Why Stoicism Now? One Fool’s Answer to a Sage Question in Nine Propositions

(Rhamnous, Attica, author’s image)

According to the Stoics, everyone who is not a sage is in some basic sense still a fool. So, it is as a fool that I address this question here, which (like many other people around the world) I’ve now been asked so many times I thought I’d save some time and get my answer down in writing.

Stoicism is very old, founded some 2400 years ago. So its 21st century revival is intriguing. Why now? Stoicism has long had a reputation for being pretty forbidding or even inhumane, closing us off to emotions (and thus to love). So, why would anyone want that? Stoicism was also famous from the start for maintaining apparently paradoxical ideas. So, how could it ever become popular?

Here is this non-sage’s answer, in nine propositions. The next time someone asks me why Stoicism is so popular now, I am going to try to say: “this is because …”:

1. Stoicism provides a coherent, far-reaching framework to live, with high ethical ideals, in a period where many people in the West crave such a framework, but cannot accept the claims of revealed religions (concerning a transcendent God whose Will is revealed in competing Holy Books);

2. Stoicism is based on an egalitarian recognition that every human life, rich or poor, young or old, faces adversity as well as prosperity,

But whilst our commercial culture floods us with desire-provoking images of prosperity, it provides few resources for facing hard times, surviving, and getting stronger. But people need these resources or guides, and Stoicism provides one such guide.

3. Stoicism is built around foundational ethical principles which are easy to teach, intuitive to hear, and powerful to apply.

Take the dichotomy of control, for example, since Epictetus starts his Handbook with it. Everyone can agree that worrying about things we can’t change is in some basic way irrational. It is a waste of mental energies. Everyone who is honest with themselves, and not a sage, will admit that they have probably been guilty of this more than once in their lifetimes.

Or consider the idea that it is not things or events that bother us, but our thoughts or judgments about events or things. Everyone can see that different people respond to the same adversity differently. So the “difference” must lie not in the adversity, but their thoughts and character. Nearly everyone would like to be better at responding more coolly under pressure in the ways Stoic philosophy promotes.

4. Stoicism’s claim that “virtue is the only good” appears paradoxical, but speaks to powerful experiences many people share:

i. that material goods do not satisfy, even when we “get rich”;

ii. that external things are transient and passing, and any satisfaction their possession or enjoyment confers soon passes;

iii. that other people are regrettably, but very commonly, less worthy of our trust and faith than we had hoped (sometimes, they are treacherous, small-minded, and nasty). We therefore need to develop ways of dealing with insults, slander, and like phenomena, if we are to be happy over the course of an entire life;

iv. that the pursuit of power may lead to high office, but rarely leads to great happiness;

v. that the pursuit of fame is like an overripe apple, which looks better than it tastes, once we bite into its core;

vi. that whatever else misfortune can take away from us, it cannot take away our capacities to not become hateful, but to strive to be generous, better people.

As Tracy Chapman sang, “all that you have is your soul”.

5. While Stoic claims concerning removing all emotions are questionable, their analysis of our passions (fear, desire, distress, and elation) as based in questionable beliefs about the world is very powerful, and has deeply influenced forms of modern psychotherapy which have helped millions of people in the last decades.

Everyone can admit that sometimes anger only makes things worse, and that fear is (other things being equal) a distressing emotion it would be better to experience less, and less powerfully, rather than more.

6. Stoicism is a deeply prosocial philosophy, despite its critics. Seneca insists that human beings are sacred for other human beings. Cicero has his Cato in On Moral Ends explain that human beings are social from their birth forwards, and that the other-directedness of parental love is the basic building block of all human societies.

Many people feel that consumerist individualism is deeply unsatisfying, and egoism a high road to spiritual emptiness. They long for the sense of connection with something bigger which Stoicism (pike other spiritual traditions) promotes, especially now the Modern Stoicism phenomenon has grown to global proportions.

7. Stoicism recognizes that fine ideals without lived practices are unlikely to help people live in times of strain.

For we are embodied, habit-bound creatures, who need to “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”, if we are to actually change — and who can only learn how to live well by actively undertaking exercises to do so.

8. So many of the Stoic exercises (which have been inventoried now by figures like Donald Robertson and Massimo Pigliucci (like the dichotomy of control, premeditation of evils, premeditation of mortality, separating thoughts from things…)), are directly, easily applicable, and when applied, tend to help people reframing their experiences, and living their lives with what Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, called “a good flow of life”.

9. Stoicism’s emphasis on what we do with what happens to us, rather than hoping or praying for things we can’t control to “get better” is fundamentally empowering.

This does not mean we cease trying to make things better, teaching and assisting others, and being a good mum, dad, friend ... On the contrary, it means we focus on doing as much as we can, knowing in advance that no matter what comes, we will be as well equipped as possible. And that is a faith or a confidence worth having.

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy and Stoicism in Australia (Deakin), and works on classical and modern ideas, & philosophy as a way of life.