Tuesday, January 25, 2022

On Medium: Stoicism Has Always Been Hackneyed Centrist Propaganda

Here's an article about Stoicism's role in the amoral legalisms of ancient Rome and in the self-help rationalizations of consumer capitalism.


  1. I agree with your take on stoicism as it is/was practiced. I think there's one other failing we can charge the stoics with, namely, their hypocrisy. They say, on one hand, that riches are neither good nor bad (a dubious claim in the first place, given the fact that to produce and accumulate wealth one needs to exploit others) and are separate from virtue. However, they also posit the necessity to abandon riches if the occasion calls for it, i.e. if riches avert us from virtue. To my knowledge, none of the wealthy stoics did that (Seneca himself was a usurer, there's nothing in his stoic set of principles that could have justified that).

    All in all, I think stoicism is like christianity in the sense that it imposes unrealistic moral and ethical standards, which can give its practitioners a sense of moral superiority, giving them also the opportunity tu excuse themselves when they fail, on the grounds that the aforementioned standards are so high and virtuous.

    1. I haven't read a tremendous amount on Stoicism, but I'm not sure that's hypocritical on their part. Riches would be morally irrelevant but still generally preferred on nonmoral grounds. If the wealthy didn't abandon their riches, they could just say they prefer riches on nonmoral grounds because riches don't get in their way.

      Of course, our judgment about ourselves needn't always be trusted, and rich people might have a conflict of interest. Moreover, riches are supposed to be automatically preferred to poverty, and while wealth clearly has some advantages over poverty, it's far from clear that wealth is morally irrelevant or that it doesn't tend to make us vicious.

      I'm not sure Stoicism would be as unrealistic as Christian morality. Stoic ethics seem designed to support the status quo of human dominance hierarchies, whereas Christianity is supposed to be more radical (don't even think the wrong thoughts, love your enemies, etc). Christendom dispensed with Christian morality, though, the idea being that Jesus's sacrificial death made his high moral standards moot. We can be adopted children of God just by trusting in Jesus, even if we don't live in Christ-like ways.

    2. "...it's far from clear that wealth is morally irrelevant or that it doesn't tend to make us vicious".

      It's precisely on this ground that I say they're hypocrites.

      "The shortest way to riches is to despise them"..."Demetrius, the best of men, it's the company I want to keep, leaving aside those who wear purple. It's him, a ragged man, whom I admire." (Seneca, Epistles to Lucilius, 62-3).

      That's rich coming from one of the wealthiest noblemen in ancient Rome (the 'folks dressed in purple'). But, of course, he could have excused himself by saying that he's trying his best and that, after all, he's nothing more than a "poor sinner", or whatever the equivalent term in stoicism is.

  2. Compromise always seems the easier & more reasonable path in the beginning; but follow it far enough & you'll find that you've only been walking in circles -- it gets you nowhere slowly.

    On the other hand, it's the compromisers who usually endure. Just as stoicism outlived the cynics, so the Catholic Christians prevailed over the Ebionites & Gnostics. Or sometimes the purer strain survives, but remains small & insignificant. Buddhism is, in many respects, a less rigorous & demanding offshoot of Jainism & the biggest sects of Buddhism are in turn those that demand least from their adherents. Do you know how many 'vegetarians' eat fish?

    Most of us know that we lack the courage & discipline to do what we ought, so we compromise in the mistaken belief that it's better to follow an ideal imperfectly than simply reject it wholesale -- which would, at the very least, evince the virtue of integrity.

    1. "...which would, at the very least, evince the virtue of integrity"

      I wholeheartedly agree. I'd like to append with a quote from Hamlet, taking it out of the original context: "Conscience doth make cowards of us all". If we're conscious of the fact that a religion/philosophy imposes unrealistic standards of virtue, we should be skeptical of said standards when it comes to their actual effect in society as a whole, and we shouldn't parrot the same talking points when confronted by the failure to keep up.

      In this sense, I find compromise to be as coward as it is practical. Maybe it's an accommodation that may work very well for the masses, but it shouldn't be enough for the authentic philosopher.

    2. Indeed, Sybok, the skills required to build and to maintain a long-lasting institution need have nothing to do with the skills involved in discovering and in living well with the ultimate truth, by philosophy, entheogens, spiritual discipline, and so on.

      Those skillsets may even be antithetical to each other, which is why religions tend to be split along the exoteric and esoteric lines of initiation. The subcultures that excel in uncovering neglected and unpleasant truths may not deserve to endure, just as the bulk of humanity may have no business grappling with the nature of ultimate reality. Different strokes for different folks.

      Perhaps the root of the compromise is that the enlightened elites need to tell noble lies to motivate the masses to keep the elites around even though the elites become good for nothing, lost as they are in cynicism, nihilism, decadence, apathy, and anxiety, thanks to their heads-on confrontation with inhuman, monstrous reality. It's a matter of nature's monstrousness seeping into society, and of the front-line intellectual elites taking the brunt of the damage.

      Shadia Drury's book, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, is very thought-provoking on this social problem.

  3. The founder of stoicism, Ceno of Citium, seems to actually have been sort of a radical.

    He wrote a "Republic", kinda as an answer to Plato, and argued for the abolishment of slavery, private property and marriage, free love, equality of the sexes, communal childrearing, and generally some sort of communist anarchy.

    Oh, and supposedly for cannibalism.

    But since the work is lost, we have only what others, including the later stoics, write about it, and not even much of that.

    It was hugely scandalous, and the later stoics largely pretended it did not exist, because it was so embarrassing to them.

    I think we underestimate that there was SOME potentially explosive and revolutionary stuff in some of the early Hellenistic philosophers.

    In republican and early imperial Rome Philosophers were repeatedly persecuted and there were several expulsions of philosophers from all of Italy, with some definitely being executed as rabble rousers and radical enemies of the established order.

    Not necessarily without reasons.

    There were some practical attempts to found utopian communities (without slavery, among other wild stuff), today largely forgotten radical social experiments, that were seen as enough of a potential threat, that they were brutally crushed with military violence both by the Roman Republic and (if my admittedly a bit wonky recollections are correct) also by the Macedonian Hellenistic autocrats.

    Definitely by the Romans though.

    Philosophers were repeatedly accused of being guilty of inspiring slave revolts, several lesser known ones, and even the most famous one under Spartacus.

    Roman Stoics like Gaius Blossius were accused of being sympathetic to the cause of slave rebellion, probably correctly at least in some cases, even of deliberately formenting them.

    We sadly don't know much about these individuals, but a bunch of them were put on trial and executed or at least banished.

    And again, at least some, seem to have personally been involved in such rebellious movements and utopian experiments.

    There seem to have been Roman Stoics who helped build the communist city of Heliopolis, and died there when the Romans wiped it from the face of the earth.

    It's frustrating, because there are only fragments of fragments telling these stories, but I strongly suspect there was an entire era of (partially) philosophically inspired rebelliousness, that was just buried, buried already in antiquity.

    By the time the Emperor Marcus Aurelius called himself a stoic philosopher, the Empire had already wiped most of it from memory, and the philosophical schools were thoroughly depoliticised and brought in line.

    1. I'd just point out that there's a difference between what some Stoics may have done and the question of whether there's a Stoic justification for such rebellions.

      Also, I don't know if we can say that ancient philosophers generally were rebellious. Their rational investigations may have been subversive in that they undermined conventional beliefs, but I don't know if they were out there fighting for civil liberties. Plato and Aristotle were conservative, for example.

      But perhaps that legacy has been largely forgotten, as you suggest, because the evidence didn't survive. Then it becomes speculative, however.