Stoicism and the Search for Truth

The following is an email exchange I had beginning on December 21, 2006 with a man named Matt. He asked about Stoicism and searching for solutions and a good upbringing for his child after having abandoned many of his Christian beliefs...

[Matt's text will be in blue; mine in black]


Dear sir,

I wanted to thank you for the brilliant website you maintain. I have found it to be tremendous and thought provoking resource as I have been researching and understanding various philosophies of life. What has recently intensified my search for a new philosophy of life has been the recent birth to my wife and I our our first child. My belief is that I have a duty to provide to our son a logical and moral system of beliefs that he can use to deal with the difficulties of modern life and use to live a happy, fulfilled and moral life.

While not a regular church-goer, I have been nominally Christian for much of my life. However, since my middle teen years, I have been increasingly unable to reconcile so many precepts of Christian faith with logic and reason. The traditions, sense of community and fellowship, and generally sound moral guidance that are part of many churches are a wonderful thing. However, I find it difficult to reconcile myself to what I see as the inherently hypocritical position of belonging to a church when I do not in my heart believe in the most basic "supernatural" tenants of Christian faith.

As I read the works of Edith Hamilton on the ancient world, I became intrigued with the stoic philosophy. I am greatly attracted to its focus on self improvement and self reliance, as well as the philosophy's rich history. I am also strongly attracted to its overall theistic underpinnings which do not require any belief in the supernatural, but a belief in only that which our senses can clear observe. i.e. God is not an abstract supernatural entity but the reason and natural order in the world that we observe with our own senses.

Just when I think Stoicism may offer the makings of a complete, deep and integrated philosophy of life to follow and teach my son, problems and questions arise with some of the seemingly basic tenants of stoic philosophy . The ancient stoics seem to go off the deep end with some of their teachings.

My two issues with Stoic philosophy as I currently understand it are:

#1 -- Seeming notion by Epictetus and other Stoics that health, money, and other "external" things are of no importance. In my view this stands totally against reason. It seems to me that good health and a reasonable level of material comfort are good things that enrich one's life and without one's life can be pretty miserable. It is only when one steps outside reasonable balance and moderation that as desire for good and and money becomes an issue.

#2 -- The other is a seemingly passive acceptance of what ever injustices may exist in the world. Accepting and being at peace with what we have no control over seems logical, but to accept all the injustices of the world as just Nature's way. I shudder to think what would have become of the Western world had Churchill and FDR taken Epictetus' view of the world.

What I am searching for is some "modern" take on Stoicism, which retains its positive features but balances them out with some Aristotelian logic. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on others who have successfully addressed these issues, or do you think I am attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable?

Best Regards,

Hello Matt!

(note, there are hyperlinks in this email - please let me know if they aren't functional for you)

Thank you for reading my website and for your kind comments on it. Needless to say, the task you have before you as a parent is a very important one and I'm happy to see you taking the thought with it you are - you have my respect.

I also think your dilemma is not uncommon in the U.S. While we all desire a community, this country seems to be undergoing a cultural revolution of sorts, as more and more people come to question their traditional faiths. My hope is that we not abandon our concern for ethical principles and good living along with the various mythologies.

Stoicism definitely has a lot to offer, and I'd encourage you to learn more about it. It has certainly improved my life (even though I am nowhere near a perfect practitioner of it). I do suspect you'll also find that the ancient stoics had some ideas we might not find relevant, given their time - but what is relevant is surprisingly abundant. On the concept of God, I think you'll find a range of 'takes' within stoicism - from the more traditional/personal conception, to the more abstract impersonal. At the far end of that spectrum would be myself, who wouldn't even use the word 'God' to describe the 'Nature' in stoicism. Zeno seemed to me to hold a less personal view of the deity than Epictetus did - who almost sounds Christian in some passages.

Dr. Keith Seddon is quite an expert on stoicism and has written a book called Epictetus' Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes: Guides to Stoic Living. I haven't read this book but I know Dr. Seddon to be a bit more on the 'personal deity' side of stoicism - still, I'm sure it's a wonderful book with much useful in it, judging by other things I've read of his.

The only book I know of where someone has taken stoicism and consciously attempted to modernize it (and strip it of any personal-god elements) is called A New Stoicism by Lawrence C. Becker. I do have this book and have read most of it, but unfortunately it is quite hefty in its technical jargon. I've received more from books like The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius by Mark Forstater and The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness edited by Sharon Lebell.

I have written a short essay called "About Stoicism" in which I don't use any technical language and try to explain the concepts in a very modern-compatible sense.

To answer your two points:

#1 - While things like wealth and health and relationships are in the category stoics call 'indifferents' it is important to note that there are 'preferred indifferents', 'dispreferred indifferents', and just plain 'true indifferents'. I think they would say that wealth, health, and friends, while not 'goods' in themselves, are nevertheless 'preferred indifferents'. This means that we can strive for them, but we must realize that they are not ultimately within our control and therefore we cannot attach our fundamental happiness to having them as a prerequisite. In other words, they use a different category in order to emphasize the thought, "don't get carried away with attachments to these things". As a Humanist, I find it easier to say that we can enjoy the material and relational benefits to life and that's wonderful, but our True Happiness comes from within, and shouldn't be so dependent on our material conditions.

#2 - Stoics will debate vehemently the notion that they are suggesting inaction. Rather, what stoicism demands is virtuous action. In some cases this may mean acting or in others not. What they are saying is that, as long as we handle the part that we have control over (acting virtuously), then we need should simply accept those things we don't have control over (such as the outcomes of our actions). Failure to accept what we cannot control is the source of unhappiness. For example, if a person is drowning and we did nothing, we could not find contentment because we had failed to act virtuously. But if we act virtuously and do everything we can to save the person, and it turns out the person dies anyway, then we can rest assured in the knowledge that we made the virtuous choice - the rest was out of our hands and in the hands of Nature (i.e., the coming together of all the factors according to rational cause and effect, which we had no control over). This is what accepting the nature of things is about, rather than inaction.

One thing I might point out is that, in your search, it need not be the case that you find one pre-packaged tradition, philosophy, or religion. I have experienced that useful truths can be found in many of these. For example, I have found many aspects of Buddhism just as relevant, true, and useful as stoicism. I wouldn't consider myself a Buddhist, or even a stoic, but rather a Buddhist-enthusiast and a Stoic-enthusiast. Because the elements are consistent with my Humanist outlook, I still mainly consider myself a Humanist. Although I no longer hold supernatural views and I'm no longer a Christian, I even found myself recently asking at a difficult time, "what would Jesus do?" - as I find some of the thoughts on compassion, love, and peace in this iconic figure's story to be useful.

What is more important than finding a source with all the answers (which I have yet to do), is to have some good ideas about how to seek good answers. This may be what you're doing in the "reconciling" you mentioned. I might suggest you take a look at my essay "What is a Philosopher?". You might also take a look at my answer to question #3 on raising children in my report of a recent panel discussion HERE.

I have also recently completed an article that neatly sums up what I think is most important, called "The Humanist Contemplative" (link HERE). I hope this may be helpful to you.

(PS - would you mind if I placed this exchange on my blog? I can leave off your whole name if you prefer.)



Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful reply. You kind help is much appreciated.

I clearly have my work cut out for me, probably a lifetime of it. You have truly given me a wealth of ideas as to how to proceed further, and I am leaving for the bookstore this evening to purchase some of the texts you mentioned for further study. Thank you in particular for your comment on the Unitarian Church as well as Humanism, two areas in which I am largely ignorant but which certainly seem worth investigating further.

Your point about it not being necessarily the case that the answers I am seeking will come neatly packaged in one existing philosophy is very well taken. I suppose I've always known that it was somewhat naive to expect one philosophy to be "the answer" My concern has been that if I am not very careful and take an undisciplined cafeteria approach to different philosophies, I could very well end up with a contradictory mishmash rather than a coherent approach and outlook on life. I look forward to reading your essay "What is a Philosopher?". and other suggestions to see how you have dealt with this issue.

I too share the concern you noted in your e-mail that as many in society move away from traditional belief systems that we as a society do not just fall into a sort of hedonistic nihilism. With the threat posed to the world today by fanaticism, I think this is a particularly concerning issue and makes the work done by people such as your self of high importance. Keep up the good work.

Of course, if you feel our discussion would be of some benefit to others by posting on your blog, you are welcome to do so.

Best Regards,

Thanks for your permission to post Matt - I think other readers would find it interesting.

On the cafeteria approach, I think the danger you mention is a valid concern - but I tend to look at the exercise of carefully considering and selecting these various bits and pieces as a means of sharpening our moral deliberation skills (WHY is this a good idea, and that a bad idea? WHY is it true, moral, good, beneficial? etc) --not to mention the fact that in our times we may have little alternative than to forge new paths. We should conduct that exploration with some good foundational principles and methods to keep us from going too far astray (such as outlined in "What Is A Philosopher" and "The Humanist Contemplative"). But the main point is, if we're having to do that sort of exploration, then we are doing more than merely subscribing to a doctrine - we are engaging in a practice.