Julian Baggini on Stoicism and the problem with self-help

self helpFreelance philosopher and author Julian Baggini has a problem with self-help, with philosophy when it comes close to self-help, and therefore, apparently, with Stoicism. I take what Julian says seriously, since he is a thoughtful person, the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine (for which I occasionally write), and the author of a number of really, really good books that ought to be read widely. For instance, over at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato, I devoted a whopping eleven posts to an in-depth discussion of his marvelous The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Nevertheless, in what follows I’m going to push back on Julian’s take on self-help type philosophy in general, and Stoicism in particular, focusing on two short articles he wrote: “Should we be more Stoic?,” co-authored with Antonia Macaro (who, interestingly, recently published More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age), and “The problem with self-help.” (Notice that the first piece is from 2013, the second one from this year.)

“Should we be more Stoic?” was written on the occasion of the very first Stoic Week, and is part of a long running series of columns by Macaro and Baggini published in the Financial Times and eventually in book form. Macaro’s take is that there is a lot more to Stoicism than a bag of tricks or some useful therapeutic techniques, and I couldn’t agree more. However, she advises “unashamed cherry-picking” because “we live in very different times and it would be unreasonable to take on chapter and verse of Stoic philosophy.”

Well, yes, we live in different times from those of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, but only up to a point, really. Human nature hasn’t changed, and the following premeditatio malorum by Marcus still very applies today:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations, II.1)

That is why Stoicism (like Buddhism, the other subject of Macaro’s own book, written a few years after her column) is still so very pertinent today. And while it is certainly the case that one should not take onboard wholesale a philosophy that got started 23 centuries ago (see here, for instance), it doesn’t follow that one should do unashamed cherry-picking. First, because Stoicism is a coherent system of thought, not really amenable to too much cherry-picking; second, because cherry-picking is a close companion to pure and simple rationalization, where one ends up “picking” what is convenient and neglecting what is harder and yet useful.

But it is Baggini, in that column, that fires heavy shots against Stoicism. He begins by stating that “when it comes to adopting any kind of philosophy, the lower case is king,” continuing: “the only followers philosophers should have are the kind that follow up and through, and not simply after.” Well, Seneca himself agreed when he said:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these [Stoic] doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

So much for just following after instead of up and through. Baggini insists: “Given that more than two millennia have elapsed since the Stoics developed their ideas, it would seem especially odd to relight their torch and carry it through the streets of our modern cities. The idea that the driving forces of the universe are reason and fate, for example, should have been exploded by the discovery of the Big Bang.” But this betrays a somewhat superficial acquaintance with Stoic philosophy, both ancient and modern. Few modern Stoics accept the original pantheism and the idea of a living universe animated by the Logos. And even the ancient ones openly admitted that their metaphysics under-determined (to use a modern philosophical term) their ethics. That’s why Marcus has several “gods or atoms” passages in the Meditations. Moreover, remember that the crucial part of the Stoic curriculum, even in ancient times, was the ethics (how to live your life), not the physics (natural science and metaphysics) and the logic (logic, rhetoric, and cognitive science). The three are certainly connected, but they don’t admit of a simple linear mapping onto each other.

Julian is right when he says that “we can adapt and borrow any particular Stoic methods that work. But that no more makes you a Stoic than practising meditation makes you a Buddhist.” But this would imply that therefore there are no modern Buddhists, only meditators. Or perhaps that Buddhism-the-philosophy is quaint and obsolete, and that only meditating techniques ought to survive. That is a strange and hard proposition to defend, though. Philosophies, like religions, evolve and adapt to new times and new knowledge, but they are useful insofar they still provide their adopters (or followers, in the case of religions) with a framework for navigating the world, a moral compass, as it were, which goes well beyond whatever practical techniques may have been developed within such philosophies and religions in the course of millennia.

Baggini concludes the first article by stating that “Stoicism itself stands or falls – or more likely limps along – on the soundness of its arguments, not its effect on our psychological wellbeing.” Again, true. But there ain’t no limping going on here, and if one needs any convincing that 21st century Stoicism is alive and logically sound, then I suggest a good reading of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (or, if you are in a bit of a hurry, of my author-approved ten part series on the book).

The second, more recent piece I want to comment on is a solo production by Julian, written five years after the first article, and focusing on the “problem” of self-help. It begins by paying homage to concert pianist James Rhodes, who doesn’t like the idea of self-help because “the ‘good-enough human being’ should indeed be good enough. … There is a huge amount of space between happiness and unhappiness and someone in between is OK.”

Good enough “should” indeed be good enough? On what grounds? I know what Rhodes and Baggini are complaining about, as I’m not a fan of the standard self-help genre where one is promised the Moon if only one adopts seven habits, follows ten rules, or asks himself who moved his cheese. But as Julian himself immediately adds, there is nothing wrong with the idea of self-help per se, the issue is how it is done and for what purpose. A tendency of self-help authors to over-claim and over-simplify is certainly both common and damnable. But one can hardly accuse the Stoics of ether sin, unless one utterly misunderstands (which Baggini does not) passages like this one from Epictetus:

“If you regard only that which is your own [i.e., under your control] as being your own, and that which isn’t your own [i.e., not under your control] as not being your own, as is indeed the case, no one will ever be able to coerce you, no one will hinder you, you’ll find fault with no one, you’ll accuse no one, you’ll do nothing whatever against your will, you’ll have no enemy, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you.” (Enchiridion, III)

Julian writes: “these books assume we know what we want and what a good life looks like and simply help us to close the gap between life as it is and life as we’d prefer it to be. That’s why I think philosophy is not ‘self-help’ in the contemporary sense. Philosophy asks us to question what it means for a life to go well, what it means to be a good person. Not only might it provide no help reaching our current goals, it might even make us change them.” There is a lot packed in here, both exactly right and exactly wrong. I don’t see as inherently objectionable to write books that are prescriptive rather than just descriptive. That’s what philosophy (unlike psychology) does, so it is strange for a philosopher to complain about books that tell people what a good life is. Socrates would certainly have written one such book, had he written anything at all. The problem is with the distorted potrary of the “good” (meaning, worth living) life which many modern self-help books present to their readers: it’s all about money, success, getting laid, and feeling “happy.” All things that the Stoics classed at best as preferred indifferents, which when pursued as a major goal distract us from what is really good about human life.

“Philosophy helps us to live better because living better doesn’t mean feeling better,” says Baggini, “if instead we’re reading self-help books, we’re allowing our pursuit of happiness to get in the way of our pursuit of the truly good life.” Indeed, completely agreed. But then it is strange, if not downright contradictory for him to write: “[That’s] why, for all its virtues, I was irritated by Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy, which had in large type on its back cover just one quote from Epicurus: ‘Any philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless.’ There goes Kant’s Critique, Descartes’ Meditations, Berkeley’s Treatise, etc, etc..”

I’m not a fan of de Botton, though I think he gets a bad rap from academic philosophers, largely because he is so successful and popular (Baggini himself has made a career as a freelance philosopher, and he is good at it, so perhaps he should be more charitable toward fellow travelers). And I’m also not, broadly speaking, on the side of Epicurus. But just as Seneca puts it when he explains to his friend Lucilius why he often quotes Epicurus in his letters:

“It is my custom to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy.” (Letters to Lucilius II.5)

In the specific case, Epicurus had a point, and he was speaking specifically — like the Stoics often did, including Seneca and Epictetus — of people who are interested in philosophy for the sake of hair splitting, engaging in logic chopping as a sport, with no thought toward searching for truth or improving themselves. As for Kant, Descartes, Berkeley, and many others, I’m pretty sure they were convinced that their work would make this a better world, which is why they were interested in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. I’m guessing that de Botton chose that quote by Epicurus to make the point that much modern (academic) philosophy has instead devolved into precisely the sort of hair splitting and logic chopping that we should all find objectionable. Including Julian.

14 thoughts on “Julian Baggini on Stoicism and the problem with self-help

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    Self help is a political and advertising term. Reading a book and following someone else’s instructors is a student or disciple. It seems that Baggini is defending a ‘supermarket’ conception of philosophy. To me, consistency of interpretation is what differentiates that conception from a synthetic or eclectic philosophy.


  2. Ted Petrocci

    Love these debates. Shall we say,” give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he will forever be searching for the next biggest fish” (my version)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Plutarch

    I wonder, was Seneca intentionally playing off Diogenes when he compared himself to a spy in the Epicurean camps…. I know Diogenes liked to present the Cynic philosopher as a spy or herald who revealed the true and false values of the society they were a part of. And the Stoics certainly admired the Cynics… What do you think Massimo?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ronald Salmond

    Excellent commentary Professor Pigliucci. Professor are you familiar with philosopher Nigel Warburton’s critique of Stoicism?

    In his book “A Little History of Philosophy” Warburton writes the following on Stoicism.

    ” One way of looking at the main teaching of the Stoics is to think of it as a kind of psychotherapy, a series of psychological techniques that will make our lives calmer. Get rid of those troublesome emotions that cloud your thinking and everything will be much more straightforward.”

    Warburton then writes the following which I disagree with:

    “Unfortunately, though, even if you manage to calm your emotions, you may find that you have lost something important. The state of indifference championed by the Stoics may reduce unhappiness in the face of events we can’t control. But the cost might be that we become cold, heartless, and perhaps even less human. If that is the price of achieving calm, it may be too high.”

    In my view, Warburton’s assertion that the practicing Stoic “may become cold, heartless, and perhaps even less human” reflects a misunderstanding of Stoicism and is not born out when we look at the lives of famous Stoics from antiquity and the lives of modern day Stoics.

    Warburton seems to be describing the small ‘s’ stoicism that the character Mr. Spock and Vulcans of the television science fiction classic Star Trek were famous for.

    Reference: Nigel Warburton, ‘A Little History of Philosophy” page 33


  5. Massimo Post author


    I know Nigel well, I think he has softened his position on Stoicism since chatting with me, on and off the microphone. At the least, I hope so. You are correct that the description you mention refers to s-toicism, not S-toicism.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. kevinalterfritz

    Just curious, Massimo: What it is you find problematic with de Botton? (I have no strong feelings about him either way. I read his Consolations of Philosophy and it seemed anodyne to me.)


  7. Massimo Post author


    as you say, de Botton is rather anodyne, and Consolations of Philosophy was one of his best… Also, I’m perfectly fine with marketing oneself (one has to, as a freelance), but the shops at the various Schools of Life strike me as a bit over the top.


  8. Alison McCone

    Hi Massimo, lovely to see your views of Baggini, Macaro, Warburton and de Botton. Tackling the various criticisms of Stoicism and stoicism, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, is essential to ensure that either as a philosophy or a self-help therapy it remains relevant to its purpose. Based on very different situations obviously each of the opinions expressed above is coming from a specific viewpoint. When I was a complete newcomer to Stoicism Today at Exeter and from a non-academic background I definitely encountered problems in my own interpretation of Stoic doctrines and was very grateful to Antonia Macaro whom I wrote to at the time for advice. As Nigel Warburton describes I was becoming cold and detached from my human side, which had hitherto been prone to being highly emotional, and I definitely felt numbed. By deciding to study Philosophy and Psychology at the Open University I have learnt the skills needed to understand Stoicism as philosophy and not simply cherrypick in an attempt to self-treat with REBT. Baggini and Warburton are both contributors to my course, and now of course Nigel Warburton has moved on from the OU and is to be highly commended for bringing philosophy to so many listeners and readers around the world in such an unbiased and objective fashion. In the 2015 edition of the OU ‘Living Psychology’ text book there is a mention of ‘stoicism’ and the influence it has had on the self-help books of Burkeman (2012) who drew heavily on the work of Albert Ellis, the inventor of rational emotive behaviour therapy. However, due to the very nature of Stoicism as a philosophical ‘movement’ or ‘doctrine’ will there always be controversy over its position as a ‘psychological therapy’? Understanding and interpreting it is complex. Great to see it all being discussed here Massimo, thank you. And by the way, as a newbie to philosophy many years ago, I found de Botton’s ‘School of Life’ to be a very gentle introduction to philosophy (thanks to Mark Vernon for a super day on Ancient Philosophy). Surely it doesn’t matter how seeds of philosophy are sewn as long as the trees of wisdom keep growing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. John Kluempers

    As highly fascinated with yet also a novice to Stoicism, I gobble up much of what you write here at How to be a Stoic and in your books.
    Slightly off topic, since I am not certain how to contact you, Massimo: will there be a summer Stoic camp in Rome this summer?
    Thanks very much for all you do to promote a school of philosophy that matters much to me.


  10. Massimo Post author


    Yes, the call is,already out for the Summer Stoic School in Rome:

    Summer Stoic School in Rome

    Thursday, Jul 5, 2018, 8:00 PM

    No location yet.

    21 Stoics Went

    What Spend three days in Rome studying ancient and modern Stoicism! Join Massimo and a small group of prokoptontes and prokoptousai (male and female students of Stoicism) to dig into Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, learn about practical Stoicism and how to apply it to your life. While there, walk through the Roman Fori or visit the National Roman Mus…

    Check out this Meetup →


  11. Mintareja Budi Dharma

    Dear Massimo,
    Perhaps what Baggini meant is there are other ethical systems that are logical and consistent as well. The question then becomes, first and foremost, which ethical system one should subscribe to. To answer the question, one needs to develop the ability to understand oneself and also acquire the knowledge to identify a logical consistent ethical system. Self-help books, including one on Stoicism, skipped this first question.

    Is there any hole in my line of thinking?

    Thanks Massimo for spending the time to write and reach out to us.


  12. Massimo Post author


    good question, but actually Stoicism is logically consistent. The Stoics were good logicians, so they were aware of this problem. And modern Stoic Larry Becker has actually developed a formal proof supporting Stoic ethical logic.

    But more crucially, the issue is whether a way of thinking and acting in the world makes sense and is useful. More than one system may work, for instance Stoicism, Buddhism (in at least some of its incarnations), even Epicureanism…


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