Thursday, January 20, 2022

On Medium: How Trendy Stoicism Assimilates the Counterculture

Here's an article about philosophy's necessary unpopularity, social progress, and how big business neutralizes the subversive counterculture to reassure puzzled consumers.


  1. Brilliant article. As the dominant thinking, economic and socio-political structure, capitalism can co-opt just about everything. The same way roman imperialism co-opted every religion it came into contact with, including christianity (!).

    I think that the antisocial sage, if he doesn't betray his principles, ends up like Oblómov, the titular character from the homonym russian novel by Goncharov. Namely, as a disgusted spectator of the world, incapable of changing it and other people. Sort of like a pessimist stoic.

    I'm thinking specifically in a fragment of the fourth chapter in the second part of the novel.

    1. Thanks. I haven't read that novel. Maybe I'll check it out. In any case, I've written a follow-up article on Stoicism, called "Why Stoicism has Always been an Evasive Compromise."

    2. I was hoping you'd rip into stoicism one day & I have to say I'm not disappointed. I agree with everything you've written here. I haven't read any books on neo-stoicism, but I have read Epictetus & based on that I would say that stoicism has a double appeal for modern people.

      Stoicism appeals to the common man because, unlike New Thought, it freely concedes that, if you are poor, life is hard, unpredictable, & that the only thing we can ever hope to control is how we respond to life's difficulties. Americans are ripe for this, not because they have any special insight (far from it), but because they literally have no choice. Their economy is in shambles. Their civil rights have become mere privileges than can be revoked at any time. About half of Americans don't even have a spouse & children to come home to. Everything else has failed them, including the glib platitudes of their spoiled boomer parents. Their backs are to the wall & that wall is just what stoicism begins with.

      The other group stoicism appeals to is the elite -- not as a philosophy, of course -- but as a cynical tool for keeping the herd in check. Stoics don't try to improve their own lives or the societies they live in because stoics know that all attempts to control the external world are futile. Stoics don't riot. Stoics don't protest. Stoics don't even complain. Like Christianity, it's a slave philosophy except that, unlike Jesus & Paul, its founder was an actual slave.

      I look forward your follow up article & I hope you include both essays in your next anthology.

    3. Well, you've anticipated the next article on Stoicism. Just picture how Stoicism took off under the Roman Empire, like Christianity, and you have some idea of my criticism, which is that we shouldn't be surprised by how that philosophy could be so easily twisted, whether for Roman, American consumerist, or hollow self-help purposes.

      This is one reason the next anthology isn't out yet, because I keep writing articles I think should be included in it. The anthology is pretty much done, but I have one more article I'd like to include that I haven't edited yet. I wasn't planning on including these Stoicism ones, but I'll see what I can do.

    4. Sybok, "...Like Christianity, it's a slave philosophy except that, unlike Jesus & Paul, its founder was an actual slave."

      I find really interesting the way stoicism resonated with ancient Rome's elite, in comparison with the way christianity was first received, when it was ridiculed and mocked ferociously. The core ideas of both, however, are almost identical. Maybe the fact that stoicism had its roots in ancient greek philosophy made the intellectual roman elite more inclined to accept it, rather than a barbarous and obscure jewish cult (christianity).

      Or maybe Nietzsche's theory is correct and despite stoicism's humble origins and failings, it's not a slave morality, but an ethics for tired and decadents elites (he thought the same about buddhism).

    5. Christianity, in its incipient form, would have been unthinkable to the Roman elite because its founder decried all their values & warned them that their time on earth was short -- that God would soon intervene & turn their pyramid scheme upside down. He was also, as you said, Jewish & the Jews were notorious back then for their insularity & clannishness.

      You could have a point there. Most Roman Stoics were military men; most famously Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Buddha himself was a Kshatriya -- warrior caste -- & he frequently uses martial language in his teachings. In this case the Stoic would be someone whose will to power is not lacking, but has been turned inward. He wants to conquer his inner demons rather than external foes.

    6. Sybok, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced by the xenophobic explanation. I mean stoicism also underlines life's vanity, presupposes an intelligent designer, admonishes a simple and natural life, emphasizes the soul over the body, etc. Values that are the opposite of those of a warrior society.

      And yet someone like Seneca – a wealthy roman senator from a militaristic empire, slave owner and usurer – somehow didn't developed cognitive dissonance over this. The same with medieval war lords in Europe who weren't deterred one bit by their christian beliefs.