A New Stoicism: An Interview With Professor Lawrence C. Becker

Professor Lawrence C. Becker is one of the academic titans that we are incredibly honored to have the chance to interview. He is the author of A New Stoicism and he takes the time to walk us through what ‘new’ in the title means and what were his aims with that book as well as answering our questions which ranged from deep dives into some of his academic papers, the lessons he has learned from decades of teaching philosophy to students, his favorite Stoic quotes and much more.

Professor Becker was an associate editor of the journal Ethics from 1985-2000, and the editor, with the librarian Charlotte B. Becker, of two editions of the Encyclopedia of Ethics. He is currently a Fellow of Hollins University, where he taught philosophy from 1965-1989, and is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the College of William & Mary, where he was the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the Humanities and Philosophy from 1989-2001. (Just glancing at his 8-page C.V. can give you an idea of the immense contributions that he has done.)

This is a long—but important—interview. We are grateful to Professor Becker for his time and hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

 

Lawrence, thank you for taking the time! You’re the author of A New Stoicism and I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the book. In particular, what do you mean by ‘new’?

The basic project of the book was to imagine in detail what Stoicism would be like today if it had had a continuous history from its beginnings to the present day. It had a continuous run of about 500 years from its founding by Zeno during Hellenistic times well into the Roman era. And it had a very lively history, with a great deal of continuing debate about the details of its basic doctrines. But it was philosophy. Philosophy has changed dramatically since Roman times. The physical, biological, and social sciences have left it to become separate disciplines. Theology and philosophy have mostly separated from each other. And systematic philosophy of the sort Stoics were interested in has almost disappeared – at least in the English-speaking world.

But the interesting thing is that parts of Stoic ethics have continued to be of practical interest to the present day. The “old” stoicism as a system has been scorned. The picture of the stoic sage has been widely rejected as psychologically misguided, and its account of the role of emotions in human life has often been treated with contempt. But Epictetus has always been admired, and his mantra about things within our control versus things not within our control remains a staple of common sense.

In the early 90s, I came to think it was a pity that Stoic ethical theory had largely remained an antiquarian interest. Reputable ethical theorists continued to work in the Aristotelian tradition, while rejecting lots of what Aristotle says. Why couldn’t a reputable ethical theorist continue to work in the Stoic tradition?

So my basic project in A New Stoicism was to try to figure out how the systematic theoretical ambitions of ancient Stoicism would fare today if I tried to resurrect them or restate them in terms of our new understanding of the relation between philosophy, science, logic, and ethics. It was clear from the outset that the result was going to be a “new” stoicism – if for no other reason than that the ancient cosmology would have to be dropped.

What I found was pretty interesting to me. The basic ethical doctrines, somewhat restated, actually get stronger in some respects. And there are other welcome surprises, such as the way the Stoic account of moral motivation strengthens virtue ethics generally.

 

I’ve also noticed that one of your philosophical articles has this fascinating title, “Stoic Children.” I’d be really curious to hear what this one was all about?

It’s about the so-called “cradle argument,” and the account the Stoics give of human moral development. (It’s a chapter in a book on what Western philosophers have said about children. So as Annette Baier might have observed, it’s about what men who didn’t spend much time caring for young children have said about the subject.) But actually the Stoics had quite a lot of important things to say about it that are confirmed not only by those who do the mothering (where that is defined not in terms of gender but in terms of role) but by contemporary developmental psychology. The article is a speculative extrapolation of the more complex account given in the book, where it is tied more tightly to the ancient texts.

The Stoics trace their arguments about ethics back to observations of the behavior of infants – partly in order to refute Epicurus’s contention that the primary motivation of human beings is to avoid pain and seek pleasure. The Stoics contended that from the beginning, our motivations are much more complex than that. We like and seek social interaction, seemingly for its own sake. We explore the world, even when it is difficult and painful. But the main thing the Stoics did was to introduce the concept of oikeiosis (appropriation;  familiarization; internalization) to capture the way in which human beings come to care  about the well-being of other people and things in the same way they care about their own well-being.

Oikeiosis is the key to the following process. From infancy onward, we have goals and we strive to achieve them. We find that some people, things, and deliberative processes help us to achieve those goals, and we repeatedly choose those that are instrumentally successful. Through oikeiosis, we become attached to the people, things, and choices in deliberative processes that work – that are instrumentally valuable. This gives us an early form of practical intelligence. The next step is that we find that those instrumentally valuable people and things don’t always work, not to mention that we have multiple goals that sometimes conflict with each other. So we have to solve those problems, and through repetition we find that in our environments, some strategies work better than others, and some people are more helpful and cooperative than others. It soon turns out that in most social situations being mindful of other people’s well-being is a good strategy. Through repetition again, and oikeiosis, we gradually become attached to the welfare of those cooperative people in a way that is very like our attachment to our own welfare.  We also begin to develop dispositional attachments to the deliberative strategies that work best to resolve difficulties and conflicts. We reject or at least subordinate the ones that don’t work very well. That begins to give us a little bit of practical wisdom, as opposed to mere practical intelligence. So we begin to develop some budding versions of the prosocial virtues and to practical wisdom rather than mere practical intelligence.

You can see where this is going. Add a few steps – with the right moral teaching – and people can develop a strong moral motivation to make progress toward Stoic virtue and away from ignorance and vice.

 

Before we continue, I’d love to step back and maybe you could tell the Daily Stoic readers how did you first discover Stoicism and why is it important to you?

I discovered Stoicism in my first college course in philosophy, which was a historical introduction to Western philosophy and which paid some attention to the Hellenistic and Roman philosophers. So I got a sense of the shape of the Stoic system, but we didn’t read any primary materials, as I remember. I read Epictetus‘s Handbook on my own. And my memory is that I recognized a lot of it as the sort of common sense that I saw all around me and my family and in my neighbors in the rural Midwest during the 1940s and 50s. (I was born in 1939.) But I didn’t take it further until much later.

In college I studied history, mostly, and tried to act like a French existentialist. I went to graduate school in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and in 1961-1965 while I was there, existentialism and stoicism were not polite subjects of conversation in the philosophy department. But I had a stubborn interest in ethical naturalism, and in finding a way around ethical skepticism, and in what is now called virtue ethics. Those interests are reflected in two books –  in On Justifying Moral Judgments (1973) and in Reciprocity (1986). About the time I finished the reciprocity book, the scholarly interest in Hellenistic philosophy started to pick up dramatically. Long & Sedley’s massive compilation and translation of texts and fragments turned my attention to ancient accounts of the good life, and I soon started to teach a course that became a precursor to my stoicism book. In that process, I was helped greatly by the appearance in 1993 of The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas, and in 1994 The Therapy of Desire, by Martha Nussbaum. My students in one of the iterations of that course suggested that I should write a book on stoicism rather than on the good life, because (as one said) I clearly was a Stoic. That startled me. But it also interested me because I thought it was probably true. Some five years later A New Stoicism was published.

Stoicism is important to me both practically and philosophically. I don’t meditate, or do exercises of a stoic sort. I read some of those books and blogs, and wish I had something to contribute along those lines. But instead I work on my ingrained stoic impulses and try to improve them. That’s the practical part.

Philosophically, the work I have been doing on virtue ethics, and ethical theory in general, occupies me fully. I think it has been immeasurably improved by working in the stoic tradition. At least that is my impression (in the stoic sense; see one of my favorite quotes below).

 

You have decades and decades of experience teaching philosophy. What were the big lessons that you tried to impart to your students over the years?

I’ve taught a lot of different courses over the years, each with a significantly different subject matter. But they were all courses in philosophy. And philosophy seems to be the only academic discipline whose definition is a problem of that academic discipline. (The definition of biology is not a biological problem in the way that the definition of philosophy is a philosophical problem.)

Furthermore, the problem of defining philosophy doesn’t really get discussed at length in many philosophy courses – either by the students or by their professors. Students who like philosophy have trouble defining it, and either give long rambling descriptions of it to their hostile friends or parents, or mutely point to particular examples of it.

That situation wasn’t satisfying to me as a student, so when I started teaching I constructed a provocative one-sentence definition of philosophy for use with students who are new to me (and with friends and relatives who are dubious about what I spend so much time on). So after the usual discussion of the syllabus I typically open every course with some remarks about my own definition of philosophy. I introduce it as a pretty good fit for philosophy as I practice it, but not such a good fit with what you might find if you tried to go outside the Western tradition, or even to characterize what is going on in medieval Western philosophy, or contemporary Continental philosophy. I tell them that every other philosopher in the department has some problems with it – as they should. As I do myself. And as we all should.

The definition is some variant of this:

“Philosophy is the persistent attempt to get thoroughgoing, reasoned answers to essentially contestable, conceptual questions, and to live in accordance with that effort and those answers.”

Then we take that apart – either very quickly, for advanced students, or more carefully, as needed for people who are either new to philosophy or who think it’s just some sort of trivial intellectual game.

Taking it apart is an exercise in doing philosophy. (And merely reciting it is a good way to stop aggressive questioners on airplanes, or in bars.)

I start taking it apart with the distinction between conceptual and empirical questions. Philosophy used to encompass a large part of what we now call the sciences. Now it uses the results of empirical science – and some philosophers actually participate in such science in order to do philosophy. But work on philosophical problems mostly addresses conceptual questions rather than empirical ones. In that respect it is more like mathematics than like biology. In philosophy and mathematics, we don’t answer questions by running experiments to collect data but rather by thinking things through.

 

What things?

Well, in philosophy, usually not things that are known to be decidable – to have definitive answers – which is what we expect in mathematics (even though many questions in mathematics remain undecided for a very long time). Rather, philosophical questions – at least fundamental ones – seem to be undecidable in principle; they seem to be essentially contestable. That’s why we are still talking about the same problems about the good life that we find in Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and philosophy in every age. We are not still talking about getting a proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

 

But aren’t all of these boundaries fuzzy?

Yes. Whenever you have boundaries – borders – there are borderline cases. It’s just something we have to deal with, philosophically.

 

Can we make progress on essentially contestable conceptual issues? Is there progress in philosophy if we are still talking about the same questions we find in Plato?

Well, yes, in the same paradoxical sense that we can make progress in counting: we can get farther and farther from the beginning, but no closer to the end. We can cross a lot of answers off the list of acceptable ones, but that always leaves a lot of other possibilities.

It’s a version of Galileo’s paradox: Take the set of positive integers and cross off all of the even ones, leaving only the odds. It seems that the set that you have left is only half the size of the set you started with. But think again. The two sets are still infinite. You can put all the odd positive integers in one-to-one correspondence with all the odd and even ones. Doesn’t that make the two sets the same size? In one way yes. In another, no. It’s just something we have to deal with, philosophically.

If that sort of progress is not enough for you, then philosophy is going to be frustrating for you.

 

How do we make progress in philosophy? What counts as an acceptable answer to an essentially contestable conceptual question?

Well, what counts is a thoroughgoing reasoned understanding of the issues that generate the question, and a logically sound argument whose conclusion is an answer to the question. Such a reasoned understanding has to be expressible. It differs from a mystical understanding of the ineffable, and the experiential understanding that can’t really be communicated to others who haven’t had the experience. And this reasoned understanding has to go all the way to the ground, so to speak.

Philosophy in this sense is certainly not a game — not if you are committed to living in accordance with the answers you get.  It is risky, and it is hard.

That’s the big lesson in all my courses. Not just the ones about Stoicism.

 

And what were the unexpected lessons that you learned teaching your students?  

The same thing in reverse. They showed me how to do philosophy better.

 

If you had to explain it to a five year old, how would you describe to him or her the role of philosophy in day-to-day life?

I probably wouldn’t try to describe it. I would rather just look for an opportunity to demonstrate it, by steering a natural conversation into philosophical waters and then identifying them as such without much fanfare. In my experience five-year-olds like to go deep with “why” questions – just like philosophers. Equally annoying, sometimes. But it can make the point about day-to-day life. Then you can give it a stoic turn if you want to – say, by talking about the difference between opinion, true opinion, and knowledge. That’s a question characteristic of the whole Socratic tradition, of course.

 

Do you have any favorite Stoic quotes? If not, maybe some of your favorite quotes in general that you try to think about often?

I have a lot of favorites. But here is one of special significance to me, and to my work on stoicism. And I have been thinking about it often, recently, in the context of our current political culture. (That’s probably why I used the example about epistemology in my answer to the question about five-year-olds.)

A range of relevant fragments can be found in Long and Sedley’s Hellenistic Philosophers at section 41 on knowledge and opinion. They begin with Cicero, in his Academica, quoting Zeno:

Zeno used to clinch the wise man’s sole possession of scientific knowledge with a gesture. He would spread out the fingers of one hand and display its open palm, saying “An impression is like this.” (3) Next he clenched his fingers a little and said, “Assent is like this.” (4) Then, pressing his fingers quite together, he made a fist, and said that this was cognition (and from this illustration he gave that mental state the name of katalēpsis, which it had not had before). (5) Then he brought his left hand against his right fist and gripped it tightly and forcefully, and said that scientific knowledge was like this and possessed by none except the wise man. (2.145)

The reason I like this so much is that it is a particularly pithy account of the process leading from the initial uncertainties of impressions that we do not grasp at all, to a tentative belief or tentative grasp, to a firm belief or grasp—all of it “within one hand” so to speak. But to have scientific knowledge we have to have a tight and forceful grip from another source—let us call it confirmation or verification of the original cognition. It is a nice image, which can obviously be extended to what we now call empirical science.


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