Modern Stoicism – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Modern Stoicism – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly June 4, 2013

A number of my friends have gotten more interested in Stoicism of late and have been reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine for a practical introduction.  I give Irvine total credit for writing a philosophy book that’s meant to be actionable, not a historical survey.  But, as a recovering Stoic, I’d like to couple any praise with a warning about the philosophy.  


The Good

A Stoic avoids becoming attached or indifferent to the things ze cannot control, but Irvine correctly points out that this doesn’t require us to become indifferent to the future.  There are somethings that are obviously within our control (whether I keep typing this post), some things outside it (whether it rains tomorrow), and some things that are a little messier (whether I make a good impression on someone I am meeting).

Irvine looks at this trichotomy and says it’s fine to care about the first category, disruptive to be distressed by the second, and that the third category needs a reframe.  Instead of looking at the outcome of the encounter (which I can’t control), I look for the inputs that depend only on me.  I can try to ask questions about my interlocutor, I can think about the tone of my voice, I can do a little background research beforehand.  These steps don’t guarantee the outcome I might desire, but, it does leave me something I can focus on that’s within my control and therefore can be achieved.

This is why, when I’m trying to write more, I don’t set up a Beeminder that tracks wordcounts, or even number of posts published.  Instead, I track twenty minute pomodoros (chunks of uninterruptible work time).  I can’t guarantee that writing time will be productive as measured in words typed (maybe I’ll draft a post that I mostly end up cutting), but I can control whether I stay in the right window, working on one project for twenty minutes.  And, freed of the anxiety of trying to hit a goal that’s outside of my control, I tend to be happier and more productive.

When you look at goals that can be internalized, most ethical injunctions are fairly easy to frame this way.  Irvine writes:

[W]e have it entirely within our power, for example, to prevent viciousness and cupidity from finding a home in our soul. If we are slow witted, it might not be in our power to become a scholar, but there is nothing to stop us from cultivating a number of other qualities, including sincerity, dignity, industriousness, and sobriety.

I can’t control what situations I encounter, but I can adjust my reactions (internally and externally) and grow in virtue.  That doesn’t mean I can suppress every uncharitable impulse that crosses my mind (impulses are in the out-of-my-control category), but I can notice them and decide whether they ought to be indulged or not.  The most important thing is within my control, which is plenty to be joyful about.

The Bad

It’s relatively easy to start feeling joyful and attached to the things you do control, but where I start to get the willies is the tactics Irvine uses to relinquish attachment to things he does not control.  It’s one thing to simply think, “My being upset about the rain doesn’t have any causal influence over whether I get wet, so why bother making myself unhappy for nothing?”  In Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet, her protagonist, Kel, uses a similar technique to be impervious to bullies.

[S]he wished fiercely that she could pound the meanness out of Joren.  Even as she thought it, she knew she would do better to ignore him… I am a summer lake on a windless day, clear cool, and still.  Joren is a cloud.  All he can do is cast a shadow on my surface.

I loved this meditation when I was younger, and returned to it frequently, but it elides a pretty important difference between a cloud and a child.  It’s in the nature of a storm to rain on me; it would be ridiculous to stand athwart reality yelling stop.  A cloud isn’t harmed by being a cloud, or casting shadow, but Joren and any non-Stoics he encounters are hurt and warped by his cruelty.  Joren can’t be essentialized to his bullying.  He doesn’t just exist as something to be endured, but as a person who might be changed.  Pounding the meanness out of him isn’t within my control, but trying to be helpful is.

But instead of trying to reframe his (correct) impulse that something is wrong when people are petty and unkind, so he can see what he can try, Irvine chooses to treat the venality of others as natural.  He paraphrases a morning meditation by Marcus Aurelius as follows:

[W]e begin each day by reminding ourselves how annoying the people we encounter are going to be — reminding ourselves, that is, of their interference, ingratitude, disloyalty, ill will, and selfishness.

It’s much easier to endure the frustrations caused by others in this framing, and much harder to want to help.

If this preemptive pessimism isn’t enough, Irvine counsels analysis by decomposition.  Historical Stoics used this practice to diminish their desire for fancy clothes (a bunch of fibers that have been soaked in snail secretions) or sex (repetitive abrasion).   If the insults of another person bothers you, why not reframe away from the content and think about how silly it is to be upset by pulses of air caused by two flaps of mucous membrane vibrating together.

He gains equanimity at the price of his provocateur’s agency.  He has reduced the other moral actor out of existence.  He relinquishes distress by degrading and denying the value of the thing he can’t control, instead of turning his attention to something higher that he wants to cherish and protect.

The Ugly

It turns out that Irvine ran into the exact same problem with Stoicism as I did, though he doesn’t classify it as a serious issue.  Once you start levelling up your equanimity, it’s tempting to see how far you can go.  Irvine writes:

Although I have not been practicing Stoicism for very long, I have discovered in myself a desire to have my Stoicism tested.  I already mentioned my desire to be insulted: I want to see whether I will respond to insults in a Stoically appropriate manner.

The desire to employ your Stoicism on a higher difficulty setting, coupled with the habit of seeing other people as obstacles can make you care less about other people.  You root for them to be worse then they are.  I used to wish that a girl who had only insulted me might try to hit me, so I could maintain my equanimity in the face of a bigger provocation.  If a middle school bully mellowed with age, I would be a little disappointed, as my short bus ride was now wasted time, instead of a training opportunity.

I was instrumentalizing the virtue of others so I could strengthen my own.  Instead of using the peace of mind afforded by Stoic practices to find better ways to be of service to others, I greedily hoped for more and better antagonists.  Stoicism frees its practitioners from the hedonic treadmill but might replace it with something like a fortitude treadmill.  So now, instead of being enslaved to material desires, or desires for recognition of others, you need more and more conflict and venality to try to endure.

Stoic practices can be instrumentally useful, but only if we plan to use the calmness and breathing room it affords for something besides vanity.  If a bit of Stoicism gives me the strength and patience to stick by a friend who’s going through a tough time and lashing out in anger, knowing I don’t have the power to make him happy, but can just try to be as much use as I can, so much the better.  But Stoicism can be pernicious when it’s not in the service of some other philosophy.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Athrelon

    Interesting; it seems reasonable that Stoicism, being optimized for solving one particular class of problem, would be imperfectly aligned towards developing other kinds of virtue.

    I also recently posted some thoughts based on reading Seneca. My criticisms were that Stoicism as traditionally practiced focused more on material hardships, and its practices were made under the assumption that you had the social environment of a Roman gentleman. In practice, nobody in the modern world needs fear the kind of material discomfort the Stoics were trying to inoculate people against; instead, the real discomforts today are largely social, mediated by a novel social environment the Stoics didn’t have to contend with.

  • Rai

    The main problem with Stoicism as you describe it is that it leaves you incredibly prepared against perturbations in your environment, but woefully unprepared against what’s inside you. I think pride is a pretty big risk for the Stoic.

    • LeahLibresco

      I agree, but I don’t pride is necessarily a risk, when considered within Stoicism. If your pride is totally internal — not driven by the opinions of others — it’s within you control and a Stoic can indulge it without fear.

      • Rai

        Thanks for the clarification!
        But this looks like an even bigger flaw: “If your pride is internal, it’s within your control.” This is simply not the case- it goes against common experience, and it can be argued against from multiple points of view, from the Christian (the words in Mark 14, 20 comes to mind) to the Freudian.
        And since it’s you, a question comes naturally: the core of Virtue Ethics isn’t the exact opposite of that statement?

        • LeahLibresco

          That’s why I said it wasn’t a problem within the context of stoicism. From my point of view, yup, definitely a problem. But I wouldn’t try to convince a stoic that stoicism was bad because it might make you prideful, because I wouldn’t expect them to agree this was an issue.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Probably because the Stoic philosophers are fairly explicit that irrational pride and “instrumentalizing the virtue of others” as you describe it are failings.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        I don’t think that’s the case. Internal and voluntary isn’t good. Internal and voluntary is a locus of moral responsibility. (Possibly more so than actions, which can always be thwarted by being hit on the head with a meteor.) Pride is good only when it’s rationally justified, and since the Stoic Sage is something of an impossible ideal, it rarely is.

        To quote Epictetus on this matter:

        “When a man prides himself on being able to understand and interpret a difficult book, say to yourself: If the book had been well written this man would have nothing on which to pride himself.”

    • Verbose Stoic

      I do believe that you are supposed to exert as much if not more control over what’s inside you as the environment. Even the methods to control the things you get in your environment are all about conditioning your internal mental reactions to that.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I think this may be one of my favorite pieces from you. No real comments from me, just digesting this. Kudos.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Interestingly I just read a different article that comes to a different interpretation what you identify as “the bad.” The ideal Stoic Sage isn’t socially impassive; they’re motivated to active engagement. So the response to a problem like bullying is to do what one can. The ideal Stoic Sage can love unconditionally and be socially active because they are neither discouraged by the slow pace of change, nor do they take credit for successes achieved by many. (This is complicated by the fact that classic Stoicism is represented by people who didn’t all agree with each other on how to participate in their communities.)

    To love your fellow man, to serve as part of your community and to make it better is a virtue. To demand that the world to love you back for it is a folly. If it does or does not is an indifferent.

    But here is the important part, and why I think that Stoicism is developing a great deal of traction coupled with psychological therapy. You can’t change other people. You can’t force an addict to give up the bottle, the pill or the needle. You can’t force an abuser to see people with respect or put their own demons to rest. You can lead by example, but you can’t ultimately be responsible for what the other person chooses to do. You can’t fix another person’s crazy (I use that word as a high-functioning madman), you can only fix your own.

  • KG

    Is it possible to perform a similar analysis for elements of Catholicism that you are grappling with? You’ve already started to do this with respect to the church’s stance on homosexuality. How about other topics? Miracles?

    It would seem reasonable to tackle such disagreements head on, with minimal delay. You’ve set things up so that you’ll inevitably drift toward agreement with church tradition, so why not hasten the process by laying out what you currently find to be uncomfortable so that you can get past it sooner?

  • tedseeber

    My version is a science fiction story I once read, the Bully and the Crazy Boy. I got permission from the author many years later to repost the relevant part:

    The irrelevant part, IIRC, was a story about a bunch of carnivores invading the solar system with advanced tech, and the captured general told them this story to distract them as a bunch of human kamakazi ships slingshotted around the sun to destroy the invading fleet (the only other line from the original story I really remember is “can your shields handle 400,000 ton gamma rays?”)

  • turmarion

    Then again, there’s G. K. Chesterton’s takedown of Stoicism in Orthodoxy:

    Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth.

    The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

    I post this as one who has had tendencies towards Stoicism myself, much as with Leah. My thing was, though, that while I desperately wanted to be able to become detached from pain and unpleasantness, I did not want to do so towards nice emotions. Of course, it’s a package deal with Stoicism, so that’s how I eventually decided it wasn’t going to work for me.

    • grok87

      thanks. Interesting Chesterton quote.

      This article is interesting, on the links between Christianity and Stoicism

      “3. If you’re Christian, you’re already part-Stoic.
      Imagine a religion that stressed human brotherhood under a benevolent creator God; that told us to moderate and master our basic urges rather than giving into them; that nevertheless insisted that all humans, because we’re human, are bound to fail at this mission; and that spent a lot of time talking about “conscience” and the multiple aspects, or “persons,” of a unitary God. All of that might sound familiar. But the philosophy that invented all of those ideas was not Christianity, but Stoicism.”

      It makes sense that Christianity is a deeply Stoic religion. Stoicism dominated Roman culture for centuries—and Christianity went mainstream in the same culture. What’s more, many of the leaders of the early Christian church were former Stoics. Of course Christianity borrowed much of its thought and terminology from Stoicism–because thinking about religion in the early 1st millennium meant thinking like a Stoic.

      As Christianity continued to grow, church leaders, who wanted to emphasize the uniqueness of their faith, began to downplay this Stoic connection. But Stoicism is still there at the foundation of the Christian religion, in some of its most basic terms and concepts.

      • turmarion

        Oh, there’s not the slightest doubt that Christianity has taken a lot from Stoicism, as well as Neoplatonism (Aristotelianism, in the form of Thomism, is obvious). To be honest, I think Chesterton was a bit hard on the ancient Stoics; but then, his style does tend towards the bombastic at times.

        IMO, Christianity has historically tried to take the best parts of the philosophies it has encountered while trying to minimize the downsides. It hasn’t always been successful, but I think the effort is a noble one.

  • Verbose Stoic

    So, as someone who is Stoic leaning still ,at least (likely a Kantian-Stoic hybrid, actually), let me address the bad and the ugly here:

    The Bad: Remember that for the Stoics acting virtuously trumps all. Stoicism isn’t about resisting mental disquiet, but about resisting mental disquiet so that one can pursue the virtues, which are the only true goods. So, are the interactions you ask for in the cases you talk about demanded by virtue? If they are, then the Stoic has to actually take them, and take them regardless of the consequences of doing so. Beating up Joren is not allowed because that would be vicious … as vicious as what Joren does. But stopping Joren from hurting others may well be virtuous, and demanded by virtue. So it really comes down to what the virtues are, and what they demand. You seem to be arguing here that morality should demand that the person intervene in those cases … but since for the Stoics morality is defined by the virtues, that would mean that you would be saying that the virtues demand it, and if the virtues demand it, then the Stoics will do it. And it would be a failure for the Stoic to not do that.

    All it means, though, is that you don’t get, say, offended and angry over people who are bullies or unjust. You accept that there are people like that, accept that they probably shouldn’t be that way, and act appropriately. You don’t beat them up, and you don’t execute them for being jerks. You take those actions only when the virtues say it is appropriate.

    The Ugly: For the Stoics, not resisting mental disquiet is a failure, but resisting it is not, in fact, a success. It is what is expected. You do not test yourself against the world to prove in any way that you are a proper Stoic. You just act. If you let emotion or indifferents make you act irrationally, you have failed — and have a failure — and must correct that, no matter how small it is. And the “big” situations are no better or no worse than the “little” ones, and how well you resist is not meant to be an article of the sort of pride cited here. Thus, if you understand that, when you say that you look for better antagonists you would realize that, for the Stoics, THAT is an irrational attitude, and one that you must squelch as well. So that isn’t a problem with Stoicism, but a problem with the person trying to become a Stoic.

    And the philosophy that you can appeal to is, in fact, the virtues … the heart of the Stoic system.

  • Randy Gritter

    In Catholicism even the cloud becomes a gift. God has brought rain into my life. If I am to suffer I will suffer well. Perhaps I can do a penance that will bring myself or another closer to God. Perhaps I just need to humiliation of walking in the rain. Perhaps I will meet someone I would never have met. Whatever my lot God has taught me to say it is well with my soul. Or maybe that it a lesson I will learn today.

    Anyway, in atheism nothing means anything. In Catholicism everything means everything because it all comes from God and we can see God in all of it. Stoicism seems to think there are some things just to be endured. The cross of Christ ends that. Any suffering united with the cross of Christ becomes redemptive. It becomes our cross. The way in which we follow Christ all the way to heaven. We no longer need to accept meaningless suffering. All of it can become part of God’s plan of salvation.

  • Clare Krishan

    Careful endorsing calm — even of a Catholic persuasion — using the currently ‘hip’ Gill Sans “London Underground” typeface: we have enough hypocrisy in the clerical ranks to deal with without adding lay culture-maven

  • Mitchell Porter

    I now think that the most revealing distinction between what you once believed and what you now believe, is not stoicism, but gnosticism. Both Gnosticism and Catholicism are compatible with the idea that “morality is a person who loves me”, but Catholicism regards this person as also the creator of the world, whereas in Gnosticism the world was created by the bad false god, and the good true god stands outside it.

  • Mariana Baca

    Re. the endurance treadmill: this is not something I find relating to people so much, but it is easy to fall in that trap with things like exercise. Fortunately, I’m not particularly *good* at exercise to derive *too* much pride from it, but it is easy to want harder an more strenuous exercise for the sake of testing endurance instead of bodily health. I am wondering about finding that balance, between having difficult/challenging goals that make exercise interesting vs. relishing in the pleasure gained from successfully enduring a painful task. I guess that is pride?

    I do find it helps to find friends to share in exercise so I can delight in their achievements not just my own to avoid pride.

  • JohnE_o

    “Instead of using the peace of mind afforded by Stoic practices to find
    better ways to be of service to others, I greedily hoped for more and
    better antagonists.”

    That’s not a problem with Stoicism, but rather with your application of Stoicism.

    • LeahLibresco

      Fair and true! But I think it’s a not-totally uncommon pitfall, so I want to flag it as a reason not to leap into Stoicism.

  • Thank you for writing such a great post.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this. Stoicism is an undesirable philosophy, to be sure. Emotion as pathology. Suicide as honorable. Etc. If one is to error, why not error on the side of hedonism, haha?

  • I concur with Thomas Jefferson.

    I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and
    Rome have left us. Epictetus, indeed, has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines. ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, 1819

    I type this with my mouth full of strawberries picked from the garden by the back porch.

    I hope I’m not in trouble. 😉