The elite embrace of the old Greco-Roman philosophy might not be so bad after all.
The technocrats are awash in Stoicism. The elites of Silicon Valley endure silent meditations for weeks, starve themselves for days, and brag about cold showers. An entrepreneurship-focused lobbying firm named itself after one of the most famous ancient proponents of Stoicism. A popular blog for the “tech-Stoic community” urges its readers to walk in the rain or wear sandals in the snow. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey takes daily walks five miles to work, meditates in silence 10 days each year, and promotes “D.I.Y. cold tubs” and one meal a day. Modern Stoicism, observes a 14 May 2020 New York Times op-ed, is now a “mega-industry.”
That an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that teaches self-restraint would become popular in an American age defined by hedonistic self-gratification and digital over-saturation might seem strange, though perhaps its ascendance is predictable, and even of a piece with our “decadent age.” Some have noted that Stoicism, which was for a time popular among the Roman aristocratic class, provides a justification and defense for the wealthy and powerful. It also fits with the obsessive desire for perfection among our technocratic elites: Stoicism is often described as a “life hack” that can help increase professional efficiency to compete for that promotion, manage competing priorities, or train for that upcoming triathlon in Phuket. Some have even reported the “gamification of Stoicism,” as its adherents “reach sage” or “win life.”
More cynically, perhaps looking for life lessons in Stoicism and calling it a “life-hack” is just a way for our elites to pretend their indulgence in the latest self-help and self-improvement trend is something more sophisticated than the gimcracks of their parents or grandparents. Indeed, some Stoic life-hackers explicitly eschew what they call “modern-day Oprah culture.” Certainly, a lot of popular discussion of Stoicism sounds awfully similar to Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People or Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Its practitioners use Stoic principles to overcome anxiety, curb anger, and find stillness and calm. Sounds a bit like “focus on what you can control and influence” and “sharpen the saw” (Habits #1 and #7). Or as Peale would say, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”
Even more cynically, and as some writers have argued, there’s something a bit self-serving in the wealthiest, most successful segment of American society practicing a philosophical system that is often described as enabling the detached acceptance of the world’s injustices. A 2019 article at Forbes derided modern Stoicism—which in its consumerist forms includes signet rings and international poster merchandise—as “another form of ostentatious lifestyle and identity consumption in a world already overflowing with it.” A contemporaneous article in the New York Times similarly jeered: “The philosophy is handy if you already believe that the rich are meant to be rich and the poor meant to be poor.”
I confess that my conservative curmudgeonry inclines me to agree with the critics and skeptics of the Stoicism craze. Nevertheless, I submit it would be unfair, and perhaps even shortsighted, to ridicule the trend as yet the latest in a long line of trite, simplistic self-help movements. After all, apart from moderns’ proclivity to neglect the citizenship and public service aspects of classical Stoics is the fact that our own founding fathers were readers and practitioners of the Stoic way of life, largely because they understood its political value. Cicero, for example, was widely read among the Constitution’s framers, as Thomas Ricks explains in his new book.
Rather than simply writing off modern Stoicism as a self-serving manifestation of the elites’ own vanity, it would be better, as some classicists have done, to encourage a broader, more robust embrace of Stoicism. This would incorporate, for example, Cicero’s argument in De Officiis that the virtuous man is the one who puts his virtue to work serving and improving the res publica. The Roman writes there: “We should follow nature as our guide in this sense of making available shared benefits by exchange of our obligations, by giving and receiving, and in this way binding the community and its individuals closely together by our skills, our efforts, and our talents.”
More broadly, we might even recommend those interested in Stoicism to consider the brilliant men whom Stoics like Cicero so frequently cite, among them Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Encouraging a widening of the aperture of contemporary interest in the classics doesn’t just avoid the cherry-picking of quotations and ideas common among many modern Stoics. As my friend and Classical Learning Test founder Jeremy Tate argues, it ensures future generations of Americans understand why familiarity with The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Republic, Politics, and Nicomachean Ethics are of inestimable value for developing learned and virtuous citizens.
Moreover, Stoicism’s value goes beyond the personal, professional, and political to even the metaphysical. Yet you wouldn’t know that from those now singing its panegyrics. A friend of mine shared a presentation he was given at work on Stoicism that sought to assuage the audience in capital letters that Stoicism is “NOT a religion; NOT just an ideology.” I suppose that must be said because obscure, supposedly neutral ways of increasing “positive emotions” and “harmony with the inner and outer world” are disarming enough to be palatable to secular, liberal technocrats. God forbid they learn something from obsolete, traditional, “old-time” religion.
Yet it was precisely in the early and medieval Church’s appropriation and transformation of Stoicism that it became not simply a method for self-improvement in service of one’s family and the state, but an aid in one’s transcendent telos. St. Ambrose, for example, built upon Cicero’s idea of virtue as the highest good by defining that good, in its ultimate sense, as God Himself. The theological virtue of charity, or love, in Ambrose’s mind, serves as a necessary perfection of the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence. Thomas Aquinas, in turn, relied heavily on Cicero in his reflections on justice in the Summa Theologiae, including Cicero’s condemnation of unjust business practices (Silicon Valley might take special note of that!). Even Dante approvingly incorporated Cicero’s classification of sins into his Divine Comedy.
Stoicism, properly understood, is more than a life-hack to help realize our professional or athletic ambitions. It is a system of thought and practice oriented towards model citizenship, as our founding generation well understood. “Our greatest obligation, all else being equal,” declares Cicero, “is to lend help above all to the person in greatest need.” Yet even more than that, it is a philosophy that, in its emphasis on virtue, orients us beyond our duties to self and neighbor to our ultimate end in God. As Aquinas says in the Summa (relying on Cicero): “Justice is the love of God and our neighbor which pervades the other virtues, that is to say, is the common principle of the entire order between one man and another.” Stoicism, if oriented to its divine end, can be more than another fleeting fad relegated to library book sales. It can be truth.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a master’s in theology from Christendom College.