Who’s afraid of Stoicism?

Stoicism invented hereOne of the hallmarks of a successful movement is that media coverage begins to shift from treating it as a curiosity to presenting it as a possible threat, or at the least as overblown, simplistic, and possibly a vehicle to swindle people. If that’s the case, the past couple of weeks have given us incontrovertible signs that modern Stoicism has grown enough to trigger a journalistic hack job and to attract the hires of at the least one professional philosopher. Let’s take a look. (Incidentally, want proof that Stoicism is trendy? We made it into the New Yorker!)

The NYT article: Stoicism in the fashion pages!

On December 6, Alexandra Alter published a curious article in the New York Times (where, a mere couple of years ago, I wrote my first ever essay on the topic, simply entitled How to Be a Stoic. Does the phrase sound familiar?). Alter had been invited to Stoicon by yours truly, and she was particularly keen on covering our keynote speaker, the controversial (even within the Stoic community) Ryan Holiday. Alter begins with a doubly inaccurate phrase: “In an underground gymnasium in New York City in October, the author Ryan Holiday spoke to nearly 350 people about the transformative power of pessimism and self-doubt.” Except, of course, that Stoicism is about realism, not pessimism; and it is about self-examination, not self-doubt.

She goes on to present Ryan has a swindler catering to Silicon Valley billionaires and NFL sports teams, proceeding to recount his professional history, from PR man for American Apparel (hired to do damage control on behalf of the then CEO of the company) to his writing of a self-exposé entitled “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” In the process, we learn about the size of Ryan’s advance from his publisher, and — absolutely crucial — that he was called a “scumbag” by an anonymous Amazon reviewer.

Alter has a hard time understanding how “the same person who wrote ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying,’ a bombastic treatise on the art of self-promotion through media manipulation, went on to write a meditation on the perils of self-absorption and pride,” apparently automatically rejecting Ryan’s own explanation about his disgust with his former profession and his exploration of Stoicism as a better way to frame his life priorities.

My colleague Gabriele Galluzzo and I are very briefly quoted in the article, explaining why some people at Stoicon had misgivings about inviting Ryan in the first place, but of course the bits where we expanded on the topic were cut out, I presume because the author needed more space to finish her hack job.

So, do I defend Ryan’s approach? Do I agree with it? These questions have been posed to me so many times since Stoicon that I’d better go on record here, as clearly as possible. I’ll do that in the format of a short q&a with myself:

Q. Does Mr. Holiday actually know anything about Stoicism?

A. Yes, I think he has put a lot of thought into this, he knows what he’s talking about.

Q. Would you use his approach to write about Stoicism?

A. No, the way he presents it is not my style. And yes, before you even ask, I do think there is a danger of hype that the community needs to keep an eye on. But I haven’t seen anything worrisome so far.

Q. But isn’t he in it for the money?

A. To begin with, I don’t have privileged access to people’s minds and their inner motivations. But no, I don’t begrudge him (or anyone else) his success or money, so long as they are achieved honestly.

Q. Doesn’t Mr. Ryan’s approach in a way cheapen Stoicism?

Q. No, I don’t think there is anything wrong in making an idea accessible by simplifying it. If I thought so, my entire career as a science and then philosophy popularizer would be an embarrassment to me; instead I’m proud of it.

A. Are Mr. Holiday’s book worth reading at all?

Q. Yes, I do think The Obstacle is the Way, for instance, is well worth reading and may speak to a different crowd from that addressed by other books on contemporary Stoicism. There are plenty of other modern authors one can go to for more in-depth treatment, or simply for exposition of Stoic ideas that adopt a different style of communication, beginning with Larry Becker and continuing with Bill Irvine and Don Robertson, among many others. Now, can we perhaps move on?

The QZ article: philosophy or life hacking?

A few days after the NYT article, Olivia Goldhill published another one in QZ. This one was far more nuanced and balanced than Alter’s, though still a lot of attention was on Ryan and “life hacking,” rather than on the Stoic movement as a philosophy of life. Goldhill’s answer to the question of “why Stoicism?” is right on target: “Though several Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism have a clear practical element, Stoicism is one of the most accessible and explicitly practical schools of western philosophy. The philosophy advocates self-control and not being overly indulgent in sensual pleasures.”

She goes on to ask: “One Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, was born a slave and wrote extensively on how to accept one’s fate. Can such a philosophy be of equal use to those coming to terms with the daily grind of life in Silicon Valley?” As Ryan pointed out on Twitter a few days after the article came out, people tend to forget that while Epictetus was a slave-turned-teacher, Seneca was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, and Marcus was an emperor. (To which it would be good to add that Zeno was a merchant, and Cleanthes a pugilist who worked in a garden at night to pay for his philosophical studies.) Stoicism has always been, from the beginning, a philosophy for every walk of life (though not necessarily for everyone, that depends to some extent on one’s character and behavioral predispositions.).

The next bit explains the basics of Stoicism, quoting yours truly extensively and accurately. And then we get to the comments of philosopher Sandy Grant, who is very critical of Stoicism (more on her in the next two sections as well). To give you some background, Grant works at the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge, and her focus is on writings aimed at the general public.

Grant is quoted by Goldhill as saying that “Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. … [it is] hopelessly outmoded. It cannot grasp the modern predicament or suggest to people how they may best live now. Stoicism gets the question wrong. It is no longer a matter of ‘What can I control?’ but rather of ‘Given that I, as all others, am implicated, what should I do?’ The control fantasy is ridiculous in an interdependent, globalized world.”

This led to a tasty exchange between Grant and Holiday on Twitter. Holiday wrote: “This is silly. Two thousand years ago would you write ‘the emperor is using a philosophy designed for slaves?'” To which Grant replied: “Stoic man tells women philosophers they are ‘silly’!!! Stoic life hack: that which you cannot control, dismiss. Oops!”

Certainly the use of the word “silly” wasn’t the best possible choice by Holiday, but it’s not like Grant hadn’t been dishing out her own share of epithets. Notice also that Holiday didn’t tell “women philosophers” (I assume there Grant was counting Skye Cleary of the American Philosophical Association, also interviewed by QZ, on her side) that they were silly, but rather that a specific position (expressed by Grant, not Cleary) was so. There is a difference, and not a minor one either.

The QZ article goes on to quote my friend Skye, an existentialist philosopher who teaches at various places in New York (including my own City College), and the author of the excellent Existentialism and Romantic Love (she is rumored to be working on a book on cocktails and philosophy, one of my favorite topics!).

Even Skye, however, is critical of our philosophy: “[she sees a] lot of problems with Stoicism, particularly in a contemporary context. I think there’s a really blurred line between what we can and can’t control. This is something Simone de Beauvoir talked about in terms of women’s oppression. She said it might seem like there’s very little individuals can do but, collectively, we can and should do things to combat oppression and inequality and discrimination.”

And then Goldhill gets to the issue of life hacking, in the context, of course, of her discussion of Ryan. She quotes me as saying “There’s a danger that if you just use the tools and are detached from the general philosophy, you could end up misusing the tools. Stoicism, like everything else, doesn’t come with guarantees. It also comes with the idea that you’re ultimately responsible for what you do. So if you stop at one level instead of going to the next, you ought to realize you’re not getting the full picture. By not getting the full picture, you might end up worse off than you were before.”

Which I thought was fairly reasonably balanced. Not so Grant’s response to the same question [referring to Ryan’s books]: “it is bad pop psychology of a comically macho bent for sale to entitled and arrogant successniks.” Someone is not mincing words, apparently.

Sandy Grant really doesn’t like Stoicism

A few days before the QZ piece came out, Skye had interviewed Grant for the blog of the American Philosophical Association, which publishes occasional profiles of its members (here is mine, in case you are curious).

The piece was not about Stoicism per se, but the topic did come up. I’m going to quote extensively here:

“I’ve seen news reports that philosophy is trending and even ‘cool’… so, these issues are ones for us all to address. Taking Stoicism as an example, perhaps it is readily repackaged as a life hack for a popular audience seeking consolation and coping strategies. That may explain its appeal to some people, because it can be sold as a convenience food. But perhaps there’s more to it. Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. Perhaps it helped its practitioners to live as well as they could, given that status quo. But today the idea of not getting discombobulated [sic] about things you deem beyond your control risks quietism, or at least distraction. Maybe this appeals to those who think they need not take up a stance. You mentioned that Stoicon attendees were predominantly men. Well, it has that stuff going on about mastery of the emotions, and it trades on the elevation of the old bearded man as sage. That sort of thing might appeal to some men, those content to uphold the status quo. But we are in times of striking reaction against equality, and against the insistence that women’s lives, queer lives and black lives matter. Perhaps in these regards Stoicism is not just irrelevant, but perhaps it is the last thing we need… and maybe no modernizing gesture can rescue it.”

To begin with, god forbid philosophy should become trendy and cool. Let’s instead help people like Neil deGrasse Tyson condemn it to irrelevance. “Sold as a convenience food”? C’mon, that sort of contemptuous dismissal is not an argument, and of course could apply to any sort of popularizing, including the one that Grant herself does. I will provide my full response to the matters of slavery, women’s condition and “quietism” in the last section of this essay, but making it an issue of (white, bearded?) men against the rest of the world is bizarre, not the least because Grant has the empirical evidence wrong: there are lots of women in the modern Stoic movement (and many were present at Stoicon), and a number of professional women philosophers have written positively about it (specifics below). Also notice that Grant doesn’t just dismiss Stoicism as irrelevant, she goes all the way toward painting it as pernicious.

But there is more: “I should like to debate Stoics on these matters [war and oppression] and see what they can come up with. Beauvoir is raising Stoicism’s lack of potency in engaging big questions of our time. Given what we were discussing before, this is an important issue. If everyone is implicated and we all take up a stance, even by ostensible inactivity, these big questions matter. I don’t think an oversimplification or misunderstanding reply from Stoics would succeed because it accuses Beauvoir of a ‘strawman’ fallacy. But in cashing out that strawman claim against her I don’t see that reference to the lives of the philosophers counts. We don’t have records of Epictetus marching against slavery… but even if he had that wouldn’t get Stoicism off the hook. The objection from Beauvoir is that Stoicism’s argument about resignation to that we cannot control does not capture oppression cases. Stoics must answer to this. What I would add to what she says is this: oppression is a collective action problem. We can do something about it, but only if we act together. I tried to elucidate this point in my paper ‘Freedom and Oppression.’ But Stoicism comes across as a mere operation on yourself, and one of a particular kind, one whereby you may honorably fulfill your roles. Remember too that Stoicism counsels a search for mental serenity by curbing various passions presumed to be noxious. Existentialism however seeks to deploy the passions in the service of progressive change. We need philosophies now that can inspire collectives. It seems to me that a revival of existentialism, but as a renewed philosophy for the now rather than as a history of ideas or biographical enterprise, is on the cards. Can there be a new existentialist movement?”

First off, I’m up for debating Grant, any time. Perhaps the Bloggingheads.tv platform would be a good one. Second, what Grant is talking about is that Stoics — when accused of being powerless to change society — point out that most of our philosophical forerunners that we know of were actually people of action, who very much tried to change society for what they thought was the best (think of Cato’s revolution against Julius Caesar). When Grant says that this is besides the point because philosophers’ lives are irrelevant to their philosophy she betrays a profound misunderstanding of Stoicism: it is very much a lived philosophy, as Epictetus reminds us: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) That’s also why the Stoics insisted so much on the importance of role models: we learn virtue by patterning ourselves after people who do great things and who live according to their stated philosophy.

The quip about Epictetus not marching against slavery is so over the top that it is hard to take it seriously. To begin with, it smacks of presentism, the unfortunate tendency of some people, philosophers included, to straightforwardly apply our own values, and even, in this case, methods, to different times and cultures (though I’m betting that Grant would vehemently oppose any such move if attempted by others and applied to cultures she cares about). She also seems to forget (or being unaware of) the fact that one of the fundamental Stoic virtues is that of justice, or that the Stoics adopted a cosmopolitan outlook that was revolutionary for the time.

As for the passions, we can certainly have a debate about whether anger, say, is or is not a good thing to cultivate, but notice that even Grant acknowledges that it needs to be directed by philosophical insight, lest we see the sort of “anger” that brought us both Brexit and Trump, and that has caused all sorts of serious evils in even the recent past. I don’t know whether there can be a new existentialist movement, but Grant forgets that the “collective passion” that moved Sartre, Beauvoir’s soul mate, led him to endorse Stalinist Russia.

Finally, Stoicism can very much be a conduit to societal change, but from the bottom up, so to speak, rather than form the top down, as is the usual approach. It is a type of virtue ethics, after all, so its focus is the development of the character of the individual. And even the type of collective movement that Grant hopes will materialize in the near future isn’t going to go anywhere (and, again, in the past has often gone terribly wrong) if its members are not virtuous in the virtue ethical sense of the word. Let us not forget that a very good number of revolutions the world has seen so far started with great intentions and devolved in massacre and tyranny.

What does it mean to “keep calm and carry on”?

The final installment, for now, of the “let’s criticize Stoicism because it’s getting too cool” is afforded by an extended interview I had with Skye, again for the APA blog, where she let me have as much space as I wanted to further respond to Grant and to clarify a number of recurring issues. Below are some excerpts from that interview, organized by topic for ease of reference.

On Stoicism vs life hacking: Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and as such it comes with actionable advice for its practitioners. If one is interested only in developing a toolkit, one can of course push the philosophy in the background and just focus on the tools it provides. This is nothing unusual, we do it in other areas as well. Some people, for instance, engage in meditation, or practice yoga, without necessarily embracing the philosophical or mystical traditions behind those techniques.

On keeping calm and carrying on: You won’t find that phrase in any of the ancient Stoic texts, but it has become associated with the current popularization of Stoicism. I think that’s fine, so long as we understand what the phrase means within a Stoic context. Most importantly, it does not mean that we should go through life with a stiff upper lip because that’s the best we can do in a world that is fundamentally not going to change. Instead, it means that one should keep a level-headed attitude because that’s the best way to tackle complex problems.

On women and Stoicism: There was actually a significant number of women at Stoicon. And we had three women speakers during the single-day session: Julia Annas, Debbie Joffe Ellis, and Cinzia Arruzza. Moreover, other women philosophers have written positively about Stoicism, for instance Martha Nussbaum. Also, the Stoicism Facebook community, counting over 17,000 people, has a lot of women members, several of whom regularly contribute to the ongoing discussions. Sometimes people say that Stoicism is more popular among men because it is about suppressing emotions, but that gets it twice wrong: first, because that’s actually a profound mischaracterization of the philosophy; second, because it uncritically accepts the stereotype that women are more “emotional” (and therefore more fragile?) than men. I hope we are finally moving beyond that sort of false biological dichotomy.

On Stoicism as a “slave philosophy” incapable of furthering social change: First off, why pick on Stoicism in particular? During the same period a number of philosophies and religions were developing or thriving, including Epicureanism, Peripateticism, Platonism, Cynicism, Christianity and Buddhism. Should we then dismiss all of those as well because they happen to come about during an historical time that was characterized by slavery and women’s oppression? Also, which period of human history, exactly, isn’t so characterized? Do we not have actual slavery in a number of countries in the world right now, not to mention virtual slavery due to abysmal economic conditions in many places on the planet? Don’t we have a large number of countries today where women are oppressed, and a number of others — including the U.S. — where they are still at a significant disadvantage compared to men? Further, Stoicism has, historically, never encouraged quietism, from Greco-Roman times until today. Many Stoics were persecuted and either exiled or put to death by Roman emperors because they dared speak truth to power. And a number of modern individuals who were not quietist have been positively influenced by Stoicism, for instance Nelson Mandela, who read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations during his prison time, a reading that helped him overcome his anger, develop an understanding of his guard as a human being, and eventually recognize that reconciliation is better than anger when it comes to achieve both justice and social progress.

On teaching resilience somehow being a bad thing: since when resilience has become a bad thing? I mean, I hear a lot this criticism of Stoicism that it’s a bad thing to encourage people to be resilient and accept the fact that life comes with problems, some of which we can only endure, not resolve. It seems to me that resilience is actually a necessary component of a positive reaction to problems: if one is emotionally crashed one can hardly fight back. Moreover, it is wishful thinking to tell people that they can overcome everything, or that they can be “anything they want to be.” Realism isn’t defeatism, while unbridled optimism can actually pave the way for self-blame or, worse, blaming the victim, when things don’t turn out the way we were induced to believe they would.

On the line between what we do and we do not control: That line is clearly drawn by Epictetus: under our control are our values, our judgments, and our actions. Everything else is not under our control. This does not mean that we cannot influence (some) events, of course. But it does mean that we don’t have complete control over what’s going on in the world. The Stoic attitude, consequently, is not one of renunciation and inward focus, but rather a shift from external to internal goals: my goal isn’t to make my partner love me, because that’s not under my control; it is to be the most lovable person I can be with her, because that’s under my control. My goal is not to achieve peace in Syria, because that’s outside of my control; but it is to do whatever I can to improve the situation — donate money to relief organizations, write to my representatives, protest in the streets, help refugees — because that’s under my control. Anything else, the Stoic says, would be wishful thinking, and the world doesn’t change just because we wish it to.

What is Stoicism’s response to oppression? Oikeiosis. That’s the word that the ancient Stoics used to indicate the active development of concern for other people. Hierocles, a II century Stoic who wrote a book entitled Elements of Ethics, thought that we should think of others in concentric circles: nearby me, affectively speaking, there is my family; then my friends; then my fellow citizens and countrymen; and so on all the way to the whole of humanity. Now, Hierocles said, begin to mentally contract those circles, bringing people closer and closer to you, actively practicing concern for all. He even provided practical advice on how to do this: when you meet someone in the street, refer to her or him as “brother” or “sister.” This explicit behavior will gradually affect the way you feel about others. This kind of cognitive re-direction of one’s feelings, incidentally, is at the core of CBT.

A second aspect of the Stoic response to oppression is the concept of cosmopolitanism, a word that was actually invented by the Cynics and then deployed systematically by the Stoics. We are all equal, says Seneca, and we ought to treat everyone the same because of our shared humanity. Musonius Rufus, a I century Stoic teacher, thought that men and women have the same intellectual capacities, and that they ought to be taught in the same way, no room for discrimination.

Finally, the Stoics were mindful of practicing four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate complex situations to one’s best), temperance (self-control), courage (not just physical, but especially moral), and justice (i.e., fairness toward other people). Especially the last two are perfectly good tools for the Stoic practitioner to fight against oppression and discrimination, since they are core aspects of Stoic doctrine.

On Stoics as unemotional sociopaths: The Stoics, unlike Aristotle, believed that there is no such thing as a good amount of anger. That’s because anger has a way of swallowing you, it easily gets out of control, and even when it is justified, it often lead to actions that one is likely to regret. But that’s not the same as saying that one shouldn’t respond appropriately to atrocities and injustice, even emotionally so. Indeed, the Stoics, contra popular misconception, did not counsel the suppression of emotions. They weren’t proto-Spock from Star Trek. Rather, they thought that negative, disruptive emotions — such as hatred, anger, and fear — should be controlled by reason, while positive emotions — like love, a righteous sense of justice, and even a sense of awe at the beauty of the world — should be actively cultivated.

The Stoic take on existential anxiety: Existential anxiety, for the Stoics, comes primarily from our fear of death. But that fear is misguided for a number of reasons. First, because death is a natural process that leads into the same state in which we were, so to speak, for the long time before we were born. We didn’t suffer then, and we are not going to suffer after we die. Second, and more crucially, Seneca says that we actually die every day, meaning both that every day brings us closer to the end, and also that we don’t really know when that last moment will come. That is what gives the Stoic an urgency to live life at its fullest, and not to waste time in trivial matters or the pursuit of empty pleasures. However the Stoics, again contra popular misconceptions, did enjoy pleasures, so long as they owned the pleasure and not the other way around: as Diogenes Laertius put it, Stoics drink wine, but they don’t get drunk.

On the moral duty to be socially engaged: A major way one practices the virtues of courage and justice is precisely by conducting the sort of public life that many Stoics became famous for, as politicians, statesmen, or teachers. As Marcus puts it in the Meditations (IV.26): “Your life is short. You must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice.”


121 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of Stoicism?

  1. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Thanks for the links, Massimo. They mentioned weaknesses in the scientistic point of view that I hadn’t thought of before. I don’t think most of us practicing scientists not formally trained in philosophy, for instance, think of math and logic as being separate disciplines from science – we would more likely think of them as part of the so-called “scientific method,” which you’re probably right about not really being a thing given how it’s always oversimplified when taught. However, there are branches of math and logic that go beyond what’s useful to guide scientific analysis.

    I was once fascinated by deterministic explanations for human psychology and sociology, and that’s why I can play Devil’s advocate for them and still give them serious thought. Yet it’s not too hard to be reminded of why, and expose myself to new reasons why, they’re incomplete and unsatisfactory. Evo-psych started to fall apart for me as soon as I realized I could make up a reason why just about any ethical stance or behavior could be seen as beneficial to our ancestors’ survival in certain situations. Deterministic (lack of) volition is a bit tougher, but the cases you point out of people who backed out of dark experiments, plus the course of my own life, point to at minimum a compatibilistic view where theoretically deterministic causes of behavior have so many inputs and twists and turns that they become “chaotic” or something like it and not all dots between inputs and outputs can be connected. Thus if volition is not “free” in theory it is at least not fully predictable from known inputs in practice and thus can be treated as “free enough.” As a professional philosopher you might know of an even more nuanced view.

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