Stoicism as Symptom

by Chris Horner

The general terms ‘true’ and ‘good’ or ‘wisdom’ and ‘virtue’, with which stoicism is stuck, are on the whole undeniably uplifting, but because they cannot in fact end up in any kind of expansion of content, they quickly start to become tiresome. —Hegel [1]

Stoicism seems to be everywhere at the moment, on Tiktok, Instagram, YouTube (‘The Daily Stoic’) and in plenty of best selling books on how to be a Stoic. But why would a philosophy from the Ancient world be found so appealing to so many, right now? I think I can at least give a partial answer to that. And I also want to raise some of the problems of this Neostoicism. In what follows I will be less concerned with the details of the philosophy as it was taught in ancient times, the developments it went through or the logic and metaphysics it involved, than with the way it has been received in the 21st century. Stoicism is a symptom of a malaise, a problem in the modern world, rather than any kind of solution to its ills. But first – what is, or was,  Stoicism? [2]

Originally associated with Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE, It is a philosophy focused on developing self-control, fortitude, and reason as a way to overcome destructive emotions and to achieve inner peace, and resilience, by  focusing on what is within one’s control, (one’s own feelings, thoughts) while letting go what is outside one’s control. External events and other people’s actions should not disturb one’s inner tranquility. Rather, one cultivates an attitude of calm and detachment from external events. Stoics believed in the importance of reason, logic and self-discipline as essential for leading a fulfilling life, based on following Nature, which has a logos, an order with which we must harmonise our thoughts, feelings and actions.

 It was a philosophy that developed and changed during the ancient world, but these main points can be held to be true to the philosophies of such famous Stoics as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

It is also worth adding, that apart from the ethical aspect of Stoicism, much focused on by today’s would-be Stoics, it had a number of other important dimensions: there is Stoic logic, for instance, as well as a set of Metaphysical assumptions that modern followers usually ignore – one I have already mentioned is that of Nature as Logos. This can be a problem, since we don’t tend to see the world and the self in 2023 CE as Marcus Aurelius did in 143 CE. Detaching the ethics bit from the rest and treating it as a kind of self help therapy can go badly awry if one tries to graft it on to a quite different way of seeing the self, others, and the Nature of the Cosmos.  

There is a large problem with the notion of ‘focusing on what is within one’s control, while letting go what is outside one’s control.’ The fact is that there is no clear line between inner and outer. Take ‘outer’, first. Exactly what is out of my control? The weather, growing old, and much else. But if I decide to act I may find there is a lot more I can change if I commit myself to making a difference to the world around me. This might include professional success, the attitudes of others or the political situation. If you are stuck on a train that has been delayed you may feel there is nothing you can do, and so adopt a ‘stoical’ attitude. But if the question is why there are so few punctual trains, and so many cancellations ‘due to staff shortages’ (incompetent private providers who don’t pay their workers well enough to get enough staff, say) -and what to do about it, then some action, might help to change things. So might working with those who want to change our disastrous drift to climate catastrophe. This is the realm of the  political: sharing the world with others and working with them to change it, if only a bit, and only locally. The fact of injustice ought to move us to more than acceptance or inner tranquility. As Aristotle saw, anger can sometime be the appropriate response to injustice. The aim ought not to be to expunge anger, but rather learn to only feel it in the right way, at the right time and directed at the right people. Modern Stoicism, at least, tends to be anti political: but to opt out is a self indulgence the world cannot afford.

As for the inner self, we find that it is anything but inner, and hardly amenable to the simple idea that Reason should rule. There is much that could be said on this, but I will limit myself to a few points. Humans are language users, and are used by language. Babies are immersed in language and learn what they are  supposed to be and do by imitation and repetition. And they also catch desire, more easily than a virus. ‘All desire is desire of the other’ as Lacan put it: I learn to desire what others desire; I learn to desire that they should desire me, should recognise me and teach me what they want of me and what I should want of them (they never quite do that to one’s satisfaction, though). And then there is love, in all its many manifestations – erotic, familial and so on. We search, too, for the excessive enjoyment beyond the satisfaction of needs. Human desire is never fully satisfied, and there is always a surplus that exceeds what is necessary for our basic survival and happiness.This ‘surplus enjoyment’ is linked to our unconscious desires and fantasies, and to the fundamental human condition of lack and the impossibility of ever achieving complete satisfaction. Stoicism is one of the ways that looks like it is conquering this Lack, but it does no such thing. Rather it gives the would-be Stoic the surplus enjoyment that comes with the adherence to what Nietzsche called an ‘ascetic ideal’. There is a feeling of mastery that promises a nugget of enjoyment – if one can only achieve that longed for absence of longing. But how many ‘successful stoics’ do we think that there really are? The Lack remains.

Hegel’s view of Stoicism was that it was the philosophy that suited a world in which Caesar was the dominus and there was nothing one could do but retreat into the inner citadel of the self. It comes on the scene, he comments in The Phenomenology of Spirit, during a period of universal fear and servitude. And this, I think, is part of the reason why it is having some kind of mild revival now. It grows in a time of political despair, in which the lonely self feels it cannot change anything – an economic system seemingly out of control, contemptible and unresponsive politicians, a dying Imperium. Rather than the cure, stoicism is a symptom of the disease.

All photographs taken by the author.













[1] GWF Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by T Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, P. 119 

[2] On the subject of YouTube, there is a very good critique there of Stoicism in ‘Stoicism’s Major Flaw’ in the excellent ‘Then and Now’ series:

The video emphasises some different aspects to those that I discuss here, but does cover some of the same ground.