Before you buy your next self-help book, get your toga dry cleaned. Just a small sampling of recent book titles — Stoicism for Beginners, The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism, How to be a Stoic, A Handbook for New Stoics, The Pocket Stoic — makes it clear that the ancient Greco-Roman philosophical discipline is the mental health must-have these days.
We owe much of Stoicism’s mainstream revival to Ryan Holiday, a former publicist-for-hire and professional media manipulator (Tucker Max was one of his star clients) who later made the clothing brand American Apparel famous with risqué ad campaigns, e.g., porn stars (barely) wearing the brand. About a decade ago, Holiday abruptly renounced that life and “refashioned himself into a philosophical impresario, with a particular line in Stoicism,” according to one assessment. Holiday has written four Stoicism-steeped self-help bestsellers, gaining both mass popularity (his @DailyStoic Twitter feed of ancient pith has a quarter-million followers) and, especially, the admiration of the elite, from star athletes to politicians to Silicon Valley tycoons.
Meanwhile, the market has been flooded with reissues and new translations of the original Stoics, but rebranded with stylish designs and livelier titles like How to Keep Your Cool (Seneca) and That One Should Disdain Hardships (Musonius Rufus). The latter was furnished with a new introduction by Notre Dame classics professor Gretchen Reydams-Schils, who also took time this past spring to issue a strong rebuke to a provocative article about Stoicism’s revival in the New York Review of Books.
Why are the tenets and practices of a 2,000-year-old philosophy striking a 21st-century nerve? Especially a philosophy whose sentiment is often gritty as sediment. Its ancient handbooks for how to live prescribe some pretty tough pills to swallow.
A quick summary of Stoicism’s complexities and subtleties for the non-toga-wearing set: Happiness should be our highest aim in life. But it can’t be authentically achieved by the simple satisfaction of our physical and material desires. The high line to happiness goes by the stations of reason, humanity’s greatest virtue and the most precious distillation of the logos, the lifeforce that pervades all creation. The cultivation of reason grounds the self in the exercise of modesty and moderation, honesty and equanimity, which we carry out into what the Stoics called the cosmopolis: the shared world of humankind and the gods.
In an interview with Adapt, Dr. Reydams-Schils was asked to speculate on the causes of Stoicism’s current boom. She pointed to “exponentially increased instability” that began around the time of the economic crisis of 2007-08. Since then, America has felt a parallel surge in political instability. This “seesawing is more than a society can handle when the views are so radically apart,” she says.
The evidence that we’re “paralyzed by binary thinking,” Reydams-Schils suggests, is “the incredible decline of public discourse. Where do you go to make a case rationally? If you can’t really go anywhere, in a way you do fall back on yourself” — exactly where Stoicism’s first tenet directs us: toward the strong, grounded core of our individual reason.
Yet this ostensibly private self is increasingly subject to instability and irrationality similar to what we encounter in the public realm — precisely because the public realm has so enmeshed our innerness in its gears. Contemporaneous with the economic crash that preceded Stoicism’s rise was the rapid advent, in the mid- and late 2000s, of social media. Increasingly — and even more so since the pandemic — social media is where many if not most of us now conduct our personal relationships and find our wider social circles. It’s also where we get our news (and our opinions about that news), which is easy to conflate with the entertainment we also tend to find via social media recommendations. These platforms influence how we dress, what and where we eat, and so on, shaping our material identities. And with so much (over)sharing and obsessive “connecting” of our deeper identities (not to mention all the private data we hand over every time we log on), it’s harder and harder to discern where the “self” ends and “society” begins. The private-public entanglement in which we now find ourselves almost inescapably caught, in virtually all our waking hours, goes much of the way toward explaining why we’re having a Stoicist moment two millennia after Stoicism was born.
This is all happening as we struggle to draw another crucial dividing line. Epictetus’s Discourses open with the importance of distinguishing between what is “up to us” and “not up to us.” Much of the rest of his teachings (and many other Stoics’) proceeds from this simple but powerfully ramifying distinction, which is precisely the one social media deliberately blurs. We’re constantly invited to to update and tweet and post even in contexts where events are fundamentally “not up to us” and don’t change as a result of our activity.
Social media platforms induce our participation by fragmenting and inflaming our attention. We are “broken down into instants,” Reydams-Schils says, by “this constant barrage of short-term, immediate stimuli and immediate gratification. Our desires are being manipulated and artificially increased. You see something come across your screen and you get an immediate sense of outrage and a short burst of energy.” Eventually we reach a point of what she calls “indignation fatigue.” Worse than the internet’s so-called “alternate reality” is that “we end up being completely depleted. That’s the deeper [problem]. The Stoics would say you’ve just wasted a lot of emotional, psychological energy.”
As a result of our indignation fatigue, “it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness,” Reydams-Schils says, but “Stoicism can give people the courage to overcome that sense of powerlessness. It can provide us the grounding to do what we can, which is literally what Marcus Aurelius is saying. We have to [make] the best efforts. We can’t let go. What matters is that we do what we can do.”
The question, then, is this: once a Stoic mindset has empowered us to do what we can do, what should we do? The answers are there, but only if we expand our understanding of Stoicism beyond Marcus Aurelius’s “best is what benefits me,” which is only a small part of the emperor’s counsel. “The US has one of the most advanced, extreme forms of individualism in Western culture,” Reydams-Schils observes, and she has dubbed our current adaptation (arguably a perversion) of Stoic principles “Prosperity Stoicism.” That’s not authentic Stoicism, she says. It’s an American ideology that never questions its own self-justifying assumptions about the value of devoting all one’s energies to the accumulation of wealth and power.
“Stoicism is not about the great individual who overcomes all odds and then comes out on top and is successful,” Reydams-Schils says; rather, it’s predicated on “the intrinsic sociability of the self” — “what benefits me” must necessarily benefit the cosmopolis — and that sociability requires our service to the public realm. “What that service will look like,” Reydams-Schils says, “I don’t think we can just get from the Stoics. We have our own cosmopolis to build.”
The question of what our cosmopolis should look like — what do we mean by equality and equity, freedom and justice, and how do we work toward them? — has grown increasingly contested, urgent, fraught, and even violent. In the wake of the pandemic, building our society really means rebuilding it, and Stoicism’s renaissance can help us do it well if we recognize what it actually asks of us as cosmopolitans. Having adapted Stoicism to the needs of our mental health after the 2008 economic crisis, we can respond to the current crisis of public health, and the societal challenges it has enacted, by adapting ourselves to Stoicism’s higher values.
“Every circumstance comes with two handles,” said Epictetus, “with [only] one of which you can hold it.” But maybe the key to getting Stoicism right is by holding it with both. We’ve mostly using only one, the handle of the self — the prosperity handle. How to grasp the other one, which we share with our community and cosmopolis?
We might find it helpful to keep in mind the origins of Stoicism, in its essential physical and etymological terms. The adjective Stoic has come down to us mostly as a description of disposition: keep a stiff upper lip against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But the word actually derives from architecture. The Greek stoa was a covered colonnade that served as a public walkway or meeting place. It was there that the earliest teachers of what became known as Stoicism gave lectures and held colloquies — for anyone to attend, not in private rooms for exclusive audiences. The discipline of Stoicism was thus named for the physical community space where it was born, and set forth the principles of the common good on common ground, framed by literal pillars of the community. How to grasp being a Stoic now? Pick up any self-help book, modern or ancient. Then take it out into the cosmopolis.