The modern Stoic movement, which brings together atheists and theists, is one example of a new friendship and alliance between people for whom metaphysical disagreements are less important than friendship and spiritual practice. The New Atheism wars are over, and a new messy spirituality has emerged.
Massimo Pigliucci converted to Stoicism last year. A prominent atheist philosopher living in New York, he felt stuck in a rut, lacking in purpose and worried by death. Secular humanism, he decided, was more of a ‘patchwork of liberal progressive positions than a coherent philosophy of life’. He didn’t want to go back to the Catholicism of his youth, but explored virtue ethics as a western alternative to Buddhism.
That’s when he came across Stoicism Today, a project that’s been running for the last three years, involving a group of British classicists, psychotherapists and philosophers (including me) who are interested in exploring Stoicism in modern life. Massimo was persuaded, and announced his conversion in a New York Times article, which went viral. He even got a Stoic tattoo. Last Saturday, he joined us, along with 300 other Stoics from around the world, for our annual gathering, Stoicon.
Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that first appeared in Athens in around 300 BC, is enjoying a modern revival. As Christianity recedes in western societies, people are discovering they still need a life-philosophy to help them through life’s inescapable suffering. Many have turned to eastern philosophies – indeed, an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness last month more or less anointed secular Buddhism as the UK’s official religion. But others are looking for something a bit closer to home, and Stoicism is in some ways a homegrown alternative to Buddhism, offering similar practical advice in how to control one’s thoughts, guide one’s value judgements and heal one’s negative emotions.
At Stoicon, we had presentations on Stoic virtue, Stoic friendship, Stoic therapy, Stoic visualization, and also critiques of Stoicism. One of the hits of the festival was a talk by Derren Brown, the stage magician, who proved to be deeply versed in the intricacies of ancient philosophy (he’s writing a book on it). For me, the highlight was meeting Stoics from around the world – some had travelled from as far afield as Hong Kong – and hearing how philosophy has helped them through adversity. ‘I owe my life to philosophy’ wrote Seneca, over two millennia ago. That’s still true for many people today.
The attempt to create a modern community of Stoics is relatively new, and somewhat paradoxical – there was no Stoic community in the ancient world, no collective worship or festivals, except for the ‘virtual community’ of rational souls. There have always been people drawn to Stoicism, from Montaigne to Frederick the Great to the novelist Tom Wolfe. But they tended not to congregate, or even know about each other.
That changed in the late 1990s, thanks to the internet. Fans of Stoicism started to connect, particularly via an organisation called NewStoa.com, and subsequently via Facebook and Reddit. Personally, I got into Stoicism in my mid-20s, through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I discovered CBT was directly inspired by Stoicism, and decided to embrace it as a life-philosophy. I joined NewStoa and also got a Stoic tattoo (of the Stoic emblem designed by DT Strain). It seemed like the right thing to do.
We tried a first gathering in 2010, meeting in San Diego for a weekend of sun, sand, surfing and Socratic self-examination. It was not an entirely auspicious start. There were only 14 of us, yet we still managed to have our first schism, between those who embraced Stoicism as a theistic religion, and those who detested the very word ‘religion’.
Still, the grassroots revival of Stoicism continued, on the internet, in philosophy clubs, and in bookstores, thanks to books by Alain de Botton, William Irvine, Oliver Burkeman and Ryan Holiday. It proved particularly popular with US military officers, with entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss, with comedians like Adrian Edmondson and John Lloyd, and with sportspeople. I run an occasional philosophy club for the players and coaches at Saracens, winners of the rugby Premiership last year, while Ryan Holiday’s book was widely circulated among the Patriots, winners of last year’s Super Bowl.
Academia has until recently been snooty about the idea that ancient philosophy can actually help people (it smacks of the Bottonisation of the humanities). But in 2012, academia got into the revival, when the Stoicism Today research project launched at Exeter University under the leadership of Professor Chris Gill. We ran a public engagement project called Stoic Week, in which people could download a free handbook and follow Stoic exercises for a week. We asked participants to fill in well-being questionnaires before and after the week, so we could assess the well-being impact of Stoic exercises (in brief, there is one). To our surprise, the project caught the public imagination, and this year 3,300 people from all over the world enrolled in the online course.
So what is modern Stoicism, and how does it differ from the ancient philosophy? Firstly, not everyone into modern Stoicism necessarily identifies as a full-blown Stoic – many of us are, like Cicero, eclectic in our approach to wisdom traditions. But we all agree that Stoicism has some wise and therapeutic insights into human nature and how to heal suffering, which were mistakenly neglected by academia for a century or so. Martha Nussbaum, the leading philosopher of emotions, says Stoic thinking on the emotions have ‘a subtlety and cogency that is unsurpassed in the history of western philosophy’.
Modern Stoics agree on the core therapeutic insight of Stoicism – ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’, as the philosopher Epictetus put it. We can’t always control or change external events, but we can control our opinion or attitude, and that gives humans a measure of self-determination. We also agree that the most important foundation for a good and happy life is not money, fame, power or pleasure, but a good character.
What of the Logos, the universal soul that ancient Stoics believed connected and guided all things? Modern Stoics agree to disagree about the Logos. Some embrace it as a sort of pantheistic God, others accept the idea that the cosmos obeys rational laws, others don’t give it much thought. Rather like mindfulness, modern Stoicism has flourished partly by parking the metaphysics and focusing on the ethics. Perhaps in the future, modern Stoics will engage deeper with physics, and with the Stoics’ intriguing idea that the universe is a web of interconnected consciousness.
So why a revival now? Perhaps Stoicism tends to flourish in times of global upheaval, when people lose faith in governments and look to self-reliance instead. As the psychotherapist Vincent Deary noted, taken to an extreme, modern Stoicism could become a toxic political ideology of ‘sucking it up’ when the government or company makes cuts. But there is also a long tradition of Stoic resistance to power, from Cato to Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by the Stoic poem Invictus while in prison.
Personally, I no longer consider myself a card-carrying Stoic. Yes, every time I strip off at the beach, a part of me regrets the giant Stoic tattoo on my shoulder. But as Seneca almost said, life is too short for regrets.
There’s a lot that Stoicism misses out – music, dancing, imagination, sexual love, ritual, spiritual ecstasy, a loving relationship with God. I find it somewhat over-rationalistic, over-individualistic, and lacking in hope for the after-life. But I still owe it big time for helping me through the toughest period of my life.
And I love that Stoicon brings together people from many different cultural and religious traditions – this ecumenicism is a relief after the bitter fights of New Atheism. Stoicon featured theists like me, and atheists like Massimo and Derren Brown. It also welcomed Christian Stoics, Buddhist Stoics, Islamic Stoics, Aristotelians, Platonists and one lady into ‘vibro-acoustics’, who told me Seneca had appeared to her in a dream. We came together to celebrate our common love of wisdom. The eclecticism reminds me of the humanist circles of the Renaissance, back when ‘humanism’ meant ‘love of wisdom’.
Perhaps modern Stoicism is a big messy tent, typical of what David Bentley Hart calls the ‘incoherent bricolage’ of contemporary ethics. But I’ll take friendly messiness over fierce ideological coherence any day. And perhaps this very messiness illustrates a new sort of friendship between theists and atheists, who are less interested in doctrinal purity and denunciations, and more interested in friendship and practice.
I see this new spirit in places like the RSA’s Spirituality project, in the Sunday Assembly, in the How We Gather project, and in the rise of contemplative studies in academia. Friendship and practice first, doctrinal difference second. Hooray for the new messy spirituality.