No matter how much planning my teacher did for our fourth-grade field trip to the Circle Line Ferry, my personal commitment to Stoicism must have come as a surprise.
We students had all packed lunches, which went in three big coolers, which were loaded onto our buses and were supposed to have come onto the ferry. Only two of the coolers were actually transferred, and the teachers were breaking the bad news to the children with no lunches, trying to forestall meltdowns. “All right, then,” I said. “I just won’t be hungry.” My teacher seemed confused, so I explained, in my little, piping voice, “There’s no point in being hungry if I don’t have any food. I can’t control whether there’s lunch, I can only control if I’m upset about it. So I won’t be.”
I had picked up the outlines of Stoicism from my child’s encyclopedia of philosophy, and I stayed committed to it through college. When we read Epictetus’s Handbook in my Directed Studies course (a great books program my college offered), the professor opened discussion with “So, Stoicism, would you do it?” and I leapt in, saying I didn’t see any possible argument for not being a stoic. My classmates were less flummoxed than my elementary school teacher had been, but none of them seemed to feel the intrinsic correctness of Stoicism the way I did.
I loved Stoicism for two reasons, one petty and one profound. I liked that Stoicism seemed to make me stronger (and, thus, to my thinking then, better) than other people. While the other kids were upset, I was able to endure, and be unmastered by misfortune. (Stoicism was a pretty good way to get through the social cruelties of middle and high schools). But the other reason I liked Stoicism was because it was true. Hunger was basically a warning light, prompting me to eat. But, once the message had been received, there was no reason to leave the klaxon blaring when I couldn’t do anything about it. Leaning into hunger wasn’t just a recipe for frustration, it felt like buying into an untruth.
No matter how much I wanted it, I couldn’t summon food on the boat. Wallowing in my feelings seemed to imply that they were really hooked up to the causal nature of the world. But being upset about my inability to resolve such situations was as silly as feeling upset because I couldn’t walk through walls. Stoicism was a way of realigning my model of the world and my agency within it with the world as it truly is.
By the time Stoicism went mainstream, I was no longer identifying myself as a Stoic, and I’d converted from atheism to Catholicism. But if I had left Stoicism, many others had joined in my place. Two years after my baptism, 2014 marked the first Stoic Week, with coordinated events in four cities to bring modern Stoics together. Stoicon, a one day conference/festival of stoicism, began in 2013, and this year’s gathering will include more than a dozen talks, many by authors of books that aim to translate the handbooks of Epictetus and others for the modern reader.
What makes stoicism so attractive now? There’s a hint in the theme of 2017’s Stoicon: “Stoicism at Work.” Stoicism has picked up steam as it’s been packaged as a life-hack. Before you drink your Bulletproof Coffee and start your Four-Hour Work Week, why not arm yourself for the day with some Meditations from Marcus Aurelius?
Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs, Ego is the Enemy, and a collection of daily meditations for the aspiring stoic (The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living) has been one of the most successful evangelizers for this brand of stoicism.
Holiday’s works are book-length pep-talks, scattered with portraits of historical figures who succeeded in overcoming obstacles, ego, or both. Although in both books, Holiday credits these Stoic-derived ideas with changing his life, he gives almost no personal examples. Relying on these sketches of famous figures instead of inviting readers into his own life robs us of the chance to see what stoicism feels like from the inside.
Massimo Pigliucci does considerably better in his How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at CUNY-City College, is more forthcoming, sharing stories not just of his persistence, but about his ethical struggles. In one example, he recounts how, while withdrawing money from his bank’s ATM, he became so troubled thinking about the company’s questionable practices and whether he was culpable for them, that he left the ATM, walked into the branch, and closed his account.
For Pigliucci, Stoicism is a tool to help him live a more ethical life, not just a more successful, efficient, or effective one. By contrast, the only story Holiday tells about himself is how he dealt with the humiliation of writing multiple drafts of the very book the reader is holding. He tore up and composted the drafts he was finished with and used them to mulch his lawn. He writes in Ego is the Enemy, “I liked to remind myself that the same process is going to happen to me when I’m done, when I die and nature tears me up.”
The equivalence may give him comfort, but it illuminates a larger problem with Holiday’s philosophy. He doesn’t have a way to distinguish between the transcendent and the impermanent. Holiday comes close to articulating what I loved about stoicism at the beginning of The Obstacle is the Way when he says, “It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation and fear. But it’s worth it, for what’s left is truth.” But he spoils it in the next sentences when he adds, “While others are excited or afraid, we will remain calm and imperturbable. We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are—neither good nor bad.”
Stoicism doesn’t require this kind of moral blindness. Acknowledging that we are powerless to rectify a wrong can be true, denying that a wrong is wrong never is. Holiday’s stoicism is too shallow, focused on problems like my hunger on the boat—momentary discomforts—rather than, for example, engaging the moral problems of the hunger that accompanies poverty. When facing that kind of problem, sometimes a Stoic must ask, “Why isn’t this in my locus of control? Is there anything I can do to be able to do more?”
Holiday is writing for a business-focused audience; his readers may have trouble imagining that their daily grind has much ethical significance. Holiday stays focused on the virtues of endurance and persistence (“’Working at it works.’ It’s that simple.”), without too much thought about what higher values these instrumental virtues may serve.
Holiday’s amoral take on Stoicism takes him strange places. He praises Erwin Rommel twice for his determination, irrespective of what it was this Nazi general was determined to do. More mildly, he cites Angela Merkel as an effective politician, praising her patience and her humility, without appearing to give any thought to whether her policies are good. That isn’t necessarily a knock on a book about Stoicism. Stoicism is basically true, but it’s a narrow, insufficient truth. It’s a piece of how to see the world truly, but if it’s taken on its own, it’s no more helpful than looking through a telescope full-time. Too much is left outside the field of view. A stoic should have a hunger, like Pigliucci’s, for fuller guidance on how to live virtuously.
Both men praise the stoic practice of negative visualization as a way of preparing for (and perhaps avoiding) serious suffering. Holiday tells his readers that imagining the worst case scenarios will help them notice that things aren’t so bad as they are. In The Obstacle is the Way he suggests, “It might help to say it over and over again whenever you feel the anxiety begin to come on: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.”
Stoicism was forged in a harder age, Pigliucci reminds us in How to Be a Stoic. It “originated and thrived in times of political instability; people’s lives could be upturned at a moment’s notice, and death could befall anyone, at any age.” It will certainly, he implies, be enough to help us with our own problems.
Nothing about Pigliucci’s statement is untrue today. Many people in the world live in exactly the conditions he describes, and even for those who are unlikely to be touched by political instability, death can still happen to anyone at any time.
Pop Stoicism treats the fact of mortality as a truism about the past, but assumes that practitioners today will only face small problems. It has no real answer to give to the big questions: Stoicism is about endurance, not hope. Stoicism for the masses arms readers for small problems, but leaves them unprepared for the biggest disruption of all.
Epictetus, in his Discourses, is more frank about death as a settled fact about the world. He writes plainly what Holiday in particular is prone to dance around, “[W]hen you embrace your child, or your brother, or your friend […] [D]o you likewise remind yourself that you love what is mortal; that you love what is not your own. It is allowed you for the present, not irrevocably, nor forever; but as a fig, or a bunch of grapes, in the appointed season. If you long for these in winter you are foolish. So, if you long for your son, or your friend, when you cannot have him, remember that you are wishing for figs in winter” (Book III, Chapter 24).
Christians cannot escape this reality. We know that we are created beings, sustained moment to moment by God. In his first Epistle, St. John the Evangelist writes almost the same thing as Epictetus: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (1 John 2:15-17, NRSVCE).
Here is the missing piece. It is God who explodes the limits of created creatures, by sending His Son to us as one of us. It is God who shatters mortality when Christ, in his Passion, tramples down death by death. And it is God who breaks the boundaries of the locus of control, by telling us we always have the option to enter into eternity by doing His will.
If Stoicism means taking a clear-eyed view of the world, and aligning ourselves with the truth that does not pass away, then Christian Stoicism may, indeed, be a possibility. But by taking into account God’s solution to our human predicament, we are driven not to dispassionate aloofness but to passionate love.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]