What Pop Stoicism Misses About Ancient Philosophy

Modern Stoicism has become an industry. And a mega-industry at that.

For the consumers seeking wisdom on how to live the good life — and there are a lot of them — there are daily digests of Stoic quotations, books and websites packed with Stoic wisdom to kick-start your day, podcasts, broadcasts, online crash courses and more.

In some ways, Stoicism is well suited to a program of self-improvement. It has always been a sort of athletic training for the soul. Founded in the third century B.C.E. by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium and mainly associated today with Roman practitioners like the emperor Marcus Aurelius and the statesman Seneca, Stoicism stresses ethics, virtue and the attainment of that elusive good life.

But today, 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: “The pain isn’t due to the thing itself,” says Marcus Aurelius, “but to your estimate of it.” In this mind-set, the impact of the outer world can fade away as the inner self becomes a sanctuary. The focus narrows to that self — me, isolated from the social structures that support me or bring me down.

This may be one strand of Stoicism, hyperbolized in the much-quoted epigrams of the Greek Stoic Epictetus, but it is by no means the whole of it. The me-focused view misses ancient Stoicism’s emphasis on our flourishing as social selves, connected locally and globally.

The early Stoics taught that we are world citizens connected to all of humanity through our reason. Marcus Aurelius paints a graphic image in his “Meditations.” He jots his notes in the quiet of nightfall after a day of battle during the Germanic campaigns. The detritus of the battlefield is on his mind: Picture a hand and head lying apart from the rest of the body. This is what a person makes of himself when he cuts himself off from the world. We can’t be “at home in the world,” a Stoic catchphrase, if the good is reduced to self-interest, or grit is defined as go-it-alone self-reliance.

While self-focused pop Stoicism has thrived in the marketplace, in the classrooms at Georgetown where I teach ancient Stoicism to graduates and undergraduates, it’s the promise of that connected self and the potential of contributing to the common good that animate students. This semester, deep into a year of loss, isolation and racial reckoning, we grappled with hard philosophical texts and discussed the raw fact that our campus was financed, in part, by the Jesuits’ sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838. When we read Epictetus, one student said to the class: “I hope this is not a philosophy about me and my self-interest. Because if it is, then it is really not ethics.” He couldn’t have said it better.

We learned about Stoics like Hierocles, a lesser-known second-century Roman philosopher, who offered a concrete exercise for building the kind of connectivity that Marcus Aurelius was after: Draw concentric circles around a point — the self — and then extend the circles from kith and kin to the whole of humanity. Then shrink the space between the circles, Hierocles writes, “zealously transferring” those from the outside to the inside. It’s the task of a good person, he says, to adopt this initiative, to make this moral commitment.

What’s rarely noticed when Stoicism is presented as self-help is that the very tools that can put a buffer between the outer world and our spin on it are the same ones that can help us change that outer world for the better. We see through personal biases we don’t even know we possess. The Stoics offer techniques for slowing down impulsive thinking that can cloud our judgment.

Seneca puts it this way: We can often insert attention and will and monitor “impulsive impressions” and the quick bodily responses that follow — nip them in the bud — before we yield to them in irrational ways. Sure, he acknowledges, we are wired by nature to respond to life threats; that’s what it is to live “in accord with nature.” But he also teaches that we are not always good judges of estimating those threats. Fear and anger too often “outleap reason.” We need to learn how and when to press the pause button. We need to mobilize attention, he says, to lessen the impact of near-automatic responses that are subject to distortion and error.

Ultimately, this is a life hack not just for me and my impulse control but also for us in thinking about how to build a community so that fear and rage don’t rip us apart. The goal of daily meditation is not just my equanimity. It is equanimity rooted in virtue, and virtue, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Stoics included, is always about how I live well as a cooperative member of a commonwealth.

These foundational elements of Stoic ethics don’t always rise to the top of the Stoic daily newsletter or the best-seller list. As a professor, I like to point those hungry for Stoic wisdom to the ancient texts themselves. Why not subscribe to Seneca’s epistolary newsletter? There are 124 “Letters on Ethics,” written in his later years for a general audience. They are general counsels for living well that swell with the delight of the shared voyage of teacher and prospective student.

In “On Anger” Seneca calls on us, “Let us cultivate our humanity.” That is the enduring Stoic promise: to empower us in our common humanity. It’s not self-help but group help. If the Stoics are worth reading, it’s because they constantly exhort us to rise to our potential — through reason, cooperation and selflessness.

Nancy Sherman is the author, most recently, of “Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience., and is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University.

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series.

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