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Just finished grading the final exams & term papers for my Fall '11 introductory courses on ethical theory.

So here was my big surprise: everybody wanted to talk about stoicism!

Well, not everybody, of course - I'm exaggerating. But lots & lots of people - way more than I would have expected.

I'd never taught Epictetus, before, and hadn't even read Marcus Aurelius. And, at first glance, I thought it might be an uphill battle to explain to American kids today whatever appeal their extremely fatalistic views might once have had - geared, as they were, to a harsh and brutal human landscape long since gone.

The more fool I! Apparently, the sense that one is a plaything of the heartless gods, and that salvation lies in passive acceptance of their will, is alive and well, and needs no defense from me.

Comments (7)

Of course they would! After all, in contemporary times, the lives of everyday people are shaped to an unprecedented degree by forces incomprehensible to all but a few, and controllable by just about none. Not even in his wildest dreams could Caesar have the power and reach of the average multinational corporation or financial institution. I'm not at all surprised to hear that the first generation to have grown up under that system would be attracted to Stoicism, especially considering that most of the Americans I've talked to have independently developed a somewhat neo-Stoic attitude toward those institutions, especially the government. (Of course, the difference is that governments, perhaps unlike the gods, are to be worked around as much as possible, so I guess it's more neo-Soviet than neo-Stoic.)

Maybe one reason so many students want to talk about stoicism is because a stoical world view can be understood as a form of materialism. In other words, they suspect that what appears to be an ubiquitous attachment to the material values of pleasure and profit, ought to have some underlying 'rational principles' which they are anxious to discuss.

nydwracu: you know, I think that's a pretty good explanation. Hmmm.

Alex - I'm puzzled by your comment, but I admire the phrase "an ubiquitous attachment."

I find nydwracu's explanation both intriguing and compelling.

(I'm not sure whether it's true.)


I agree that nydwracu's explanation is both credible and succinct so I hesitate to add anything more.

The ancients, or some of them, taught that resignation is a rational response to the evident capriciousness of suffering and misfortune. Among the moral assumptions of such a teaching is that man can live by bread alone. Stoicism is an attitude of mind that doesn't acknowledge spiritual needs and seeks a purely temporal content in the satisfaction of material wants.

The belief that fate or necessity governs the universe makes the satisfaction of material wants a virtuous aspiration. (In the absence of transcendental values we have been informed, for instance, that greed is good.) This idea seem to fit rather neatly into the climate of educated opinion created during the present period of intellectual history.

Many students will have unconsciously absorbed the impersonal ethos of materialism yet be troubled by its worship of crass selfishness. They want to examine the reasoning that can lead to stoicism. It's a religious quest.

Human beings have always struggled with selfish passions and worry. Stoicism offers a way to try and overcome the passions and worry through reason and self-discipline unlike many of the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions that they were raised in. Epictetus teaches to only worry about what is in our control which is a helpful principle when there is so many things to worry about that we can do nothing about. I think that an opportunity to escape our narcissistic selves is what is attractive to some young people and many others about Stoicism. Many of the early Christians included Stoic teachings and practices into their daily habit. The philosopher Pierre Hadot in his book "Philosophy as a Way of Life" talks about some of these influences. I would also point one to the "Desert Fathers" for many examples of how Stoicism was included in early Christian practice. Stoicism probably died out because Stoic principles were taken in and practiced by Christianity which had a richer and more hopeful metaphysics than Stoicism. Many of the Stoics practical principles are alive and well in "Orthodox Christianity".

I think students are much smarter these days than people give them credit for, and stoicism is alive and well, in my opinion.

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