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Critiquing Stoicism

(Marcus Aurelius)

“However, my impression is that there is something more fundamentally toxic about Stoicism. In line with [Will] Durant’s assessment, its dominant theme seems to be retreat: retreat from unpleasant emotion into indifference (despite protestations to the contrary)…”

Stoicism has become immensely popular in recent years, and has received almost universally positive media coverage. However, the Stoic philosophy conflicts with human nature and should, consequently, be discarded. Centering on this core idea, this article seeks to present some objections to various parts of Stoicism as well as to offer some thoughts about its role in Western history.

Possible Non-European Origins

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that Stoicism was “essentially the work of Semites.” This brief comment has since been substantiated by other authors. Will Durant’s 1926 bestseller The Story of Philosophy followed Nietzsche in claiming that Stoic thought had Asian roots. For Durant, the rise of Stoicism stemmed from the decline of ancient Greece. Hellenic culture was on a downward slide, as evidenced by the execution of Socrates. Alexander’s conquests had expanded communication from Asia, and “the Oriental spirit of apathy and resignation,” expressed in intellectual currents like Stoicism, “found a ready soil in decadent and despondent Greece.” Durant brands Stoicism as “the apathetic acceptance of defeat.”

The Stoic response to such a criticism is obvious: Stoicism teaches not that one should not try to prevent harmful outcomes but merely that one should not feel distressed when such outcomes do occur. But that is not how psychology works. The mind understands what is desirable or undesirable in terms of positive or negative emotion. Neuroscientist Mark Solms writes:

“the more pleasurable something feels, the more you want to do it. And this is what emotional feeling—consciousness—is ultimately for: it motivates you to do things that are biologically good for you and to avoid things that are biologically bad. That is why it evolved.”

Of course, it was not just late Greece but also Rome that espoused Stoic ideas. Edith Hamilton attributes the Romans’ embrace of this philosophy to their sobriety and practicality. Durant strikes a disparaging tone instead: “Great organizers, as much as inevitable slaves, tend to stoic moods: it is difficult to be either master or slave if one is sensitive.” Both authors agree that the Romans’ lack of philosophic refinement played some part in their adopting Stoicism, a very practical and not very abstract worldview. If indeed the Romans latched onto Stoic thought out of philistinism, the prestige which Stoicism enjoys by association with ancient Rome seems misplaced.

Nietzsche’s idea that Stoicism contained Semitic influence was propounded more elaborately by classicist Max Pohlenz in a series of German works which have apparently not been translated into English. Some of his arguments are reproduced in Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism. In Stoicism, Hengel summarizes:

“the Logos is not understood in a mechanical way, as with Epicurus, but as ‘the living, all directing deity.’ [M]an becomes the sole purpose of creation of the world; [T]he fatalism furthered by the unrestricted sway of heimarmenē [fate] is not Greek, but oriental.”

These, Pohlenz contended, are Semitic ideas. Hengel further writes that Stoicism’s “founders Zeno of Citium […] and Chrysippus of Soloi […] were very probably themselves Semites assimilated to Greek ways.”

Still, a word of caution. One should not read too much into the “Semitic” component in Stoicism, if it is indeed there. For David Naugle, “Jesus was most Hebraic, and most un-stoic” in his various displays of passion. Others have likewise contrasted the Jewish tradition with the Stoic’s anti-emotionalism.


Durant harshly criticizes Stoicism, pointing to a statement by Seneca: “If what you have seems insufficient to you, then, though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.” Earlier this year, that same quotation was posted by Daily Stoic. Durant’s interpretation is that Stoicism counsels us “to lower our desires to the level of our achievements.”

In their 2016 book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, authors Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman spotlight a similar passage, also from Seneca: “No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” This quotation seems to support Durant’s interpretation. Or am I misunderstanding something? The authors’ own remarks about the passage certainly do not suggest that I am. Holiday and Hanselman comment: “Today, you could try to increase your wealth, or you could take a shortcut and just want less.” [Emphasis original] Oh, boy. That is not very American of you, gentlemen. One also suspects it was easy to write for someone who had already achieved great success.

Michael Korda, that great Nietzschean of our age, wrote in his 1977 self-help treatise Success!: “One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.” Specifically, Korda was describing how entrepreneur Curtis Carlson, founder of the Gold Bond Stamp Company (and later Radisson Hotel Group), managed his affairs, setting a loftier target whenever the last one was reached. As of 2019, Carlson’s business continues to be “one of the largest family-owned private companies in the United States” with “tens of thousands” of employees.  Carlson and Korda’s worldview has no room for the notion that dissatisfaction with present circumstances is tantamount to misery, as Seneca suggested. It is more in line with Nietzsche’s 44th epigramFormula for my happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…

Granted, Carlson was just one founder, and his firm just one firm (though Korda, no fool and a businessman himself, clearly deems his view of momentum more widely applicable). A Stoic could fire back with anecdotes of his own. Thus, in their aforementioned commentary on Seneca, Holiday and Hanselman quote John D. Rockefeller to the effect that “a man’s wealth must be determined by the relation of his desires and expenditures to his income. If he feels rich on $10 and has everything he desires, he really is rich.”

Well, fine. But Rockefeller was not one’s typical tycoon. In his 1980 book Ambition, Joseph Epstein profiles an array of high achievers, many of them commercialists. Among these, Rockefeller sticks out like a sore thumb through his robotic distance from the human experience. “I never had a craving for anything,” he once stated. “Of his inner life very little is known,” comments Epstein. “Possibly he had none.” The great mogul also appears to have been somewhat of a religious zealot. Most people inside and outside of commerce do not think like he did. They are less convenient to the Stoic view of human functioning. Henry Luce, the father of several major magazines such as Time, is a striking example. As Epstein summarizes, Luce understood “greatness” to be “a measurable matter, power and colossal wealth being the counters employed.”

The desire for fame and status is an especial target of Stoic contempt. Yet it is useful since it drives people to achieve great things. According to one research paper, “famous people […] commonly start […] as admirers of other illustrious or legendary figures.” This points to a desire to become famous themselves. Now, famous people are usually renowned for extraordinary achievements of some sort. Perhaps modern society should prize achievements in certain fields more or less than it does, but the general point stands. We can, therefore, presume that an enormous quantity of valuable work has flowed from a desire for fame. Benjamin Franklin made a similar point: “Most people dislike vanity in others, […] but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action.”

Here is a memorable case. In his early book Diary of a Philosopher, Alexandre Kojève writes that he intends to burn his life up in pursuit of renown, much like Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in order to achieve immortality. It seems Kojève’s dedication paid off, as he went on to make it big in philosophy. I think we are better off for it.

At age 18, Ted Cruz stated (with some amount of irony) that he aimed to “take over the world.” At age 46, he nearly became the world’s most powerful man. This example pertains to power more than fame, I suppose, but the basic idea is the same: It stands to reason that people who rise to prominence tend to have expended much time and effort endeavoring to rise to prominence.

Against this backdrop, it looks odd that Stoicism should disparage the pursuit of fame. But it does. On Daily Stoic, Holiday stresses that the Stoic tradition regards celebrity as meaningless. “How many actors and musicians,” he asks, “dreamed their whole life of [being in the public eye], only to find themselves unhappy when it happens for them?” Frankly, I do not know. And Holiday never tells us; he only provides a few examples of unhappy famous people. To be fair, it is difficult to find quantitative material on this subject. However, one 2009 study based on interviews with 15 American celebrities concluded: “All research participants claimed that despite its negative elements, fame is worth it after all and they would not trade it back.” Jerry Seinfeld certainly does not miss not being famous

In The Little Book of Stoicism, which was published in 2019, Jonas Salzgeber provides further insight into the Stoic view of fame: “We’re better off if we’re indifferent to fame and social status. After all, it’s not within our control. […] Let’s rather focus on what we control—our voluntary behavior.” What an odd perspective. Oftentimes, people are highly predictable, and influencing their judgments comes effortlessly, even instinctively. In fact, to control one’s own “voluntary behavior” is frequently more challenging. At the extreme, Russell Miller’s 1987 biography of L. Ron Hubbard depicts a man for whom controlling others was always much easier than keeping a handle on his own behavior. In short, Salzgeber’s reasoning does not stand the test of experience. One must also wonder why we humans evolved to care about social status if this concern was never adaptive.

Lasting fame, moreover, extends one’s influence into future generations. It can easily be used for good, as interviewees in that study on celebrities averred.

And what of the longing for power? This impulse is another motive for economic achievement, as Joseph Schumpeter describes in The Theory of Economic Development. Schumpeter identifies three common motivations behind entrepreneurship. These are “the dream and the will to found a private kingdom,” “the will to conquer” (that is, to achieve goals), and “the joy of creating.” Of the three, the first is best aligned with the desires of consumers. Too bad Stoicism has little patience for power-seeking. Seneca, for instance, scoffs at aspirations to elected office in his 118th letter to Lucilius.

For Stoics, individuals should not aspire to wealth, power, and other such goals because they are external, and, as Holiday explains, Stoics “focus on an internal scorecard versus an external one.” We cannot control externalities, but we can control what is internal to us—so the logic goes. But, as already noted, the difference seems to be at most one of degree. While one’s willpower can be increased through practice, it is nevertheless a finite resource; for that reason alone there is a fairly hard limit to how much self-control a person can exercise at any given time.

Stoicism is opposed to competing with others in general, as Holiday has elucidated. Instead, he contends, one should compete only with oneself. But, again, Stoic philosophy is evidently misaligned with human nature. Men in particular are hard-wired for competitiveness and status-seeking, as psychologist Roy Baumeister discusses in his 2010 book Is There Anything Good About Men?. Male humans, he notes, are marked by a “relentless competitive urge.” Among the social benefits of this propensity is “creativity.” Men come up with innovations much more often than women do. This is likely because originality provides a competitive advantage, in that one can do something others are not yet doing. Holiday describes this strategy as avoidance of competition, and—in a sense—it is. Yet the purpose of innovating is often to compete with others more effectively.

Even outside of innovation, competitiveness propels extraordinary achievement. Baumeister argues that societies are set up to take advantage of men’s need to be respected. Respect is kept in short supply and often reserved for elite individuals, providing motivation to rise through the ranks. An assistant professor, notes Baumeister, differs only barely from a professor, but the job title sounds far less prestigious.

As sociologist Ricardo Duchesne has argued, even Western individualism ultimately stems from competition for status, having been born out of struggles for “prestige” among early Indo-European aristocrats.

So far, we have mainly looked at Stoicism’s positions on specific issues. However, my impression is that there is something more fundamentally toxic about Stoicism. In line with Durant’s assessment, its dominant theme seems to be retreat: retreat from unpleasant emotion into indifference (despite protestations to the contrary), from individual agency into herd-like collectivism, and from reality into the fantasy of a well-ordered world. Underlying this tendency, one would expect to find a deeply negative view of life, and such a view does seem to shine through in certain Stoic texts. In his article on fame, Holiday provides a lineup of three quotations from Marcus Aurelius’s meditations, snippets of which we can examine here. “Consider,” urges Marcus, “[t]hat to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.” That sounds like a quotation from a case study on clinical depression. “People who are excited by posthumous fame,” he contends, “forget that the people who remember them will soon die too.” What is the underlying logic here? It seems to be that fame is valueless because it, too, is temporary. By that standard, is not everything valueless because everything is temporary? In fact, this might apply even more to the experiences of one’s lifetime because they are less lasting than “posthumous fame.” Finally, he asserts: “People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now.” Here, Marcus betrays a profoundly misanthropic attitude. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that per se, but it differs markedly from how Stoicism is usually presented. It is also glaringly simplistic to say that because people can be irritating, their opinions are not worth valuing. It conflicts, moreover, with the Stoic goal of not being ruled by one’s feelings.

Stoicism’s Place in Recent History

Heraclitus of Ephesus is among the figures Duchesne mentions as exemplars of the bellicose Indo-European spirit. It is surely apparent by now that Nietzsche has informed this critique of Stoicism. And it is surely no coincidence that Nietzsche was inspired by Heraclitus. English philosopher Anthony Ludovici called Nietzsche “a resuscitated Heraclitus,” noting his explicit debt to the ancient thinker. Later, Ayn Rand would avidly read the German thinker, and Robert Powell maintains that “Rand never truly breaks from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman in her fiction.” Rand’s “Objectivism,” in its capacity as a trendy self-improvement philosophy, was arguably 20th century America’s equivalent of what Stoicism is now. Needless to say, the progression from the former to the latter strikes me as a downgrade. At least we still have the immensely productive Robert M. Price carrying the torch of Zarathustra.

In conclusion, Stoicism looks like a philosophy that would catch on during a civilization’s later stages. A great degree of stability has been achieved, and people are focused on maintaining it. They forget that the passions which built the civilization are impetuous and megalomaniacal. Those passions have less to do with Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” than with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Fritz Leiber partially captured them in his short story “The Frost Monstreme,” when he had one character lament: “We’ve never really lived. We’ve not owned land. We’ve not led men.”

Accordingly, the main purpose of Stoicism appears to be the soothing of anxiety. At least as practiced today, it is less a philosophy aiming to understand the universe than a collection of mind-games for coping with losses and misfortunes. That is a worthy goal, so perhaps I should propose some alternative to Stoicism. I find that, contra Holiday, thinking about external achievements can be deeply calming. Recalling past accomplishments and accolades can be a relaxing reminder of one’s competence and the successes on which one can fall back. As Viktor Frankl puts it in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, “all we have done […] is not lost, though it is past.” “Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.”.

Simon Maass is a writer living in Germany. His work has previously appeared in publications such as Providence, VoegelinView, and Cultural Revue. He holds a degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and writes on various topics in politics, religion, and literature. 

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