A recent piece in The New York Review of Books (Jim Holt, “Lovers of Wisdom,” July 19, 2018), reviewing a new translation of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, notes that Hegel and Nietzsche had opposing views of whether descriptions of philosophers’ daily lives were noteworthy. Hegel thought that how a philosopher lived was not nearly as important as how his ideas fit into the evolution of the pursuit of truth in humanity. After Hegel, Diogenes Laertius’ reputation was in decline, but Nietzsche revived it with his view that the philosopher’s life, not his words, is the ultimate referendum on his philosophy:

The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.

Holt writes that Diogenes Laertius is very useful in this Nietzschean view of the utility of philosophy because Diogenes describes how the philosophers lived–and especially useful to posterity because he is the main source of information on Zeno the Stoic, Epicurus, and others of the Hellenistic schools. Holt points out that these Hellenistic figures focused on how to live a good life:

The Stoics equated happiness with virtue, the Skeptics equated it with the tranquility that arises from suspending judgment, and so on. Their views on the best mode of life were not so much argued for as dogmatically asserted. . . . These Hellenistic philosophies of life, short on important reasoning but long on practical prescription, are eminently suited to the critique proposed by Nietzsche: How did the lives go of those who propounded them?

(My emphasis.)

At first, I questioned Holt’s view that Stoicism might have been “short on important reasoning.” Stoic logic was a unique force to be reckoned with. Holt does say that the Hellenistic schools’ “metaphysical predilections, when they had any, tended to be at the service of their ethics.” I can’t comment intelligently other than to say that Stoic ethics appears to be in conformity with their logic; I don’t know which serves which. (Ideas, anyone?) At any rate, I would agree that Stoicism is more focused on practical applications of philosophy than on constructing sound foundations for its reasoning.

Is it unfair to describe Stoicism as dogmatic? I don’t think so. Merriam-Webster has this as the first definition of dogma: “something held as an established opinion; especially : a definite authoritative tenet.” The idea of an established opinion strikes me as a contradiction in terms. “Dogmatic” has an even worse feel to it: “characterized by or given to the expression of opinions very strongly or positively as if they were facts.” Nonetheless, if we are being clear-minded we can see that Stoic precepts do take on this flavor. Presenting evidence to support the precepts’ supposed incontrovertibility was not a priority for the Stoics. Nor was presenting and then dismissing straw arguments that might detract from their beliefs. For example, using seemingly airtight logic Epictetus tells us there are things in our control and things not in our control. In reality, I have found there is a lot of gray area, but that possibility is rarely if ever acknowledged by him or other Stoics.

That is not to say that Stoicism has no value, because it has certainly helped many people over the centuries. My critique of dogma in general is that it does not allow for other opinions, even if complementary. Even in what is normally the genial online Stoic community there is always the potential for someone to proclaim that your puportedly Stoic views are “not Stoic.

While I do adore many of the Stoic texts, Stoicism at times is a jealous friend that does not allow one to hang out with other friends, because in its view, it is the best friend one could have. Life is complicated, however. We don’t come to Stoicism as a tabula rasa, but as a scribbled-on mess. There are many fascinating philosophies and ideas swirling through the present and past that are capable of helping us live a better life. There is even the refreshing absence of ideas that can be found in meditation or contemplation of nature. If you tend to be hard on yourself, as I do, then every now and then you might need a break from a dogmatic worldview that tells you every day that you are not being hard enough on yourself!

Finally, writing about Stoicism, for these reasons, is difficult unless I wish constantly to hector readers into adhering to Stoic principles. I enjoy analysis and persuasive writing, but Stoicism does not contain an abundance of nuances that I can analyze and argue for one over another. I would be a bore if I instead attempted to persuade you to be a Stoic in each blog post. If you are reading this, then you are at least interested, but how should I know whether it is right for you personally?

One thought on “Stoic dogma

  1. It seems to me that Holt hasn’t spent enough time with Cicero, and neglects the huge importance that Chrysippus, logic, and argumentation played in the Stoa.

    Perhaps this idea that Stoics dogmatically “assert” things is yet another example of people conflating “Stoicism” too narrowly with “the Discourses of Epictetus?”

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