Stoicism is a Helluva Drug

While discussing Feser and First Mover problems with a college friend, he tried to pitch me on Deism (but mostly as a waystation to paganism).  I asked what he had read that he found compelling, and he recommended Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  “Sorry,” I said, “I read Epictetus’s The Handbook back in Directed Studies, and I can’t touch the stuff.  It’s bad for me.”

My professor in first term philosophy was great because, after we discussed the substance of our readings and he was sure we were all clear on the content, he would ask us: “Could you live this philosophy?  Would you want to?  Is it true?”  And then we’d have an argument.  The week we read Epictetus, I was the staunchest defender of stoicism in the room.

You see, and a young and impressionable age, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune, and I learned two things: never sit with my back to a door and the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I heard a message of stoicism all over the place.  I liked Dear Abby’s “No one can make you feel inferior without your own consent” for its brevity, but when you’re a weird, smart elementary schooler, there’s no shortage of opportunities to be reminded that you can’t control the actions or opinions of other people.  Therefore, they must be as irrelevant to my character as a sleeting rainstorm.  All I can control is my internal and external reactions to their actions.

It was another consequence of the bad Kantianism (not to be confused with Dark Kantianism) I was sticking with at the time, but that wasn’t what made me first twig I’d gone wrong.  The trouble was that morality only applied to me.  I felt contempt for my own weakness if I let other people move me, but I wasn’t angry when people I knew were sad about being treated badly.  If I shared my stoical beliefs with them, I only pitched it as a pragmatic coping mechanism, not the moral imperative I considered it when applied to myself.

So what do you call someone who thinks she has a unique moral duty and that everyone else is exempted from mattering in the same way?  Solipsist seems like a fair accusation.


About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."