On (modern) Stoicism

An article recently published in the New Statesman on Stoicism, by Nancy Sherman, has led me to think at length about this particular branch of philosophy for probably the first time.

Sherman’s article argues that Stoicism isn’t actually about the individual – or at least, not exclusively – but in fact the community too. As well as being an ethic of personal resilience and, above all, equanimity, Stoicism is also about cultivating the common bonds between human beings that would allow us to live well in an aspired-for cosmopolitan community. Sherman’s article is most persuasive when connecting this to the personal situation of Marcus Aurelius, whose experience as Roman Emperor and military commander meant he knew intimately that the individual can only flourish as part of an organised whole. I found this very interesting, as the communitarian side of Stoicism is indeed lost in a lot of its contemporary representations.

This then got me wondering about the revival of Stoic philosophy that has taken place over the last decade or so. Intriguingly, this revival has occurred only partly in academia, and predominantly in popular philosophy circles. Of course, Stoicism’s focus on self-cultivation through mental exercises makes it ripe for being taken up by popular philosophers. But I’m curious as to why Stoicism has become the popular philosophy of choice, when others – such as Epicureanism or Cynicism – might be just as good candidates.

My first thought was to identify the parallels between the era of history in which Stoicism emerged and our own time. Stoicism originated in Hellenistic Greece, a period of great rupture. Most of the old city-states that had existed independently throughout the Classical era – Athens, Ephesus, Corinth and so on – had been united by Alexander the Great and effectively made into a single nation, which then became the heart of a new empire that stretched throughout the near- and middle-East all the way to modern-day India.

This changed the meaning of Greek citizenship quite drastically. Whereas before one was a citizen of a polis (roughly, a city-state), which, in some cases, entailed democratic participation in its governance, now one was a subject of the emperor, and at most a citizen of a cosmopolis (roughly, a world-state). The twofold importance of this shift is, firstly, the substitution of the local for the global, and secondly, the reduced importance of active citizenship for the attainment of the good life.

In this new context the individual was left to simply learn how to best live with the world as it moved around them: since an individual could no longer control as much of what happened to them, they instead had to learn how to cope with and find peace in this situation. This is, in essence, the common assumption that ties Stoicism and Epicureanism together, which were the two most important philosophies to emerge in the Hellenistic era.

Now, it could be that our own era of Western disruption parallels some of this. Over the last thirty years the nation-state has been largely supplanted by international forces and trans-national institutions: we live in a globalised economy, more-or-less regulated by the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, and so on. (This process has admittedly been underway since the beginning of the twentieth century, but it drastically intensified with the collapse of the Soviet Union and triumph of liberal capitalism: Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”.) As in Hellenistic Greece, this has entailed a substitution of the relatively local for the global, and the diminished importance of democracy. Hence, perhaps, the renewed appeal of Stoicism: it offers a way of coping with the world that now, to a very large degree, does things to us and for us without our say-so.

If this is correct, it would explain why Stoicism has enjoyed a popular revival when Aristotelian virtue ethics has not. Although the latter is a far superior ethic, forming part of a far superior philosophical system, and has in recent years been made fully respectable by academics like Alasdair MacIntyre, it places a great emphasis on political action in local contexts, and this is now, sadly, largely lost to us.

However, this still doesn’t explain why Stoicism, rather than another Hellenistic philosophy like Epicureanism, has become the favoured philosophy of the day.

The answer to this, I think, is that Stoicism can be (mis)interpreted in a way that is compatible with the ideology of neoliberal capitalism. We all know the content of that ideology: there is no such thing as society, only the individual, and the individual is responsible for their success or failure in life depending on how hard they work. Equally, we all know that this ideology is a sham, based on a completely false image of the human being and a total misreading of socio-economic reality. But it still persists as an ideology; indeed, a very powerful one. And I suspect that its prevalence explains both why Stoicism has been (mis)interpreted as an individualistic philosophy, and the contemporary appeal of that version of it. Individualistic Stoicism allows us to conceive of ourselves as strivers who face adversity through sheer force of will, and to this extent it satisfies the neoliberal ideologue within us. But at the same time, it only asks that we be a striving individual within a highly circumscribed space, one that fits nicely with the restricted realm of action afforded to us by globalisation.

I suspect this is why Epicureanism, with its more easy-going spirit, has failed to take hold in the public imagination at this historical juncture. And all of this means, of course, that if Sherman is right – if Stoicism is not just a philosophy in pursuit of individual resilience, but the common good as well – then it has the potential to challenge the neoliberal conception of the self and society quite drastically. And this would make for an interesting philosophical revival indeed.

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