For an ancient philosophy, Stoicism is doing extremely well in 2023. Quotes from the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius litter my Instagram feed; you can find expert advice from modern Stoic thinkers on leadership, relationships, and, well, just about anything.
It is hard to imagine Zeno, the Athenian philosopher who founded Stoicism, or his Roman counterparts Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus existing in today’s world. And yet here they are, quoted and debated on every corner.
This is, in part, due to international authors such as Ryan Holiday and Massimo Pigliucci and Australia’s Brigid Delaney. Each of these has their own approach to Stoicism. Holiday, a former marketing executive for American Apparel, focuses on the four Stoic virtues: courage, temperance (or moderation), justice and wisdom. Pigliucci, an academic based in New York, is interested in Stoic practices. Journalist Delaney, author of Reasons not to worry: how to be stoic in chaotic times, is in search of a framework for navigating life.
Holiday has probably been most influential in taking Stoicism to a wide audience. His new book Discipline is Destiny: the power of self control is a New York Times bestseller. He runs a very successful Instagram page called the dailystoic, and has opened a book store in his home state of Texas.
It is incredible to see such public interest in ancient philosophy. As a philosopher myself, this is inspiring. There are many academic philosophers trying to break through to a public audience. We want to demonstrate the usefulness of philosophy to everyday life. Most philosophers and philosophies fail to do this. Yet if the success of these authors is anything to go by, millions of people are interested in the Stoic way of life.
But there are problems with Stoicism, both in its modern and ancient forms. I am not a fan. Here are my three reasons to resist Stoicism, and also an alternative approach to the some of the same problems it addresses I have borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche, the great 19th century German philosopher.
Holiday, Pigliucci and Delaney agree: one of the most important and useful aspects of Stoicism is what is called the “dichotomy of control”. This involves understanding that there are things you can control and things you can’t. Happiness can be achieved by focusing only (literally – only) on the things you can control and letting go of everything else.
For a Stoic, it turns out there are very few things you can control. In fact, Stoicism suggests the only thing really under your control is your response to the world, rather than anything in the world itself. Delaney summarises: “we can control just three things: 1. our character, 2. our reactions […] 3. and how we treat others.” Putting effort into anything else is considered a waste of time and energy.
I have an issue with this. First, there are lots of things out there in the real world I can control. I can control my motor vehicle when I drive to the shops. Or, when I sit out on my back deck on Sunday evenings, I can control the fire in the fire pit. I can also exert some level of control over other people. Say my wife is feeling tired and irritable. I can either, as a good Stoic, try to feel good about that, or I can get up from the lounge and bring her a glass of wine and some crackers with Taramasalata.
One of the problems here is Stoicism’s insistence on this binary distinction between things you control and things you don’t. Pigliucci recognises this problem, briefly considers a third category of things that are partly under our control but dismisses it.
“It comes naturally to think of the dichotomy as too strict […]” he writes. He goes on to describe how a modern Stoic, William Irvine, has suggested a “trichotomy” comprising control, influence, and no control. But “this suggestion,” writes Pigliucci, “is a mistake.”
This leads us to the passivity problem. If we focus only on our character, reactions, and actions, as Stoicism proposes, and put no effort into things that lie beyond our direct control, it seems to me that a practising Stoic will remain passive in the face of major problems like climate change or social inequality.
Pigliucci, Holiday and Delaney all recognise this issue. Without wanting to oversimplify how these authors respond to this complex problem, there is a common theme in these three books. At some point or another, each of them points out that, despite the passivity problem, practising Stoics can be progressive and activist.
It is true that some of the Stoics were (sort of) progressive, or even activist, in their positions. Stoic education was open to women, unlike most philosophical schools at the time. Epictetus, a late Stoic, was a slave who became a sage, a kind of social mobility that was more or less unheard of in the ancient world.
But I would argue that whatever progressive positions an individual Stoic may or may not advocate for, the “dichotomy of control” is an important claim that militates against activism, promoting acceptance of everything outside your direct control.
Nietzsche offers us a radically different approach. To understand what he offers we have to understand that he sees everything as a contest. Everyone (and everything) is expressing their agency in the world (their “will to power”) all the time. When two people come into contact with one another, or with an animal, or a plant, or a situation, their natural orientation towards that person (thing, situation) is to express themselves, to exercise agency, to take control (or try to).
For him, this contest is something to be embraced regardless of the outcome. It might be that you succeed, to some degree at least, and this brings with it the satisfaction of self-expression. Or you might fail, and feel frustrated, or angry, or depressed. For him, all of this is fine. It is natural to experience both success and failure, feeling good and feeling bad. In fact, these are all an essential part of the process of becoming what you are, even if you are to be “wrecked against infinity” in the attempt.
This seems to me a much better way to go, especially if you want to make the most of your life and your potential as a human being. No one would ever achieve anything incredible, or step beyond their own limitations and boundaries, if they simply accepted that the only thing they could “really” control was themselves. Even if you’re (almost) guaranteed to fail, there is merit in extending yourself and expressing yourself into (or even against) the world.
Sure, you can’t control the outcome. Sure, you will experience failure and, as a consequence, distress. Nietzsche’s response to this is simply: so what? To quote him directly from his work The Gay Science:
Is our life really so painful and burdensome that it would be advantageous for us to trade it for a fossilised Stoic way of life? Things are not bad enough for us that they have to be bad for us in the Stoic style!
This brings us to the second problem I see with Stoicism: its morbid fear of strong emotions, and particularly negative ones.
The Stoics argue the reason we should accept that we can’t control anything out there in the world is because if we don’t end up getting our own way, we might feel bad about it. This is the point about externals versus internals in Stoic theory: you can’t control externals, so don’t pursue them, or you might get frustrated, angry or bitter. Epictetus writes:
If you always bear in mind what is your own (i.e. an internal within your control) and what is another’s (i.e. an external outside your control), then you will never be disturbed.
Emotional self-regulation and striving for permanent internal equanimity are two very different things. In the former, we aim to fully experience our emotional states but still behave ethically towards others. In the latter, we aim not to experience the full range of human emotions and instead float languidly in a peaceful sea of feelgood nothingness.
Personally, I could not imagine anything worse than equanimity. It seems like a kind of death, a desire to take away from us one of the quintessential human experiences: our emotions.
Surely feeling strong, negative emotions is (perhaps strangely) one of the great experiences in life? Why do we love horror films, sad songs, tragic theatre, in-your-face artwork? Isn’t it to evoke precisely these emotions – hatred, contempt, disgust, fear, anger? Stoicism, it seems to me, takes away from us something that we love to experience, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way.
Again, Nietzsche offers a different perspective. For him, if life is endless contest, and the goal of life is to navigate this ethically, then we get a different perspective on our emotional lives. When it comes to negative emotions, we don’t ask whether these make us happy – obviously they don’t, by definition. Instead, we ask whether they help us in the contest of life, in self-expression.
From this perspective, emotions like love (and sympathy and compassion) can be good, but they can also be damaging. Emotions like frustration, contempt or anger can be bad, but they can also be helpful. In both cases, the key is to be strong enough to allow yourself to really feel these emotions and then turn them into ethical action.
To quote Nietzsche, the question is not whether these emotions are inherently good or bad to feel, but whether they come from a place of personal deficit or inner abundance:
Nowadays I avail myself of this primary distinction concerning all aesthetic values: in every case I ask, ‘Is it hunger or superabundance that have become creative here?’
If they come from the former, they will make you weaker and you will behave badly as a result. If they come from the latter, they will make you stronger and you will behave well as a result. The great advantage of Nietzsche’s approach over Stoicism is that it allows you to fully experience who you are.
The injury contradiction
The final problem with Stoicism is that of injury. There are two parts to this. The first is the idea that you are only injured if you think you are injured. Pigliucci summarises the theory: “You are not disturbed by things in themselves, but by your judgements of things.”
If, for example, someone robs you, the problem is your judgement that that thing was ever yours. He explains:
Never regard anything as yours, but as a loan from the universe … Has someone taken away your property? That was not yours in the first place.
But, also according to Pigliucci, Stoicism is fundamentally aimed at helping other people. You should act in such a way that you make other people’s lives better: “the aim (is) becoming better human beings, which means becoming more thoughtful and more helpful to society at large.” In other words, a good Stoic will act only to improve other people’s lives.
But I take issue with the argument that if someone feels injured by something I have done or said, the problem is actually in their heads, rather than in my actions. If I flip perspectives – couldn’t I simply say that I am free to do whatever I please and if people feel injured, well that’s on them? So in what sense am I obligated to behave well towards others?
One of the reasons Stoicism is appealing to people is because the Stoics have a reputation for a no-nonsense, hyper-realistic attitude to life. Things will go wrong. You will die. People you love will abandon you. Stoicism confronts all of these realities and says “just accept.”
But when it comes to your feelings of personal injury it says: “reject.” Reject the sensation of loss. Ignore the financial consequence. Whatever you think this injury has cost you – it hasn’t.
This seems to me to be unrealistic, anti-human and borderline unethical. Wouldn’t it be better, if my $20,000 road bike has been stolen, to allow me to be angry? To feel the injustice of it? To rail against the world? The harsh reality is that I have been injured. It is not all in my head. To pretend otherwise is to, well, pretend.
Again, this is where I find Nietzsche’s approach helpful. He also promotes a version of acceptance – but his is much more radical. It is a matter of accepting everything – including yourself.
You’re a person who gets irritated by the smallest things, things outside your control like a person loudly crunching chips in the cinema. Accept everything about this situation, your own responses included. Your rising childlike instinctual hatred at the noise-perpetrator included. Your absolute inability to just get on with it and enjoy the movie, included.
I find this much more appealing, realistic and affirming than the Stoic double standard, where you accept everything about the world “out there” but idealise the world “in here”. You will end up holding yourself to impossible standards if you critique what’s going on for you and let pass everything that’s going on for others.
If not Stoicism then …?
So – where to from here? If Stoic wisdom helps you to live the way you want to, then go for it. But if, like me, you have a problem with its passive approach, its reduction of your emotional life towards equanimity, its contradictory way of talking about the standards for yourself compared to the standards for others, then I encourage you to look elsewhere.
For me, Nietzsche’s philosophy provides a much more realistic and exciting way forward.
Author Bio: Neil Bradley Durrant is an Adjunct Fellow at Macquarie University