How To Manage Technological Change

Stoic Responses to Innovation

Embracing Change

Technological progress is disruptive. New communications devices lead us to interact with each other differently. Developments in machinery and computing change how we work. The internet rewrites our consumer behaviors. All such innovations require us to relinquish ways of being with which we are familiar and comfortable in order to learn new practices.

Just as a technology disrupts what is established, so that technology is destined to itself be superseded. The technological world is a constant regeneration. Within this climate of inescapable technological upheaval, it is appropriate to consider how we manage the transitions that are imposed on us in our day-to-day lives. Stoic philosophy provides a suitable discussant for such considerations given its focus on how we respond to external or environmental circumstances.

Australia, the country from which I write, offers an interesting context for this kind of discussion. The topic of our relationship with technological change emerged in Australian politics when the federal minister, Malcolm Turnbull, successfully challenged for Australia’s prime ministership.

Turnbull proclaimed in his victory speech that the “Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”. Developing the nation’s capacity to benefit from innovative technologies was part of Turnbull’s promise to “all Australians” that his leadership “recognises the opportunities of the future”.

Turnbull’s view was that these opportunities arise via the “disruptive effects” of technological development. The new prime minister accordingly implored the Australian population “to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility and change, is our friend, is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it”.

This call to embrace change brings us to the Stoics. As we will review, ancient Stoicism regularly asserts that change is the world’s all-encompassing condition. For the Stoics we are living rationally if we can understand that the changes that occur in our daily lives simply reflect the world’s default state.

Rationality not only underpins our appreciation of a changing world. It is also the very constitution of that changing world. Yes, the Stoic world itself is rational. Our rational appreciation of a changing world hence acts as a trace of that rational world. This is a counterintuitive notion. Rationality is typically something we attribute to thinking humans. How can the entire world be rational?

Sextus Empiricus reports that Stoicism from its first formal eras answers this question by describing how God’s rationality pervades the entire world to varying degrees. Because this world changes, change must be rational. As Anthony Long and David Sedley translate in their The Hellenistic Philosophers, Sextus’ account is that “what exists” in the world for the Stoics is “set in motion” by God’s reason. This reason is present everywhere in the structuring of the world and “guides it in due order into generations and changes”.

The later Stoic Epictetus guides this recognition of universal change into a series of mantras designed to help us to accept the inescapably changeable nature of our world. Turnbull earlier defines change as beneficial to our lives if we can appreciate its inevitability. On this point he might cohere with Epictetus when the Stoic posits that our life will be smoother once our mind accepts the certainty of change. As we find in one of Epictetus’ fragments:

The nature of the universe was, is and always will be the same, and things cannot happen any differently than they do now. It’s not just mankind and the other animals on earth that share in the cycle of change, but also the heavens and even the four basic elements…If we try to adapt our mind to the regular sequence of changes and accept the inevitable with good grace, our life will proceed quite smoothly and harmoniously.

Marcus Aurelius follows with a further emphatic directive to live with change rather than to fight it. In Meditations Marcus posits that because the “order of the universe” is preserved by its changes there is “nothing fearful about them” (2.17). If we are ever anxious about the changes imposed on us Marcus advises to “bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed” (4.3). Even more comprehensively he states that if “someone is afraid of change” they should reflect on how absolutely nothing “can ever come to be without change” (7.18).

There is a certain symmetry here with Turnbull’s position. Turnbull recognises the fear that technological change instils. It is daunting to have to learn new practices in order to be able to participate in society. Such change can furthermore jeopardize the ongoing existence of our jobs. Change threatens the current control we think we have over our lives.

While being receptive to these concerns, Turnbull also acknowledges that everything is transitory in our world. We must accept that change, often portrayed as progress, inescapably defines our existence. Marcus likewise recognises a world in perpetual flux. Our acceptance of such flux requires contextualizing any particular or localized change within “a constant succession of change…scarcely anything stands still” (5.23).

Despite this basic consistency between the two, we must also be sensitive to crucial differences between the Stoic sense of change and Turnbull’s position. The first point in this regard concerns how the Australian prime minister identifies change as something we can “take advantage of”. Embedded within this orientation is the imperative that we can take advantage of change for our own material (commercial) gain.

The Stoics conversely are less concerned with the material benefits of recognizing change as our inevitable condition. They are instead motivated by how accepting a changing world helps us to live rationally.

Certainly for the Stoics some material benefits will arise from living rationally. Stoicism refers to such benefits as “preferred indifferents”. Often a preferred indifferent comprises material goods (enough money to buy food, for example) that a Stoic would prefer to live with, than live without. If such goods arise through our rational existence it could indeed be irrational to discard or ignore them.

Primarily though the Stoics maintain an indifference to such goods and benefits. Change itself is accordingly never harmful in Stoicism, even if it might mean we lose these material goods. For Turnbull the fear is that if we do not accept the reality of change and take advantage of it, we will lose the associated material benefits. Conversely as Marcus asserts, what is harmful for a Stoic is fearing change itself, because such fear irrationally contradicts that the world’s nature is change (4.39).

Appreciating this difference refines our sense of the Stoic impulse regarding change. From this we can attend to a more dramatic diversion between the Stoics’ and Turnbull’s respective claims around change — in particular technological change. Doing so will help us to evaluate our own Stoic relationships with technology.

Technology, Wisdom, and Subjectivity

An era of widespread technological advancement and associated opportunities represents for Turnbull an unsurpassed state of satisfaction with life for current Australians. In comparing the present era to previous periods in Australia’s history, he declares:

There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian (Turnbull 2015).

Turnbull specifically attributes this peerless state to how highly engaged present-day Australians supposedly are with the innovative opportunities that his government can facilitate. Technological developments are not simply destabilizing. They produce a generation of Australians more fulfilled by their world than ever before.

By shifting our Stoic lens to Seneca (the Younger) we can differentiate a Stoic view on our relationship with technology. Contrary to Turnbull’s position, in one of a series of letters to Lucilius (a highly ranked public official in Sicily) Seneca opposes technological advancement from our most elevated or fulfilled subjective states.

We must contextualize Seneca’s position by firstly appreciating his concerns with a preceding assertion from the Stoic Posidonius. Seneca tells us that Posidonius correlates technological development with the wisdom of philosophy in positing that “philosophy invented the technologies we use in daily life” (90.7). It is philosophy, in the Posidonian view, that developed for example the “modern engineering” techniques and intelligences which produce buildings and cities.

An issue in equating philosophy with engineering in this manner for Seneca is that the “towering buildings” that such technologies design are a “danger to their inhabitants” (90.8). Rudimentarily this danger concerns the potential that the physical infrastructure could fail and fall on us. Philosophy conversely would never fail us.

This insight leads us to how for Seneca a more complex threat emerges where the comforts of modern technologies affect our rational appreciation of life. With newly elaborate housing, and technologically valuable possessions, a desire overcomes us to harbor what we own under the complementary technologies of “lock and key”. We become individually obligated to protect goods of perceived material worth from the rest of the community.

This turn is detrimental to our wellbeing in Seneca’s view. We are in effect slaves to the things that technologies produce. Indeed through technology we increasingly and irrationally depend on material externals. In an era of technological advancement, what “dwells under marble and gold is servitude” (90.10).

Seneca distinguishes this time from the period that preceded technological progress. There he believes the human approach to live in open, thatched houses “let them be free” (90.10). Seneca’s differentiation from Turnbull’s present-day position is readily apparent. The most technologically advanced generations do not experience a most subjectively fulfilling existence. Quite emphatically for Seneca rather, “the era that preceded was truly happy” (90.9).

You might be asking yourself in response to Seneca’s interventions though; doesn’t technological innovation indicate that we are becoming more intelligent? Surely in our technologies we illustrate that as a species we collectively understand our world better? Technology after all is not just bound up in the engineering of city buildings and the production of smartphones but is also responsible for furthering medical research.

We might in this way typically correlate technological advancement with our wisdom and intelligence. Not Seneca. In his view all our technologies, whether they build cities, design quicker modes of transport, or keep us healthy and well-fed via better farming equipment, were “discovered not by wisdom but by human ingenuity” (90.11). We might deploy reason in producing such new goods and techniques. For Seneca nevertheless our wisest states come from a rational existence that is not bound up in crafts but is “unencumbered by as much as possible” of the material world (90.13–16).

Seneca is not here proposing that we intentionally become materially destitute. He would not think it rational to live entirely free of supports for our existence. Elsewhere in his letters to Lucilius he in fact discusses how it can sometimes require more rationality to live with wealth and not be adversely affected by it than to live without wealth (20.10).

The point for Seneca is instead that we have been designed in a way that nature has already assigned us with everything we need to live rationally and therefore happily. The goods that arise from our “numerous technical skills” (90.18) do not condition our most fulfilled subjective states. To the contrary, such materialities can detach us from a rationalized existence.

If such technological advancements are not intrinsic to our rationality they are not internal to wisdom. Certainly, technologies develop products that seem to exhibit our species’ growing intelligence. Seneca reports that this is Posidonius’ view, for whom intricate weaving technologies or enhanced agricultural techniques must have been “invented by the wise” (90.20–21). Even travel technologies that were allowing the ancients to cross seas more quickly and comfortably must have come from the wisdom of a sage for Posidonius (90.24).

Seneca retorts though that “wisdom occupies a loftier seat” than that which “trains the hand” to engineer technological and technical advancements (90.26). Wisdom serves a rational existence. It is not associated with the triviality of artificial supplements that might make life more temporarily exciting.

Posidonius is not oblivious to this distinction. As a Stoic he is fundamentally still committed to prioritizing rational life. Posidonius consequently anticipates the kind of critique that Seneca presents by qualifying his overall position with the notion that the sage, the bearer of ultimate wisdom, will be able to “detach from technology” (90.30).

Seneca criticizes this caveat too. He does this by arguing that no sage ever “went near” technology to begin with. Seneca here invokes the transience of technological developments, which might remind us of my opening characterization of current technological intervention. Because technologies that are introduced are soon superseded, for Seneca a sage would know that it is not wise to “take up anything that had to be subsequently laid aside” (90.30). A rational existence conversely is timeless.

The transience of material technologies for Seneca might in part be attributable to the earlier noted individualized outcomes that they serve. The newest houses in Seneca’s era featured securities that enabled people to hold possessions and resources away from their communities. Individual outcomes come and go with the individuals who benefit from them. They otherwise serve no one.

Contrary to this, for Seneca there is not a “better condition for the human race” than the time when we all shared in a common nature that “provided for the maintenance of everyone” (90.38). Everyone is wealthy in this mode. Wealth here refers to a shared rationality rather than to mundane material things and contradicts a technologically advanced era in which people must protect their goods. He consequently describes how this latter existence comprises an irrational separation from a pantheistic, unified world and means that “you moderns…tremble at every sound your houses make” (90.43).

Does this mean that Stoicism requires us to be anti-technology? In a word, no. I can illustrate why via a trend in current scholarship, which reconfigures the underpinning condition of a Stoic pantheistic universe.

Are the Stoics Anti-Technology?

Our earlier discussion presented the Stoic idea that God’s rationality conditions the entire universe. God is everywhere. His rationality orders a physical world. It is even apparent in our own rational natures.

Certain recent Stoic perspectives however are motivated to replace these divine conditions. Within this contemporary re-orientation, consistencies emerge between Stoicism and the knowledges that technologies facilitate — in particular scientific technologies.

Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism provides an influential version of this motivation. In one regard Becker recognizes the importance of maintaining the core feature of the ancient Stoic impression of the universe. He duly argues that it would not be right to dismiss Stoicism’s logocentrism. This logos is the active principle that animates the world. As we have seen, for the Stoics this active principle is God’s reason.

Becker also wants to shift our understanding of this active principle however away from God’s divinity. His intervention is to instead conceive of this principle as more scientifically grounded. The consequent suggestion is to replace the Stoic maxim of living according to a divine rational nature with the imperative to instead live according to “facts”. One source of such facts is, in Becker’s view, experimental science.

This mandate actually coheres with ancient Stoic assertions around the rational daily practice of accepting a changing universe and determining what is, versus is not, in our control. Sudden localized misfortunes that we experience for example can be contextualized via a scientific appreciation of a causal universe’s perpetual transitions. “Contemporary cosmic science” for Becker helps us to recognize that the “universe is…in constant, tumultuous evolutionary change” and provides “humbling facts about our place” in the world (11).

Following Becker’s lead, Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez also recently posit in A Handbook for New Stoics that most “modern Stoics are not pantheists, but accept the contemporary scientific account of the world” (59). The suggestion from all such positions is that scientific technologies provide us with knowledges. If this knowledge assists us to appreciate the world rationally, then the scientific technologies behind them contribute to Stoic ways of being. Piotr Stankiewicz in an interview with Modern Stoicism agrees that:

Science teaches us how the world works and we, as Stoics, mustn’t oppose that. Thus, we will be happy to vaccinate our children. We won’t deny the Moon landing. Also, we will be eager to use iPhones, internet and whatever future technology comes about. In a word, going unscientific and anti-technological is also going unstoic.

From the preceding perspectives intersections hence emerge between (i) ancient Stoic impressions of universal change, (ii) modern views on technology, and (iii) the imperative to live rationally.




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Will Johncock

Will Johncock — Continental Philosophy. Stoic Philosophy. Social Theory. Sociology. New Book "Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory"

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