On the decline of (ancient) Stoicism

romefallsI’m almost at the end of Irvine’s delightful book, A Guide to the Good Life, and the following notes are about chapter 20, “The Decline of Stoicism.”

There are several possible explanations — not necessarily mutually exclusive — for why Stoicism fell out of favor after Marcus Aurelius (unlike, say, the continued expansion and vibrancy of Buddhism, a few thousand miles to the east). They include the idea that Roman society had changed in a way that stern calls to virtue didn’t resonate any longer, as well as the lack of charismatic teachers that would equal Musonius or Epictetus (in this respect, it is interesting to note that Stoicism had already experienced an early decline immediately after its founding, when Zeno was succeeded by the lacklusting Cleanthes; it was only because of the energy and charisma of the latter’s successor, Chrysippus, that the whole thing survived anyway). And of course there was the rise of Christianity, which actually absorbed significant portions of Stoic thought and practice.

Irvine mentions some major later figures that were influenced by Stoicism, from Descartes to Schopenhauer to Thoreau. Then he moves on to dispel, again, the misconception that Stoics preached the suppression of emotions, which would go against modern research in psychology. Interestingly, however, he then questions another widespread tenet of modern psychology: that people are not well equipped to deal with grief, which is why they need hordes of psychological counselors (which, the cynic in me — notice the small letter “c” — might even suspect has something to do with employing a commensurate number of psychologists).

I think Irvine is on to something. He notes, for instance, that during WWII British psychologists were worried about massive cases of war-induce trauma in the general population. But the general population surprised the hell out of them, displaying an amount of resilience and adaptability to circumstances of which Seneca would be proud.

Irvine goes even so far as to suggest that psychological counseling (except in actual pathological cases) may not only be ineffective, but downright pernicious. He cites studies showing that, for instance, parents of children who had died of Sudden Infant Syndrome had coped and recovered better without grief counseling when compared to those who had received counseling. Similar results have been obtained in studies on HIV patients and Holocaust survivors. There definitely is something to ponder here.

He then takes on politicians’ penchant for telling their constituents that they are unhappy because of this or that external circumstance, which of course they will be able to fix as soon as they get elected. While there are indeed plenty of things that are wrong with even the most advanced contemporary societies — and therefore plenty of room for improvement — Irvine claims that it doesn’t help anyone to fall into the mental habit of thinking of themselves as a victim of society. Indeed, paradoxically, therein may lie the road to inaction and the perpetuation of one’s negative circumstances (dispreferred indifferents, as the Stoics would put it).

Modern Stoicism, then, has to contend with misguided psychologists and politicians. But also, ironically, with misguided philosophers. Much modern philosophy is “academic” in the most narrowly reductive sense of the term, and simply doesn’t seem interested — by and large — in bringing philosophy to bear on people’s lives. Achieving just that, of course, is precisely the point of books like Irvine’s, as well as of this very blog.

Finally, Irvine suggests, an additional obstacle to modern acceptance of Stoicism is the fact that, to put it frankly, it is a demanding philosophy of life, one that has at its core the idea that there is something bigger than ourselves, for which it is worth making what many people would consider sacrifices. Stoics, unlike many moderns, are duty-bound individuals bent on the difficult art of self-control. Not a popular concept, especially in early 21st century American society.


Categories: Ancient Stoicism, History & Biographies

5 replies

  1. Great post Massimo. As I have progressed in Stoicism I can’t help but notice how much external circumstances are used as leverage by politicians/marketers to persuade people of one thing or another. Again, this is yet another liberating aspect of the Stoic worldview.

    As for philosophy… Pre-20th century works (Classical and Enlightenment) are by far more enriching and insightful than the narrow 20th century conception of philosophy. I’m reading Hadot’s “Inner Citadel” and he is bang on when he says philosophy has become a way of creating a “new discourse” as opposed to building on the rich traditions of different philosophical schools. The goal has shifted from illumination to ‘blinding by linguistics’. For me, philosophy hasn’t improved since Hume (harsh but needs to be said IMO).

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  2. Another great post Massimo, will have to pick up this book soon.

    How widespread was Stoicism among the common people around 180 CE? Are there conditions to which Stoicism-type philosophy would emerge or disappear?

    After Marcus, the Roman elite seemed to be dis-virtuous as they start rolling out the decline of the Empire through luxurious living, economic inflation, and a general indifference to those below them. Also, the unification of the Empire started to frazzle as there were no common threats near the centre. Taking these into account – is the fall and revival of stoic principles correlated with these social trends? Like the harsh conditions of the 1930’s followed by a common enemy leading to the unification and unexpected resilience of the British during WWII. If it is correlated with these trends, then its interesting to think of the trends that revived these principles in the recent decade.


  3. love,

    I think the causes for the current interest in Stoicism are at the least in part different from those that made it possible for the original philosophy to become popular in ancient Greece and Rome. After all, we are talking very different societies and cultural situations. That said, I suspect more and more people nowadays are dissatisfied with organized religion and yet seek a philosophy of life with spiritual aspects. Stoicism is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has the potential to be just as successful as the similar, and equally demanding, Buddhism.


  4. Speaking of similarities, I just found this post on Rationally Speaking:


    Anything you would like to add/change now that you’re more into Stoicism?



  5. Jim, ah, yes! I’ll go back to that post and perhaps do a small write up about it, now that I see things more from a Stoic perspective!


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