A Pragmatist’s Embrace of Stoicism

Do our thoughts mirror reality?  Or are they just a tool for prediction, problem solving or action?  Well philosophical pragmatists think it’s the latter.  In fact, pragmatists aren’t necessarily interested in whether they think ideas correspond to reality but are specifically interested in whether ideas serve practical purposes in our daily life.  Pragmatism originated from Charles Sanders Peirce and his pragmatic maxim:

“Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

(Peirce, 1878, p. 132)

Peirce is saying that the meaning of any idea that one has is meaningful if it has some practical effects observed in the world.  William James took the pragmatic maxim and expanded it to concern the truth of our thoughts.  Does Stoicism, as a system of thought, mirror reality?  How about all of Stoicism’s various precepts, like “virtue is the only good”?  Or is Stoicism and its individual ethical prescriptions simply part of a narrative that helps people cope in their daily lives with come-what-may?  Stoicism’s precepts could mirror reality but there’s no denying that it’s a useful system as a whole. What’s  more is Stoicism is part of a coherent worldview that mutually supports Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  It’s a plus that CBT and Stoicism can mesh well since CBT is a scientific therapy that produces effective and evidence-based results.

Stoicism as a whole is a useful system of thought.  It helps its practitioners view, interact, and use externals without morally judging them.  This allows Stoic practitioners to free their minds of the common conception that externals are either good or bad.  By regarding externals as ethically neutral, practitioners can focus on intrinsic goals.  Their cognitive resources are freed up significantly from anxiety and anger.

Stoicism is also adaptable because its metaphysics can expand with new discoveries in the realm of scientific naturalism.  Marcus Aurelius made clear in the Meditations that he could make use of Stoic ethics, whether the world was constituted of “providence or atoms.” Marcus Aurelius could adjust to these circumstances by continuing to live by the maxim that virtue is the only good.  In fact, somewhat radically Marcus Aurelius suggested that if something comes across his mind that is better than virtue, he’ll follow it (Meditations 3:6), which means that he believed the core doctrine of Stoic ethics is falsifiable.

The Stoic ethic, “virtue is the only good,” not only can help individual practitioners but it is socially helpful.  The pragmatist John Dewey thought that morals boil down to maxims that assist humans in achieving social ends that produce a satisfying life for individuals in society (Field, n.d.).  If John Dewey were alive today, perhaps Modern Stoic philosophers could convince him that Stoicism fits that social role.  After all, if society stressed virtue as the sole good and individuals en masse followed virtue as the sole end, then there should be social effects good for individuals in society.

As discussed above, from the pragmatist perspective, it matters not whether Stoicism and its precepts truly correspond to reality-with-a-capital-R.  All that matters is that it and its precepts work effectively at achieving important social ends.  It also helps that Stoicism coheres with existing worldviews that are also instrumentally good, like CBT.  Stoicism as a system works well for the individual, for society, is adaptable, and is falsifiable.  To pragmatists, it should be quite instrumental.

References

Peirce, C.S. (January 1878). “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. 12, 286-302.

Field, R. “John Dewey.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (ISSN 2161-0002). Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/

Stoicism, Broicism, and $toicism

About Broicism

As feminism has gone more mainstream, and has become more popular, a counterculture of young white men has arisen expressing their concern that men’s rights are being overshadowed. Angry that they no longer feel represented they have banded together to create what is called Men’s Rights Activism. The counterculture has unfortunately tried infiltrating Stoicism, hijacking it, and pretending Stoicism is all about being a man and manning up. I like to call their form of Stoicism, “Broicism.”

Stoicism was a philosophy progressive for its time because it saw all humans the same, capable of using reason and being capable of living a virtuous life. Zeno’s Republic actually mentions women as being members of his society of virtuous Stoics. The Stoics believed women were equal to men in their ability to use reason. Broicism tends to try to undo this history or has no interest in this history of Stoicism. Broicism tends to use quotes from Stoics selectively and ignores the cosmopolitan elements of Stoicism.

Stoicism is about trying to eliminate negative passions such as anger and sorrow and replace them with positive passions of joy and compassion. Unfortunately, Broicism tries to replace this with toxic masculinity, the belief that all emotions in men should be suppressed except for violent expressions of anger/outrage.

Stoicism emphasizes Hierocles’s Concentric Circles that there is self-love and out of self-love comes love for family, then love for community, then love for humanity. Broicism emphasizes self-love only and thinks that virtue means doing what’s in one’s best self
interest. The attitude is usually, “I got my virtue now screw you!”

On Facebook, when a question is asked why there are so few women in the Stoic Group, the first people to pop up and say, “it’s because Stoicism emphasizes rationality but women aren’t very rational and are more emotional” are Broics. They tend to think of Stoicism as a men’s only club and so subconsciously de-legitimize women from also being capable of being Stoics and using reason. Real Stoics understand that women have had a history of dealing with such stereotypes and it may take a while for the culture to
change its view of women in the Stoic group and outside.

Broics tend to be alt right or “cultural libertarians”. They tend to see any kind of liberalism as feminism run amok. Liberal values such as cosmopolitanism, diversity, open dialogue, even free expression that Stoics should embrace are a threat to their worldview. Stoicism is fine with feminism. It may not agree with all feminists on all issues but it’s perfectly fine with liberalism and feminism. In fact, Stoicism tolerates conservative views as well. It’s a very tolerant philosophy, whereas Broicism is not. Broicism usually expresses its intolerance through cheap jokes, trolling, and derailing charitable discussion.

About $toicism

Stoicism has really grown in popularity over the years. The Facebook group Stoicism Group (Stoic Philosophy), hosted by Donald Robertson, has grown to 40k members and is still growing. Stoicism is pretty much the largest growing philosophical school on the Internet. But as Stoicism grows so does making money off of Stoicism. Also Stoicism is being branded as a lifehack that will help you succeed in the business world. I call this kind of Stoicism, “$toicism”.

Stoicism is a philosophy that helps you be resilient in tough situations. $toicism uses this feature to try to sell you success. In fact, $toicism tells you if you try living by the wisdom of the Stoa, you’ll likely be very successful in the business world and you can have the Stoic insights to build your business from the ground up into a mega corporation. Stoicism doesn’t get your hopes up like this. Stoicism tells you that it’s ok to be poor and you’re not a loser for being poor, sometimes shit happens.  Stoicism just teaches you how to deal with your circumstances and make the best of them.

$toicism tends to try to sell you Stoic merchandise with notable Stoic quotes. Real Stoicism only tries to sell you wisdom with the only price being that you try. If you try at achieving the virtues, you will have a more just, wise, and benevolent character.

$toics only seem to care about the preferred indifferent wealth. The $toics think that this means greed is a good passion to have in such circumstances. But greed is just another negative passion that grows from the wrong judgment that wealth is good. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus clearly tell us that very little is required for happiness in this life and wealth doesn’t make you good, it just makes you wealthy.

Since $toics only seem to care about Stoicism in terms of a successful life, only for themselves and nobody else, they tend to downplay the virtue justice. Stoicism emphasizes the role of justice, in fact, Marcus Aurelius believed that justice was the chief virtue among the four virtues. It’s important to cooperate with others and not merely compete with others in the greater society.

$toics can’t seem to figure out why Ayn Rand is a bad guy. They think her philosophy of Objectivism is completely compatible with the philosophy of the Stoa. But little do they realize that Objectivism is a selfish philosophy. I’ve pointed this out to supposed $toics but they’re in denial. Finally, I pointed out that Ayn Rand specifically wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and they were still in denial. That’s not particularly a very Stoic attitude for those people to have.

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What does Marcus Aurelius mean by “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”?

Marcus Aurelius says, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”  Does that mean we can’t act in retaliation if someone uses violence against us?  No.  Does that mean we can’t perform a similar act towards someone who just performed an aggressive act towards us?  No.

Marcus Aurelius was meaning that we shouldn’t have the same intention and negative passions that led someone to injure us.  It doesn’t mean that if a nation attacks another nation, the nation attacked shouldn’t respond in force.  If it meant that, then Marcus Aurelius would be a hypocrite responding in force against the barbarian threat against the Empire.

Stoicism is a virtue ethics, so it cares about the character and intent of the agent.  If someone attacks you violently, you might have to attack back but with a whole different intention than the one that the other person had.  Your intention is to neutralize the threat.  The intention of the person who caused the injury is to cause injury because they’re mad at you.  Very different from a virtue ethics stance.

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Is Stoicism individualist or collectivist?

Is Stoicism individualist or collectivist?  Individualism tends to value the individual needs above family needs, work group needs, and needs of the broader society.  Collectivism tends to value the needs of the family, work group, society above the individual’s needs.  It’s actually not an either/or for Stoicism because Stoicism incorporates both the needs of broader groups and the needs of the individual.

Stoically speaking, individually we need to focus on our virtue.  We need to make sure we are trying to live up to the life of a Sage.  By living a life of virtue we ensure that we’re keeping ourselves mentally healthy and simultaneously flourishing and being worthy of praise.

Some people think Stoicism stops at just making ourselves better.  But there’s a problem with that.  One of the Stoic virtues is justice.  And the Stoic concept of justice entails a sense of compassion, empathy, fair treatment of other individuals as well as oneself.  So our need to get ourselves ethically perfected means we must also care about the needs, interests, and welfare of others.

Because of the virtue justice, we can never think of ourselves as apathetic to the needs of others.  We should care about other’s interests, needs, and feelings.  Everyone is our sister and brother.  We are all rational human beings helping each other achieve a better life.

Marcus Aurelius compares human beings to bees and ants working together, doing our social duties.  Individually, we don’t want to fail to do our social duties.  If we do that we isolate ourselves and harm our ethical development.

As Stoics we have just as much as obligation to get our house in order and the world’s house in order at the same time.  Just because our own satisfaction of our needs is in our power doesn’t mean our attempt at justice for the world isn’t in our power.  Is a better world in our power?  No.  Is trying to make the world better in our power?  Yes.  There’s a big distinction between trying to do good and doing good.  Trying to do good, for the Stoic, is always in our power.  Achieving good results for others is never in our power.  Always in the hands of fate.

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The Story of the Stoic Evangelist

(Stoic knocks on door)
Woman: Hello, can I help you?

Stoic: Do you got a few minutes? Can I tell you about a big idea that might change your life?

Woman: Ok, yes I’m not busy right now, are you a Jehovah’s Witness, I got one just yesterday?

Stoic: No, I’m actually a philosopher.

Woman: Huh, that’s weird. Okay, what’s the idea?

Stoic: If you’re like a lot of people, you find the world burdensome. What if I told you there’s an idea that might ease the burden (no guarantee) and might help you navigate through life a little easier.

Woman: I’d be interested in such an idea.

Stoic: Ok, well, the idea is rather simple but complex at the same time. Basically, to put it simply, the idea is that you can, given practice, change the way you view the world. By changing the way you view the world, you can be at more peace with it.

Woman: That’s interesting. Tell me some more. In a few minutes I have to get ready for work.

Stoic: Ok, I won’t try to take up too much of your time but the big idea is you essentially view things in terms of what you can control and what you can’t control. Given practice, you can control your opinions, your desires, and goals but you can’t truly control things outside of your mind, for example, whether you’ll arrive to work on time for certainty. The idea is you only worry about the things you can control but you don’t let yourself worry about the things you can’t entirely control beyond a slight influence? For instance, you can control that you’ve set out to go to work but beyond that things might not go your way. Your car might not start. You might get upset if you can’t get to work but, given practice, you actually have more control over being upset about it than being able to go to work. Being upset is actually entirely not a necessary thing, believe it or not. Instead of being upset, you could be spending time thinking about new goals. Calling a friend to get you to work or calling your boss explaining your situation. Setting new goals are within your power.

Woman: I think that makes sense. Never thought about things that way really. You have an awful lot of little books there? What’s that?

Stoic: Oh, I’m handing them out to anyone who’s interested. It’s actually Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. He was big proponent of the idea I’m presenting.

Woman: Well, I might give it a read, it looks pretty short.

Stoic: Ok, here you go and the beauty of it is that its short and simple. If you want to skip the beginning part where he’s being thankful to all people in his life and just get into his ideas you can skip that. And I got a little pamphlet here that talks about the big idea I just told you and a little more.

Woman: Ok, well I gotta go to work. Thank you for your book and the little pamphlet.

Stoic: Oh you’re welcome. I hope you find time to read the Meditations. You don’t even have to read the whole thing. Little passages at a time are helpful at times. The pamphlet is also quite helpful since it summarizes some of the themes in the Meditations.

Woman: I might give a read, thanks again.

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