My one liner: A collection of articles which traces the development of the Stoic school from its origins through to it contemporary application. The early articles are seriously heavy going, but there are some real gems in here for the lay reader who perseveres.
Since I come to most of my reading as a non-specialist, I feel comfortable suggesting this book to the lay reader, even though some of the articles (particularly the first few) will be 75% impenetrable (although those with some school level Latin or Greek may be able to get that down to 50%). Indeed it gave me comfort when I read the opening paragraphs of the introduction, which says that in compiling the book there was a possible “High Road” approach and a “Low Road” approach, the latter “would focus less on questions that interested ancient Stoics and more on broader tendencies and trends, looking at the way Stoic doctrines were employed in new settings and against different competitors.” The editors have decided to take the low road. And therefore the reader can equally do likewise.
To that end, if you need a primer on Stoic philosophy, start, as always, with the Wikipedia entry on Stoicism. No shame there.
How can these be translated into our contemporary lifestyles, if at all ? The final essay in the collection is by Lawrence E. Becker on Stoic Emotion”. Becker takes us through contemporary developments and attempts to demonstrate that ancient Stoic principles can be applied to our modern lifestyles, with a few “adjustments to the ancient doctrines”. To take a concrete example, Becker tells us that “Neurophysiologists have identified at least four anatomically distinct structures in the “ancient” or subcortical portion of the human brain that generate affective senses –fear, rage, panic, and goal oriented desire”. But if these are neurologically generated, how can one then apply a Stoic discipline to controlling these ? The answer is broadly that the neurological response is a “raw” one. The cognitive content that turns it into full-fledged emotion can still be controlled and tamed.
Becker’s essay is interesting because it also forces us to answer some difficult questions about the “good” or value to society of emotions. The modern world seems to feed us with the view that expressing and feeling emotion is a good thing in its own right. But this is potentially problematic, as human emotion is arguably good only insofar as humans are emotional creatures and expressing emotion allows us to communicate with other humans using emotional gestures. In other words the argument is“frustratingly circular”. Stoics, on the other hand place much less value on emotion, valuing instead the cognitive response which allows us to control our emotions so as to reduce our material attachments. In turn this also makes us think about the nature of attachment, in particular attachment to others. A Stoic sage will love another person in a way that many would not recognise. In other words “she would not for example, become so attached to others that she literally cannot bear the prospect of losing them, any more than she would be attached to her own life in a way that made the prospect of her own death unbearable. Nor would she wish others to love her in that way – to be desolate and helpless when she is gone, unable to bear the loss. What Stoics wish for others is what we wish for ourselves: good lives; virtuous lives; including the ability to cope with loss.”
What this means in practice however is that a Stoic will not fit in many of the commonly prescribed behavioural norms, and will come across as aloof and detached and unemotional.
Another interesting article in the book deals with contemporary approaches to foreign aid from developed to developing countries (Martha Nussbaum: Duties of Justice, Duties of Material Aid – Cicero’s Problematic Legacy). Its central tenet is that developed countries do not make enough financial transfers to developing countries in the form of direct aid to fight poverty, so-called Material Aid”. Nussbaum traces this allegedly moral deficiency back to a chain of political thought that goes right back to Cicero (who arguably was in a good position to comment as he wrote the work, De Officiis, whilst on the run to escape assassination from Antony and the other triumvirs in 44BC). Cicero set out some very clear ideas of justice. His duties of justice had two parts, firstly not doing any harm to anyone unless provoked by a wrongful act, and secondly “using common things as common, private possessions as one’s own.” So passionate was Cicero about the importance of private property that his idea of justice extended to the appropriate way to behave towards the citizens of a country conquered by war. He felt that there should be a strong commitment to institution-building, and that judicial and property-upholding institutions should transcend national boundaries. Which sounds much like the programmes of “conditionality” (restructuring, supply-side reform, privatisation) attached to today’s IMF and World Bank lending facilities. But where Cicero then deals a blow to Material Aid of the direct action type is that he sets out a clear hierarchy of whom justice demands that we should help. He sets out explicit categories that justify some giving as follows: “the bond of nation and language; of the same state; of one’s relatives; various degrees of familial propinquity; and finally, one’s own home.” And just as explicitly he excludes other nations, on the basis that this is a potentially infinite cohort of recipients [infinita multido]. Now, whether you agree or not with (a) the proposition that Material Aid is desirable in its own right and (b) that there is currently not enough wealth transfer from rich to poor, it is surely interesting and useful to understand that many of the current arrangement for trans-national relationships have their roots in ideas of justice formed 2000 years ago.
The book contains much else of interest, too extensive to enumerate, and still keep the review readable. Epictetus was a Stoic who extolled the virtues of Socrates as defining everything mankind should know about a philosophical methodology for living one’s life. One of the more difficult essays describes the Socratic discourse in Epictetus’ work. Other essays lead us through the development of Stoic thought over time, from the Middle Ages, to Descartes, to Spinoza. Take what you find useful from these, and discard the rest.
Sten Ebbesen in his essay Where were the Stoics in the Late Middle Ages ? says:
“Stoicism is not a sport for gentlemen; it requires far too much intellectual work. Most of Western history consists of gentlemen’s centuries. But there were the couple of centuries, the fourth and the third BC, in which the ancient philosophical schools were created, and there were the three centuries from AD1100 to 1400, when medieval scholasticism flourished – centuries that produced a considerable number of tough men ready to chew their way through the tedious logical stuff that disgusts a gentleman and to make all the nice distinctions that a gentlemen can never understand but only ridicule, distinctions necessary to work out a coherent, and perhaps even consistent picture of the world.”
If that is indeed the prize on offer, then perhaps we as gentlemen should consider whether we might want to invest a little more time and effort to look into this abit more.
There is no Wikipedia entry for this book.
Here is the link to Google Books entry.