Modern Self-Help Is Killing Stoicism

Is the ancient philosophy being reduced to hackneyed self-help advice?

Steven Gambardella
Forge
Published in
6 min readMay 1, 2020

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Photo: Ashley Corbin-Teich/Getty Images

“Read Sun Tzu, The Art of War,” says Gordon Gekko, the ruthless finance titan in the 1987 film Wall Street. “‘Each battle is won before it’s ever fought.’ Think about it.”

His protégé nods, as if Gekko has imparted real wisdom instead of reciting a laughably trite platitude.

Whatever merits the book may have, it’s hard to think of The Art of War without imagining ’80s yuppies in red suspenders chanting its “timeless wisdom” into their giant beige mobile phones. Now, it makes me sad to point out that Stoicism is becoming to our age what Sun Tzu’s ideas were to 1987: an ancient philosophy yanked from context, stripped of depth, and reduced to hackneyed life advice and self-help hacks.

Before I continue, I would like to state that Stoicism is a philosophy I take seriously. I’ve written extensively about it and think it’s a beautiful tradition, honed over centuries of thought and debate. I don’t have anything near expertise in the Hellenistic philosophy, but consider myself a keen amateur. I like to take readers with me as I make my own journey into this fascinating worldview.

But I’m worried. I’m worried that it’s being served as intellectual garnish for tired pop psychology and “manifestation” hocus-pocus. Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve seen articles about Stoicism proliferate like the mushroom cloud of froth you get when you pour a bag of Mentos into a bucket of Coca-Cola. In difficult times, we flock to easy answers.

People often say that if Jesus Christ came back right now, he’d be horrified by the behavior of self-identifying Christians. I wonder what Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, or Chrysippus of Soli, Stoicism’s great theorist, would think of what purports to be “Stoicism” in the 21st century.

Here are two reasons why I’m wary of the Stoic advice we’re being spoonfed today.

Seneca has been loved and loathed in equal measure. Manuel Domínguez Sánchez’s “The suicide of Seneca,” 1871. Source: Wikipedia

The question of control

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Steven Gambardella
Forge
Writer for

History PhD. The lessons of history and philosophy for your life and work. Writes The Sophist: https://sophist.substack.com/