An “argument-in-vogue” within the broader Stoic Community seems to be that Modern Stoics aren’t technically Stoics because they reject the Stoic god; or, worded in the reverse, that Traditional Stoics are “fundamentalists” (and here, as in most spaces, that word isn’t meant kindly) and believe in an outdated “version” of Stoicism that just isn’t applicable for the modern world.
Let’s explore that.
Traditional Stoics vs. Modern Stoics
A Traditional Stoic makes two faith-based claims. The first is that of the Stoic god. The Stoic god is most like a conscious cosmos and is often referred to as Nature. You do not pray to this god (unless you’re Epictetus), this god is not a personal god, this god does not come down from the heavens and sip tea with us when we need a friend, or appear in our breakfast toast. Nevertheless, it is conscious and it is logical, and that makes it a being of sorts (an animal technically) and, to most of us atheists (I’m an atheist) that’s “god enough” for us to take issue with. Though the ancient Stoics don’t view their god as supernatural, because their god was/is Nature.
The second claim is that Virtue is the only good. Not the highest good, the only good.
A Modern Stoic makes one faith-based claim: that Virtue is the only good. Because many of them (as I’ve experienced myself) are atheists (or agnostics) like me, they do not believe in the Stoic god.
One year ago I would have said, without hesitation, that I was in the Modern Stoic camp. Today, I’m far less so. I wouldn’t say I’ve made the jump entirely, but I’m in the process of closing the door behind me
I ask that you keep one thing in mind as you read on: I reasoned myself to this state of positional flux, and in no way is anything that follows a judgement either way. I think what you’ll find I’m trying to do here is make the point that it doesn’t matter.
Logic Isn’t The Centerpiece Here
I feel, strongly, that the logic of either the Modern Stoics’ or the Traditional Stoics’ claims are not what is important to defining what a Stoic is. Instead what is important is how the ancients defined it, and that was: if you believe that Virtue is the only good, and you follow the teachings of Stoicism, then you’re a Stoic.
At no point did the Stoics demand you had to believe in the Stoic god in order to be a Stoic, they only said you had to believe Virtue was the only good. If you believed Virtue was the highest good, or one of many goods, you could still hangout with the Stoics but you wouldn’t be a Stoic.
There are plenty of philosophies that hold Virtue in high regard, but those philosophies are not Stoicism, they are those other philosophies.
However, if the belief that Virtue is the only good is a belief you hold, you should be able to defend why you believe it. Traditional Stoics can do this by pointing to the Stoic god. Modern Stoics, as far as I’ve been able to reason at this stage in my Stoic education, cannot, since they don’t believe in the Stoic god, provide a logical (and here I mean logical in the technical sense) defense of their belief that Virtue is the only good.
But does that even matter?
A Modern Stoic could approach a Traditional Stoic and say,
“Well now wait a minute. You expect me to come up with a logical argument for why I believe Virtue is the only good, but you don’t need to come up with a logical argument for the existence of the Stoic god? Aren’t we both, in the end, making an unprovable faith-based claim? Aren’t you justifying your beliefs with faith the same as we are? We’re just stopping one step before you.”
(Edit: worth noting here that the Stoics did provide a logical defense for their belief in god. And here, again, I’m using “logical” in the technical sense.)
And I think this point is a point that is worth discussing for hours, maybe days, but ultimately it’s not the point that matters, is it?
If we’re trying to practice Stoicism, isn’t the reasonable way of defining Stoicism to take the definition of the ancients who invented it?
Modern Stoics are Stoics, and they make the faith-based claim that Virtue is the only good! It seems to me, a committed atheist(!), odd that Modern Stoics would criticize Traditional Stoics for their faith-based claim in the Stoic god because it seems just too faithy for them.
That seems… judgmental, and hypocritical.
Traditional Stoics are Stoics who make two faith-based claims.
Modern Stoics are Stoics that make one faith-based claim.
But if a Stoic is someone who believes Virtue is the only good, and someone who puts into action Stoic principles, what does that number of faith-based claims matter so long as both make the faith-based claim that Virtue is the only good?
If you believe Virtue is the only good and you put Stoic principles into action, I would say: congratulations, you’re a Stoic and all further argument is semantic and needn’t get aggressive.
We should stop arguing with one another over the pureness of our label; though the distinction is important (as it identifies a real difference) I don’t think either label makes any of us more or less Stoic.
Alright so, having sorted Traditional and Modern Stoics, who do we have left? Most everyone else, I’m afraid.
I would be so bold as to say most people who identify as Stoics are not, as define above, Stoics at all. They are instead individuals who are vaguely familiar with Stoic concepts and ideas and see the practical utility in implementing them. Momento Mori, Premedatatio Malorum, and development of emotional management and control.
If this is you, I’m not judging, given all I’ve just written that would be pretty hypocritical! I am, however, suggesting that you be aware of this for two reasons:
- For the sake of knowing that there’s so much more to this philosophy than you find a surface-level attraction to, and a surface-level utility for. Perhaps it is worth your time going deeper! Think about that!
- So that you don’t contribute to the myriad of misinformation about Stoicism online. Not understanding Stoicism, as a living breathing ancient philosophy, not understanding what it really is, in its entirety, and then talking about it as if you’re an expert, is one of the reasons so many people who might benefit greatly from Stoicism are turned away from it because it seems like Fratboy, hustle culture, hyper-masculine nonsense when the first Google result for “what is Stoicism” is some overly animated social influencer screaming at you to remember you’re going to die.
So who is a REAL Stoic?
You can call yourself a Stoic if you believe Virtue is the only good.
You can claim to be a practicing Stoic if you believe Virtue is the only good and you’re working to better and more fully implement the philosophy’s teachings in your life.
I think that’s it.
If that’s you, you’re a “real” Stoic.
If that’s not you, then you’re a fan of Stoicism, or maybe a casual observer of it, or maybe just someone who is picking and choosing the bits of it you find helpful (which is fine! Just be aware you’re not a practicing Stoic, capital “S”).
Regardless of which “label” describes you, there’s no shame attached to it and you’re still part of the Cosmopolis.