Stoicism and the “inadequacy of the invincible”

ITALY-THEME-LANDMARKStoicism is not new to criticism. Many of the fragments of Stoic texts that we have, especially referring to the early Stoa, are actually from authors who were not just critical, but seriously pissed off at, the philosophy. And now that Stoicism seems to be on the upswing again, the critics have come out of the woodworks once more. There is, of course, much value in serious criticism of one’s philosophy (for instance, from the likes of Martha Nussbaum), and the Stoics themselves repeatedly took good ideas from whenever they found them, be that the Cynicism so admired by Epictetus, or even the Epicureanism in which Seneca made a number of forays “not as a deserter, but as a scout” (II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 5).

Some of the modern critics have tried to top Sextus Empiricus’ famous “Against the Professors,” managing to express a level of venom probably better suited to other targets. Here, for instance, is my response to Existentialist philosopher Sandy Grant, who I think managed to write one of the most uncharitable recent commentaries on Stoicism. (Then again, none other than Bertrand Russell himself, one of the philosophers who most influenced me early on, botched the job fantastically in his History of Western Philosophy.)

I wasn’t going to respond to the latest entry in the genre, “The inadequacies of the invincible: on the failure of Stoic ethics,” published over at Medium by an anonymous writer (at least, I couldn’t see any byline on the piece itself) who turns out to be Michael Gibson of San Francisco (he was copied on a tweet I received about the piece). That’s because there is only so much time in the day, and so much point in rebutting one’s opponents instead of practicing one’s philosophy. Besides, the piece is long and meandering, not providing a tight and compelling argument. But far too many people have tweeted it to me asking what I thought about it, so here we go.

Gibson begins by recounting the famous tale of James Stockdale, who was shot down over Vietnam and endured seven years of torture and partial isolation as a prisoner of war in the ironically named “Hanoi Hilton.” You can read Stockdale’s story in his own words here and here. Gibson, stunningly, claims that Stoicism didn’t help Stockdale, a conclusion contradicted in plain words by the Vice Admiral himself, who went on for years teaching the philosophy and recalling how Epictetus had been his constant guide and companion throughout his tribulations.

Gibson then writes: “what you or I might call the goods of life  — wealth, health, family, lovers, and friends  —  the Stoic is morally indifferent to … the Stoic cultivates a moral, and therefore, emotional detachment from them, knowing that the sum of his worth factors no possessions in.”

The first bit is on target, and moreover seems to me to be the right stand. While everyone (including the Stoics) care about wealth, health, etc., it seems very reasonable to think that one’s morality should not be affected by them, meaning that we shouldn’t do immoral things to secure such externals. The second bit is a straightforward non sequitur: just because I think that the moral dimension is orthogonal to the dimension of external goods it doesn’t follow that I should not give a damn about my family, my lover, or my friend. It only follows, again, that my concern should never compromise my moral integrity (e.g., I shouldn’t give s job to my lover on the ground that she is my lover, that’s nepotism, something that not just the Stoics frown upon).

“Cataclysm, poverty, imprisonment, undeserved notoriety, bodily harm  — the Stoic sees as neutral raw material. How do you conduct yourself undergoing these supposed bad things? How do you respond to them? That’s the crux of it all.”

Yes and no. True, any adversity is for the Stoic one more chance to exercise virtue (talk about a constructive positive attitude!), but that material is not “neutral,” as evidenced by the Stoic phrase “dispreferred indifferents”: indifferent from the standpoint of one’s moral character, but dispreferred nonetheless. I explained this concept in detail by using the modern idea, derived from behavioral economics, of lexicographic preferences, which I think captures the essence of Stoic thought on the matter.

The second part of Gibson’s essay is entitled “Epictetus comes to the market,” and it is here that the rubber really hits the road. Like Sandy Grant before him, Gibson really hates the commercialization of Stoicism in the style of TED talks and Ryan Holiday’s books. As if other philosophers, for instance Existentialist ones, didn’t give TED talks or write successful books (and more power to them, I say).

Gibson gets nasty here. Referring to Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, he says “along the way you suddenly awake from this carnival to realize how far you’ve come from the Stoa.” Well, for one thing, if Gibson is objecting to getting paid for teaching Stoicism, that’s been done since at least the time of Chrysippus. If instead he is worried by the fact that an author becomes famous and influences others, Seneca was both very famous and very influential.

I suspect the real problem here is that Gibson, like Grant before him, simply expresses disdain for what he sees as an oversimplification and commodification of philosophy. I can understand that, and Ryan’s style is certainly not my own. But this cannot possibly be an indictment of the philosophy in question, and moreover I’m having a hard time imagining exactly what is wrong with popularizing an idea (and making money while you do it), so long as you are not distorting that idea beyond recognition, or somehow profiting from your doings in an unethical way (which would violate the Stoic discipline of action).

I think this is part of a broader attitude, very common especially (but as Gibson’s case demonstrates, not only) among academics: that writing about science, philosophy, or any other “serious” field, is tainted if the writing becomes popular, and especially if it produces financial rewards for the author. But, again, why, exactly? I teach philosophy at a university in New York, and I make good money as a result (otherwise I couldn’t possibly afford to live in the city). I also give public lectures (for which sometimes I’m paid) and write books for general audiences, and I feel no guilt at all when my bank tells me that my paycheck is in, or when my publisher sends me royalties. Once more: if someone is doing a bad job, or is profiting from it in a morally questionable fashion, by all means go after him. If not, your complaining begins to sound a lot like envy.

In a bizarre and sudden twist, Gibson then pins the tragic death by suicide of the brilliant American writer David Foster Wallace (who suffered from depression), on Stoicism, calling the resemblance between some of Wallace’s writings and Epictetus’ ideas “the canary in the coal mine.” This is so strange that I’m not even sure how to reply, but I’ll try. To begin with, while Stoicism can be useful to people who suffer from mental disabilities (see this essay, for instance), it is certainly no substitute for therapy or medical cure. And even less so is it a magic wand that can solve everyone’s problems. It’s a philosophy of life, meant to help us see things in a different fashion and to act accordingly. To pretend otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest. Moreover, neither I nor, probably, Gibson, know enough about Wallace to really arrive at sensible judgments, and as Epictetus reminds us: “Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45). The same applies to anything people do, whether it appears to be vicious, nonsensical, or simply sad and misguided.

In the next section of his long article, Gibson says: “We have become a society dissatisfied with the way things are, but instead of risking change to a external world that angers us or saddens us or bores the hell out of us, we choose to focus on how we respond to it. We choose, instead, to Netflix and chill. Sometimes with pills.” And from there he implies (but, curiously, never actually clearly states) another predictable, and unfounded, accusation against Stoicism: that it is a philosophy of quietism. Forget Cato the Younger picking up arms to counter the tyranny of Caesar, or Marcus Aurelius passing laws for the improvement of the conditions of women and slaves throughout the empire. Forget that one of the four cardinal virtues is that of justice, which informs the discipline of Stoic action. Or ignore that the Stoics (and the Cynics) introduced the revolutionary, and very dangerous to Greco-Roman society, concept of cosmopolitanism. What are facts and arguments, when one simply knows the truth about a philosophy he despises?

Want more examples of strawmen in Gibson’s account? Easy, just proceed to the next section of his essay, where we find this: “To omit friends from an account of what truly matters  — as the Stoics do —  was for Aristotle to paint a thin portrait of a life that was not worth living.” Never mind that Seneca wrote a famous letter to Lucilius about true and false friendship, another one on philosophy and friendship, a third one on grief for lost friends, and two letters of consolation to his friends Marcia and Polybius. Here are excerpts to give you an idea:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

“Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.” (LXIII. On Grief for Lost Friends, 7-8 )

Does that seriously sound to you like someone who “omits friends from an account of what truly matters”?

And then we get this gem from Mr. Gibson: “The rise of Stoicism™ is a sign of a civilization in decline. There is something decadent about a society trying to escape its own loss through a sour grapes philosophy.”

Ah, the old “civilization in decline” trope. And notice the snarky “Stoicism,™” of course. This is hardly serious criticism. To teach endurance is not “sour grapes,” it is developing a life skill that will prove useful under a wide variety of circumstances. Stoicism became popular in Rome during the late Republic and the early Empire, hardly a “civilization in decline,” whether or not 21st century America qualifies as such. And if there is an attribute that simply doesn’t even begin to fit the Stoics is “decadent.”

I happen to think that the core value of Stoicism are, in fact, exactly what our (or any, really) civilization is in dire need of: the idea that if one doesn’t act morally then external goods are meaningless; the notion that some things are up to us and others aren’t, so that we can focus where we most make a difference; the concept that we are all members of the same polis, and that we ought to help each other to survive and thrive; and the idea that we should use a bit more reason in dealing with the complex problems that life presents us with. That, not Gibson’s caricature, is what Stoicism is about.


20 thoughts on “Stoicism and the “inadequacy of the invincible”

  1. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I think there’s something to these modern Aristotelian-leaning views, where things like righteous anger and thriving social life are considered necessary for happiness…insofar as we define happiness in the usual popular sense, as freedom from clinical-level depression and anxiety and an emotional sense of contentment with one’s life. But that’s not quite what the Stoics meant by it, from what I understand: they seem to have meant living the best life you can, even if Fate or Fortune or whatever you want to call it takes our usual modern understanding of happiness off the table. And also, to beware of falling for schemes that tend to lead you in the wrong direction, where you take things like social status or sense pleasures to matter most, or put the external well-being of your own family and friends over the needs of greater society as we privileged people are wont to do.

    In fact, that’s what has driven me to favor modern Stoicism over philosophical views that are closer to a modern Aristotelianism, such as that of Jonathan Haidt and the author of this anti-Stoic article: as a rather privileged person, belonging to only one historically oppressed group (the feminine gender), I feel that it should be my duty and that of other privileged people who can get on board with it to de-emphasize the externals. Much of today’s injustices, and the economic structures that make it so difficult to maintain social and family life, seem to be perpetuated by members of the ruling class and those of us a few steps shy of the ruling class who are terrified that losing access to externals will ruin their own lives and those of their progeny. I agree with a lot of what the modern Aristotelians say, given their substantial overlap with the Stoics according to your handy “how to pick your Hellenistic school” post, but I think the extra toughness that Stoicism offers with regard to externals can help promote Justice and Temperance, two virtues that tend not to be easy for the highly fortunate to practice.

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  2. Massimo Post author

    I agree Julie, and you are right to draw the distinction between “happiness” and eudaimonia. The Stoics (and the early, as opposed to modern, Aristotelian) were talking about the latter, not the former. It’s really unfortunate that eudaimonia so often gets translated as happiness, because that muddles things a lot, and makes the Stoics feel like the sour bunch that they are not.

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  3. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Frankly, I find it rather depressing to not be able to contemplate the possibility of at least eudaimonia in cases where the external conditions for “happiness” in the usual sense cannot be met. And this brings me to another weakness I see in the modern Aristotelian viewpoint: they argue that valuing externals as being necessary to the Good Life (either popular happiness or eudaimonia or both) and embracing a certain degree of anger are important in order to practice the virtue of Justice, because how else are people going to be motivated to help others to improve their condition if their condition somehow doesn’t matter? But yet, there are certain matters of virtue which do not involve improving external conditions for oneself or others. For example: the environment. Cutting our rate of environmental damage and adapting to the damage we’ve already done will probably require a net loss of external conditions for all of humanity, with of course the privileged taking the biggest loss, like a steep graduated income tax. I think Stoicism can help with this. Aristotelianism may make it harder to be willing to accept such losses when it’s been stuck in the mind that external conditions are necessary for the Good Life.

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  4. Paul Braterman

    it is unfortunate that the term “stoic” (like the term “cynic”) has acquired its current meaning in common speech, and it seems that what Gibson is attacking (yes, I did look), with accusations of quietism, and confusion between “indifferents”and “indifference”, corresponds to that degraded meaning rather than to the complex reality.

    In the UK at least, popularising science is no longer sneered at. Richard Attenborough is widely esteemed, not only for his enthusiasm and skill as a presenter, but for his lucid and scientifically perceptive interpretations. Well-known professors of public understanding of science include Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Richard Wiseman, and Richard Dawkins, and if we have reservations about the last of these, it is not primarily because of his scientific writings. And in the States, successful publicisers who are also contributors to the science they describe include Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Sean Carroll (both of them), and Lawrence Krauss (to some of whom that same caveat applies).

    Perhaps The Obstacle is the Way is just a new kind of psychobabble, or perhaps it is a successful popularisation of what is recognisably Stoic thought; I have ordered it from the library to find out. Meantime, I suspect that Gibson has written hastily, but thank him for indirectly drawing that book to my attention.

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  5. Alan Rutkowski

    Regarding the popularization of philosophy, this quote by Noam Chomsky is a nice rebuttal to academics who talk and write only for each other:

    “Left intellectuals took an active part in the lively working class culture. Some sought to compensate for the class character of the cultural institutions through programs of workers’ education, or by writing best-selling books on mathematics, science, and other topics for the general public. Remarkably, their left counterparts today often seek to deprive working people of these tools of emancipation, informing us that the project of the Enlightenment" is dead, that we must abandon theillusions” of science and rationality – a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.”

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  6. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I think the beef was not with popularization in and of itself in the critical post, but in particular the popularization among aspiring businesspeople in the youthful elite. There’s much to be criticized about such a subculture, I suppose, but Stoicism, however much that particular subculture may under-emphasize certain virtues or overplay some rather very flawed exemplars as Stoic role models, seems to be one of the more promising currents within it. Also, given how dominant the business model is in our culture, appealing to business-oriented people may be necessary to get enough people interested initially so that they can look deeper and make their own sense of what their eudaimonia would look like. I’d rather they turn to Stoicism, if only as a trend, than just seek out whatever life-hacks they think will make them rich without having a healthy dose of ethical philosophy sprinkled in!

    I myself have long enjoyed popular books about fields of study outside my own specialty, and especially the social sciences, and got into Stoicism through its popularization in a book about “happiness” (defined in the usual sense) without positive thinking. From there, I explored various other Western moral philosophy threads – mostly in popular books – including the Stoic-inspired philosophies of Thoreau and Emerson, utilitarianism, cases against mainstream consumerism, psychology-based views that strike me as modern Aristotelianism (making no real distinction between happiness and eudaimonia or passions and emotions, although perhaps it’s because they do not feel that one can exist without the other), and assorted good-old-fashioned values, before I really settled on Stoicism as my guiding philosophy of life.

    As for criticism of popularizers as sell-outs, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these same academics wouldn’t shy away from high status and external rewards within their own academic community, which more and more tend to make academia look a lot like business. Even prominent scientists, who have achieved fame in their own academic communities, have been wary of the implications of what might be called internal selling out.

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  7. Alan Rutkowski

    I see your point, Julie, about the milieu in which the popularization takes place. Some object to a neologism like “impact” as a verb not because there is anything with making nouns verbs, a natural process in English, but because such neologisms (Incentivize is another one) almost invariably occur in a context of business-speak and management gobbledygook.


  8. Michael Baranowski

    While I agree that much of the negative reaction to Ryan Holiday and other Stoic popularizers may be a combination of envy and elitism, I think some critics make a valid point when they argue that much of Stoicism Lite downplays ethics and turns it into a sort of narcissistic self-help centered on not caring about things you can’t control. And yes, being indifferent to externals is hugely important, but take away the cosmopolitanism and justice, and you have not just simplified Stoicism, but something that’s simply not what Epictetus and company were getting at.


  9. Alan Rutkowski

    Michael, here is an example of the Stoicism lite you are talking about. In a blog post entitled “Why Stoicism Is Having a Cultural Moment,” Chiara Sulprizio writes:

    “For both Stoic philosophers and modern mindfulness advocates, it’s not enough to endure life’s ups and downs; we should appreciate and enjoy all that it brings. Seneca encapsulates the sentiment well in his essay On the Happy Life: “The happy man is content with his present lot, no matter what it is, and is reconciled to his circumstances; the happy man…allows reason to fix the value of every condition of existence” (7.6). Ancient Stoicism may seem far removed from us in time and space. But Seneca’s words, which echo those of modern-day gurus like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, clearly demonstrate that when it comes to helping ourselves, Stoicism’s aims and message may be more resonant than ever.”

    Comparing the message of Seneca to the soft-headed drivel of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle is not a good sign.


  10. Massimo Post author

    Michael, Alan,

    Right, Chopra is an awful comparison. But of course we have no control over how people use or misuse Stoicism. The reason I don’t have a problem with Ryan is because I haven’t seen evidence of misuse. The guy has a different style from mine, and caters to a different audience, but he does understand Stoicism and has read the classics.

    Look at it optimistically: when people start abusing your philosophy it means that it got popular enough to be worth misusing…

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  11. Sophia Shapira

    The way you state that out-of-context is a form of sophistry. The full acronym stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” which paints a very different picture from what you suggested by staying out-of-contract what the “E” stands for. And your “never, every forget” admonition makes it very hard to believe that your distortion wasn’t deliberate.


  12. Alan Rutkowski

    I disagree. Even those who don’t know what the full acronym stands for can easily look it up. Pointing out that the E stands for entertainment is a perfectly reasonable way of reminding us that TED talks are not deep or highly technical and are indeed intended to be entertaining as well as informative. The discussion, after all, was about the popularization of Stoicism.


  13. Sophia Shapira

    Actually, in it’s context, “Entertainment” is presented in the acronym one of three topic areas that the TED talks cover.

    I’m not saying that TED talks are supposed to be boring things that you would need to pinch yourself to stay awake through —- but the “E” in the acronym merely presents entertainment itself as one of three topics.

    Presenting it as though the acronym is presenting all TED talks as being just about entertainment is what I was criticizing.

    Let’s not forget the inverse corollary of the warning to the Fallacy Fallacy. You see — the warning to the Fallacy Fallacy reminds us that just because an argument is fallacious does not automatically mean that it’s conclusion has to be wrong. The inverse corollary of this warning is that just because an argument reaches a correct conclusion does not automatically mean that the argument itself is sound.

    So yes — I agree — TED talks are supposed to be engaging (that is, entertaining, in the sense of the word “entertaining” that doesn’t necessarily detract from documentary value) —- but the way you treat the “E” in the acronym as evidence of that is still sophistic.

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  14. Massimo Post author

    Not sure this discussion on TED is very productive. Some of what they do is entertaining and educational, some not, and some only one or the other…


  15. Sophia Shapira

    I agree, Massimo. That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.

    But I’m willing to disengage from the discussion about TED. It’s perfectly clear that you are right — I will not achieve anything by continuing to debate with these people.

    I love your blog article, though.

    In the old days, the main critics of the Stoics were the Epicureans —– and Epictetus thought that the Epicureans were pretty objectionable (to put it very mildly). But frankly, the Epicureans were nowhere near as narcisistic or as irrational as the Existentialists who these days have replaced the Epicureans as the main critics of Stoicism.


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