National Opinions

Five myths about stoicism

Nancy Sherman is University Professor and a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. She is the author of “Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience.”

Stoicism is an ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition that continues to reverberate in contemporary culture. When Prince Philip died, for example, the Spectator wrote that “he epitomised a very British stoicism.” Admirers of the famous British stiff upper lip may not have classical figures such as Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in mind, but their ideas have taken on a more explicit importance on the Internet. As I argue in my new book, “Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience,” these thinkers have a great deal to offer us. But first we must dispel some persistent myths about their arguments.

Myth No. 1: Stoicism is about being tough.

The Stoics supposedly give us lessons for becoming tough enough to shrug off anything. According to investor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “antifragility,” an attitude that treats every loss as an opportunity to become better, is at heart Stoic. The website Daily Stoic holds that Stoicism is “a philosophy designed to make you stronger, so that you don’t break easily.”

This gets it wrong. Yes, the Stoics want to arm us against the slings and arrows of fortune. But they insist that we lose our humanity if we try to become invulnerable. That is clearest in Seneca’s remarks in the “Letters.” He says he is a doctor “offering cures” but always also the patient in the sickroom. He couldn’t offer sound advice, he says in Letter 27, if he didn’t suffer and know fragility firsthand. His comments on loss also demonstrate that he, too, has grieved hard over the deaths of friends and knows that tears are natural.

Myth No. 2: To be a Stoic, you have to be emotionless.

According to a common understanding of history, the 1st-century B.C. Roman politician Cato the Younger was the model of the emotionless sage, an attitude that was mocked by Cicero as emblematic of Stoicism more generally. Over time, that perception has taken root among adherents of Stoicism. The website Lifehack, for example, claims that the Stoics taught us not to “get caught up in your passionate emotions” and argues that practicing Stoicism is about avoiding “a display of feelings.”

But the idea that Stoics don’t have emotional skin in the game is a misreading of ancient Stoicism. The Stoics were the most nuanced of early emotion theorists, detailing the layered complexity of emotional life. They describe “proto-emotions” that we feel and can’t control, and even a sage isn’t impugned for experiencing these starts and startles. (They do believe that some more full-throated emotions such as anger and fear derail us and should be managed.)

The Stoics nevertheless urge us to cultivate many of our ordinary emotions, turning them into “good emotions.” Diogenes Laertius reports that Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism, held that there were three “good feelings: joy, caution, and wishing,” and many subspecies of these, such as “friendliness, respect, affection.” Seneca elaborates on the theme and insists that we need to demonstrate our good will through emotional expression: Giving a gift with a furrowed brow or “downcast eyes” is like giving someone bread with stones in it. Gratitude, too, should come across in our body language: “Words may fail us, but if we feel the indebtedness that we should, our awareness of it will show on our faces,” Seneca wrote. True Stoics are not impassive in what they feel or how they show it.

Myth No. 3: Stoicism is a misogynistic philosophy.

The Stoics have been appropriated by some of the Internet’s more misogynistic communities, whose members have attempted to imprint their toxic hypermasculine ideology onto these ancient thinkers. As Donna Zuckerberg wrote in 2018, “Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ and Epictetus’s ‘Enchiridion’ appear on lists of recommended texts on the Red Pill subreddit.” The claim that reverberates in those echo chambers is that reason, insight and a capacity for virtue are the province of men alone. “Manly character,” the argument goes, is at the heart of real integrity.

The ancient world was not a place for modern gender equity. But the Stoic philosophers, in their discourses on political and moral life, held that virtue, or ethical excellence, had no gender. Zeno of Citium envisaged an ideal community of sages that included women. The view follows from the Stoic doctrine that all humans are endowed with reason.

The Stoics believed that this had implications for the education of both girls and boys. Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, for example, insisted that women should study and practice philosophy, just as men do. For they have “received from the gods the same rational faculty as men,” he wrote. They also share with men, he went on to argue, “a desire for ethical excellence” and a “natural orientation to it,” no less than men.

Myth No. 4: Stoic practices are life hacks for self-help.

Modern admirers of Stoicism often view the ancient Stoics as the original life hackers. One typical article promises “25 powerful stoic quotes to boost your self-growth.” Podcaster Tim Ferrisscharacterizes Stoicism as a “personal operating system,” capturing the widespread sense that the philosophy is about my personal good and my journey.

Ancient Stoicism, especially under popularizers like Epictetus, did promise athletic training for the soul. But that discipline was always moral discipline, which is to say it aimed to help us treat one another with good will and dignity. The ultimate end of virtue is not my good but “our good,” as social selves connected locally and globally. Framing Stoic thought as “self-help” stops short of the real goals of this school.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, paints a graphic image in the “Meditations”of our connectedness: If you have ever seen a hand or head severed from the rest of the body, that’s what a person “makes of himself . . . when he cuts himself off” from the rest of humanity. Though he was writing in the lull of battle during the German campaigns, he was capturing an idea that runs through Stoic thought more generally: We flourish only when we act cooperatively and, at times, selflessly.

Myth No. 5: The Stoics teach indifference to the outer world.

Many modern Stoic practitioners hold that you should attempt to change your attitude, not the external world. Drawing on Stoic thought in “The Obstacle Is the Way,” Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic writes, “When the cause of our problem lies outside of us, we are better for accepting it and moving on.” Pierre Hadot, another Stoic interpreter, zeros in on the idea of “amor fati,” or the loving acceptance of one’s fate.

This is a misleading and narrow read of Stoicism. The Stoics understood that we see the world through personal biases we don’t even know we possess. They attempted to offer techniques that could help us slow down the kinds of thinking that result from those biases. In the process, they hoped to make it easier for us to intervene positively in the world by changing the way we perceive it. Changing how we see is a first step in changing how we engage in the world - to change what we cannot accept.

Seneca puts it this way: Yes, we are wired by nature to respond to threats. (This is what it is to live in accord with nature.) But we are not always good at estimating those threats. Fear and anger too often “outleap reason.” We need to learn how and when to press the pause button, so that our vision is not subject to distortion and error. This is about changing the world by changing how we see one another. It’s an engagement in the world, not a retreat from it.

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