I was listening to the Painted Porch podcast, specifically episode 8. In this episode, they tackle the question of just how needed a god is to Stoicism. I remember the Facebook kerfuffle that happened, too. If I remember correctly, I saw a lot of the phrase “real Stoic” being thrown around.
While the main focus of the episode is an interesting topic, it's the idea of “real” Stoicism that got me thinking more. Just what is this “real” Stoicism that we sometimes hear about?
To be clear, since the fighting died down, I don't think I've seen this talked about since. But it could also rear its head again at any time, because any big enough disagreement seems to bring out the true Scotsmen. So, just what is “real” Stoicism?
See, this all depends on who we ask. Today, you might get a lot of answers. “Those who follow Stoics ethics are real Stoics.” “Those who follow Stoic physics are real Stoics.” Oh, poor Stoic logic. Nobody seems to give two damns about you anymore.
Ask a Roman Stoic and they might be a little confused. “How could you guys be real Stoics if you ignore this part or that? Atheists, you ignore the physics. What good does that do you? And religious folk, you impose your religion's ethics on top of Stoic ethics. What's that all about?”
Then's there Zeno. “Hey, where's all the orgies I wrote about?”
It's hard to find out what “real” Stoicism is these days. We've lost much of the history. That's what it got for being a “pagan” philosophy, after all. But from what we know, Stoicism changed much since it's time of the hippy Zeno, the boxer Cleanthes, to the slave Epictetus and emperor Marcus. In fact, we can say “real” Stoicism changed with each new head. Refined, if you will.
It's hard to say what Stoicism looked like when Zeno started it. In fact, it's hard to point out a consistent philosophy besides the basics. And without a head for the school, we'll never get back the unified philosophy of old. And we'll never agree on everything, not any more.
This isn't a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, it could help out school. By disagreeing with each other, we must refine our own positions or concede loss. If we aren’t will to do either, we’re missing the point of philosophy.
In short, there’s no real Stoicism anymore than there is a “real” Scotsmen. In fact, the only real Scotsmen are, well, actual Scotsmen. And the only “real” Stoics died a long time ago. We modern folk are just picking up pieces they left behind.