What is “Modern Stoicism”?

The Modern Stoicism blog recently posted a “symposium” discussing what is meant by “Modern Stoicism.” The introduction begins by pointing out that the question is both very common, and difficult to answer, an assessment with which I wholeheartedly agree.Most attempts to answer the question consist of formulating a set of philosophical doctrines. Both Lawrence Becker (A New Stoicism, p. 6) and Andrew Holowchak (The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 24-26) give lists, and this is the approach I took in composing the corresponding entry in the Stoicism FAQ. It is the approach taken by several of the participants in the Modern Stoicism symposium, although with more explicit emphasis on the limitations of such a list (both Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez reference Wittgenstein).

“I know it when I see it” isn’t a very informative answer to the question. Where explicit lists are given, what is most striking about them is the lack of overlap, particularly from the point of view of those not already familiar. Even among different well-read modern people interested in Stoicism, there is significant disagreement; each may “know it when they see it,” but the set of things Massimo Pigliucci identifies as Stoic may be very different from the set identified by Chris Fisher, for example.

One might doubt whether “modern Stoicism” has been sufficiently reified — put more colloquially, is Modern Stoicism really “a thing” at all? Is it really something distinct from all the other people who have been interested in Stoicism between the closing of the schools of philosophy in 529 and now? Based on their responses in the symposium, neither Christopher Gill nor Donald Robertson seem to think so. Yet this doesn’t seem right to me either. It seems clear to me that there is something new and distinct going on. There are books, conferences, and schools on it; discussion forums on all of the major social media platforms; controversies, common points of reference, recurring conversations, and common influences; and even groups of people who regard themselves as Stoic yet wish to set themselves apart from it.

Robertson’s contribution to the symposium may point the way to resolving this. Rather than answer the question directly as posed, he shifts it somewhat, from “What is Modern Stoicism?” to “Who is a modern Stoic?” I think this may be on the right track — the original question is difficult to answer because, in an important sense, it is the wrong question. The concerns he expresses in his contribution regarding schisms and diversity of philosophical orientations are even more indicative.

I postulate what actually exists as an identifiable entity is not a philosophy at all, but a community; that there is no such thing as “Modern Stoicism,” but that there is a “Modern Stoicism Community.” It is a community founded on a common interest not in some new and distinct “Modern Stoicism,” but just plain Stoicism, as it has been for millennia; but community goes beyond common interest. As a community rather than a philosophy, the Modern Stoicism community is both broader and more restricted than anything that can be defined by a list of doctrines. To be a member of a community, one need only participate in it, and be accepted as a member by the rest of the community. In general, the Modern Stoicism community seems to accept anyone interested enough to show up and stay on topic, and respectful enough to contribute without being disruptive, regardless of any personal beliefs. This does not mean that everyone with an interest in Stoicism will be a member of the community; people may choose not to be a member of a community for any number of reasons.

Communities of common interest develop distinctive features beyond just the original source material. Members of the Modern Stoicism community are influenced not just by the ancient Stoics, but also each other. We teach each other our own interpretations, we recommend and write essays and books (not just ancient, but new ones), and our conversations focus our attention more on some works than others. The “Modern Stoicism community” is something more specific (and interesting!) than just “anyone who’s into Stoicism and hasn’t been dead for several hundred years,” to quote Robertson’s contribution. The posts, conversations, books, and essays of those in the community have developed a distinctiveness to them. I do not regard such a phenomenon as either inherently good or bad — it can form an echo chamber, but it also provides enough focus to foster collaborative creativity and development.

Although some “online communities” are centrally managed, with leaders and hierarchies, the Modern Stoicism community seems broader than that. It crosses many venues, with Facebook pages, blogs, a subreddit, twitter accounts, and other online forums, plus physical conferences and print publications. Most of these have moderators or organizers, but whether any given Facebook page, blog, subreddit, or twitter account is part of the Modern Stoicism community is determined by whether the community itself chooses to participate there; in so far as there is a gatekeeper, it is the community itself.

Finally, although I see little problem in the phrase “Modern Stoicism community,” I am uneasy with using the term “Modern Stoicism” to refer to a philosophy at all, even if the community were to develop a consensus (or near consensus) on some issue distinct from the views of the ancient Stoics, or dependent on controversial interpretations of them. Modern individuals who choose not to be part of the community should not be burdened by the association; it feels like a kind of linguistic theft.

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