Stoicism is a philosophy. Not a magic wand, a bag of tricks, or a prosperity gospel

A funny thing is happening now that Stoicism is part of the zeitgeist: people want to use it as a magic wand to solve any and all problems, as if practicing a philosophy of life (any philosophy of life, not just Stoicism) provided some kind of superhuman powers that can make us transcend our limitations as finite beings. Which is ironic, given that a central tenet of Stoicism — the dichotomy of control — is precisely about just how limited human powers really are.

For instance, ever since I started my Stoic advice column I got seriously challenging questions, ranging from how to deal with being transgender to what to do if one finds herself in an unhappy marriage, from whether and how to give to the homeless to preparing for death because of terminal cancer. I do my best, and all of these are precisely the sort of questions that a philosophy of life should be able to help with. And the column is an immensely rewarding aspect of my Stoic practice, because both the people who write letters to me and many readers tell me that they find help and comfort in Stoic philosophy.

Then again, there are those who ask what I think of as near-impossible questions: can someone who is severely cognitively impaired practice Stoicism? Well, no, because in order to understand and follow a philosophy one’s mental abilities have to be within the range of normalcy or near-normalcy. Ah! But isn’t that a limitation of Stoicism? No, or if it is, then it’s a limitation that it shares with any other philosophy or religion. Or with very different kinds of activities, for that matter. Consider: would you say that exercising at the gym is of “limited” value because one has to have arms or legs in order to lift weights? That would sound silly, wouldn’t it?

Or: can Stoicism deal with depression? It depends. There are examples of people suffering from different degrees of depression who have actually benefited from Stoic philosophy. But depression is a mental illness, and it requires professional medical intervention, in the form of psychotherapy and/or, if needed, psychiatric therapy. My colleague at City College, Lou Marinoff, wrote a best selling book provocatively entitled “Plato, Not Prozac!” about philosophical counseling as a tool for, as he puts it, “therapy for the sane.” But even Lou, despite his obvious skepticism of psychiatry, acknowledges in the introduction to the book that if your mind does not function properly you may, in fact, need Prozac (or whatever other effective medication). That will bring your mind back to a near-functional level, at which point you will still be faced by life’s ordinary questions, about meaning, relationships, career, goals, and so forth. For those, philosophy, not pills, are going to be the answer.

Speaking of the relationship between philosophy and psychology, an increasing number of people also seem to consider Stoicism just a bag of tricks, essentially detached from the underlying philosophy. This is not as objectionable as the above mentioned attitude (or the one I’m going to turn to next), as not everyone is interested in adopting or developing a philosophy of life (though, arguably, they should be! — see below). The analogy here is with the practice of, say, yoga. Yoga is actually a complex and ancient set of spiritual, mental and physical practices that are supposed to work harmoniously together. But many people in the West just take yoga classes because they are good for their body and decrease their stress level. That’s fine, so long as one is clear about the distinction. Similarly, many people who are into Buddhism are not practitioners of that (very demanding) philosophy. They just use meditation techniques to improve their wellbeing. Again, that’s fine, but don’t go around calling yourself a Buddhist if you don’t take seriously the philosophy underlying those techniques.

The same, I think, holds for Stoicism. As is well known, Stoicism has inspired a number of modern cognitive-based therapies, like rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. These approaches work, in many cases, and are useful to people. So if someone wishes to extract Stoic, or Stoic-inspired, exercises and mind tricks in order to improve their wellbeing, by all means they should do so. But that’s not Stoicism. Stoicism is a coherent philosophy of life, it comes complete with a particular view of ethics and eudaimonia, it prioritizes virtue over everything else (the so-called preferred indifferents), and it attempts to use our knowledge of the natural sciences and metaphysics, as well as of logic and cognitive science, for our own betterment. That’s a lot more than just a toolbox of practical techniques.

The third problem I see with certain developments in Stoicism sensu lato concerns what I have come to think of as the Stoic equivalent of prosperity theology, which, arguably, is no theology at all. I grew up Catholic, and I can tell you were in the Gospels (Mark 10,25; Matthew 19,24; and Luke 18,25) it actually says that not only wealth shouldn’t be a major goal in life, but rich people will have a hard time getting to heaven (presumably because in order to become rich one pretty much has to engage in not entirely Christian behaviors).

The Stoics had a similar attitude. While wealth is a preferred indifferent, meaning that it may be pursued so long as one does so in a virtuous fashion, it also comes with a particularly strong set of temptations to act unvirtuously. Here is Seneca, for instance, someone who knew a thing or two about both wealth and the temptations of unvirtuous behavior:

“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.” (Letter II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 6)

“That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good. But wealth falls to the lot of the pander and the trainer of gladiators; therefore wealth is not a good.” (Letter LXXXVII. Some Arguments in Favor of the Simple Life, 15)

“When you are choosing between two good men, the richer is not necessarily the better, any more than, in the case of two pilots of equal skill in managing the tiller, you would call him the better whose ship is larger and more imposing.” (Letter LXXIII. On Philosophers and Kings, 12)

“Money never made a man rich; on the contrary, it always smites men with a greater craving for itself.” (Letter CXIX. On Nature as Our Best Provider, 9)

(And yes, before you bring it up, Seneca was not a Sage.)

Here is Epictetus on the same theme:

“Do you not know what the thirst of a man in a fever is like, how different from the thirst of a man in health? The healthy man drinks and his thirst is gone: the other is delighted for a moment and then grows giddy, the water turns to gall, and he vomits and has colic, and is more exceeding thirsty. Such is the condition of the man who is haunted by desire in wealth or in office, and in wedlock with a lovely woman: jealousy clings to him, fear of loss, shameful words, shameful thoughts, unseemly deeds.” (Discourses IV, 9)

“I say that virtue is more valuable than wealth to the same degree that eyes are more valuable than fingernails.” (Fragments 13)

“The following are non-sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person, than you.’” (Enchiridion 44)

And, just in case you are still not convinced, here is Marcus:

“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” (Meditations, VIII.33)

“From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” (Meditations I.3)

Now, can anyone have read the above and then written an article entitled “What is Stoicism and How Can it Turn your Life to Solid Gold?” Appropriately, the article refers to Stoic techniques as “tricks,” and the word “virtue” does not appear in it, at all.

There are a number of other examples of application of Stoicism to business and entrepreneurship, from Ryan Holiday’s “7 ways billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates demonstrate the ancient philosophy of Marcus Aurelius” to Petrina Coventry’s “6 Ways Stoicism Can Help Entrepreneurs.” (What’s with the numbering, anyway?) Again, nothing wrong with using Stoic techniques to achieve whatever goal one wishes to achieve. But that’s not Stoic philosophy, as abundantly demonstrated by the collection of quotes given above.

Ah, but am I not being hypocritical here? Don’t I make money out of selling my own book, How To Be A Stoic? Of course I do. Just like I get paid by the City College of New York to teach philosophy there. Philosophers too have to make a living, as the ancient Stoics themselves discovered: Chrysippus, the third heard of the Stoa, is reputed to have been the first one who took money for his services, and both Zeno and Seneca were wealthy. Epictetus started as a slave and lived a modest life, but Marcus Aurelius was literally the most powerful and wealthy man in the Western world.

The question, therefore, isn’t whether one earns money, or how much. The question is whether that’s a chief goal of their lives. I can honestly say that I do not care how many copies of How To Be A Stoic are sold (don’t tell my editor, please). If many, that’s a preferred indifferent; if few, that’s a dispreferred indifferent. I would have written the book anyway, because I thought I had something to say. As always with virtue ethics, the focus is not on the outcome, but on the agent’s intentions. Pursuit of money for its own sake is definitely not Stoic. And even having a lot of money acquired virtuously is problematic, because large amounts of wealth carry strong temptations to act unvirtuously, either in spending that money, or in acquiring even more of it, or in misusing it to buy oneself influence, power, or reputation. Again, Seneca docet.

Now, none of the above should be construed as an attempt to “purify” Stoicism, to demarcate the good guys from the bad guys. On the contrary, I’ve maintained from the beginning of my own practice that Stoicism is neutral with respect to a large spectrum of metaphysical positions and political ideologies. But I think it is a disservice to both the history and the very idea of Stoic philosophy not to make the distinctions I made above. Stoic techniques can be used to improve your mental health or to become rich and successful. But neither is the goal of Stoic philosophy. That goal is one and one only: to become a better, more virtuous person. Everything else is indifferent, as preferred as it may be.

Now why would anyone want to practice the philosophy, instead of just picking and choosing the good bits, like many modern yoga practitioners or meditators? Because a philosophy of life provides you with a general framework to orient yourself in the world, it gives you quick access to what is truly important and what you can ignore, it equips you with a moral compass, and it helps you construct meaning out of what you do. In short, it allows you to live a eudaimonic life, the sort of life that, once you get to the end, you look back to it and justifiably feel that it was time well spent.

But why Stoicism in particular? Because of Epictetus’ promise, right at the beginning of his Handbook:

“Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (Enchiridion I.3)

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Categories: Modern Stoicism, Psychology

10 replies

  1. Well said, Massimo. I confess to experiencing twinges of annoyances when I see many online articles promising instant emotional and material gratification to those who employ the “life-hack “of Stoicism. But now I realize that a more Stoic attitude would be one of pity for those who fall prey to such false promises. They’re probably never going to know the true beauty, strength and power of Stoic philosophy. To quote a certain non-Stoic president: Sad,

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  2. Thanks, Massimo – ALL this needed to be said, especially by someone with an influential voice.

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  3. I think a lot of the articles (and some of the books) appearing which claim to be about Stoicism are akin to writing a book about football (soccer) and only discussing the goalkeeper. The reader will get some idea of what is going on, but they certainly won’t develop a good understanding of the game as a whole. However, as someone who came to the philosophy through reading “The Obstacle is the Way” (which I don’t think mentions virtue at all) I think some of these articles and books can serve as a gateway drug to “Stoicism as philosophy” rather than just life hack/mental trick. To be fair to Ryan Holiday, he does explicitly recommend reading Marcus, Epictetus and Seneca although how many of his readers actually do is obviously beyond his control.

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  4. Thank you for a really good description Massimo. Wealth has its uses and advantages. However we attribute too much value to it and many chase it all the time. Ultimately wealth cannot hold a candle to the happiness and satisfaction of focusing on what one can control, being truthful, and pursuing virtue which is always worthy of our focus, attention, and pursuit.

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  5. Stewart,

    I don’t have a problem with Ryan’s Obstacle, or the Daily Stoic. As you say, those are lighter entries in the modern canon, which may inspire people to dig deeper. And yes, Ryan does recommend primary sources.

    As should be clear from the OP, my problem is with those articles that try to sell Stoicism as a way to get rich, to succeed in business, etc.. At best, those are side effects, at worst they fundamentally distract from the primary goal, virtue.

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  6. “Stoic techniques can be used to improve your mental health or to become rich and successful. But neither is the goal of Stoic philosophy. That goal is one and one only: to become a better, more virtuous person. Everything else is indifferent, as preferred as it may be.” This article is represents a Eureka! moment in my attempt to practice Stoicism: I’ll now keep in mind the crucial distinction between Stoic philosophy and Stoic techniques, viewing Stoic techniques as recommended means to overcome potential hindrances, e.g., adversity, to the pursuit of the Stoic goal of being a “better, more virtuous person.” Many of those techniques are, of course, not unique to Stoicism, and there’s nothing inherent in them that automatically leads one to becoming a more virtuous person. One of my favorite seemingly Stoic-inspired quotes speaks to how wealth “comes with a particularly strong set of temptations to act unvirtuously,” and, although it wasn’t the author’s intent, for me puts Stoic techniques into perspective with respect to the goal of Stoicism: “Nearly all men can stand adversity,” Abraham Lincoln said, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

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  7. I’m possibly being ungenerous to “The Obstacle” (I’ve never read “The Daily Stoic”) but I see it as a book-length version of the articles you discuss. The blurb (on the UK edition) describes it as a “forgotten formula for success” and it seems to be about how to get what you want (worldly goods) rather than changing what you want (virtue). Having said that, I am grateful to it for setting me on a more Stoic path.

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  8. Can a person that sustain a different logic call herself a Stoic?

    In the way of progress a prokopton is confronted with a difficult decision, she should to accept natural explanations of our world or definitely she gonna get stranded in the way to virtue.

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  9. A useful reminder, thanks Massimo.
    Since I started trying to practice Stoicism I’ve been sleeping better after the self-examination, I’ve been going to exercice more frequently and with a stronger mind, I’ve been more focused at work and I’ve been happier with my partner. I’m also less upset by previously unbearable coworkers perhaps thanks to morning meditation. All this seeming to be part of a kind of virtuous cycle.
    It’s hard to keep in mind that those very desirable things are not the goal. And I can understand why some well intentioned fellows would want to “prescribe” Stoicism to help other people obtain them. I’ve been tempted to do it myself.
    So thanks again for reminding us that “the goal is one and only one: to become a better, more virtuous person. Everything else is indifferent, as preferred as it may be.”

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  10. Ivan,

    Not sure what you mean by “different logic.” Stoicism, like any virtue ethics, does bot prescribe unique solutions to problems. The answers may vary with circumstances and with the people involved, logic by itself — to paraphrase Mr. Spock from Star Trek — is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom.

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