Stoicism and surroundings
What, if any, is the essence of Stoicism?
Are there some fundamental ideas in Stoicism that, if we let go of them, we are not doing Stoicism anymore?
A few days ago my friend and co-author Greg Lopez and I co-hosted the 7th edition of Stoic Camp New York, inspired by the original Stoic Camp that another friend and colleague, Rob Colter, has facilitated for several years in Wyoming. It was an unusual edition of Stoic Camp, not only because it was the first one in person since the beginning of the covid pandemic, but because the objective was to trace the early origins of some Stoic ideas (Presocratics), to map the major direct influences on the Stoics (Cynicism, Megarian School), and to identity whatever distinctive features characterize Stoic philosophy.
As part of this exploration, I proposed to the students that we carry out an exercise. You may want to try it now before continuing to read this essay. Take a few minutes to make a list of ideas you think are fundamental to Stoicism and without endorsing which, in your opinion, one could not reasonable call herself a Stoic. Try to do this regardless of whether or not you yourself agree with said ideas.
Let me make clear that the suggestion — despite the title of this essay — is not that there truly is an “essence” of Stoicism. Socrates famously looked for precise definitions of concepts based on necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, but post-Wittgenstein we now realize that most complex concepts simply do not admit of such rigorous treatment. Concepts like “Stoicism” are inherently fuzzy, characterized by a number of intertwined strands, none of which, by itself, may make it or break it. Stoicism, then, becomes a family resemblance concept, an idea loosely defined by multiple interlocking dimensions.
Nevertheless, the question remains: how many (and specifically which) of these threads can one pull away before modern Stoicism loses its family resemblance with its Greco-Roman ancestor? This is a question that has been raised by several thoughtful authors of late, perhaps most prominently by Larry Becker, the author of A New Stoicism (see here for a multi-part introduction to the book, checked for accuracy by Larry himself).