The armrest on the bus was stabbing me in my side. The seat on the small van was too small
"Be Cool, Bro." Stoicism Offers More Than Life Hacks.
Thoughts for dark times.
Picture this: The richest, most powerful dude in the world walks up and says hi. He says he's heard good things about you.
He wants to do you a favor.
You can have anything you want, he says. Just name it. You're not impressed. You don't just turn him down. You throw him a little shade. "Sure, you can do me a favor. You can get out of my face." So the richest, most powerful man in the world walks off, telling his friends that if he wasn't already so rich and powerful, he would want to be just like you, because that's how cool you sound.
Something like that actually happened about two thousand years ago, when Alexander the Great met the legendary philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was a cynic. He rejected material possessions along with almost every other cultural convention and form of authority.
Alexander had to build an empire.
Diogenes didn't need one.
Cynicism eventually gave birth to Stoicism, an arguably more "civilized" philosophy. Over the last decade, Stoicism has gotten a reputation for encouraging a self-interested, apolitical worldview that focuses mainly on personal success. You can thank a handful of writers for kickstarting that trend. Now the internet is just bristling with Seneca quotes. Tech bros treat Meditations by Marcus Aurelius like a bible, but they don't really understand that Stoicism was a life philosophy forged in a time of tyranny, plague, and civil war.
It's not startup porn.
You can see why Stoicism might appeal to people in a time when slavery was normal and politicians would stick your head on a pike if you caused too much trouble. If you couldn't manage your emotions, they would get you killed pretty fast. You really did have to accept some harsh realities if you were going to stand a chance back then.
Today, we face a lot of harsh realities. It looks like the world is sliding back into authoritarianism. Life expectancies are falling, and mortality rates are rising. Public health is retreating as diseases make a major comeback. If that weren't enough, the climate is collapsing. And it's going to take our beloved technologies and supply chains with it.
We're not getting the life we were promised.
Not even close.
This isn't the whining of some entitled influencer. Most of us worked our butts off contributing to a society that's not going to be there for us when we need it the most. We've been cheated.
We have to operate on two levels now, fighting for what we think is right while also realizing that we'll probably lose. Most of what we learned growing up didn't prepare us for that.
That's where Stoicism comes in.
I'm not going to sling a bunch of quotes at you. Odds are, you've seen them all anyway. By themselves, the quotes mean nothing.
It's about the actions they inspire.
Real Stoicism didn't preach detachment from the world. Plenty of card-carrying Stoics did in fact get involved in politics.
Stoicism never mounted a coherent campaign against slavery or sexism. Some of the Stoics owned slaves. Lots of slaves. But individual Stoics criticized both institutions. Some Stoics said that if you were hellbent on having slaves, at least you could treat them well. In general, Stoics regarded women as intellectual equals, even if they waffled on whether they should be allowed to run things.
Stoics believed life was messy, but you had to try. As Nancy Sherman writes in Stoic Wisdom, "We obviously can't control all outcomes. But we can cultivate reason, curiosity, a respect for the truth, and a belief that everyone deserves adequate resources to cultivate reason. That is the stoic seed, even if not sown in their own times." The Stoics believed you had an ethical duty to help people, and that you should try to include outsiders in your sphere of concern. They believed you should care about strangers, even the citizens of other cities.
For the time, that was pretty radical.
You don't need to redeem or exonerate all Stoics in order to benefit from their ideas, and they had some good ones. You just have to practice a little caution and some historical awareness.
Here's a good idea:
The Stoics believed in anticipating failure. They weren't big fans of optimism, hope, or positive thinking. They believed hope came from a fundamentally naive understanding of the world. For them, it was better to brace for a rough day and then be pleasantly surprised when things went fine.
The Stoics were all about taking precautions.
Their admiration of the Cynics would've made them more or less immune to any need for approval or acceptance that compromised their judgment. They would have no problem wearing a mask or skipping a party to avoid catching a disease widely known to cause brain and organ damage. Stoics would roll their eyes at all this urgency of normal nonsense.
The Stoics believed in accepting unpleasant realities and dealing with them. They didn't just mean personal obstacles and setbacks. They believed in standing up against tyranny and injustice as well.
Bad things happen.
Stoics get it.
You don't simply accept bad things and then do nothing. You don't ignore them. You can talk about them. You can complain. You can even get upset. After that, you have to come up with a plan.
Otherwise, nothing gets better.
The Stoics believed that it was better to try and fail than to give up without a fight. You can't control everything. You can't control physics. You can't control other people's behavior, but you can control your own. You can also engage with other people and persuade them.
This is where Pop Stoicism often breaks.
Startup bros use Stoicism to silence dissent and shut down political debate. They branded it, and they try to weaponize it against their opponents. Because they feel no personal need for things like protests or collective action, they try to mobilize their superficial understanding of Stoicism to insist on the futility of social movements. They think Stoicism is all about keeping your opinion to yourself and going with the flow, especially if they don't like you.
That's not real Stoicism.
Activists need Stoicism as much as anyone, and they can benefit from it. The startup bros don't own philosophy.
They just think they do.
More than anything, the Stoics believed in slowing down and examining your feelings before acting on them. In some ways, they predicted a lot of important work in psychology about our impulsive nature. They knew that humans often react with their instincts first.
Sometimes, it's useful.
Other times, our emotions get us in trouble. The Stoics knew that. Every day, they saw people get killed because they couldn't control their temper. For a civilized society, Rome was kind of violent. They hadn't woken up to the notion of universal human rights quite yet.
The Stoics offered another valuable lesson:
Even if you care deeply about something, sometimes you need to slow down. You need to take a break. You need to gather your thoughts. You need to rest. You can't go full speed all the time. You'll fly apart.
You have to pace yourself.
That's hard for some of us, especially now. Thanks to the internet, there's always a new problem. There's always a new atrocity.
There's always one last point to make.
The Stoics understood that most days, you're going to feel a gnawing sense of incompleteness. You're going to leave loose ends. You won't go to bed feeling a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment about everything. You'll feel like you haven't done enough, even if you did.
Things are going to bother you.
That's why the Stoics placed so much emphasis on habits, routines, and reminders. They knew you have to remind yourself that you've done all you can do in a day. You have to remind yourself that even when you feel like shit, there's probably a few good things in your life worth struggling for. You should appreciate those things, because they could go away tomorrow.
The Stoics weren't strangers to loss.
They lived through wars and pandemics. They knew how quickly everything could go to hell. They didn't see gratitude as a vehicle for acquiring more stuff, the way your average grifter sells it now.
True gratitude means you find purpose and joy where you can. The Stoics knew that your life might not get better. It might get worse. If you lost someone, you didn't want to spend the rest of your life regretting the fact that you treated them like crap or didn't spend enough time with them. You wanted to remember the good moments you had together.
The world needs a big dose of Stoicism now. We need people who can slow down and make smart decisions based on facts, not empty hope.
We need more people who are willing to give up material comforts and possessions for a chance at a better future. We need more people who can resist the pressure to conform to superficial norms and conventions. We need more people who define their happiness based on what they have, not the promise of more wealth at the expense of others.
As Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos write in Being Better, "for Stoics, virtue is excellence in action in everyday life, and the results benefit everyone, including one's neighbor... Stoicism works because it is designed to help us find meaning and take positive action regardless of our circumstances and how we feel about them."
Our situations influence us. They don't have to define us.
It's a good philosophy for doomers.
This is what I wish everyone was reading about and trying to emulate, not life hacks centered on their own success.
Stoicism isn't about building empires.
It's about not needing them.
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