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  • Toward a Practice of Stoic Pragmatism
  • Steven A. Miller and Yasuko Taoka

Despite broad influence on the history of philosophy, Stoicism has lain long dormant as a practical philosophy. Of late, however, some have sought to modernize Stoicism for the contemporary world.1 It has found success in the military, as Stockdale and Sherman report. While the promise of tranquility through reason and self-discipline presents an appealing vision in emotional times, some tenets of Stoicism cannot gain purchase among society at large: predetermination, absolute morality at all times, and the idea of a non-relational conception of virtue sound dated to a modern audience, particularly Americans.

John Lachs has recently proposed an enriched philosophical program, “Stoic pragmatism,” implicit in his life’s work.2 Its origins are obvious enough: in marrying the attitudes and practices of ancient Stoicism—as exemplified in the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus—and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American pragmatism—particularly that of William James and John Dewey—Lachs puts forward a novel admixture that preserves what is useful in the two traditions while overcoming some of their potential weaknesses.

Pragmatism, Lachs says, captures what is best in the can-do American spirit. Problems, including those that seem most meaningful or intractable, are opportunities for solution. This instrumentalist impulse, buttressed by James’s and Dewey’s argumentative underpinnings, serves to remind us that the world can be ameliorated for human benefit and remade toward human purposes. Despite the great successes of human intelligence and inquiry in a wide variety of fields, it is unclear that every problem has a solution, that all “problematic situations,” to use Dewey’s apt phrase, can be reconstructed, overcome, or settled to the inquirer’s satisfaction. The risk here is that pragmatists, [End Page 150] in their optimism and enthusiasm for progress, are “never wanting to give up” (Lachs, Stoic Pragmatism 23).3

Stoicism, on the other hand, prioritizes the integrity of the human psyche, the so-called “inner citadel” (Hadot). Stoicism, particularly in its ethical, Roman iteration, recognized the limits of human agency, and sought to shield the psyche from the world’s risks. Epictetus’s dictum, “Is it up to us?” encouraged Stoics to recognize that, while they may be unable to control all that happens, they could control their reactions. Thus Stoics sought to define their integrity independent of their environment and circumstances.4 This isolation, however, drew criticism: the emphasis on self-preservation, with a belief in predetermination, critics asserted, allowed Stoics to excuse weakness or indolence. As Lachs summarizes it, they “give up too soon” (Stoic Pragmatism 23).

Lachs admits that the two positions he attempts to synthesize have their tensions: it is “clear that pragmatic ambition and Stoic equanimity appear to be incompatible values. Pragmatists and Stoics seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former busy trying to improve the conditions of life and the latter adjusting their desires to the course of nature” (Stoic Pragmatism 41). This interpretation is in some measure caricature, as Lachs himself suggests, but there is some disagreement of emphases between the two schools. For the sake of their projects and ideals, they sometimes disregard the lessons that the other tradition emphasizes. Thus, there is an opportunity for adherents of either tradition to learn from followers of the other and, more than this, a productive mixture of the two traditions may be possible. This overlap is what Lachs attempts to sketch.

We seek to advance Lachs’s proposal by taking a harder look at both the theory and practice of Stoic pragmatism, with an especial emphasis on contemporary application. This paper’s first task is to look at some ways in which the commitments of traditional Stoicism and pragmatism come into conflict. In particular, we briefly examine the Stoic and pragmatic takes on free will because we believe this is the most significant tension between the amalgamated elements of Stoic pragmatism. We then offer an argument congenial to the work of many pragmatists, that these disagreements about matters of physics and metaphysics can be set aside, at least here, for ethical and practical purposes. This is Lachs’s implicit position, so...


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