Modern Self-Help Is Killing Stoicism
Is the ancient philosophy being reduced to hackneyed self-help advice?
“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.
The question of control
Stoicism contains some truly useful ideas about mental health — the philosophy has even had some influence over modern cognitive behavioral therapy. The most prominent principle is this: There are some things we can control, and other things we can’t. Focus on the former.
But it can be argued that such “acceptance philosophies” simply encourage you to endure a messed-up world. Are you stressed? Overworked by your boss? Terrified of falling through the safety net? Do you despair at the rising levels of inequality? Are you concerned about global warming? Then it’s possible you need to assert more control over the world, rather than reminding yourself of how little of it you have. Accepting a deterministic outlook on fate disempowers you from making a better world possible.
The reason why the Stoic thinkers Marcus and Seneca believed we have little if any control over events had to do with the fact that they were “substance monists,” believing that the universe is made of one substance that manifests in a plurality of ways, such as fire, water, earth, and flesh. I don’t believe that a divine logic animates the universe as the Stoics did. That’s one reason I’m not a Stoic and, chances are, neither are you.
I’ve seen dozens of articles about the “Stoicism” of random historical figures from George Washington to Winston Churchill. The definition of “a Stoic” has been a net cast so wide that practically any right-minded, popularly admired historical figure or celebrity can be called one. But you can’t be Stoic just because you can handle bad luck well any more than you can be a Buddhist for being chilled out.
You could argue that the parameters of being a Stoic have adapted to the secular modern world. I’d say if that’s the case, then what’s the point? If being a Stoic means being a bit mentally resilient, then it’s so bereft of content as to be meaningless. Why not just be you?
The question of wealth
There are also less well-publicized and more troubling aspects of Stoic doctrine. One of the key Stoic ideas that people seem to love in today’s economic climate is “preferred and non-preferred indifference.” In Stoicism, there is good and bad, but there is also a huge “indifferent” category between them. Wealth and luxury weren’t seen as bad in themselves to the Roman Stoics. Instead, they were “indifferents.”
In terms of wealth and power, Seneca was the Jeff Bezos of his age (if Jeff Bezos was twice as rich and owned hundreds of slaves) and Marcus Aurelius was an unrepentant autocrat. Both had obscene levels of wealth. That was fine in Stoic ethics (at least in the “late Stoa”). Wealth is a “preferred indifferent.” No matter how much money you had, no matter how many slaves, estates, vineyards, farms, ports, ships, mines, villas, and palaces you owned, it didn’t matter; you could qualify as a Stoic sage. Is it any wonder that Stoicism was so popular among the ultra-rich Roman elite?
There’s no shame in having money, of course, but how rich is too rich? What acceptable ways, if any, are the ethically acceptable ways for getting really rich? At what point does your wealth become unacceptable or embarrassing? Many philosophies develop ethical frameworks to help you answer those questions. Cynicism — the precursor of Stoicism — warned against wealth and possessions. Epicureanism maintained that you only need a sufficient amount of money to satiate your most basic needs to be happy. The Stoics taught that you should not allow avariciousness to enslave you, but remained largely silent on the moral and social dimensions of wealth and its acquisition.
Then there are the Stoic thinkers themselves. From reading self-help articles about Stoicism, you’d think the famously Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius was a guru figure, a man to be held up in reverence like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Marcus was, for the most part, good by Roman standards. Marcus was, of course, one of the five “good emperors” of Rome, but he was no saint. The historian Cassius Dio reported that upon defeating the Iazyges (a Sarmatian tribe dwelling beyond the northern border), Marcus wanted to annihilate the population. We can only guess that this meant dealing with the Iazyges in the same way the Romans dealt with the Jews and the Carthaginians: through mass slaughter, destroying crops and buildings by fire, and rounding up women and children to be sold as slaves. His writings reveal a reasoned and well-meaning, but somewhat melancholy supreme leader. But it doesn’t take an in-depth history lesson to understand that the Romans’ standards were pretty low.
Forcing slaves to fight to the death in arenas and mass public crucifixions were not ancient norms, but Roman innovations. The Ancient Greeks gave us theater and the Olympics; the Romans gave us snuff theater and death games. Ancient Rome is where we get the word “fascism” from. The “fasces” (an axe tied into a bundle of sticks) was a symbol of Roman authority. Mussolini modeled himself as a new Roman emperor. Fascism fetishizes the symbols of Rome for a reason.
I’m not damning everyone who takes an interest in Stoicism and it’s not in my nature to call anybody out by name. The fact that Stoicism is becoming popular and accessible is a good thing. My advice to the interested reader is to follow reputable modern commentators on Stoicism. (Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson are two excellent and accessible writers I personally follow.) Also, of course, regard it as just one philosophy. Read not just the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, but also writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Leo Tolstoy, who wrote about making the world better, about love and liberation without violence.
I admire Marcus and Seneca as writers. I encourage people to read their work. But it’s practically impossible to know what they were like as people. The evidence says they were more complicated than anybody you’d want to place on a pedestal. Their writings obscure their true selves. Marcus constantly admonishes himself to be better, while Seneca glosses over his immense wealth and political life as a brutal tyrant’s right-hand man. Both these men, as complicated as the rest of us, have a lot to say for philosophy in general, not just Stoicism. Perhaps the best lesson we can take from them is to keep striving to make sense of the world, no matter the path.