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Is stoicism bad for democracy?
A philosophy meant to heal us might be harming us instead
Letters on Ethics
By Lucius Annaelus Seneca
Translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long
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In case you weren’t aware, stoic philosophy is having a bit of a renaissance these days.
Ryan Holiday is perhaps the most well-known evangelist for stoic philosophy online, but there are many other personalities on the internet who have built followings around applying stoicism to modern life (while notably ignoring the metaphysical framework beneath it).
But it doesn’t stop with the gurus. The r/stoicism subreddit has over half a million followers. YouTube videos on stoic principles run right alongside men’s fitness tips and “alpha male” clickbait. Stoic principles are also woven into contemporary self-help and professional therapy approaches (see Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
In an era where the liberal arts and the humanities struggle to convince people of their relevance, it’s surprising that at least one tradition of ancient philosophy has caught fire with the general public.
But perhaps the rise of contemporary stoicism says something important about the way many people are starting to frame their relationship to the world—with important implications for society at large.
Therapy for aristocrats
Stoicism was a popular philosophy among the Roman aristocracy, the senatorial class, the landowning free men, who weren’t servants or slaves of anyone, but spent their days in leisure, pleasure, and filling various governmental offices and roles. Like every aristocracy, they didn’t work, but they had legitimacy as the keepers of the culture, keepers of the good old days. Like we expect of rich and famous people today, we allow them their luxuries, but they had to be good and do good.
But when you live in an empire, not a republic, your senatorial duties are mostly a formality, and there’s a high chance you may end up poisoned or imprisoned or exiled on a whim or due to some secret conspiracy. Stoicism was appealing because it was about being a noble, upright, high-integrity person in the face of high-stakes death and misfortune. If you’re a rich person, and you get stripped of your riches, what are you? Well, at least you have your honor, your character, your inner mental serenity.
It was, in a word, therapy for people with power, influence, and wealth, who were anxious about losing any or all of it. It wasn’t about helping others, or making the world better, or your obligation to society (other than a general “do your duty, play your role” ethic). There’s no new design for society in this philosophy nor should you expect society to improve. It’s about you, the individual, finding personal serenity and tranquility in a dangerous universe. You’re in a world outside of your control, stoicism says, so you might as well focus on controlling yourself.
Seneca’s stoicism: Go with the flow or stand your ground?
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman senator, advisor to Nero, and a well-known stoic. Not as systematic or strict as other stoics, he was certainly a great popularizer of stoic virtues in his own time. So let’s use his Letters on Ethics as one way of looking at popular stoicism: What’s at the core of Seneca’s philosophy? What does he see as the ultimate goal of stoic living?
There’s a rhetorical contradiction in Seneca’s letters that I think gets to the heart of stoicism’s appeal. At times, Seneca uses the language of embracing nature, embracing fortune, accepting change:
We are considered free when we agree with God’s decisions or nature’s changes.
Salvation comes through obedience to fate.
Bad things that happen in life are simply life’s tax we shouldn’t think to avoid paying.
Nature’s desires are simple, such as hunger, and we should meet those needs simply, with only the necessary food.
We ourselves are continuously changing—we change from moment to moment—so why should we fear change, even change into death?
But then at other times, Seneca uses martial language and imagery—of soldiers, battles, fortresses—to describe one’s relationship to fortune as primarily that of resistance. In Letter 52 he writes:
Fortune is at war with me, yet I will not do its bidding; I will not bear its yoke. Indeed, I will do what takes even more courage: I will shake off that yoke.
And in Letter 105:
At every juncture, and finally at his death, Cato showed that a brave man can both live and die in defiance of fortune.
Seneca says the luxuries of aristocratic life make men soft, weak, and effeminate. The right stance is to be like a good soldier. Practice living without so that when the bad day comes you are ready to handle it with strength. The most important thing in life is a good death. Etc.
He also frequently argues against the inconsistency of people, that people are never the same. The true virtuous man is unchanging…
Wait, this seems to contradict his argument from above, about embracing our own inner changes. Is the good man ever-changing or never-changing?
This kind of metaphorical ambivalence, which can be found similarly in Marcus Aurelius, allows modern followers to play a double game: Sometimes stoicism is a kind of taoist, drop-out, unplug philosophy; other times it’s an honor-code, call-to-arms, be-a-real-man philosophy. Either of those have their appeal, and if you don’t like one, you’ll probably like the other.
But which side does Seneca finally land on?
In the second half of the book, Seneca takes up the ideas of the good and the honorable. As best as I understand it, the honorable is the true end that Seneca seeks. To do the honorable is always right, in every case, according to Seneca. It contains those actions that, even if they appear to be harmful to one’s self or unpopular, are noble, primarily because they preserve the integrity of the individual mind. Thus, Seneca argues certain kinds of suicide are honorable to maintain one’s personal integrity, though everyone around you may think otherwise.
It’s this appeal, to a kind of manly, noble, one vs. all position, that I think Seneca ultimately champions.
Where stoicism and democratic values diverge
Stoicism came from a different time, in which very few people had a voice and attaining social stability (versus progress or improvement) was of paramount importance to leaders. As mentioned earlier, stoicism isn’t about community. It isn’t about helping others or making the world a better place or doing what’s best for the group. It’s essentially a personal psychological survival kit, a mental suit of armor, against a world that is dangerous, risky, chancy, and ready to harm you at any moment.
For this reason, stoic values stand in stark contrast to the many democratic values people value today:
Stoicism says, “The opinions of others shouldn’t matter.”
Democracy says, “The opinions of others should matter.”
Stoicism says, “I can’t change the world around me.”
Democracy says, “I can change the world around me.”
Stoicism says, “The world can’t be improved.”
Democracy says, “The world can be improved.”
Stoicism says, “Other people are not important to my wellbeing.”
Democracy says, “My community is part of my wellbeing.”
Stoicism says, “Ethically, what matters is living according to my principles.”
Democracy says, “What matters is how my actions affect other people.”
Stoicism says, “Maturity means becoming impervious to the world.”
Democracy says, “Maturity means being open to the world.”
Stoicism says, “The goal of living well is to accept suffering as inevitable.”
Democracy says, “The goal of living well is to alleviate the suffering of others.”
Stoicism says, “Emotions are a sign of disfunction.”
Democracy says, “Emotions are part of self-expression and open exchange.”
Stoicism says, “The purpose of life is self-improvement.”
Democracy says, “The purpose of life is to contribute to the world around me.”
Now stoicism fans will quibble with the language here, tweaking this or that word. Strict stoic technicians can tell you there are “preferred indifferents” and all that. But the general gist—and surely the popular gist—of stoicism is here.
And the question is: Which of these mindsets feeds a healthy republic, and which one starves it?
An open society needs people who are open for dialogue. But if your default philosophy of life is basically pessimistic, if it takes the world as Game of Thrones, and if it valorizes the person who walks through life unswayed by the people around them, that’s problematic.
Yes, in stoicism there’s pity. Yes, there’s cosmopolitanism and the universal brotherhood of all rational beings. But that’s not central to the work of stoicism. In stoicism other human beings are placeholders and play a minor, even unnecessary, role in crafting a noble life. The people next to you could be anybody. Their lives, their experiences, their perspectives, their stories—they don’t really matter to your personal journey toward virtue. They primarily serve as lessons for yourself, training for yourself, a test for yourself.
What I learned practicing stoicism
I write this as someone who has read a lot of stoic books, both recent and ancient, and have attempted, off and on, to live according to stoic principles experimentally over the years.
I can say, on the upside, stoicism has increased my awareness of my own mortality and the inevitable loss of everything in life. And this made me appreciate everything more and find every moment more beautiful. This moment—playing on the floor with my kid, walking my dog at sunset, eating a sandwich—is disappearing, and contemplating that idea can bring out the preciousness and beauty of ordinary life.
But on the downside, stoicism never improved my closest relationships very much. Seeing emotions as mistakes or errors in logic only made tough conversations harder. Not taking things personally is fine when it comes to traffic jams, but it seems like the right way to approach one’s most intimate relationships is personally, not disinterestedly or objectively or abstractly, doing logical gymnastics in your head while the other person is talking.
To love people and to treat them with respect is to be open to them, and being open means ultimately allowing yourself to be vulnerable to their appeals, to take their emotions as a search for connection, not mistakes in judgement. It means taking what matters to them as something that matters to you, even when (especially when) that thing wouldn’t matter to you otherwise.
This clearly wasn’t on the radar for a male head of a Roman household in 1st Century AD, but it’s an important thing for a dad and husband in 21th Century AD.
And it’s also important for democracy, where others should be treated as people like yourself, where your mind should be open to new perspectives, where changes can and should be made to improve society when workable, and where the material parts of life are the stakes. In other words, to participate in democracy is to play as if what (non-stoic) people care about actually matters.
Stoicism as a symptom
In contemporary society, it’s all too easy to slip away from the outside world and sink into one’s self. And for some, internet stoicism only reinforces this slide. That’s one way stoicism may tilt people away from engaging the world around them.
But perhaps more disturbing, in the popular understanding—no matter how many well-meaning philosophers and scholars wag their fingers—stoicism is embraced as a philosophy of toughness, a way of viewing everyday ordinary experiences and interactions as a mental confrontation, a test, a war, or a challenge, where the central focus is on Me as the main character, with everyone else functioning as NPCs. And there’s plenty of original source material, like Seneca and Aurelius, to give that mindset fodder.
Ironically, modern stoicism may not be working as a check on our impulses but rather an indulgence in positioning toward the world that we are already drawn toward: self-absorption, isolation, and defensiveness.
I say this as someone who thinks there’s some timeless wisdom worth contemplating in stoic philosophy. But in this cultural moment, we ought to ask ourselves: Is this really what individuals need? Is this really what society needs?
In its attempt to calm our troubled minds, does the popular embrace of stoicism signal a turn away from the democratic values that hold communities together? Do we need a better philosophy?
Stoicism is about doing your duty. But what if our duty—to family, to friends, to community, to country—requires attachment over detachment, engagement over disengagement, feeling more rather than feeling less?
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