s world? And more importantly, if some parents or teachers want to teach this kind of studies, the student has the last word, and if the student doesn’t want to learn any of this, we can’t stand in their way because theoretically they are free to do whatever they want with their lives. Therefore, I will make the claim that it’s not impossible to become a renaissance man, but highly unlikely. This is what we can learn about Stoicism, that to become a “philosopher king” in today’s world we must have a deep curiosity and desire to learn more about different fields of interest. This would make people more critical intellectual and could give them more tools to make an impact in their lives and the lives of others. Finally, Stoicism invites people to live without a sense of death, this means, to work the mind and virtue at a point of being capable to be prepared enough to face death in anytime of life without feeling fear or sadness. On addition to this argument, I will make a claim that not all people can follow this purpose, death is one absolute truth that we know for sure, and a lot of external and internal factors affect the way we behave, that feeling fear to the unknown is sometimes overwhelming and paralyze people under some circumstances. But I think that sometimes, feeling fear and sadness, make people know themselves more, and if that knowledge can be put into practice and shape the way we choose to live, then we can be prepared to face some challenges of life like death.
It’s Important to highlight that in today’s world, it is essential that more people get to know or get more involved with philosophies like Stoicism. That is why, we have to clarify that Stoicism has a lot of formulations, which can be applied differently. For example, one of the main ideas of Stoicism was to connect everything with nature, that all people are one in the world and if someone doesn’t follow this path, they are automatically breaking this natural law. But, we could reject this claim by saying that in today’s world this cannot be done as it was before, because, firstly, some people choose to believe in that humans have soul, body and mind, some others believe that humans have a body and a mind, and some others are monists, which means that they think everything is physical. Secondly, there has to be a consensual agreement between scientists, philosophers and intellectuals to make a claim about which of these three forms of thinking is the best approach for understanding how does the world works and what is the true definition of this “nature” which rules the world.
This is why, I propose a new term for Stoicism within the modern world, and I call it “Mutable Stoicism”. What I mean with this new term is that we cannot follow the rules of Stoicism as the ancient Greek or Romans did, we have to apply a partial understanding of Stoicism. If we read and comprehend what are the most valuable particularities of Stoicism and what virtues can be applied in our daily lives, there will be a constant changing attitude in which we will understand how to live well and we will get the most out of Stoicism. This will make a huge impact in the way we relate and see good and evil. Hence, happiness has to be seen like a moment of peace, referring to the fact that there’s no such thing as absolute happiness, we have to seek for that joy and pleasure in a moderate way, and be well aware that there will always be frustrating times in our lives and in the world, this will make us stronger in a lot of possible ways knowing and applying the core virtues of Stoicism in a “mutable” way. We have to embrace it in order to be better human beings.
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Kamtekar, Rachana, "Marcus Aurelius", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Konstan, David, "Epicurus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).