What makes a stoic man attractive

"He's back!" The renaissance of stoicism

By Markus Rüther (Jülich)

Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance in the United States. At workshops, entrepreneurs and managers can be coached using the ancient philosophy. There are now apps like “Pocketstoic” that bring you closer to a quote from Marc Aurel, Epiktet and Seneca every day. The bookshelves are full of titles like “The Obstacle Is the Way”, “How to Be a Stoic” or “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.” And anyone who wants to deal more intensively with stoicism can now do so in the USA regularly held conferences such as the Stoicon or the Stoic Week or by means of a stoic fellowships to join together in regional groups. This trend can also be maintained for Germany, although it has not (yet) caught fire in the same way. In this country, the efforts of “Modern Stoicism”, as the union of Stoics is called, are limited to smaller contributions in the features section (For selected examples see SZ I and SZ II and Die Zeit. Likewise, the practical considerations of the Stoa are more or Less regularly the subject of public lectures, such as at Phil.Cologne (see for an example from 2019), the largest German-language lecture fair for philosophy, or in philosophical cafés (see for an example in Münster).

Why is the stoic philosophy currently particularly attractive to many?

A first starting point could be that the stoic of Roman antiquity falls into the same horn as the currently popular psychological self-help and advice literature. Epiktet, Marc Aurel and Seneca understand philosophy primarily as a skill (technê), which does not serve the end purpose of ascertaining theoretical truths, but rather to make life better in a practical sense. Because, as Seneca says: "Philosophy is not based on words, but on actions." (Seneca, Epist. Mor. 16,3) To illustrate the practical character, philosophy is often compared with medicine [1] : Just as medicine cares about the health of the body, philosophy cares about the health of the soul. Philosophers are therefore physicians of the soul who try to contribute to the good life of the students with their own philosophical teachings.

Furthermore, stoicism also seems to fit in with the secular mainstream. There is no revelation or Damascus experience that opens the door to a new ethical reality. Neither are there gurus to be followed unconditionally and "holy books" to be interpreted according to their original meaning. Stoics orient themselves in the ethical principles of their actions to their own reflective reason and are also not too vain to at least selectively take into account the teachings of those who think differently. Seneca in particular has emphasized that the ability of the Stoic to make his own judgments can also include the need to fall back on the teachings of supposed antagonists such as Epicurus (cf. Seneca, Epist. Mor. 33).

Despite this secular and ecumenical orientation, the stoic doctrine can, however, also dock with the residual spirituality of many people. There is no personal God, but there is a "design without a designer", as Thomas Nagel once called it. [2] The Stoics set by means of their oikeisôsis-Teach the thought in scene that “our natures (...) are part of the whole. For this reason, the goal is to live in harmony with nature. ”(Diog. Laert. 7.88 = LS 63 C) In general it means: Man must be his ergon (i.e. its peculiar nature), namely acting sensibly and socially. In concrete terms, this means: He must develop a certain character, which for stoics includes training his own thinking, feeling and acting in such a way that in the end a virtuous person can be recognized, which means: a reasonable, just, courageous and self-controlled person .

This leads to another attraction feature. Because the stoic promise of happiness fits the zeitgeist: It is both egalitarian and individualistic. Above all else, it is egalitarian that everyone has the opportunity to lead a good life - regardless of their parentage, their level of education and their social rank. The only thing that matters is the formation of one's own character, which is a practice that is in principle open to everyone. What is individualistic about it is that this thesis is also linked to the fact that the good life only depends on the respective “self-shaper”. Not only does everyone have the opportunity for a good life. The individual has it too - like the stoic motto: ominia mea mecum porto, expresses - always in the luggage. It lies in him, namely in his thinking, feeling and acting - in short: in his own character. Accordingly, nothing can affect it - neither other people nor adverse circumstances. The stoically formed character is, as Pierre Hadot suggests in his book of the same name, like an impregnable "inner castle". [3]

The Stoa as the mental operating system in Silicon Valley

So much for the commonplace. But what excites people in Silicon Valley about stoicism? On closer inspection, it seems that managers and entrepreneurs in particular are particularly open to stoicism and help it to regain fame. Two stars of the scene, Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss, themselves PR professionals, market the philosophy as a kind of mental operating system for High stress environments. In their book bestsellers, YouTube articles and seminars, they paint the image of the stoic sage as a maximally resilient person who is characterized by mental imperturbability. They promise their customers fast life hacks, easy to consume and with the flair of ancient wisdom. It's about using your full potential as a person, which means above all: to have professional success and to be socially recognized and - if luck will - to earn a lot of money. It is therefore not surprising that the prime examples of the good life in Holidays and Ferriss ’works are not the failed, but nevertheless steadfast existences like Hercules or Odysseus, but the successful managers and entrepreneurs of the scene - Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs. This is probably not a coincidence, but is intended to suggest that stoic imperturbability is not an end in itself, but should serve a productive professional life.

Is that still stoicism?

Certainly, given the sources, it is not easy to pinpoint the “real” core of stoicism, and beyond that one can argue whether it is the Stoics with a unified theory even existed. [4] Most philosophical freshmen seem to be reasonably clear that the Silicon Valley interpretation of stoicism should cause a certain unease.

First there is the orientation towards the ideal of the successful entrepreneur. To interpret this as a model case of a stoic seems unconvincing. There may be overlaps between the attitudes in terms of content at one point or another, but the two already seem to differ with regard to the fundamental goal of their lives. Typically that is what the entrepreneur is all about next big thing, rising stock prices and monetary prosperity. Some may also be found to have a natural drive for self-actualization, productivity, and social approval. And the stoic? For him it is above all about the own character formation, because - as Seneca says - "virtue is the only good." (Seneca, Epist. Mor. 71,32). The primary goal of a stoic life is to become a virtuous person, namely, one who is reasonable, just, courageous, and self-controlled. But that also means that such a life does not have to be a particularly successful life in the material sense, not even one that is recognized by others. However, this does not imply that the Stoic is completely indifferent to these things. As a natural being, he will prefer wealth and prestige over poverty and loneliness. At the same time, however, he treats them - similar to pleasure and pain, health and illness, and life and death - as indifference (adiaphora). Neither their occurrence nor their absence make up its good life. The only thing that really matters to him is his attitude.

Dedicating oneself to one's own character formation is - contrary to what Holiday and Ferriss suggest - no picnic. To become such a person, none are enough life hacksthat you have within a 4-hour work week - the title of a book by Ferriss - how a cooking recipe can apply. A little premeditatio here a little reflectio there and you are on your way to becoming a stoic sage. In contrast, the Stoics stress more than once that shaping oneself is a lifelong project that most of us - the bitter truth goes - will never complete. The stoic sage, it is said, is as rare as the phoenix, and it only appears every 500 years (Alex. Aphr., De fato 199: 14-22). So most of us stay apprentices for life, or as the Stoics call it, one prokoptôn. More than that, it is even as Chrysippus, according to Plutarch's tradition, seems to think that we cannot even make progress in the realm of virtue. A drowning person is a drowning person, regardless of whether he drowns near the surface of the water or below (Plutarch, Comm ,. not. 10. 1063 A-B). It is understandable that the good news of the futility and imperfection of one's own life in Silicon Valley has so far fallen on deaf ears, because it does not go particularly well with the perfectionism of the tech scene.

If you read and listen to Holiday and Co., you not only get the impression that the stoic teaching leads us to professional success with quickly consumable snacks, but also that all that is necessary is practical exercise. This orientation is linked to a lamentable rejection of any kind of philosophical reflection. According to the motto: It is the practice that counts, not the theory. However, this fails to recognize the double aspect of stoic philosophy as an exercise (askêsis) and theory (theoria): The Stoics stand in the Socratic tradition, which equates virtue with comprehensive knowledge. Such knowledge does not only mean that the stoic has practiced the right thing at the moment in question procheiron, So to have in mind, but also that he can justify it coherently - in the entire philosophical depth of logic, physics and ethics. The stoic sage has not only practiced, for the right reason, to help old people across the street, but he also knows why exactly this reason is decisive, of what ontological nature this reason is and how this view of reasons about the whole structure that fits reality. So the stoic sage is both: it is a real-life practitioner and reflective philosopher.

Stoicism in Silicon Valley: a quick conclusion

All of this seems to indicate that a stoicism that operates in the wake of the self-optimization trends of Silicon Valley has little to do with the stoicism of the Roman Empire. It is too one-sided, often distorting and sometimes wrong. For stoics, the only thing that matters is working on one's own virtuous character; The road to get there is rocky and probably even in vain and, in addition to daily practice, also involves a lot of philosophical reflection. And those are three aspects that at Holiday and Ferriss - and many others in the tech scene - play a minor role at best. To avoid any misunderstanding: I do not want to deny that the Silicon Valley's model of life may well contain something profitable for some people. - I'm not interested in anti-capitalist or anti-consumer cultural criticism. What I am about is an appeal, namely that such a life model should not be allowed to sail under the banner of “stoicism” in order to generate higher sales figures. As we have seen, this is not factually appropriate, because it does not reflect the philosophy of the Stoic, and - if the motive behind it is one's own success - it even comes into conflict with what is important to the Stoics - with the formation of one's own virtuous character.

Dr. Markus Rüther is an ethicist and philosopher at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Among other things, he is currently working on a book on the relationship between philosophy and practical life in the Roman Stoa.

[1] See John Sellars: The Art of Living. Bristol 2009. pp. 64-68.

[2] See Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos. OUP 2012.

[3] Cf. Pierre Hadot: The inner castle. Gatza 1997.

[4] Cf. for this challenge Anna Schriefl: Stoische Philosophie. Reclam 2019. pp. 33-41.