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A New Stoicism

3.4 of 5 stars 3.40  ·  rating details  ·  15 ratings  ·  2 reviews
What would stoic ethics be like today if stoicism had survived as a systematic approach to ethical theory, if it had coped successfully with the challenges of modern philosophy and experimental science? "A New Stoicism" proposes an answer to that question, offered from within the stoic tradition but without the metaphysical and psychological assumptions that modern philoso ...more
Paperback, 216 pages
Published July 21st 1999 by Princeton University Press (first published December 8th 1997)
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Billie Pritchett
Lawrence Becker imagines what it would have been like if Stoicism had been an unbroken tradition from antiquity to the present. He argues that had Stoicism been allowed to develop in this way, it would have changed in much the way he argues for in his book. In antiquity the common Stoic maxim was to live in accordance with nature. Becker argues, however, that even though this assumption was motivated by a belief in a universe whose purpose was rational and good for its parts, including humans, t ...more
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“Stoic ethics is a species of eudaimonism. Its central, organizing concern is about what we ought to do or be to live well—to flourish. That is, we make it a lemma that all people ought to pursue a good life for themselves as a categorical commitment second to none. It does not follow from this that they ought to pursue any one particular version of the good life, or to cling tenaciously to the one they are pursuing. …

Living virtuously is the process of creating a single, spatiotemporal object—a life. A life has a value as an object, as a whole. It is not always the case that its value as an object will be a function of the value of its spatiotemporal parts considered separately. But it is always the case that an evaluation of the parts will be incomplete until they are understood in the context of the whole life. What seems so clearly valuable (or required or excellent) when we focus on a thin temporal slice of a life (or a single, long strand of a life) may turn out to be awful or optional or vicious when we take a larger view. And it is the life as a whole that we consider when we think about its value in relation to other things, or its value as a part of the cosmos.

… In our view, a focus on the parts of a life, or on the sum of its parts, obscures some important features of ethical inquiry. One such feature is the extent to which an agent’s own estimate of the value of his life is necessarily inconclusive: others will have to judge his life as a whole, because its character as a whole is not likely to be predictable while he is around to judge it, and because many important holistic considerations, such as its beauty, excellence, justice, and net effect, are things that he is either not well situated to judge or at least not in a privileged position to judge. Another feature obscured is the range of ways in which a single event or characteristic, without wide causal connections to other elements of one’s life, can nonetheless ruin it; for example, the possibility that a monstrously unjust act can indelibly stain a whole life. A third, related obscurity introduced by ignoring a whole-life frame of reference is the extent to which both aesthetic criteria and the notion of excellence have clear roles in the evaluation of a life. The whole-life frame of reference, together with a plausible account of the variety of ways in which a life can be a good one, keeps Stoicism sharply distinct from Epicurean doctrines, or their modern “welfarist” offshoots. How well my life is going from the inside, so to speak, in terms of the quality of my experience, is only one of the things that enters into a Stoic evaluation of it.

We hold that there is a single unifying aim in the life of every rational agent, and that aim, guided by the notion of a good life (happiness, eudaimonia), is virtue, understood as the perfection of agency.”
“Stoic moral training depends upon the defensibility of these schematic propositions: (a) Rational deliberative power (rational agency) is a defining feature of mature human consciousness. (b) Every agent’s rational powers, whenever exercised, operate in a particular and intricate deliberative field, in Barbara Herman’s felicitous phrase, that is laden with projects, preferences, affects, and attachments. (c) Each person’s deliberative field evolves continuously. Its initial information gathering and deliberative routines are givens (as if programmed) and, together with the initial situation, yield explicable beliefs. Initial sensibilities, sensitivities, values, aims, commitments, and preferences are also givens and, together with beliefs and deliberative routines, yield normative propositions for conduct. The circumstances in which such normative propositions are acted out or abandoned (that is, the relative strength or weakness of the will) are given, and actions follow. Each process from information gathering to action then becomes information for the next process. (d) The agent’s awareness of and reflection upon these iterated processes varies. But when awareness is high, it is fair to say rational agency is a self-transformative power: over time, its reflexive, recursive operations can transform its own powers, deliberative field, and operations—hence its norms and actions. (e) Agents can thus remake their characters over time. Note, however, that no uniform, essentially human content is specified for the deliberative field” 1 likes
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