Do you remember Pet Rocks? You need to be older to remember them, but here’s a good history of them. The Pet Rock was the ultimate triumph of marketing over substance. The Pet Rock was a rock, just a plain rock, in a plain cardboard box labeled “Pet Rock.” I remember thinking even as a very young child how superficial the fad was.
I’m older now, and a philosophy professor, and seeing the recent increase in the number of books and articles about Stoicism reminds me of Pet Rocks. Stoicism has been around for many centuries, and over that time its popularity has waxed and waned. It seems to have traditionally been more popular during difficult times, when people seek solace in faddish, superficial comforts like Pet Rocks and philosophies reduced to pop psychology.
The prevailing view of Stoicism is that it is a method for staying calm. That’s true as far as it goes, but it is an over-simplification, even a whitewash of Stoic philosophy. Beneath the fluffy quotes extolling patience and acceptance of whatever dren life gives you, is a dark pessimism.
What Is Stoicism?
When first invented, the philosophy now known as Stoicism was a reaction against the cosmopolitan society of ancient Greece. Stoicism began in Greek times but blossomed in the Roman Empire. The movement started with Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE) who taught a philosophy of detachment, lecturing in the stoas (covered walkways) of Athens. The school Zeno founded was later led by Cleanthes and Chrysippus, who each helped develop Stoicism into a formal philosophical system.
The Stoics followed in Aristotle’s footsteps in seeking a systematic approach to knowledge anchored in reason and adopting the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation as the core of ethical life. They taught restraint from the satisfaction of lusts and gluttony like Epicurus, but most Stoics rejected Epicurus’s beliefs that there is no higher reality and that the cosmos is random. Most Stoics believed in a higher being that was the source of all goodness, reason, and order. Their belief in a rational order had strict consequences, as we shall see.
The Stoics had various beliefs, but all shared the core conviction that emotions, both positive and negative ones, arose from false judgments. A virtuous, wise person would forgo emotions, and this would lead that person to eudaimonia, a quiet, resigned contentment. Yes, this is why we get our word “stoic” from these philosophers. The resigned part comes from the Stoic idea that the cosmos is ordered by a higher power, Logos, which is eternal reason (yes, from the same root from which the word “logic” comes), the first principle of the cosmos.
All things stem from Logos, which is a kind of divine fire or breath that gives everything its reality and imbues it with logic and morality. We humans can know the Logos, but we are subject to its design, and that we cannot change. Everything is determined by the rational order. The only thing we can change is our attitude toward what is happening. This Stoic story is attributed to Zeno (a different Zeno than the one of the famous paradox), which I paraphrase as follows:
Suppose a dog is leashed to the back of a wagon. If the dog agrees to follow, the wagon will pull it and it follows, so that the dog’s own power and necessity unite. If the dog does not agree to follow, it will be required to nonetheless. The same is also true for people. Even if they do not want to follow, they will necessarily be compelled to enter into their fate.
In other words, the only sensible response to reality is to accept one’s fate; indeed, that is the only response of which we are capable.
Stoicism at its core is not so much a method for staying calm as it is a fatalism that we cannot escape our doom. We are fated to enter into whatever is determined for us. Like a dog, we must simply agree to follow; there is no hope for another outcome.
Why Did the Romans Adopt Stoicism?
The pop-psychology books and articles about stoicism love to quote Roman writers like Seneca, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius. With good reason. Stoicism became a popular ideology of the Roman elite class. The Romans didn’t invent stoicism, but it was as if it was made for them. The Romans were good at building infrastructure and conquering other cultures, but they were not big on philosophy, the arts, or emotions.
Stoicism resonated with a common Roman sensibility that the individual is largely powerless in the face of greater forces. The massive political and military machine of the Roman Empire had consolidated power across many lands. The Roman way was the only way. Other cultures were assimilated under Imperial Rome. Diversity was violently suppressed.
The Stoic teaching of resignation in the face of more powerful forces offered succor to people at all levels of Roman society. Marcus Aurelius captured this well when he wrote, “When you are grieved about anything external it is not the thing itself which afflicts you, but your judgment about it.” (Meditations, VIII.47) Oh, and Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. He was a true Stoic in realizing that even occupying the highest position on earth, one is still subject to fate. All that you have control over is your own mind, your own responses to events. The strength of Stoicism is its persistence in the face of any adversity to maintain calm control over one’s own thoughts.
Epictetus (55-135 CE) was one of the more extreme Stoic philosophers. Born a slave but later freed by his master who thought a man of such intellectual talents should not remain a slave. Epictetus wrote that he wished to return to slavery because it was less taxing than having to fend for oneself as a free man. This feeling was in keeping with his belief that, similar to Marcus Aurelius, people are disturbed not by events but by the views they take of events. Epictetus recommended independence from both the external world and one’s own passions. He taught a detached quietism from others:
When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself—for another man might not be hurt by it—but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too. (The Enchiridion, 16)
Do not even feel sympathy for another person so as to maintain your own self-control. That was Epictitus’s harsh teaching.
So Why Now Sell Stoicism as a Pet Rock?
Any idea can be twisted into new shapes, no doubt. Human ingenuity and free will empower that, you know, regardless of what stoicism says. As I mentioned earlier, throughout history, stoicism has been more popular during difficult times, when people seek solace in faddish, superficial comforts. The pandemic would certainly qualify as difficult times, but something else is going on feeding the pop-psychology for stoicism.
In today’s world, like back in Roman times. some people want to push the notion that the individual person is largely powerless in the face of greater forces. Today, the corporatist neoliberal establishment demands that people be complaint workers and consumers. If the power-that-be can convince people that there is nothing they can do to change the world or better their lives, then that makes society more stable and predictable. It’s good for business.
I am not suggesting some vast conspiracy, but the corporate publishing houses and corporate media are showing a preference for books and articles that extol the virtues of stoic fatalism. Think of yourself as a dog leashed to a wagon, and take heed not to care for other people’s sufferings. Be still, be quiet, accept everything, and if you find anything objectionable or unpleasant, blame your own poor attitude. It’s good for business.
A philosopher colleague of mine decries the effects of stoicism on people, observing that it “affects individuals on the level of subjectivity, making real freedom, a happy life, and the possibility of political action to transform social conditions untenable.” I agree. Stoicism’s pessimism about life and fatalism about improving the world in which we live denies humanity, individualism, and even hope itself. Like a Pet Rock, today’s fad of stoicism is just marketing. Unlike a Pet Rock, stoicism is actively harmful.