What is Stoic Pragmatism?
The term stoic pragmatism (SP) was coined by John Lachs for a theory and practice of the good life in individual, social, and cultural contexts. SP has two main philosophical sources of inspiration. The first is American pragmatism, especially William James, John Dewey, Josiah Royce, and also George Santayana—whose links with pragmatism are detectable on some points. The second is the philosophy of Stoicism, especially the ethics of the Roman Stoics: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, who, in some places, “is indistinguishable from a pragmatist” (Lachs 2012, 47), and Cicero who, fundamentally, was more of a sympathizer with Stoicism and an elaborate articulator of its ideas rather than an authentic Stoic philosopher. In his own writings, Lachs reduces the whole tradition of Stoic philosophy to its later, Roman version in which, as in the pragmatism of James and Dewey, metaphysics was less pronounced than ethics: “The heart of stoicism is its ethics, not its metaphysics or epistemology” (Lachs 2014, 203).
Despite many unquestionable discrepancies between these two important, yet historically distant, philosophical traditions, an effort to “enrich and complete each other” finds its justification in providing “a better attitude to life than either of the two views alone” (Lachs 2012, 42). As a result, “Stoic pragmatists believe that intelligent effort can make life longer and better. At the same time, they acknowledge human limits and show themselves ready to surrender gracefully when all efforts at amelioration fail” (Lachs 2014, 206).
Stoic pragmatists hope that if we pragmatically interpret some of the Stoic ideas (which are also Hellenistic on some points) that refer to the good and meaningful life, and practically weave them into our own contemporary contexts, it may appear that they can help us recognize our sense of agency in a more effective way, and this in order to increase our sense of the quality of our lives. For example, “the most notable feature of pragmatists is their commitment to bring life under intelligent and effective human control” (Lachs 2012, 44), and it does not differ that much from the Stoics, at least in employing a rational selection of things and actions that allows them self-control and becoming self-sufficient.
SP is an open project in the sense that it pursues factual improvement in the quality of life for living individuals, rather than a new theory about such improvement. It hopes to do so by showing, explaining, and encouraging more exemplary attitudes towards life among various audiences, despite divergent cultural norms and clashing values. SP abandons “the research/discovery paradigm of philosophy” as “wrongheaded and unproductive” (Lachs 2012, 21), and focuses on the expansion of philosophy beyond the practices of academic circles out into the open public.
Stoic pragmatists should be instrumental in giving (and justifying) the patterns and strategies of the good life, be they individual, social, or cultural. They do not, nor cannot, solve problems in a scientific or political manner. Stoic pragmatism does not nor cannot solve, for example, the problem of any given pandemic, yet it can help us think about what to do during difficult times. For example, by studying reliable medical sources and applying the knowledge about the pandemic into our individual practices, if possible. More generally, it is fundamentally impossible to overcome problems that are out of our reach; however, we can optimize our efforts amidst what is possible, according to Santayana’s more general claim that “survival is something impossible: but it is possible to have lived and died well” (Santayana 1995 , 210).
John Lachs. 2012. Stoic Pragmatism. Bloomington-Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
John Lachs. 2014. “Was Santayana a Stoic Pragmatist?” George Santayana at 150: International Interpretations. Edited by Matthew Caleb Flamm, Giuseppe Patella, and Jennifer A. Rea. Lanham-Boulder-New York-Toronto-Plymouth: Lexington Books, pp. 203-207.
George Santayana. 1995 (1951). Dominations and Powers. Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers
Krzysztof (Chris) Piotr Skowroński. 2020. “Santayana as a Stoic Pragmatist in John Lachs’s Interpretation.” In: Overheard in Seville: Bulletin of the Santayana Society, No. 38, pp. 109-123.
Krzysztof (Chris) Piotr Skowroński. 2021. “Stoic pragmatist Ethics in a Time of Pandemic.” Ethics and Bioethics (in Eastern Europe), HERE
Krzysztof (Chris) Piotr Skowroński. 2022. Video talk at Polish Academy of Sciences about stoic pragmatism, HERE