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Grin and Bear It

On the rise and rise of neo-Stoicism

For those searching for something loftier than traditional self-help, trade books about Stoicism, an ancient philosophy of individual resilience, have become popular in recent years. The titles that belong to this non-fiction genre are explanatory, self-assured, and optimized for the all-seeing eyes of search engines: Stoicism: How to Stop Fearing and Start Living; The Stoic CEO; The Obstacle Is the Way; How to Think Like a Roman Emperor; How to Be a Stoic; A Guide to the Good Life; The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient; How to Keep Your Cool (Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers); Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life. While these books differ in content and style, certain features apply across the board: pithy aphorisms about the power of resilience, rationality and fortitude apply primarily to those with plenty of freedom to make choices already; readers are presumed empty vessels for authors’ edifying wisdom; and emotions are treated as imaginary things that reside only in your head.

Stoicism has been experiencing something of a resurgence in the last decade, its popularity traceable from Reddit forums to Instagram accounts to think pieces and inspirational quotes splashed on Etsy coffee mugs. In fact, the trend dates back longer; using Google’s Ngram feature, you will find a steep incline in uses of the word “Stoicism” in English-language books published between 1980 and 2019. It slowly rises during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan before climbing dramatically after the End of History and ascending further up to the present day. The graph is at its lowest point in the post-war decade.

That the Stoics have often been interpreted as more concerned with individual virtue than structural critique is convenient for those searching for examples of goodness in a context that has been made unequal by design.

The renewed appeal of a philosophy that asserted “security” was a psychological state fleshy mortals would rarely attain makes sense when you think about the conditions facing people born after the 1970s: lacking in time, upward mobility, and religion, they live in a world where disasters are perpetually looming, optimistically whiggish ideas of liberal progress have been slowly extinguished for those who don’t own assets or stand to inherit family wealth, and even the rich still want to believe they hustled their way to the top. “I remember a stand-up comedian, a year or so after the crash, who said: ‘Can’t we go back to the good old days when everyone just bought what they wanted on credit and didn’t worry about the future?’” John Sellars, author of Lessons in Stoicism and organizer a popular series of Stoic-related events, told me. “All that sense of optimism about the future has gone.” The Stoics’ ideas are consonant with a moment when life is sometimes hard, and stability—whether real or perceived—continues to elude many.

The pandemic has further entrenched the popularity of these ancient thinkers. Marcus Aurelius had the benefit of living through the Plague of Galen, which has made him a frequent citation for writers seeking to capture the horrors of coronavirus while avoiding by now well-worn subjects like sourdough or Albert Camus. Writers and journalists have told us the Stoics “would have thrived under lockdown” because they believed pain “was a part of life”; that their ideas provide “enlightenment for a time of benightedness; that they allow us to see “there’s no problem so bad that some good can’t come out of it.” Headlines such as “How Marcus Aurelius can help” or “Take it like a Stoic” suggest both an attempt at wise counsel and the reality that it’s very difficult to think of things to write about when you can’t leave the house.

That the Stoics have often been interpreted as more concerned with individual virtue than structural critique is particularly convenient for those searching for examples of goodness in a context that has been made unequal by design. One recent article in the Telegraph declared that “Stoicism is on the rise—and it’s why some people come out happier of this pandemic than they were before.” The author pointed to the centenarian Captain Tom Moore, who delighted headline writers in Britain after he slowly trudged one hundred times around his garden to raise $40 million for the National Health Service. According to the article, Moore is an example of “stoicism in action,” but the story looks different depending on your politics. Within the ghoulish machinery of Britain’s right-wing press, Moore was an exemplar of patriotism and dedication: look at what a one-hundred-year-old veteran is willing to do for the NHS! Viewed from another angle, he was a depressing spectacle, a reminder that the welfare state has been emaciated to breaking point and now relies on perambulating hundred-year-olds to fundraise cash.

The conviction that self-control is a conduit to virtue recurs so often among the salesmen of the modern Stoic movement that it appears less a motif than an unhealthy obsession. It’s also a way of coding stereotypically feminine activities—wellness, journaling, therapy—in the language of fortitude for a largely male audience. Consider The Daily Stoic, a book with 365 separate stoic-inspired exercises for routine meditative practice by Ryan Holiday, a former director of marketing at American Apparel who was known for gratuitously dishonest media stunts before he pivoted to selling stoicism via YouTube. Holiday writes: “remember that today when you try to extend your reach outward—that it’s much better and more appropriately directed inward,” a sentiment that encapsulates the worldview of the neo-Stoic grifters. Indeed, Holiday is the poster boy for this trend. He’s written six books on the subject, with the most recent published just last month, and runs an online “Daily Stoic Store” where a black-and-gold Memento Mori signet ring will run you $245.

Occasionally, Holiday’s writing grasps at political critique. In The Obstacle Is the Way, his unexpected 2014 bestseller, he writes that “we’ve experienced two major economic bubbles, entire industries are crumbling, lives have been disrupted. . . . People are angry and upset and gathered in Zuccotti Park. As they should be, right?” Yet his prescriptions for living a good life always remain firmly rooted in the sphere of self-regulation. What the Occupy protesters got wrong is that “outward appearances are deceptive”; their time would have been better spent learning “to perceive things differently, to cut through the illusions that other people fear.” Writing about the financial crisis in The Daily Stoic, Holiday similarly argues that “greed was some part of the problem. . . . Greed caused other people to make trades on strange pools of debt [and] prevented anyone from calling out this situation for what it was.” But his analysis of what went wrong redounds to the individual. He demands not that we question the conditions which allowed greed to flourish, or the unequal distribution of wealth and power they point towards, but that we police our own faults. “It doesn’t do you much good to criticize those folks . . . it’s better to look at how greed and vices might be having a similar effect in your own life,” he writes.

Rather than questioning your material conditions, the merchants of modern Stoicism want you to change what’s in your head. We usually interpret our emotions as experiences that overwhelm us rather than responses we consciously choose: that emotions are to some extent involuntary is why we say we are “moved” by them. Ancient Stoics, however, were “cognitivists” who viewed emotions as beliefs that we could by and large voluntarily control. Stoic philosophy is said to have influenced Albert Ellis, the American psychologist who pioneered rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) in the 1950s,  and Aaron Beck, an independent psychiatrist  who developed an early form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on raising awareness of negative emotions and changing thought patterns to regulate emotive responses. Though many find it helpful, the critics of CBT are numerous; some argue that its focus on the development of personal coping mechanisms privatizes mental health by directing our gaze inwards, obscuring the social and political causes of various psychological states.

In truth, the Stoic view of emotion was more complicated than I or its contemporary proselytizers give it credit for. What we translate today as “emotion” is the Greek pathos, or “passion,” which the Stoics took as an irrational psychological affect. But they left space for eupatheiai, affixing eu (“good”) to pathos—meaning good emotional, or affective, responses. When I asked Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and author of Stoic Warriors, about how these thinkers would allow for righteous emotions like anger, she explained: “They held that basic, ordinary emotions, like full-fledged anger, are two-tiered, with two evaluative beliefs.” The first is that you have been unjustly wronged; the second that you ought to get payback. “It’s that second belief . . . that’s the most problematic and the one we have a better handle on changing,” she wrote to me.

Rather than questioning your material conditions, the merchants of modern Stoicism want you to change what’s in your head.

But it’s the simplified interpretation, that emotions are wholly within our control, that has won out in the popular imagination. Ultimately, this tapers toward a reactionary defense of the status quo. A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, Holiday was joined by Tim Ferriss—a tech investor and author of The 4-Hour Workweek who likens Stoicism to a “personal operating system”—in a split-screen YouTube conversation exploring why we should ignore “fairness” in “trying times.” The video revealed less about its purported subject than it did about the conservative sickness that has been the undoing of Anglo-America’s management of the pandemic. Workers whose employees don’t provide them with PPE are in a “very, very difficult situation,” Ferriss admitted, but even the most vulnerable “have choices” and are, by dint of this logic, responsible for their own misfortunes. He continued: “you could move in with your parents, you could ask your friend for a loan, you could sell some of the belongings you have . . . [like] maybe your only car,” all of which would negate the necessity of going to work. You don’t need to dwell on the details of what has happened recently to sense the irony in a rich, white, AirPodded entrepreneur (estimated net worth: $100m) declaring that going to work during a pandemic is a matter of personal choice.

What Ferriss and Holiday gloss over is that Stoic philosophers largely inherited Aristotle’s idea that humans were essentially social animals who had a responsibility to participate in political life, an idea best represented in Hierocles’s visual metaphor of concentric circles that described humans’ obligations to one another. In treating Stoicism as little more than a “personal operating system,” neo-Stoics divest this philosophy of its political residue. But they aren’t alone in this reading. In the twentieth century, Michel Foucault, through his engagement with the classicist Pierre Hadot, saw in Stoicism and ancient philosophy tools that could “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls . . . so as to transform themselves in order to attain a state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality.” Foucault’s emphasis on individual transformation encoded an entire attitude to politics—namely, a rejection of social movements in favor of self-care.

Still, even on its own terms, ancient Stoicism has limited utility when it comes to questions of injustice. At best, its followers sought to ameliorate the treatment of slaves and women, but never to overthrow institutions of oppression. That they weren’t concerned with reversing the existing balance of power is why their philosophy seems so ill-suited to contemporary problems that demand collective action rather than individual virtue. Seneca argued that anger should be subjected to reason; he described it as “temporary madness,” and an “ugly and horrible picture of distorted and swollen frenzy” that could “drag down the avenger along with it.” But such emotions are crucial to the fomentation of movements. If you want evidence of this,  you need only look to the recent protests against police violence to see how grief and anger aren’t mere interior states, but compelling forces that move masses to act upon the world.

Like the ancient sages from whom they claim inspiration, neo-Stoics like Ferris and Holiday see anger as an unproductive enterprise that won’t prepare you for the road ahead, without considering that people might want to get together to change that road, or build a new one entirely. The language that Holiday uses when writing about Occupy Wall Street is telling: the protesters were “angry” and “upset,” but not righteously aggrieved. Shortly after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Holiday told Quartz that despite the fact that Stoicism is not meant to encourage passivity, “a Stoic wouldn’t spend time complaining about whether Trump deserves to be president and worrying about the uncertain terrible effects of his leadership.” Again, people who are rightfully outraged here are instead just “complaining” and “worrying,” emotive affects that are negative rather than justified.

That anger can be productive, however, is something Black and feminist philosophers have long understood, formulating their own reading of emotion in opposition to this liberal Stoic tradition. Feelings can be generative and have material effects.  When “focused with precision,” Audre Lorde said, anger can become “a powerful source of energy serving progress and change” and a “liberating and strengthening act of clarification.” Framing difficult emotions as instances of cognitive distortion best corrected through self-discipline leaves little space to consider the way affective social movements might legitimately change existing institutions, or that those institutions may be to blame for the persistence of negative emotions in the first place. Anger is not only a source of energy, but a potentially elucidating force that allows its bearer to see clearly what is wrong with the world, and to act upon it.

Even on its own terms, ancient Stoicism has limited utility when it comes to questions of injustice.

A darker iteration of the Stoic reading of anger can be found in certain corners of the internet where the ancient philosophy has become a memeable justification for the misogyny of the so-called manosphere. Across a loose amalgamation of websites and online sensibilities for whom feminism is toxic, sexism is fake, and men are the truly oppressed, reason is coded as a masculine trait while anger and irrationality are attributed largely to women, people of color, and feminists.  As one poster on the website Illimitable Men puts it, “the claim that woman’s capacity for reason matches man’s is humorous, and yet be it espoused by radical feminists or well-intentioned humanists, the ‘equality of reason’ myth persists.”

The sexist adoption of an ancient philosophy by an internet minority makes intuitive sense in that it collapses two thousand years of progress and latches onto a worldview that emerged in a society where slavery was widespread and women excluded. But the connection has a little more to it. A crude appropriation of Stoic philosophy squares with the concept of “frame control” popular among “red pill” converts. As defined by one writer, the idea of “Frame” consists of “unashamedly sticking to what you believe to be true, and what you know is going to work for you, and refusing to be rolled by contrary opinions or control tactics of others.” The development of such a steadfast outlook is, of course, a “uniquely masculine characteristic”; according to its practitioners, women are “generally unable to construct an independent, solid, respectable and rationally impeccable frame.” Repression is a means to enact one’s birth right: a man’s frame is his “main tool of dominance” over women. Indeed, as the Red Pill poster quoted above put it, “a significant motive of the Feminine Imperative is to erode, discount, or even shame a man’s Frame of mind, so that she can exert more power over him.” Ignoring the often reasonable basis of anger in the face of an unreasonable world reinforces a binary where being emotional is seen as characteristic of some bodies and not others: emotion is irrational, private, and female, whereas reason is intellectual, public, and male.

Still, the Red Pill community is ultimately an internet minority, and foretelling grave consequences for those who read books about neo-Stoicism may be a patronizing response to an activity that is, for the most part, innocuous. As one friend, a reader of Holiday’s work who WhatsApped me a picture of his stoic-inspired mood board when he heard I was writing this essay, told me: “It’s about thinking about what it means to live a good life.” Pressing him to elaborate further, he said: “For me, Stoicism is empowering—it makes me think, right, what are the things I can do to help.”

A publishing trend is not going to change the world or cause society to descend into barbarism, but the Stoic reading of emotion has, throughout history, inflected significant aspects of our political culture. Their position on anger inspired a liberal tradition of philosophy that sees the political sphere as a place for civil debate rather than hot-headed feeling. You could even argue that the Stoics partly account for why liberals have had such difficulty parsing the political developments of the last five years, during which time anger has come to play an outsize role in our public sphere on both the left and right. Many such commentators spurned the rise of “tribalism” and “radicalism” when describing supporters of the UK’s former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the political fault lines that emerged around the European Union Referendum, or the two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders. These phrases signified an attachment to political causes that are excessive and emotive, an affliction among people who have become blind to reason.

Politics is as much about conflict as consensus, and depends, at least in part, upon people getting angry.

Such accusations stem from the belief that change would be best achieved by less politics, not more of it. At their root is the idea that political conflicts are largely the result of character flaws, that disagreements could be resolved if everyone just acted with a little more civility and listened reasonably to the facts. When confronted with political movements spurred by visceral anger, the Stoic insistence on cool-headed detachment appears not just toothless, but irrelevant. By suggesting that radicals may want the same things but have merely failed to see reason, neo-Stoics depoliticize emotions and obscure meaningful antagonisms. The effect is much the same when Ferris, in his conversation with Holiday, said that if he could program an ideal set of humans to be like “Westworld hosts,” he would get rid of the idea of “unfair” altogether—covering over the political differences that might call into question Ferris’ own position in a society that produces unfairness.

Coding reason as good and anger bad affirms the moral superiority of a worldview that claims politics as the purview of select committees, government inquiries, and elections. It blinds believers to political movements that take shape outside of these formal processes, and the reasons why they do so. Self-discipline, civility, and reason: these Stoic practices may allow us to live more easily in the world as it is. But politics is as much about conflict as consensus, and depends, at least in part, upon people getting angry.