Traditional vs Modern

Inclusiveness, Rational Inquiry and Care

“Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if I find shorter and smoother way, i’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized”

-Seneca, Moral Letters, 33.11

Throughout history Stoicism has resurfaced. We see it in the thought of Thomas More, Descartes and Spinoza. More recently Stoicism has been implicated in the development of cognitive-behavioural therapy, the authors of which (Ellis with his REBT and Beck’s CBT) appreciated the observation made by the Stoics that beliefs underpin emotion and that by modifying belief we likewise alter emotion.

In your study of Stoicism you will quickly realise there is at least three key sources.

The first is of course the original surviving material by the Stoics and their ancient commentators. The bulk of the original surviving Stoic works are by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (there are fragments of others). Commentators include Plutarch, Cicero, Calcidius, Diogenes Laertius, Galen- and their accounts are not always favourable toward the Stoics but they help to fill in gaps, given that so many books were lost to history (Chrysippus, the 3rd head of the Stoa apparently wrote some 705 works).

Second, there are the academic commentators without which the average person would never have had the opportunity to discover the wonderful philosophy of the Stoics. The academics are extremely important for anyone who wants to gain a deep understanding of Stoic philosophy.

And third, there are the educators and communicators who make it there goal to make Stoicism accessible to a broad and general audience.

This third tier, being the medium by which most access Stoic philosophy, has tailored Stoicism to fit the needs of a general (and modern) public. This has resulted in an explosion of interest in Stoicism- there are probably hundred if not thousands s of books, podcasts, youtube videos and online communities on the topic, many of which are very good and helpful to the student.

This explosion in third tier material however, with its interest in speaking to the practical needs of a modern cohort, has resulted in the presentation of at least two different (and sometimes incompatible) types of Stoicism. Broadly they are described as ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’, of which Traditional Stoicism emphasises a commitment to the original teachings- hesitating to change even a letter, and Modern Stoicism, which seeks to incorporate the insights of science and psychology and deletes what it sees as unnecessary.

As you start to dive a little deeper into Stoicism you will encounter voices from both camps and you may even start to wonder what all the fuss is about. Is it just some sort of factionalism? Or are is it a case of pedantism?

My own view is that there is an important debate going on here. But right off the bat I want to make it clear that at Brisbane Stoics we are inclusive of all interpretations (within reason). So long as we can communicate rationally and with respect we can benefit from these differences. As Socrates himself says, “I prefer to be refuted than to refute, for it is a greater good for oneself to be freed from the greatest evil than to free another”, and how can we not be refuted and thus improved if we can’t join together in our collaborative and respectful search for truth.

But I do want to give you a feeling for what I think is going on in this debate, in the tension between ‘Modern’ and ‘Traditional’ interpretations, as depending on the path you take (if you take one) it will shape a few things for you, such as what you read, and what your interpretations of progress are and the goals you will have.

Most of this will be based on my own opinion and I will say up front that I have a preference for Traditional Stoicism- so be aware of my biases, but I will present the tensions or issues as I see them.

Modern Stoicism

Modern Stoicism is more ‘inspired’ by ancient Stoicism than committed to anything the ancients actually wrote or said. They have no doctrinal commitments.

They tend to view the Stoics as proto-psychologists who did the best with what they had. Modern Stoics believe that advances in science and psychology should be applied to ancient wisdom even where changes in theory are required. For example, some Modern Stoics may argue that a more moderate interpretation of the emotions should be applied and that virtue may not be the only good. The ‘Modern’ perspective takes the modern scientific worldview as the appropriate ground from which truth statements should be based. On the surface, this appears uncontroversial but what actually happens is a lot of other stuff that has nothing to do with ‘hard’ science gets smuggled across as part of our own commitment to our ‘modern’ worldview. For example, our modern understanding of willpower differs from the ancient Stoic one and (the Traditional Stoics will argue) that to miss this will skew your understanding of Prohairesis, or what Epictetus calls ‘what is in your power’. This one example is of no small significance as it is the basis for disagreements around the ‘dichotomy of control’- the same issue directly complicates our understanding of motivation and what is meant by ‘the correct use of the rational faculty’.

Without going into too much detail here, a Traditional Stoic might argue that Stoicism critiques the appearance of things, and that if we uncritically import the bulk of our modern perspective into our study of Stoicism we are likely to distort its actual (and original) teaching.

Before I leave the modern Stoics though I would like to say that they are very interested in practical psychological topics such as resilience and gratitude training and finding greater meaning in one’s life.

Traditional Stoicism

Where the Modern Stoics may focus their attention on third tier material, the Traditional Stoics will likely focus on the original texts and recognised authorities in the academic community. The Traditional Stoic view often seems to freak people out as its interpretation of Reason and Nature is the equivalent of Zeus or God. The doctrinal reading is that our own individual part in reason is but a trace of a much larger cosmic Reason that permeates all of nature. In this way, we are paradoxically small and unimportant, and at the same time each a part of a greater process that nourishes the life of the cosmos. Such a view stands in contrast to the Modern perspective which favours individualism of a type that emphasises, according to one type of reading, ones needs as a consumer. However, the Traditional perspective is dismissive of external items, stating that they can be preferred but cannot in themselves hold any actual value for us (at least of the type that is important to our rational nature). Such a view minimises interest in subjective desires, emphasising rational needs over sensuous ones. In short, the goal for the Traditional Stoic is in aligning their own use of reason with that of cosmic Nature, accepting fate where necessary (amor fati) and above all doing their utmost to develop a relationship with their own ’inner’ rational capacities free from the disturbance and coercion that might come from desiring external things. Their rational development and moral character is the only thing of concern to them (which still includes social obligations and commitments) and not even the threat of death should cause them to compromise their pursuit of virtue.

This view is much more committed than the one offered by the modern perspective. It is in fact a worldview, distinct from the worldview we grow up with, the one we inherent from our society and experience. The Traditional Stoics likely believe that they have a method for rejecting the false views of any woldview that merely accepts the appearance of things.

So why would anyone want to take on that worldview. Well, you don’t have to… Modern Stoicism emphasises a very practical way of life that minimises psychological stress and builds gratitude and resilience. At Brisbane Stoics there are many of us who believe that this is the best way to interpret stoicism as it improves our lives immeasurably.

But for those out there who want to dive really deep and challenge their conception of the status quo, Stoicism can be a rational philosophy that transforms the character of the individual and reorients their purpose in the world away from merely pursuing happiness in pleasurable activities and material diversions to developing a deeply moral character that sees the world as the ‘best of all worlds’.  Such a view does seem to have great potential in developing a profound sense of ease and ability to care for others.

There is a lot more that can be said about this topic and we hope you might join us at one of our monthly meetups where we can talk more about this fascinating and fundamentally powerful philosophy.