Toward the Fifth Stoa: The Return of Virtue Ethics, part I

(Stoa at Aphrodisias, photo by the Author)

(a previous version of this essay was presented at the 2018 meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and has appeared in Reason Papers)

Stoicism is back. After a hiatus of about eighteen centuries (if one does not count the brief interval of Neo-Stoicism instigated by Justus Lipsius during the Renaissance), the Greco-Roman philosophy often (wrongly) associated with suppressing emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip is back in the news. Literally. Major national and international newspapers and media outlets, including but not limited to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the BBC, Der Standard, El Mundo, El Pais, and even Marie Claire, are suddenly talking about Stoicism. The major online community of people interested in the philosophy, on Facebook, counts over 40,000 members. 

It is easy and tempting for professional philosophers to scoff at this phenomenon, but it would be unwise. I suggest that what is known as modern Stoicism is to be situated within a broader renaissance of virtue ethics in both technical philosophy and popular culture. I will also argue that this is a clear benefit (despite some caveats) for professional philosophy, for general education, and arguably for society at large. Philosophers should therefore take notice, understand, and insofar as it is possible, contribute to the increasing interest in practical philosophy, of which modern Stoicism is but one manifestation. 

I will proceed by summarizing the basic ideas underlying virtue ethics and tracing a brief history of their return to prominence in contemporary philosophy. I will then suggest a number of factors that have contributed to the rise of modern Stoicism. After recapping the main tenets of Stoic philosophy, as they are interpreted currently, I will conclude with an overview of the ongoing project of updating Stoicism for the twenty-first century, what I refer to as the Fifth Stoa.

Virtue Ethics: What It Is and How It Came Back

Virtue ethics is the general label for a large family of moral philosophies that find their roots in the Greco-Roman world, particularly, but not only, in Socrates and Aristotle. As Rosalind Hursthouse and Glen Pettigrove put it

[Virtue ethics] is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism).

The three basic concepts around which all virtue ethical approaches are built are aretê (virtue, excellence), phronêsis (prudence, or practical wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing). The fundamental goal is to live a life worth living, a eudaimonic existence, though what this means, precisely, varies from school to school. We achieve this goal by practicing a number of virtues, practical wisdom being the one that teaches us the crucial difference between what is and is not good for us, morally speaking.

John-Stewart Gordon provides a handy classification of the major Hellenistic schools of virtue ethics, relating them as a function of which aspect of Socratic philosophy they emphasized or even rejected. The major entries are represented by the Academics (followers of Plato), the Peripatetics (Aristotle), the Cyrenaics (Aristippus), the Epicureans (Epicurus), the Cynics (Antisthenes, Diogenes of Sinope), and the Stoics (Zeno of Citium). The first two are related by direct descent from Socrates (first Plato, then Aristotle), though they diverged sharply in their philosophies. The Academics first adopted a highly abstract theory of the forms and then turned skeptical. The Peripatetics evolved an approach in which virtue is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia; one also needs a degree of luck, as manifested in the availability of external goods, including wealth, health, education, and even good looks.

The Cyrenaics and the Epicureans represent a separate branch, characterized mostly by the rejection of Socratic philosophy in favor of an approach that—while still rooted in virtue—emphasizes the importance of seeking pleasure and, especially, avoiding pain. The difference between the two schools lies principally in the fact that the Cyrenaics were concerned solely with physical pleasures and pain, while the Epicureans emphasized the primacy of emotional and intellectual pleasures and pains, hence the latters’ influence on John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between “high” and “low” pleasures. Both schools counseled disengagement from social and political activities, which is liable to bring pain rather than pleasure.

The third branch includes the Stoics and their immediate predecessors, the Cynics. Both schools consider virtue to be necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, aligning themselves most closely with Socratic philosophy. They do differ, however, in the treatment of external goods, which they call “indifferents.” For the Cynics, externals (wealth, fame, even family and friends) get in the way of practicing virtue, as they saw their mission in life to live a minimalist existence and to preach virtue (their name means “dog-like,” as in the style of living they adopted). For the Stoics, by contrast, externals are divided into the classes of preferred and dispreferred “indifferents.” I will elaborate below on what this means and why it is crucial for Stoic philosophy.

Virtue ethics is not found only in the Western philosophical tradition; for instance, Confucianism is often considered akin to Aristotelian virtue ethics. Several authors have also expounded on the similarities between Stoicism, in particular, and Buddhism. This article, however, confines itself to the Western canon, within which virtue ethics went into decline with the turn of the Roman Empire to Christianity, and then throughout the Middle Ages, although it must be noted that four of the seven Christian virtues identified by Thomas Aquinas were, in fact, Stoic.

The modern return of virtue ethics on the philosophical, if not popular, scene owes much to the work of four philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Bernard Williams. Anscombe advanced the view that we should simply stop doing moral philosophy as it has been done so far, until we develop what she calls a philosophy of psychology. For her, concepts like moral obligation and moral duty are obsolete, the remnants of a way of thinking that is no longer tenable in light of the modern scientific understanding of the world. Consequently, she regards the well-known differences among modern moral philosophers to be, essentially, irrelevant. Her demolition job on moral philosophy paved the way for the resurgence of virtue ethics, especially through her influence on MacIntyre.

Foot famously changed her position about crucial aspects of her meta-ethics during her career, but she was instrumental in articulating a Neo-Aristotelian view of virtue ethics as well as sustained criticisms of consequentialism and non-cognitivism. She introduced the philosophical device of “trolley dilemmas” to explore our moral intuitions (and coined the term “consequentialism”). She also articulated a moral philosophy constructed on hypothetical imperatives. Most crucially for my purposes here, Foot conceived a type of natural goodness that is contingent (as opposed to the Kantian idea of a universal moral law) in the sense that it depends on the kind of biological organism that Homo sapiens is, just as the Stoics had proposed long ago when they articulated their apparently paradoxical slogan: “Live according to (human) nature.”

MacIntyre rejected both of the then-current major systems in moral philosophy, utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, going so far as to consider them irrational. His seminal book After Virtue is arguably the most important work in the modern revival of virtue ethics. MacIntyre singled out Aristotle, but more broadly made the case that the Greco-Roman approach to ethics was in far better shape than the modern one.

Finally, Williams also produced scathing criticisms of both utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, and he was generally skeptical of moral philosophical systems. Real life, he thought, is just too complex for such narrow straightjackets. That, naturally, led him to abandon the Kantian question of duty and to hark back to what interested the Greeks: What sort of life should we live? What kind of persons do we want to be?

The way I see the contributions of these four authors (and of several more who followed and are following in their footsteps) is in terms of a dual approach, what Francis Bacon would call a “negative project” and a “positive project.” Anscombe and especially Williams did more of the former, while Foot and MacIntyre more clearly contributed to the latter.

The negative project consists in a sustained criticism not just of the various specific systems of modern moral philosophy, but in a wholesale rejection of the entire approach they instantiate. Both utilitarianism and Kantian deontology attempt to articulate universal principles, focusing respectively on the outcomes of actions (independently of the agent’s intentions) or on the agent’s intentions (independently of the outcome of actions). It is their common assumption that it is meaningful to search for relatively simple universal moral principles that is rejected, for various reasons and in different fashions, by all of the authors mentioned above. What then?

The positive project, in all of these cases, depends on a return to the Greco-Roman conception of ethics as the study of how to live one’s life, with a focus on the agent’s character, from which right motivations emerged and, fate permitting, right outcomes derive. This is a return to the roots even literally in a linguistic sense. “Ethics” comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character. “Morality,” in turn, is how Cicero translated êthos, and it captures a reference to the habits and customs of people, that is, how they actually behave in a society.

As we have seen from the brief sketch given above, much of the resurgence of virtue ethics, at least within academic philosophy, has taken the form of Neo-Aristotelianism. Outside the academy, however, the focus has increasingly been on Stoicism. This has, in turn, triggered serious academic work not only on the ancient Stoics, but also on the practicality of their version of eudaimonism in modern times.

(next: Why Stoicism?)

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