I recently finished a book about Stoicism that made me think about 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 an 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 the 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 Means Conformism
Stoicism is 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 by 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.
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.
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 did affirm 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 lose 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.
Most people see this behavior as pessimistic. Even my partner, when discussing Stoicism, can’t help but be 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 a large number of social media accounts devoted to Stoicism.
Indeed, one of the main precepts of Stoicism is applying it to our lives through our daily actions, not talking about it.
And don’t get me wrong. Stoicism is fascinating, and a great framework for sharing ideas and discussing 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.
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 do 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 All About Suppressing Emotions
When I started reading about Stoicism, one of the very first things that I strongly disagreed with was its points of view regarding human emotions. While this topic has been sweetened by modern Stoics, and hundreds of different explanations have been offered to make Stoicism more palatable for mainstream audiences, the truth is there.
Let’s remember the words of Marcus Aurelius:
“The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever”Marcus Aurelius
But if we remove all emotions, pain, fear, pleasure, pure joy, aren’t we getting rid of what makes us human too?
It took me a long time until I discovered the book “More than happiness” by Antonina Macaro, where this same topic is discussed. I was pleased to find out that others such as Nussbaum or even old philosophers such as Crantor had problems with this quest for emotional numbness.
“This is where Nussbaum and the Stoics part company. That approach, she writes, is ‘excessively violent toward human complexity and frailty’. Instead, she endorses the commonsense view that there are indeed things in the world that are good and bad for our well-being. Banishing the emotions that reflect this would be unwise, as it could lead to a life which is impoverished and less than fully human. A flourishing human life cannot do without some emotional commitments that leave us vulnerable.”More than happiness – Antonia Macaro
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.
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.
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).
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 embarrassing 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 that 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 to 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.
In this post, I discuss the 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!