Stoicism today

Of what relevance is Stoicism to people today? To answer that we answer the question with at least a modicum of coherence, let’s first define our key terms.

Stoicism: The ethical paradigm propounded by Zeno and his successors. (There’s a lot to be said about the scope of Stoicism; it wasn’t just about ethics. Nevertheless, I’m only considering the ethical part.) This ethical paradigm says that

  1. The sole good is virtue, meaning excellence of moral character. Other apparent goods, such as wealth, health, family, and social status, are still valuable, but not on the same order as virtue.
  2. You are in control of your beliefs.

From these points (and with a little help from some other assumptions about the mind, physics, and language) the Stoics concluded that people can and should control their feelings to a significant degree. They had truly bizarre beliefs, too–like that one’s physical circumstances are irrelevant to one’s well-being, and that everyone except the perfect sage is in equally miserable shape.

Relevant: I mean to ask whether, given the knowledge humans have accumulated over the last two millennia, Stoic theories still make any sense. I do not mean to ask whether belief in Stoic theories has any benefits; it obviously does, as does belief in any broadly consistent set of beliefs.

I think the answer is that Stoicism is quite relevant. Clearly, a lot of Stoicism is crap. (If you don’t believe me, read up on it; this book is amazing.) However, while we don’t have perfect control over our feelings, we have more than we often assume we do. And just as the Stoics pointed out, this is largely because our feelings stem from our thoughts, and we can habituate ourselves into thinking in particular ways.

This insight is the basic insight behind cognitive therapies, such as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). The founder of REBT, Albert Ellis, noted that he was inspired as an undergraduate by reading Epictetus, one of the most famous Stoics. (I’ve forgotten where I read this; if you know a source, let me know.)

REBT and its cousins (e.g. Cognitive Behavior Therapy) have an impressive track record as far as psychotherapies go; this is evidence that their basic assumptions are correct; and this is evidence that at least part of what the old Stoics believed was true.

 

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