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A New Stoicism
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 29 March 2008
Becker's book is not an easy read for those who are not academic philosophers. It is also not a handbook of Stoic moral training - something Becker often talks about but does not describe.

Becker's objective - in which he is mostly successful - is to reconcile Stoicism to the modern age. His neo-Stoicism does not require a purposeful universe. It is a materialist rather than an idealist philosophy, grounded in modern science including psychology and learning theory. Moreover it does not require asceticism, or the divorce from the emotions that some of the ancient Stoics seemed to be advocating, although Stoics will want to learn how to control their emotions so they can still pursue desired objectives.

Becker's style is difficult - mostly formal and academic - which means he re-uses defined terms (e.g. "agency", "all-things-considered") rather repetitively, but he is capable of leavening this style with vivid and sometimes poetic examples of what he means. It's these glimpses of a playful personality behind the academic philosopher that keep a lay reader such as myself reading (and indeed awake!)

His evident concern is to present a rigorous formal exposition of a modernised Stoicism that can withstand the scrutiny of his academic peers. Sometimes, as with his "Calculus for Normative Logic", this is beyond the lay reader - perhaps beyond anyone but a logician - but at least he has the grace to put this in an Appendix.

The least convincing part of his argument for me - as highlighted by a previous reviewer - is his apparent defence of the ancient Stoic doctrine that virtue is an "all or nothing" quality, which only sages can lay claim to. It is surprising that he does defend this concept, as he has already come up with an alternative in a graduated scale of "health", "fitness" and "virtuosity" which is more practical and commonsensical.

As the first book I have read on Stoicism, this was both satisfying (in that it convinced me that Stoicism is a respectable philosophy for a non-religious and scientific age) and unsatisfying (in that it said little about stoic moral training, the means as opposed to the end). I will however be reading more about Stoicism, and I suspect Becker would be happy with that.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 7 June 1999
Becker guides willing readers on a journey through a re-vitalized stoic philosophy that takes into account the post-Enlightenment turn in philosophy. He makes a good case for why philosophers should return to the idea and practice of telling people how to live, a task they abandoned early in the history of modernity. The one drawback in Becker's investigation is his academic philosopher's prose style, which while better than most of its ilk, still gets bogged down now and then in an unnecessary density that one usually finds at dry academic conferences. Beyond that quibble though, it is refreshing to see a trained academic philosopher take on such issues as virtue and happiness without apology and apply the noble stoic tradition to them in contemporary terms. As a stoic myself, I hope that Becker's effort lends itself to a serious revival of our cause.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 January 2011
This is, as other reviewers have said, an attempt to re imagine Stoicism from a modern perspective. The discussion of the good life is couched largely in the language of modern moral philosophy and ethics. However, the importance of psychology and on the study of nature in the Stoic tradition is also acknowledged through engagement with modern work in developmental psychology and the emerging field of positive psychology.
The text is couched in modern, analytical terms - you will not find any discussion of impressions, impulses or assent - and references and comparisons are predominantly with modern writers. Similarly, there is no real discussion of Stoic practice. The thrust of the argument concerns the development of healthy autonomy and the way in which the projects and undertakings of autonomous agents imply emerging normative goals and frameworks - what is specifically Stoic is the account of how development of this autonomous subject according to its own nature (i.e. virtue) comes to be the unifying force behind all of one's life projects, and thus the principal project of one's life. This framework helps to support the most convincing argument I have seen for the doctrine (which Becker does not agree with) that virtue does not admit of degrees.
For those classically inspired Stoics hankering after more familiar territory, each chapter has an extensive commentary at the end, where details of Stoic texts and arguments with contemporaries are engaged with in more detail. The final section of the book is effectively a summation of the argument using a modified sentential calculus that attempts to reconstruct certain elements of Stoic logic. I'll hold my hands up here and admit that I haven't read this bit yet!
This is not a particularly easy read, but neither is it especially difficult. Essential reading for anyone interested in Stoicism and its take on the world but who feels that all that stuff about Zeus could do with a bit of updating.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 1999
Becker, a professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary, seeks to sever quaint naturalist assumptions from the ethical propositions at the heart of the stoic philosophy. The ancient stoics were persuaded that each person should live in contentment whatever their circumstances because in so doing each contributes to nature's unknowable purpose. In repudiating the grounding of stoic ethics on this metaphysical assumption that nowadays is embarrassed by the non-teleogical findings of modern science, Becker asks how else the elements of its ethical propositions may be legitimated. By way of partial answer, he holds that it is in this same modern science that an endorsement for the exercise of virtue is to be found. He finds persuasive support for stoic ethics in contemporary psychological and neurophysiologic perspectives. Becker, who takes the position that the often thin thread of stoic tradition has coursed continuously through the ages since Zeno of Citium, and who counts himself an adherent, states the credo of stoic ethics has remained unchanged to the present despite the rejection of its naturalist roots: [T]he final end of all rational activity is virtue, not happiness; that virtue does not admit of degrees, and among people who fall short of it, none is any more virtuous than another; that sages are happy just because they are virtuous, and can be happy even on the rack; that they must be able to say of everything other than their virtue (friends, loves, emotions, reputation, wealth, pleasant mental states, suffering,disease, death, and so on) that it is nothing to them. (p. 8) Strong stuff. But perhaps we should give it mind, although we already are preparing a major objection to this all-or-nothing regard for virtue. As psychoanalysts, we care deeply about ethics but strain beneath Freud's general disapprobation for philosophers. Karen Horney's psychoanalytic vision, by contrast, is largely configured around ethical precepts. Her "Morality of Evolution" (Horney, 1950, p. 13-16) while perfectly useable gives her work a treackily, inspirational tone. Yet there is nothing in either Freud's or Horney's corpus at odds with the stoic project. The purpose of ethics is normative in its endeavor to assert how people should be and act--yet it must avoid the excesses through which legitimate ethical "should's" acquire the dimensions of compulsivity, indiscriminateness, arbitrariness and rigidity that constitute the "tyranny of should's" of which Horney speaks. In this same connection, Becker disputes Chrysippus's assertions that the result of virtuous living is the harmonization of desire and reason and the elimination of conflict. Instead, following Posidonius, he asserts that healthy agency is to be found in the courageous willingness and capacity to endure conflict, discover its origins, appreciate its consequences, and follow where such analysis will lead--a position entirely agreeable with psychoanalysis. Stoicism, as Becker presents it, is not justification for masochistic endurance of suffering--which is to be avoided determinedly when doing so is consistent with virtue. Nor is stoicism to provide justification for passive acceptance of misery when futility of action remains unproved. Nor, again, is stoicism a bleak asceticism or intellectual detachment. There are a variety of "nonagency" pleasures or goods that are largely irrelevant to the exercise of virtuosity-no reason to avoid a good time and enjoy what money can buy. Additionally, stoicism is entirely congenial with hot-bloodedness and passionate engagement: "[b]eing overcome by emotion is no more problematic for a stoic than being overcome by sleep" (p. 145). Becker points out that the perfection of agency through the exercise of virtue leads neither to a contemplative or philosophical life nor to a predictable uniformity. The stoicism that Becker serves up is congenial to the spirit of psychoanalysis with its privileging of personal idiom and appreciation for unique aspects of personal agency. Furthermore, in its high regard for grounding gratification in constructive behavior and sublimation of primitive impulses, though differently stated, stoicism is entirely in line with psychoanalytic premises. Psychoanalytic theory does not frame its goals through the discourse of stoic ethics, but it could and not suffer a whit. Perfection of agency by which Becker means the progressive integration of received and constructed elements available to the person is comparable to the stated Horneyan purpose of therapy. The struggle that we may have with Becker's thesis to which I alluded above, and the one I suspect he shares with us, is the proposition that anything less than ideal agency--the absolute practice of virtuousity--is as good as nothing at all. Nevertheless, and in this we endorse Becker's position, "[t]he traits we construct by exercising [healthy agency], under a very wide range of circumstances, are enough to keep us persistently attracted to its improvement, both in ourselves and others." (p. 120) Unless we accept this less-than-hard-as-nails interpretation of the stoic system, we risk falling prey to the idealization of virtuosity and perfect agency with the pathological defensive structures entailed by such idealization. Although we can value virtue and recognize how much its exercise enhances personal agency and strengthens the capacity to successfully encounter all manner of adversity, we also know from our psychoanalytic experience in the consulting room just how dreadful in its consequences the self-righteous, uncritical affirmation of virtue can be. We know too well how what is wonderful and good goes by the same name as that which is destructive and evil. What is called virtue is not exempted. Still, we do not reject Becker's neo-stoicism. On the contrary, we embrace his formulation and gratefully acknowledge his renascent interpretation of an ancient tradition. Many of us as practicing psychoanalysts have been stoics and promote in our patients a vision of stoicism, unwittingly laying a psychical foundwork for them of an ethical vision the name for which we had no idea-rather like Moliere's M. Jourdain who realized that it was prose he had been speaking all along.
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