As you may be aware, Stoicism is hot these days. Some practicing Stoics appear to be view this as a non-preferred indifferent . Rather than feel threatened or un-stoically irritated by it, modern Stoics should keep their chins up–or better, down, to peruse their Stoic texts and ignore the trend, which will likely die down soon enough to make way for the next big thing.
If someone is looking for a quick or easy way to improve her life, Stoicism in itself is clearly not it. To the extent it is marketed as such, it is marketed misleadingly. So is the self-help version of Stoicism even Stoicism? No, not if it represents Stoicism as something other than a daily practice, a series of mental shifts that take time and discipline to internalize, or a focus on a guiding principle, the pursuit of virtue.
Are people merely talking about Ryan Holiday when they talk about the self-help version of Stoicism? If so, he’s just one author, and he comes from a self-help and marketing background, so while he certainly appears authentic in his adherence to Stoic teachings, it is colored by his career focus. It speaks to his marketing abilities that he is now seen as the face of modern Stoicism. He is someone who has the contacts, ambition, and je ne sais quoi to gain traction with business leaders, sports teams, and Hollywood types, people one does not typically associate with philosophical pursuits. Holiday obviously strikes a chord with a lot of people, and more power to him. If his readers wish to feel better about facing obstacles in their lives–we all have them, even celebrities–so be it.
Will it bastardize the ancient philosophy that modern practicing Stoics enjoy? I doubt it. Most people are simply not going to pick up the Meditations and start reading it; self-help Stoicism is not competing with Seneca and Epictetus. If someone reads a quote from Seneca and finds some inspiration, it’s not my place to criticize him for not taking it much further than that. As Marcus Aurelius puts it, “Ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls–no one ever came to grief that way.” Those of us who like to read the ancient Stoics are not going to be distracted or confused by a Seneca-quote meme.
The Jan. 2, 2017, piece on 3 Quarks Daily by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, “Stoicism for Dark Days,” was refreshing in that most essays on Stoicism these days are glowingly one-sided, but it did seem to be animated by that irritation with Stoicism as self-help.
Aikin and Talisse–while generally pleased at Stoicism’s resurgence, as you might expect philosophy professors to be–question the efficacy of the system of thought in light of the so-called “lazy argument” critics often level at it. The argument is that Stoicism, in de-emphasizing the importance of the outside world and one’s ability to influence it, lead to “inaction and complacency.” They warn new devotees of a facile self-help Stoicism that they still have to engage with society, according to ancient precepts, and the philosophy may therefore not serve as the refuge they were looking for.
That seems clear enough, but in other respects, Aikin and Talisse have set up a straw philosophy. It’s unclear whether they are critiquing ancient Stoicism as a whole, or whether they are instead setting up what they call the “Stoicism in Dark Days movement” to fail. If it is the former, their view of the philosophy is too narrow; if it is the latter, they underestimate the power that merely pinpointing the locus of control can have in soothing a weary populace–regardless of whether or not it has come to Stoicism in dark days or bright.
While I agree with their statement that “If one adopts Stoicism specifically for the purpose of enduring the dark days that have already have descended, one has missed the point. One must be a Stoic at all times, fortunate and unfortunate, for the program to be possible,” I did not buy their conclusion that Stoicism embodies a paradox:
So it seems that that Stoicism’s renaissance during these dark days is unlikely to do any good. In order for Stoicism to equip us to endure in bad times, we must adopt it when times are good. But, of course, when things are going well, who has time for such stark philosophy? Indeed, the Stoic idea that the times one is living in can never be good or bad looks flatly perverse when things appear to be going one’s way. [. . .] When one is most obviously in need of Stoicism’s benefits, one is least able to properly adopt and practice it; and the times when one is best able to put in the work necessary to cultivate the Stoic comportment are precisely the times when one is least able to acknowledge Stoicism’s benefits.
Broadly, you could say that if you are desperately in need of succor and are using phrases like “dark days,” nothing is going to work quickly–or possibly at all–and Stoicism is no exception. So of course, it is better to arm yourself in advance with psychological tools and good physical health in preparation for darker times. Stoicism is not “stark” on the whole, although there is some truth in that. Rather, it is highly streamlined in its focus on virtue as the only good.
Modern life is hectic and, especially for the non-religious, offers little in the way of spiritual, psychological, or philosophical edification. Even in good times, therefore, my reading of the Stoics has been very satisfying. They offer a framework for living and they have helped me hone my goals so I can focus on what is most beautiful and most attainable. Aikin and Talisse’s notion of “the Stoic idea that the times one is living in can never be good or bad” does not ring true. The times are technically indifferent, but a stoic can surely opine on whether Donald Trump controlling a nuclear arsenal is a good thing or a bad thing–rationality, and the right to form opinions, is what makes us human.
To sum up, if the resurgence of Stoicism in popular books, podcasts, or TED talks is not authentic Stoicism, that is unsurprising but it does not mean it cannot improve the lives of people who are not necessarily interested in reading Epictetus or taking a philosophy course. It does not cheapen ancient Stoicism or the modern take on it among the academic/practicing Stoic/Stoicon set. All of the great modern writings of the latter practitioners are easily available online, and Ryan Holiday will not wreak mass confusion. Stoicism is not for everyone, but nor is it especially bleak or stark such that only prisoners of war can benefit. It can bring about peace of mind in good times or bad by simply reminding us, as Marcus Aurelius writes, to
Concentrate every minute . . . on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can— if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? (Meditations, 2.5)
 “A nonpreferred indifferent is an event or thing that human beings naturally and rationally do not desire from a biological standpoint; we do not prefer such events and things to their opposites (preferred indifferents); but being beset by nonpreferred indifferents does not set back our goodness and happiness.” R. A. Belliotti, Why Philosophy Matters: 20 Lessons on Living Large 24-25 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015).