Friedrich Nietzsche warned that with the death of God (the intellectual collapse of Christianity) that it would lead to a state of nihilism. Basically, for years Christianity had been the answer to everyone’s question, “how should I live my life?” Without the intellectual fortitude of Christianity anymore, where would people turn to for their values? Nietzsche took it upon himself to try to help us try to construct a value system that would help answer our question of how we should live our life. Unfortunately, Nietzsche never got to complete his system. He fell into madness and left only breadcrumbs of how we might live our life. It’s also not clear he was even up to the implausible task of answering how we might live our life.
Secular forms of morality seem difficult to logically support especially after David Hume demonstrated it’s probably not possible to get an ought from an is. Utilitarian theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill tried to make a scientific form of morality but when Mill tried to derive an ought from an is, it turned out he was just equivocating between wanting pleasure and morally having to seek pleasure. Utilitarianism, despite its empirical/scientific nature, just wasn’t able to support itself. Ultimately you just had to bite the bullet whether you wanted to seek pleasure for the multitude or not.
Immanuel Kant thought that if he could just support ethics in pure practical reason itself, it would would be enough to keep a secular version of moral Christianity intact. Unfortunately, Nietzsche later knew that this wasn’t going to help things because it was dependent on the concept of transcendental faculties divorced from our common everyday experiences. Immanuel Kant cut humans into two realms divorced from each other, the trascendental self and the phenomenal self. It came at a cost because Kant was asking us to postulate an afterlife and a God to judge us. What started out as a secular attempt to ground morality just turned into the same thing that doomed the Christian faith in its assumptions of an afterlife and God. Also, Kant promised that his ethics was going to be intuitive and commonsense but instead his categorical imperative led to all kinds bizarre consequences. You couldn’t lie selflessly to save other people’s lives. So much for common sense.
Existentialists of the 20th century weren’t really up to the task to answer how to live our lives. They were essentially just replacing divine command theory of ethics with ego command theory. Basically, everyone’s values emanated from their choices they made in life. Essentially, they were inviting millions and millions of varying moral systems created by the authentic choices of each and every single human being. This seemed disastrous. Jean-Paul Sartre tried to ground his existentialism ethics in a form of Marxist solidarity but this certainly didn’t convince Albert Camus, another existentialist, who was quite critical of Sartre as a philosopher and as a person.
So what should we do? How should we proceed? Existentialism seems truly scary and bizarre. Millions of ethical systems based on everyone’s unique “authentic” choices just sounds like chaos. It sounds like an ethical nightmare. Well….what if we turned back to the ancient Greeks and Romans?
It turns out that the philosophers of the past might have actually had all the answers after all. In fact, if we look to the Stoics and even the Epicureans we might find a way to truly live our lives. The Stoics believed that only virtue was good and only vice was bad and everything else was indifferent. In fact, if one lived a life of virtue one would be promised a life of eudaimonic happiness. Basically, not only did the Stoics propose a value system but they proposed a value system that implied a form of therapy. If you follow virtue as your sole good, you would be promised a life of excellence and contentedness. This doesn’t mean you’d live happily ever after like in a Disney movie once you married your prince or princess. It meant that you’d achieve a noble state. You’d be worthy of praise, be generally untroubled, and free of negative passion.
The Stoics might’ve been onto something empirically true with their ethical system because years later in 20th century Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy by Albert Ellis was built on Stoic ethical premises and it seemed scientifically promising as a psychotherapy. Later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was derived and is doing great empirically as a therapy.
What’s more is it turned out that the Stoics had an argument for how their ethics might actually be founded in something empirical. The Stoic Hierocles essentially argued that ethical forms of love spread out from the need of self-preservation to the need of the preservation of the offspring, which spread out further to the preservation of the tribe, and further to the preservation of the society, and further to humanity itself. I still haven’t carefully read all of Larwence Becker’s A New Stoicism but in his book he argues very logically convincingly for how Stoic ethics is founded in the initial need for self-preservation that spreads outward towards preservation of the human cosmopolis.
So is Stoic ethics what we need as an answer to today’s nihilism? I think so. Am I absolutely convinced its the answer. I’m not sure. But I’m not sure of anything. As Socrates once declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.” But I certainly do think that I have rationally warranted beliefs in Stoicism as a coherent ethical system.