Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lachs on Stoic Pragmatism

John Lachs has written an interesting book, Stoic Pragmatism, which I recently read with some satisfaction.  I feel somewhat smug, in fact, as I've been describing myself in this blog and elsewhere as a stoic and pragmatist, or a neo-stoic and pragmatist, for some time now.  It's gratifying to learn a professional philosopher thinks this union is conceivable and even desirable.  Much as I'd like to, though, I suppose I can't legitimately claim to have inspired this book, and it's highly doubtful even that I'm the first to have thought these two schools of philosophy might function well together.

For my part, I've felt that stoicism provides a guide to how to live, and pragmatism a reasonable basis on which to approach traditional philosophical concerns involving metaphysics, epistemology and even ethics to the extent to which ethics is distinct from practical wisdom (which it seems to be and has been for quite some time).

If I understand Lachs, he (to simplify greatly) maintains that stoic acquiescence and pragmatic social activism should be merged, as it were, to create stoic pragmatism, which would not suffer from the excessive detachment of the one and the too exuberant tendency to struggle to rectify social problems which typifies the other.   It's a kind of middle path between the two, which would allow for tranquility but would also provide for active engagement in the world.

I rather think stoicism manages to do both, but must admit that there are certain statements of the stoics which strike one as advocating not just intelligent indifference to what takes place, but disregard of them.  The stoic sage can be portrayed as so apart from what takes place as to ignore even injustice which is immediately apparent.  And stoicism has been referred to by some as a justification of the status quo.  Again, I think this is a misreading, but can understand how a cursory review of stoic works can foster such an impression.

The latter part of the book seems to address matters which, to me, don't seem particularly relevant to stoic pragmatism, though they might be to pragmatism or the history of pragmatism.  A great deal of it is devoted to a comparison of the philosophy of Royce and Santayana, which is interesting in and of itself, and may be an effort to define a theory of knowledge/theory of reality basis to stoic pragmatism.  I'm probably just too dull to understand what Lachs is doing in this respect, but I even got the impression that the two halves of the book may have been separately written for different purposes, and then combined.

Regardless, it is a worthy book, and another indication that philosophy may be gradually returning to its original purpose, to define and refine the art of living.  This can only be to our benefit, provided as always that it maintains a connection with the sometimes annoying "real world" and acknowledges our place in it.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know whether Lachs mentions it, but William James has kind words for Stoicism.

    In a letter to Grace Norton in 1902, James wrote, "Such Stoicism as you stand up for is one of the noblest all-round attitudes yet found out, and as against the insanities of theistic devotion certainly has an immense part yet to play."