Modern Self-Help Is Killing Stoicism

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

Steven Gambardella


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…