I recently finished a really good book called “The Little Book Of Stoicism” by Jonas Salzgeber. It made me think on all the myths about Stoicism and misconceptions surrounding this philosophy. While this and other books do an excellent job debunking some of them, most people approaching this ancient school of thought still tend to fall for them.
The origins of Stoicism go back thousands of years, to the 3rd century BC. It flourished especially in the Greek and Roman empires for about 6 centuries. Then, it experienced a decline after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire during the 4th century AD.
Stoicism has had two major revivals. One of them was during the renaissance and, more recently, a second one during the last decade. That’s the one we are experiencing right now.
However, people approaching Stoicism these days are faced with lots of misconceptions about it. Most of them dismissing it for being too cold or focusing on the rational side of things while disregarding human feelings. However, most of these arguments are an oversimplification of the philosophy, and don’t offer an accurate view of Stoicism.
The Noise Surrounding Modern Stoicism
The opposite is also true. So say you stumble upon an Instagram post showing an ancient greek bust with a cool quote by Seneca, and you think “Wow! This guy was so cool and forward-thinking thousands of years ago… I want to be a Stoic!”.
Stoicism is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. It’s a school of thought that’s not always well understood. Modern Stoicism tries to adapt the core concepts of Stoicism to our times. And it does it so brilliantly because its main ideas are atemporal, and could be equally applied from a Roman Emperor who lived centuries ago to a entrepreneur of the digital age or a farmer from the medieval period.
However, as with most modern philosophical, spiritual or even political trends, it’s also subject to what I call “The New Testament Bias“. Meaning, focusing only on the positive, cool and easily saleable side of something while ignoring the other side that’s not so fancy for today’s standards.
And while it’s perfectly fine to extract the positive teachings of different schools of thought, making them your own, it’s important to understand a philosophy in its entirety before applying it to your life. I’ve been following Stoicism –and writing about it– for quite some time now, and I think it’s a very positive philosophy. One that can add a lot of value to your life, and help you overcome difficult times.
Some Myths About Stoicism, Debunked
So before you disregard Stoicism completely for being cold, too rational, or lacking humanity, let me debunk some of the most common myths about it.
Stoicism Is All About Suppressing Emotions
When I started reading about Stoicism, one of the very first things that clashed with me was precisely this. It’s easy to conclude that Stoicism wants you to suppress all emotions and respond to every situation in your life using reason instead.
And while this is true to some extent, that does not mean you need to avoid feelings altogether. It means you have to experience these emotions, but avoid being overtaken by them. Then, it will be your rational mind the one that reacts to stuff, not a mindless impulse. The Little Book Of Stoicism describes it quite well.
“Stoicism has nothing to do with suppressing or hiding one’s emotions or being emotionless. Rather, it’s about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and learning to redirect them for our own good. In other words, it’s more about unslaving ourselves from negative emotions, more like taming rather than getting rid of them”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
Stoicism Means Conformism
Stoicism is also commonly seen as a conformist philosophy. That misconception is probably based on the fact that one of Stoicism’s main precepts is accepting everyday situations instead of fighting them.
While traveling through SouthEast Asia, I was surprised of how some Asian beliefs like Hinduism and Buddhism make people more accepting, in a similar way to Stoicism. This has a bright side: they are extremely kind, patient and happy people. But it also has a dark side: they are more willing to accept dictatorships, caste systems, and oppression.
Does it mean a world full of Stoics would be easily repressed by an evil tyrant? I honestly think that’s not the case. Stoicism asks us to accept things emotionally, but also to analyze them rationally and take action.
“… Stoic acceptance has nothing to do with passive resignation. […] And that’s what the Stoics advise us to do: Don’t fight with reality, but bring your will into harmony with it, and focus on where your power lies”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
Stoics Were Carpe Diem-ers
Another common criticism of Stoicism is that it’s too focused on the present day, while disregarding the future and dismissing the past.
“Therefore, we should focus our attention on the present moment, undistracted by the past or future. Then we can properly confront the challenge we’re facing now, trying to accept it as it is, and choose a response consistent with our values”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
While I love this approach, and find many points of convergence with mindfulness, some critics of Stoicism affirm it leads to a Carpe Diem lifestyle: neglecting the past and ignoring the future in favor of the present moment.
Conversely, what Stoics tell you is that your time is limited. So instead of wasting it, use it to make something valuable, something useful. Seneca perfectly describes it here:
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
The “heedless luxury” is the part where it’s clear, in my view, that what Stoicism is teaching us is precisely the contrary of Carpe Diem. Make the best of your time, but don’t succumb to Hedonism. Do something useful with it.
Stoics Are Pessimists
Stoicism helps us be prepared to face negative situations. It teaches you that shit will happen sooner or later, and how you should not let your negative feelings of gloomy emotions control you. It reminds you that you will die, or somebody you love. You may loose your house, health, job, or fortune overnight.
Not only that, but Stoicism asks you to visualize those situations. Think of them as if they were happening now.
“But no matter how hard we try, some bad things will happen anyway. That’s where this powerful Stoic tool comes in handy. Negative visualization is an imagination exercise in which you foresee bad stuff. It prepares you to stay calm and deal effectively with whatever life will throw at you.”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
Most people see this behavior as pessimistic. Even my partner, when discussing Stoicism, can’t help but being terrified by what he sees as a depressing view of the world.
But far from that, Stoics are not pessimistic. There’s a difference between thinking that everything is going to go wrong, and visualizing it to avoid being overwhelmed if the worst happens. The Stoics know bad things are eventually going to happen –because they will– but their goal is precisely being ready for that moment, not being depressed about it.
Stoics Are Always Proselytizing
Stoics are usually said to be constantly bragging about how they apply Stoicism to their lives. But that’s a common misconception fed by the large amount of social media accounts devoted to Stoicism.
And don’t get me wrong. Stoicism is fascinating, and a great framework for sharing ideas and discussing about the mundane and the arcane. I love writing about it. But Stoicism tells us to show we are Stoics with our actions instead of with empty words. The Little Book Of Stoicism perfectly describes it:
“Don’t mention that you’re into Stoicism, just live by it. You can still tell those who want to know what’s going on with you when they recognize your positive changes.”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
Criticism About Stoicism I Find Accurate
Even though I follow Stoicism, and apply it to my daily life as much as possible, I won’t say I’m a Stoic. Why?
Because in order for me to adhere to this philosophy enough to call myself a Stoic, I would need to agree to it in its entirety. Still, there are parts of Stoicism that does not resonate with me. Some of them are subject to this “New Testament Bias“. They are usually ignored or massaged away.
Unfortunately, all Stoic teachings and books I have read seem to confirm these points of view I dislike about Stoicism. Let me discuss some of them.
Stoicism Is (Slightly) Elitist
With the exception of science and reason, I don’t believe in absolute truths. I think your opinions are as good as mine. Only, they are different. I refuse to believe I am better or worse than anybody else. Art, religions, beliefs, music, politics, social or philosophical ideas, they are all subjective for me.
Yes, I have my opinions, of course, and I probably think I’m right about the things I stand for. But I understand that my ideas, values and principles are the result of my education, environment, family and friends… They would be completely different if I’d been born in a different country, region or even family.
The Stoics believed in that too:
“The Stoics believe people act as they think is the best way for them to act. If people lie, it’s because they think this will benefit them. And if people steal, they think it’s the best thing to do. If people are mean, they somehow have the impression that’s how they get the most out of the situation.”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
I Might Be Wrong…
However, the elitist twist of Stoicism –in my mind anyway– is considering people as “dumb” or “ignorant” just because their opinions are not the same as yours, or they harm or hurt you.
“They lack certain wisdom. They don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. And even if they know what they’re doing might be wrong, they’re still mistaken and think it’ll be to their advantage.The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
So in my opinion, instead of tagging people as dull or ignorant, we should consider that maybe we are the ones acting “wrong” for them. Maybe there’s no “right” or “wrong” at all, but different points of view. Obviously, I defend mines, but that does not mean I’m any smarter than you, or you just don’t know what you are doing. Even if you insult me, mock me or act violently against me.
Modern Stoicism And The New Testament Bias
Have you heard about this Christian God that destroyed mankind (except for the VIP zoo-yacht) and used to punish people with plagues, sickness and death? That’s just the Old Testament, it’s not like, you know, Jesus and the God of love, it was just stories and metaphors (well, almost).
This way of ignoring the “ugly” or “inconvenient” part of a philosophy or belief, while sticking to the “cool” part (by today’s standards, anyway) is what I call “The New Testament Bias”, and Modern Stoicism is slightly guilty of that too.
One prime example is how Modern Stoicism dismisses negative emotions cause they can blur your reasoned choice, but has an ambiguous approach to positive emotions (such as extreme joy, love, or tranquility):
“Stoicism will help us get less plagued by negative emotions and, at the same time, experience more positive emotions such as joy or tranquility. It’s important to notice, however, that for the Stoics, these positive emotions are more like an added bonus than a motive by themselves.”The Little Book of Stoicism, Jonas Salzgeber
A lot of effort has been put by modern authors to avoid this robotic, overly logical image of the Stoics, to the point of distorting or twisting the meaning of certain words or verbs to support this view of Stoicism. Every book on Stoicism I have read has a quite embarrasing section devoted to this semantic cooking of Seneca’s or Marcus Aurelius’ words.
… Good Or Bad, Emotions Are All The Same… Or Are They?
However, if we analyze the Stoic principles, this is a sugared interpretation, not supported by actual teachings from the Stoics themselves. Stoics were quite clear: reason should always triumph over emotions, regardless of their classification. In fact, Stoics defended that all emotions are the same, it’s our judgment what makes them “good” or “bad“.
“Just as when meat or other foods are set before us we think, this is a dead fish, a dead bird or pig; and also, this fine wine is only the juice of a bunch of grapes, this purple-edged robe just sheep’s wool dyed in a bit of blood from a shellfish; or of sex, that it is only rubbing private parts together followed by a spasmic discharge—in the same way our impressions grab actual events and permeate them, so we see them as they really are.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 6.13
Nothing wrong with that. I think that it makes sense that, if you don’t allow your negative feelings get in the way of your reasoned choice, you should also show contempt and avoid being carried away by your positive emotions. Only, this is not cool or saleable in the era of Instagram.
Does that mean if you become a Stoic you should/will stop enjoying sex? Not at all. As always, you should always approach every school of thought, belief or religion with a critical mindset, and extract the best parts of everything to make a philosophy of your own. Nobody had all the answers, not even the Stoics.
Praise About The Little Book Of Stoicism
A lot has been –and its being– written about Stoicism. Usually, repeating the same concepts over and over again. Most new books on Stoicism add little in terms of how to approach the philosophy or use it in your daily life.
So I would recommend you to grab a copy. It was a very pleasant book, and even if you don’t agree with all that’s written there –as it’s my case– it’s a very rewarding read.
On this post, I discuss most common myths about Stoicism. Some of them are unfounded in my mind, while I agree with others. Obviously, your opinion might be completely different.
What are your thoughts about Modern Stoicism? Would you like to share some criticism or share your points of view? Don’t hesitate to do so in the comments below!
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Years ago, I quit my 9 to 5 job and became a freelancer first, then a solopreneur, and finally a digital nomad. Managing my company back in Spain was a nightmare until I discovered the e-Residency program and opened my company in Estonia. That changed my life.
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