Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular culture movement that began at the end of the 20th century aimed at reviving the practice of Stoicism. It is different from neostoicism, an analogous phenomenon in the 17th century. The term "modern Stoicism" covers both the revival of interest in the Stoic philosophy and the philosophical efforts to adjust ancient Stoicism to the language and conceptual framework of the present.
Modern Stoicism arose as part of the late 20th century surge of interest in virtue ethics. "The [...] work by philosophers like Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum, among others, have brought back virtue ethics as a viable alternative to the dominant Kantian–deontological and utilitarian–consequentialist approaches." Modern Stoicism draws from the late 20th and early 21st century spike in publications of scholarly works on ancient Stoicism. Beyond that, the modern Stoicism movement traces its roots to the work of Dr. Albert Ellis, who developed rational emotive behavior therapy, as well as Aaron T. Beck, who is regarded by many as the father to early versions of cognitive behavioral therapy. Viktor Frankl also found Stoicism useful while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II; he later developed his theory known as logotherapy.
The first major work that spelled out the key premises of modern Stoicism was, arguably, A New Stoicism by Lawrence Becker, first published in 1997.
Stoic philosophy was the original philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy, particularly as mediated by Dr. Albert Ellis' Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), the major precursor of CBT. The original cognitive therapy treatment manual for depression by Aaron T. Beck et al. states, "The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers". A well-known quotation from Enchiridion of Epictetus was taught to most clients during the initial session of traditional REBT by Ellis and his followers: "It's not the events that upset us, but our judgments about the events." This subsequently became a common element in the socialization phase of many other approaches to CBT. The question of Stoicism's influence on modern psychotherapy, particularly REBT and CBT, was described in detail in The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy by Donald Robertson. Moreover, several early 20th century psychotherapists were influenced by Stoicism, most notably the "rational persuasion" school founded by the Swiss neurologist and psychotherapist Paul DuBois, who drew heavily on Stoicism in his clinical work and encouraged his clients to study passages from Seneca the Younger as homework assignments.
The modern Stoicism movement relies heavily on global social media and online communities. One of the key sites is the modern Stoicism website, which harbors the Stoicism Today blog and hosts the Annual Stoic Week (online) and Stoicon (offline) events. Another important place is the New Stoa, which was founded in May 1996 and is arguably the first lasting Stoic community on the internet. Three key podcasts talking about Stoicism applied to modern thought are the Stoic Solutions Podcast hosted by Justin Vacula, The Practical Stoic Podcast hosted by Simon Drew and Steve Karafit's The Sunday Stoic.
Several personal blogs explore Stoicism, some of them run by notable Stoic scholars (e.g., Massimo Pigliucci, William Irvine, John Sellars) and some therapists who explore Stoic applications (e.g., Donald Robertson). Articles on Stoicism have appeared on popular websites. In E.O.Scott's words, "[the] potent combination of social media and a few highly publicized books and articles [...] has recently launched Stoicism on an exponential growth curve." There is a variety of Stoic meetups and groups based in places such as Australia, Denver, Dublin, Edinburgh, Fremont, Helsinki, Lisbon, London, Manchester, Milwaukee, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, Toronto and Warsaw, amongst others, as well as several "Stoic Camps" for study and practice. According to E.O. Scott, "arguably the most important and influential gathering place for Modern Stoics [online]" is the "stoicism group" on Facebook of ~40 000 people (as of January 2019). The analogous Reddit group has amassed ~118 500 users (as of December 13, 2018). Beyond the Anglophone, there is the "Sztuka życia według stoików" site run by Piotr Stankiewicz, "Stoicyzm Uliczny" run by Marcin Fabjański and Centrum Praktyki Stoickiej run by Tomasz Mazur and others.
Applications of modern Stoicism are reported across industries. According to Forbes, modern Stoic thought "hold[s] fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems in a turbulent, post-recession slump." However, two Stoic academics, Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, have warned against using "life-hack Stoicism" or "Silicon Valley Stoicism" as the primary means of understanding Stoic philosophy. Subsequently, they discussed Stoicism's role in advocating for change in society, including when it comes to standing against gender-based discrimination in the workplace and highlighted the fact that women had a vital role in the development of ancient Stoicism
Similarities of modern Stoicism and Third Wave CBT have been suggested as well, and its potency in treating depression has been studied. There has also been interest in applying the tenets of ancient Stoicism to the human origin story, environmental education, vegetarianism and the modern challenges of sustainable development, material consumption and consumerism.
The ancient Stoics held as unquestionable dogma that to live a good life, one needed to live consistently with nature. According to the ancient Stoics, nature was by definition good, and everything which was conformable to nature was deemed good. Moreover, the ancient Stoics had a teleological outlook on the world, that is, they held that everything in the universe was purposefully and rationally organized to a good end. However, this view is much more difficult to uphold in the present day. As Becker puts it, "science presented significant challenges to our [Stoic] metaphysical views.": 3 The notion of the rational organization of the world seems much more doubtful in the 21st century than it, presumably, was two millennia ago. "When we face the universe," Becker writes, "we confront its indifference to us and our own insignificance to it. It takes no apparent notice of us, has no role other than Extra for us to play, no aim for us to follow.": 11 Even more pressing questions are raised when we face our own human realm, with the long and still expanding record of genocide and atrocity and the manslaughter that followed. These are major challenges for the ancient Stoic view of the world as a rational and essentially good being.
An analogous problem appears with human nature (as contrasted to the nature of the universe as a whole). The idea of "following our human nature" also raises serious questions. As Becker describes it, "it is 'natural' to find these [defining] traits in human character and conduct, but it is equally natural to find a significant number of exceptions. As a result, none of these characteristics fits into the most familiar forms of ethical argument from human nature, e.g. (a) that humans are by nature X, and that Y is contrary to X, hence, that Y is contrary to human nature; or (b) that X is what defines the unique function (the essence) of a human being, thus to flourish as a human being is to excel at X." In this vein, "following human nature" yields no specific guidelines for conduct either. All told, this is one of the central problems for modern Stoicism: that in the 21st century it is far more difficult to ground our ethical framework in "nature", be it universal, cosmic nature, or to special human nature.
Becker acknowledges this problem and asserts that "Stoic ethics would be much better off without its 'follow nature' slogan." Yet, he reflects that the Stoics are, "however, too deeply branded with it to renounce it now. The best we can do is reinterpret it." The reinterpretation he proposes is this. "Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it [...] before we deliberate about normative matters. It means facing those facts – accepting them for exactly what they are, no more and no less – before we draw normative conclusions from them. It means doing ethics from the facts constructing normative propositions a posteriori. It means adjusting those normative propositions to fit changes in the facts, and accepting those adjustments for exactly what they are, no more and no less. And it means living within the facts – within the realm of actual rather than hypothetical norm." This process of "getting the facts about the [...] world" happens in some measure (but not exclusively) through science. In Becker's words, "The biological, behavioral, and social sciences contribute to ethics in three important ways: they offer a wealth of material that can be used in the naturalistic arguments [...], they offer explanatory theories (e.g. from evolutionary biology) that help separate relatively fixed traits from transient or malleable ones and they offer powerful, elaborate analyses of learning, rationality, and rational choice." Ethical reasoning of a Stoic "cannot begin until all relevant description, representation, and prediction are in hand, [...] – until, let us say, the empirical work is done." This empirical work may be obtained by the scientific method and thus the principle of "following facts" can be (in some contexts) read as "not contradicting science" (not to be confused with simple "following science", which would be reductive and misleading).
However, this issue that is raised with the ancient Stoic and modern Stoic ways of thought on physics can only be attributed to Becker and not all modern Stoics find this to be an issue. As the field of physics is being constantly redefined by different laws and understandings, some stoics believe that Becker was not trying to redefine nature as the ancient stoics saw it but as the neostoics defined when they attempted to combine Christianity and Stoicism in the 16th century. Ancient Stoics simply believed that there was an active and passive material of nature and that one controlled reason and one was acted upon with reason.
Becker organizes his reading of Stoic ethics around the concept of agency. "The Development of Virtue [happens through] the Perfection of Agency," or through the "ideal agency" as he calls it. This can be described as the belief in the "inherent primacy of virtue in terms of maximization of one's agency". This agency is understood in terms of "a balance of control and stability" and is executed all-things-considered, i.e. upon having obtained the most detailed information about the facts as available. Happiness, in this view, is also explained and achieved through agency. "We hold," this is Becker again, "that happiness as understood by mature and fit agents is a property of whole lives, not of transient mental states. We hold that it is achievable only through a proper balance of stability and control in the exercise of agency." And, "this sort of happiness with one's life also appears to be a psychological consequence of healthy agency [...] The life of a Stoic sage is filled with such happiness, as a consequence of virtue."
In Becker's version of Stoicism, several dogmas of Ancients Stoicism are questioned or challenged. For example, the traditional Stoic all-or-nothing understanding of virtue is questioned (to some extent). In orthodox ancient Stoicism one was either a perfect sage or no sage at all, there was no middle ground, or in between. The ancient Stoic virtue admits of no degrees. Becker lays ground for a softer, more nuanced approach. "You can drown," he writes, "face down on the calm surface of the sea as surely as at the bottom. [...] We [i.e. the modern Stoics] follow later colleagues in thinking that these doctrines are untenable."
Another dogma of the ancient Stoics that is sometimes questioned in modern Stoicism is the idea that the gateways of Stoic philosophy are open to everyone and that living a Stoic life is definitely the best option for every human being. Becker suggests that "acting appropriately, as understood here, is a special kind of optimization project – one that it is logically possible to reject. (Which people with compulsive, obsessive, or addictive personalities may in fact reject.) [Modern Stoicism's] claim is, only healthy agents, at least those well along the road to fitness in their deliberative powers, cannot plausibly reject it."
In the orthodox ancient Stoic view there are absolutely no entry conditions to living a Stoic life. One can become a sage no matter the circumstances: be it poverty, illness, physical adversity and so on. This issue has traditionally been a major point of differentiation between the Stoics and the Peripatetics, who held that a certain amount of external goods is necessary for the development of virtue. Becker appears to side with the Aristotelians on this matter, saying "it is [...] plausible to conclude, however, that there is an identifiable kernel of bodily and psychological health that is a necessary condition of all further development. If this kernel is damaged, so is the capacity to develop agency."
An important concept of ancient Stoicism is the distinction between things within one's power and not within our power. While this concept is embraced fully by many modern Stoics, some reinterpret it. For instance, Becker points out that the whole idea of the dichotomy is a major oversimplification. As he puts it, "[the] distinction between things that are within our control, or 'up to us', and those who are not [...] [is] misleading." Instead, he proposes to read it along the lines of "it is wise to calibrate the strength, depth, and dissemination of our attachments to the fragility and transience of the objects involved."
William Irvine goes even further and undermines the dichotomy's central premise, i.e. that the distinction between things "in our power" and "not in our power" is sharp and that there is no third option. Irvine suggests the possibility of turning the "dichotomy of control" into a "trichotomy of control". Irvine argues that "[w]e can restate Epictetus's dichotomy as follows: There are things over which we have complete control and things over which we have no control at all" as well as suggesting that "the dichotomy is a false dichotomy, since it ignores the existence of things over which we have some but not complete control." Pigliucci describes it as follows: "some things are up to us (chiefly, our judgments and actions), some things are not up to us (major historical events, natural phenomena), but on a number of other things we have partial control. Irvine recasts the third category in terms of internalized goals, which makes more sense of the original dichotomy."
Modern Stoicism has no unified position regarding the ascetic elements in Stoicism and in defining the sage's attitude towards the ordinary pleasures of life. Becker mentions "the confusion, both among Stoics and their critics" and the "false notion that the Stoic ideal is a life devoid of the ordinary pleasures of sex, food, drink, music, wealth, fame, friends, and so on". According to Becker this confusion happens because "Stoics have occasionally claimed that, for the sage, eudaimonia somehow replaces ordinary happiness." In this vein, Stankiewicz argued against the "ascetic misinterpretation", saying that "Stoicism is not asceticism and a Stoic is not a monk. In fact, it is the school of The Pale Epicureans that is closer to the ideal of abstemiousness. The Stoic proposal is far broader and it extends far beyond the narrow passage of the ascetic way." Thus, "we [the modern Stoics] must face the lushness, diversity and – yes! – sensuality of life and we have to live and thrive inside this world, accepting it as it is. Unlike a monk, a Stoic doesn't dodge the myriad of different aspects of the earthly and sensual life."
On the other hand, Kevin Patrick refutes this argument, ridiculing it as "hedonic Stoicism" and saying that the mentioned position "falls into the more common trap and misinterpretation, that since externals are indifferent to us, we should go ahead and indulge in all of those things for which we have a proclivity". "Modern Stoics," he concludes, "ought to be Stoics."
Irvine takes a more modest stance and he proposes a program of "voluntary discomfort". As he describes it: "By undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort – by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed – we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will. In other words, voluntary discomfort can be thought of as a kind of vaccine: By exposing ourselves to a small amount of a weakened virus now, we create in ourselves an immunity that will protect us from a debilitating illness in the future."