Everyone from Silicon Valley billionaires to self-help enthusiasts is repurposing Stoicism for our modern age, with results that are good, bad, and highly indifferent.
Last September, a communications worker at the European grocery chain Lidl was fired for calling Asian people “greasy.” The worker, Samuel Jackson, sued Lidl in response, claiming that he was a victim of religious and belief discrimination. Jackson said at a virtual hearing in the UK that he doesn’t concern himself with the external consequences of his words or actions as part of his adherence to the ancient philosophy, Stoicism.
“Given that his job is in communications, one can see the potential for conflict, but that is a separate issue,” the judge noted, before ultimately finding that Stoicism is a belief protected under the Equality Act and allowing the case to proceed to the next stage.
Over the last 10 years, Stoicism has gone from a topic confined to philosophy lectures to one consumed by the masses. Sometimes referred to as Modern Stoicism, Stoic ideas and texts are now found in dedicated podcasts, newsletters, Instagram accounts, self-help books, personal coaching, and in-person events, like the well-attended annual event Stoicon.
During the pandemic, Stoicism’s popularity has only grown. Print sales of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius went up 28% in the first part of 2020 compared to 2019, and print sales of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic increased 42%. E-book sales of Letters from a Stoic went up 356%. Penguin Random House told The Guardian that while 16,000 copies of Meditations were sold in 2012, more than 100,000 copies were sold in 2019. “We have noticed a natural (slightly mysterious) year-on-year increase in our sales of the Stoic philosophers,” the Penguin representative said.
As trends go, a philosophy that preaches emotional tranquility, reason, and virtue would seem to be on the beneficial end of the spectrum. But Jackson’s case is just one example of what can happen when an ancient philosophy becomes popular, widely adopted, and, at times, distorted.
Alongside broad general interest, Stoicism has an outsized allure in certain cultural spheres. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square and Twitter, has been called the “Silicon Valley Stoic” for his 5 a.m. wake-up time and ice baths. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, has called Meditations her favorite book. Billionaires like Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Cuban have been described as Stoics, and there’s an entrepreneurship-focused lobbying firm, the Cicero Institute, named after the Stoic Roman philosopher. Classicist Donna Zuckerberg—Mark’s sister—has pointed out the rise of a small, but troubling, group of far-right men who gravitate towards Stoicism to validate misogynistic and racist beliefs. A question currently dogging Modern Stoicism is a disconcerting one: Are billionaire and incel Stoics missing the mark? Or, are there elements of Stoicism that inherently justify their conduct and beliefs?
The answer is, “Perhaps.” Stoics, unlike their contemporaries the Epicureans and the Cynics, had no position against extreme wealth or status; they were not to be sought after, but if you happened to be wealthy or powerful, so be it. It would be a misread to say that Stoicism encourages emotional suppression, but it is focused on emotional regulation—an appealing skill for those who view emotions as irrational, weak, or unmasculine. And Modern Stoicim’s emphasis on focusing only on what you can control, in some permutations, can support expressions of capitalistic individualism that view wealth status or social disparities as givens, and place priority on furthering personal interests or affluence; this might be more likely in iterations of Modern Stoicism that don’t highlight themes of interconnectedness that arise from Stoicism’s metaphysical, pantheistic side.
Modern Stoicism has interesting parallels with how Buddhism and mindfulness have integrated into personal, wellness, and corporate spaces alike. Mindfulness, like Stoicism, can both be a boon for individual and collective mental wellbeing, and also a stand-in for more meaningful measures or activism—as when companies provide mindfulness or meditation workshops in lieu of living wages or better health insurance. As the next ancient form of wisdom to go mainstream, Stoicism will be subject to similar competing applications.
What is Modern Stoicism used for? Inner peace and mental serenity? Productivity and creating a Fortune 500 company? Fighting against climate change and for social justice? It’s currently all of the above, depending on who you ask. Stoicism’s memeable soundbites and its practical advice make it both incredibly useful as a strategy of resilience, and highly commercializable and pliant to varying interpretations. It can serve as an accessible entry to philosophy, offer genuinely helpful coping mechanisms, and a way to approach difficult circumstances, or, it can be adapted to justify one’s pre-existing lot in life, forgo larger social change, and regulate away messy emotions, even in moments when vulnerability or attachment might be more beneficial. It will be up to the Modern Stoics to define the boundaries and applications of the philosophy so that it aligns with, to borrow a Stoic phrase, a virtuous life.
Stoicism first appeared around 300 BC in Greece, when a merchant named Zeno lost all of his belongings in a shipwreck and began to practice philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, a painted colonnade in the Agora of Athens from which Stoicism derives its name. But the most complete and renowned Stoic texts we have come from when Stoicism was popular in Rome: Meditations, by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius; Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, a philosopher and advisor to the emperor Nero; and the Enchiridion, by freed-slave philosopher Epictetus.
These texts feel exceptionally modern in their descriptions of the frustrations we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Take the opening of Meditations: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” Even the emperor of Rome had to deal with annoying people; it’s easy to imagine reciting this before opening Twitter.
Though it is a rich philosophy that can’t be fully explained in brief, there are powerful and intuitive core observations that lie at the heart of Stoicism. Living a good life, to the Stoics, was about being as virtuous as you could be, through your capacity for reason. The Roman Stoics valued rational thinking above all, and thought that a person had control not over external events, but over their responses to those events. Anything that happens, whether it be a pandemic, war, your health, the weather, others’ actions—if you have no control over it, it’s not reasonable for you to expend negative emotional energy on it. Any distress that comes from such events comes from your reactions to them, which you can modify for the better.
“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible,” said Epictetus. “The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status—in a word, anything not in our power to control.”
This came in handy because the years during which Stoicism was developed were full of political upheaval. The Greek world was upturned by Alexander the Great and his Macedonian armies, and there was a pandemic to contend with, too. “People were dealing with political chaos, a feeling of powerlessness, pandemics, and harvest failures,” said Angie Hobbs, a professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. It’s not surprising that something like, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them,” as Epictetus wrote, could be a salve in tough times.
Thousands of years later, that notion became useful to Jules Evans, a philosopher and research fellow at the Center for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. From the ages 18 to 23, he experienced severe social anxiety, as well as PTSD from a bad psychedelic trip. Going to a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) group for social anxiety reminded him of some of the Stoic texts he had read as a teenager. He learned that the creators of CBT had been directly inspired by the Stoics, and decided to dive headlong into Stoicism.
Evans’s timing was apt; this was right at the beginning of the Modern Stoicism movement. There was a fledgling website called The Stoic Registry where people could proclaim “I’m a Stoic.” (“It had about 100 members,” Evans said.) He started writing its newsletter and helped to organize its first gathering in 2010 in San Diego. Twelve people showed up.
“My friends thought I was incredibly eccentric to go to California to hang out with some Stoics on Marcus Aurelius’s birthday,” Evans said.
He then went to a seminar at Exeter University on Modern Stoicism organized by professor of philosophy Christopher Gill. After that, Evans said, they organized an online course in 2012 called Live Like a Stoic. It was very popular, and led to a conference called Stoicon, which is still happening today. By one count, the online Stoic community now has over 100,000 active participants.
The idea of creating distance between external events and your reactions to them can be a profound one, offering space that makes stressful and demanding life circumstances feel more manageable. On the subreddit for Stoicism, people frequently discuss how Stoic principles are a guiding light in dealing with work and relationship stress, anger management, anxiety, and caring less about what others think and do.
Podcast host and author Tim Ferriss, whose TED talk on Stoicism has more than three million views, has said that Stoicism doesn’t force a person to be a “cow standing in the rain accepting whatever tragedy and terrible circumstances befall it,” but rather provides a way to thrive in high-stress environments. “It is a framework for making better decisions and training yourself to be less reactive,” Ferriss said in a YouTube video.
Stoicism offers other practical advice, like the technique called premeditatio malorum, which says to rehearse in your mind all of the bad things that might occur in a day and how you might react to them. Amor fati, or love of fate, involves learning to accept whatever happens to you, and spending time reflecting on your own mortality and that of your loved ones. (“When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you,” Epictetus said.)
But the steep rise in Modern Stoicism eventually paved the way for the emergence of a Silicon Valley flavor of Stoicism, or what Greg Sadler, the editor of Stoicism Today, calls “Bro-icism.” It zeroes in only on the skills needed to build start-up companies, or having grit while taking ice baths and sleeping on the floor. There’s also $toicism, where the S is replaced with a dollar sign. “There are people out there selling coaching, and it’s not engaging with classical Stoicism,” Sadler said.
Somewhere in between is Ryan Holiday, a former public-relations strategist for American Apparel, where “he did damage control during the company’s ouster of its controversial founder, Dov Charney,” the New York Times has reported. Holiday has also written a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, about marketing techniques that generate media attention.
The Obstacle Is the Way, Holiday’s book based on Meditations, has been translated into 19 languages, and he’s written an impressive number of Stoicism tomes since, along with leading workshops and helping run the Daily Stoic website, newsletter, and Instagram page, which has one million followers. “Stoicism is a philosophy designed for the masses, and if it has to be simplified a bit to reach the masses, so be it,” Holiday told the Times in 2016.
In May, Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, had a less friendly take, writing in the Times that Modern Stoicism was now a “mega-industry.”
“Today,” she wrote, “Stoicism is not so much a philosophy as a collection of life hacks for overcoming anxiety, meditations for curbing anger, exercises for finding stillness and calm — not through ‘oms’ or silent retreats but through discourse that chastens a mind.”
I participated in Holiday’s recent Stoicism 101 program, which included a daily email and several office hour Zoom sessions, where people asked questions about applying Stoicism to their modern lives.
Overall, I thought the course was valuable. It offered not just life hacks, but history lessons and quotes from the original texts. Holiday sent around reading lists and encouraged us to do more study on our own. The program emphasized doing good for others and the importance of community, and in the office hours, people earnestly asked about handling the stresses of daily life with more virtue and Stoic-like wisdom.
Some of the tips were so general, though, that I hesitate to call them Stoicism, even if I can find parts of the Stoic texts that reference them. Things like “wake up early,” “go for a walk,” “journal,” “eat well,” “read,” and “get active” are good pieces of advice, but surely not specifically Stoic behaviors.
Too much emphasis on these reductive tips can breed certain strains of Modern Stoicism that feel awfully life hack-ridden, or focused primarily on things like productivity. (See listicles like “10 Reasons Why Stoicism Is A Great Contribution To Corporate Culture.”) It’s easy to find references to Stoicism as the “ultimate self-help ideology,” or as a way to “eliminate negative emotions.”
If these Stoicism-tinged self-help regimens are of use to people, why should it matter? It’s the implications of such advice that are worrying. The idea that our thoughts and beliefs, rather than external events, inform our emotions is a key component to CBT, as Evans discovered. Stoicism, though, is not therapy, and its targeted uses and effects are not the subject of a vast body of research and practical experience. “It reframes therapy as a philosophy, and quite a manly philosophy at that,” Evans said. “Stoicism has lots of wrestling metaphors, gladiator metaphors, soldier metaphors. And it comes out of the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome, which were quite masculine cultures.”
It’s reminiscent of the “Men will … before going to therapy,” meme, with the blank in this case being filled with “become a Stoic.” By calling coping with emotional distress “Stoicism,” people get to bypass the stigma of working on their mental health and say that they’re engaging in the intellectually rigorous practice of philosophy instead.
And as Olivia Goldhill put it in Quartz, “there’s something a little eye-rollingly predictable about Silicon Valley elites latching onto a philosophy that teaches them how to accept the things they cannot change.” Whatever the ancient Stoics intended, Stoicism is so open for interpretation today that those who aren’t inclined towards activism can use it as an excuse for passivity, whether consciously or not. One might look at Epictetus’ dichotomy of control and think, “If climate change or police brutality is out of my control, then it’s not for me to worry about.”
Ada Palmer, an historian at the University of Chicago, argues that Stoicism is popular in places like Silicon Valley particularly because it doesn’t require a person not to be a CEO of a successful company to be a Stoic. “The Romans loved Stoicism because it was a philosophy that was compatible with political life,” Palmer said.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that billionaires love a philosophy that doesn’t require them to give up on their wealth, but accept their role in the world, and counsels the less fortunate to not worry so much about their circumstances and accept their lot—as Zeno did when he lost all of his possessions.
“There is a risk that the mega-rich will seek philosophies that basically validate themselves and their lifestyles rather than awakening them to their blind spots, their obligations to their fellow beings,” Evans said.
The metaphysical side of ancient Stoicism contains an explanation as to why we shouldn’t worry about external events but simply our reactions to them—but it raises more potential problems.
The Stoics were monists, and thought that the universe was all connected, made of a divine rational substance called logos. The universe, they believed, was rational because it was organized by logos: Whatever happens is what’s meant to happen. Even things that seem bad to you have been ordained by the divine spark of logic, and so what’s actually bad is your response, which you can change and have control over.
“Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will and more responsibility,” wrote Gregory Hays, associate professor of classics at the University of Virginia, in the introduction to his translation of Meditations. “In reality the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement, and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable.” Hays described it like this: Imagine that we are like a dog tied to a moving wagon. “If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged.”
Palmer thinks there is a tension between social improvement and such thinking, which asserts that there is an underlying justness to human life. “Much like a kitchen knife can be a brilliant tool but can also be used for harm, similarly Stoicism can be a brilliant tool, but can also do harm when it’s used to justify Providentialist thinking,” she said, “making it easy to reassure oneself inside that the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, the sick, and the disabled somehow deserve it, that the world is already fair … and therefore that the affluent have no obligation to try to work to make a fairer world.”
Being committed to social change and progress and believing in Providence can be compatible, Palmer said. Yet it requires adhering to the idea that our reason, divine or not, was meant to be used, and that everything isn’t automatically good on its own. Everything can be good if we act on the world with the abilities that we have, and according to our virtues. This is, of course, a more complex idea that doesn’t always make it into Stoicism memes.
“There wasn’t a large sense of the scale of what humans can do in antiquity,” Palmer said. “Our power was not understood to be as great as it is. If you talked to someone in antiquity about suddenly making vaccines, the answer is what is a vaccine? They didn’t have the apparatus to just eliminate the disease; that’s much better than just consoling ourselves about the disease.”
Often in the modern age, we do have control over things, but perhaps not individually, and only if we work collectively. “My fear of both ancient and modern Stoicism is that it can make people give up the fight for social justice too quickly and think that things can’t be changed in the greater world, which perhaps could be chipped away at and changed a bit,” Hobbs said.
“When I hear things like Jeff Bezos is a Stoic—no, he isn’t,” said Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. “He definitely isn’t, because a major point in his life seems to be to engage in entrepreneurship and make money. And he’s done that by exploiting other people and acting in an anti-competitive way. Those are both unethical. And the major thing for a Stoic is to be ethical.”
Pigliucci came to Stoicism during one of those periods of life that seems determined to overwhelm: His father died, he got divorced, he changed jobs, and moved cities. He read about Stoic Week on Twitter, and became entranced after reading Epictetus.
As a scientist, Pigliucci said, he can’t accept the idea that the cosmos is a living organism, so he leaves that bit of Stoicism in the past. Whenever you reject part of a philosophy or religions metaphysics, there are consequences to it. For Pigliucci, it means he no longer believes in the ancient Stoic concept of Providence.
“If my daughter dies, I am not going to be happy about it, because I don’t believe it’s for the good of the universe,” Pigliucci said. “At the same time, I am going to have to accept it because it’s in the nature of things. And I still have duties to other people, other children, or toward my wife, or toward my friends.”
He still considers himself a Modern Stoic, though, and Pigliucci thinks you can view the Stoic’s pantheistic rational universe through a modern lens. Philosopher Lawrence Becker’s book A New Stoicism argues the same: If Stoicism hadn’t died out at the end of antiquity, then it would have been updated or modified naturally as the world modernized, perhaps losing its pantheism.
“It’s not so much cherry picking, it’s more kind of updating in the light of more recent evidence,” said John Sellars, a reader in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. In fact, this is what the Roman Stoics did too—they were much more focused on the ethics of Stoicism than the metaphysics.
Pigliucci thinks of the world not as imbued with a substance called logos, but as a web of cause and effect, where things don’t happen without causes—and this helps to counter any potential for passivity. In many of the ancient works, there’s not an emphasis on personal outcomes or benefits, but rather “social ends,” or collective outcomes. The Stoics thought that all rational beings were part of the same cosmopolis, or community. This sort of reframing, Pigliucci said, can help to counter critiques of passivity within Stoicism.
In the new book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, they push for the idea that Stoicism can be a tool for social and environmental change foremost, not self-help. “I wouldn’t say that Stoicism should be seen as a tool or life hack,” Whiting, a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain in Belgium, said. “And that’s why my slight concern with Modern Stoicism is that it can unfortunately and unintentionally lead people in that direction.”
The ancient Stoics were anything but passive, Sellars said. In ancient Rome there was a movement called the Stoic Opposition, composed of members of the aristocratic senator class standing up to the emperor or the concentration of power.
“The Stoics aren’t trying to encourage us to become completely indifferent to the external world,” Sellars said. “All they want to do is for us to avoid excessive emotional disturbances caused by things in the external world.”
Will Johncock, the author of Stoic Philosophy and Social Theory, agreed, and said that the individual self-control that people think they’re going to achieve from Stoicism is not the most important part of philosophy. “If you’re going to discuss Stoicism in these highly self defining terms, you’re going to misrepresent the philosophy and you’re going to send someone down a path which is arguably more isolating, mentally and more alienating than they’ve been feeling before,” he said.
He pointed me to an Epictetus passage: “A person never acts in their own interest or thinks of themselves alone, but, like a hand or foot that had sense and realized its place in the natural order, all its actions and desires aim at nothing except contributing to the common good.” Marcus Aurelius, for his part, agreed, writing, “It has long been shown that we are born for community …each creature is made in the interest of another.”
Whiting thinks that as it gets more popular, Modern Stoicism should take responsibility for the interpretations that encourage individualization, and the more nefarious applications. “Stoicism, when used as a tool rather than a philosophy as a whole, has an uncomfortable relationship with the right wing of the Republican Party, and we need to address that,” Whiting said.
In 2018, Donna Zuckerberg published Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, about how Red Pill communities could be drawn to classical philosophy, and use it to bolster their ideas. The “Red Pill” comes from The Matrix, and the moment when Neo swallows a red pill to see the truth about the world around him. “Red Pillers claim that they alone see through an ‘establishment narrative’ that oppresses heterosexual white men,” Zuckerberg wrote.
Evans said that he was once invited to speak on a podcast about Stoicism, the organizers of which turned out to be right-wing segregationists who helped organize the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. In an interview published in May with the philosopher Mary Beard, she apparently rolled her eyes when asked about Stoicism, and said, “All to the good when people are interested in the ancient world, but this is one of the more mystifying bits of interest: clichéd self-help from a philosophy that, if you looked at it really hard, was nasty, fatalistic, bordering on fascist.”
Sellars said that he thinks the kind of phenomena that Zuckerberg wrote about is a “storm in a teacup.” “I think she’s managed to dig up something that is incredibly marginal and tried to present it as a big problem,” Sellars said. “In all of my experience, engaging with the public on this, I’ve not encountered anyone that fits that description of the hard right, misogynistic people wanting to take up Stoicism. I think it’s incredibly marginal and not a big deal.” Sellars also said that despite the perception that Stoicism is for men, the official Stoic Weeks have had a good gender balance: In 2020, it was 57% male; in 2019, it was 60% male.
Zuckerberg agreed that in the community that takes Stoicism seriously, the people she’s writing about are in short supply. But in the types of online meeting grounds she explored in her book, she said, “the use of Stoicism is much more superficial yet also more disturbing.” She maintains that it’s the “unfortunate responsibility of people who take Stoicism seriously to insist that out-of-context quotations from Marcus Aurelius aren’t the full picture when it comes to Stoicism, and the reality is a lot more nuanced and less individualistic.”
Whiting felt that Zuckerberg’s warnings in her book went unheeded, and that people dismissed her. “I thought that we did not respond as a Stoic community with kindness to Donna,” Whiting said. “I don’t think we did enough to thank her for the stance that she took and the effort that she made. People say, ‘Oh, you know, she made us look bad.’ She made us look in the mirror.”
People within the Modern Stoic community should be able to criticize it, Evans said, rather than assuming the philosophy is impermeable to dangerous interpretation. “I’m a pluralist, so my basic position is that every philosophy has flaws. No philosophy is perfect. And I think sometimes people can latch on to Stoicism as the answer.”
While there have been activists who have been inspired by Stoicism, like Nelson Mandela, Evans said he has yet to see charitable endeavors emerge from the modern Stoic movement—so we shouldn’t assume it is, on its own, an altogether charitable position. After all, could we even tell that Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic if we didn’t have access to Meditations, which was not meant for wide public readership?
On a recent episode of the philosophy podcast In Our Times, host Melvyn Bragg wondered if there wasn’t a bit of romantic nostalgia when it comes to figures like Marcus that obscures his actions. “I mean, he was a military commander,” Bragg said. “He went into wars. The big monument to him is ringed by the number of barbarians he slaughtered. Christians were perceived to be near his philosophy in a way, but they were still criminals when he took power, and he didn’t pass a law stopping them being criminals.”
“Should modern Stoicism also be careful of ascribing too much modern activism to it?” wondered senior lecturer in ancient philosophy at Exeter University, Gabriele Galluzzo. The point isn’t that activism is a bad thing, but that to justify it through Stoicism might not be appropriate. Being an activist for social or climate justice is a good thing, of course—but does anyone need the justification of Stoicism to do good work? Or even to talk about it? As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.”
This is one potentially off-putting aspect that can be gleaned from certain corners of the Modern Stoic movement: the idea that one should only be a Stoic and that every activity you do should be done Stoically, as if it’s even possible to do so. Sadler said that most of the Stoicism Today team members are not quite so dogmatic about it; the ones who identify as Stoics are interested in and open to other philosophies. Even Seneca often quotes Epicurus—the alleged rival of Stoics—in Letters from a Stoic.
“I think that there’s a tendency among people who first get into it to think that it’s like an exercise program where you start benching and doing leg presses and you’re going to get to a certain number and now you’re done,” Sadler said. “It’s not like that at all. There are people who are obsessed with who’s the better Stoic than who. And that’s a very anti-Stoic thing to do.”
Palmer said that there was a recognition in the ancient world that very few people were ever completely successful at Stoicism. They said those who had done so were rare, and that there might only be one in a generation who achieved such levels of self-control and emotional tranquility.
“Almost everyone will still break down, and still fail,” Palmer said. “And that’s OK, because if it helps you four days a week, and you have a breakdown one day a week and need to use other tools, like cry on a friend’s shoulder, that’s normal human.”
Palmer referred me to Petrarch’s encounters with Cicero’s personal letters. Petrarch was a 14th-century Italian scholar who lived through the Black Death and tried to mine the Stoic Cicero’s letters for comfort. During the plague, many of Petrarch’s friends died, and at some point, he could no longer accept there was a rational universe or God creating such a plan. “He’s very overt about that he can’t accept it,” Palmer said. “And he asks, what did our generation do that was so much more terrible than all the other generations, so that they were visited with this?”
Later, when Petrarch wrote the book Remedies Against Fortune, Fair and Foul, which Palmer described as akin to a Stoic self-help book, he still believed that having “irrational” emotions about the plague was the appropriate response. “And that was a very un-Stoic thing to say,” Palmer said. “He basically said sometimes you just have to weep.”
Stoicism is a wonderful philosophy, but there are some elements missing, if it’s taken on too unilaterally. Evans found that focus on the rational can omit ecstatic, non-rational approaches to healing and meaning. Incidentally, this can be the case with CBT as well, which is not for everyone, or for every problem. “Some people find the idea of trying to rationalize away your negative beliefs doesn’t work, which is why some people prefer Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” Evans said. “I have a friend with OCD, and he can’t Socratically dispute his intrusive beliefs. That just makes it worse.”
“Stoicism accommodates emotions greatly, but some of the portrayals of stoicism that say you should be resilient to your emotions, that you should fight the conditions which enact the adverse emotions that you feel; I think that’s actually worse for someone who’s in a poor mental state,” Johncock said.
Even Ferriss has said that he doesn’t see himself as an evangelist for Stoicism, because he pulls from other philosophies too, like Buddhism and Epicureanism. “I find that to be a very helpful counterbalance,” Ferriss said in a Youtube video. Being 100% Stoic, 100% of the time can get “a little dry and somber.”
The desire to single out Stoicism—or any other philosophy, life hack, or diet, for that matter—as the solution for every woe a person faces might arise from a broader crisis of meaning, Evans said. “People don’t understand their own minds, and feel at the mercy of their thoughts and emotions,” Evans said. “They feel like their lives lack meaning or structure or they don’t have any moral compass. So they look to things like psychedelic trips, Stoicism, or Buddhism. But of course they look to them in modern Western culture where you have charismatic wellness entrepreneurs with all the issues there about their authority, and whoever’s the slickest gets the most votes.”
Evans still thinks that on the whole, Stoicism’s popularity is a good thing. “These are just helpful ideas and helpful practices,” he said. He compared it to where modern Buddhism has ended up. “Some people will go extremely deep into Buddhism and devote their lives to it,” he said. “And some people might just listen to Headspace for like 10 minutes a day. But that’s actually fine—either of those options.”
The ancient Greeks said that philosophical arguments are like medicines: Some would be appropriate for some people at certain times, others for other times. Stoicism is a useful medicine, and there may be times in our lives when swallowing it is better than others.
“Coming out of trauma, Stoicism was helpful for me because I had bad social anxiety, so it helped me to learn self-reliance,” Evans said. It was a helpful stage, but after a while, Evans felt it could become maladaptive. “As a growing man trying to develop emotions, I actually needed to learn how to depend on others, that actually vulnerability is not all bad.” That was the main reason he moved beyond Stoicism and doesn’t consider himself a Stoic now (even though he can’t get rid of his Stoicism tattoo).
“I thought it was lonely,” Evans said. “I wanted to learn to love. I would rather have attachments and suffer loss and grief and the risk of being rejected or let down things like that. That, for me, was the big limitation of Stoicism.”
All Rights Reserved for Shayla Love