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Why I Am Not a Stoic

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Ever because the launch of The Delicate Artwork of Not Giving a F*ck again in 2016, many individuals have in contrast my work to Stoicism. Some have even gone so far as to say that my work is merely regurgitating Stoicism with a pair cool tales and F-bombs thrown in to spice issues up.

Initially, I discovered this amusing. I had learn Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in school, in addition to bits and items of Seneca. However apart from that, I knew little or no concerning the Stoics after I wrote the guide. Since then, nonetheless, I’ve discovered fairly much more, and the extra I’ve discovered, the extra I’ve realized that (and sorry to rain in your parade) I’m not a Stoic. 

So what I’m going to do is provide you with a quick overview of Stoicism, take a look at its primary tenets, after which talk about the concepts I agree with and the concepts that I don’t. I’ll then end the article by speaking a bit extra about my philosophical background—which isn’t Stoicism—however slightly Buddhism and Existentialism. After which, in fact, I’ll cowl how these philosophies differ from Stoicism.

Get your nerd hat prepared, as a result of shit’s going to get thick.

What Is Stoicism?

You typically hear concerning the philosophers of Historical Greece and Rome, however in the event you’re like me, it’s exhausting to kind out all of the names and concepts in your head. Right here’s a simplified means to consider it:


You’ve possible heard of Socrates. He’s the OG, the godfather of western philosophy. Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle. You’ve in all probability heard that too. Then, Aristotle taught Alexander the Nice however Alexander the Nice skipped the philosophy and went straight to conquering many of the recognized world. You do you, Alex.

Anyway, what Aristotle argued was that happiness got here from residing a lifetime of advantage. He listed a couple of dozen of those virtues, comparable to braveness, temperance, knowledge, modesty, and so forth.

This sounded nice on the floor. The issue was that individuals quickly realized they’d completely different concepts about tips on how to measure advantage. Is “temperance” three beers or twelve beers? Is it proper to be trustworthy even when it should harm someone or ought to one be compassionate even when it means being barely dishonest?

These perennial arguments precipitated Greek philosophy to separate into 4 colleges of thought. These 4 colleges would then dominate philosophical discourse for greater than 5 centuries… till the Christians confirmed up and burned all people’s books.1

The 4 colleges have been:

  • Cynicism
  • Skepticism
  • Epicureanism
  • Stoicism

greek philosopher statue busts

The Cynics distrusted all worldly issues. As we speak, we might think about them as a type of bizarre cross between minimalists and nihilists. Cynics gave away their possessions, opted to reside in poverty, and turned down any favors supplied to them. There are numerous well-known tales about Cynics being homeless, working round bare, pooping and fucking in unusual locations, and principally being the trolls of the traditional world.

Whereas the Cynics thought every part was pointless, the Skeptics believed that little to nothing may ever be recognized for certain. What was advantage? What was fact? How are you aware that the world was actual, that your recollections are actual, that something is actual?

No, they weren’t smoking pot in a university dorm. These have been critical philosophers with some critical factors about what’s knowable. They could not have been successful at events, however they did make vital contributions to the philosophy of science—contributions which are nonetheless felt in philosophy and science at present.

In the meantime, the Epicureans have been hits at events. Epicureans believed that we’re all going to die, so fuck it, may as properly get pleasure from your self as a lot as attainable between right here and there. Generally Epicureans are characterised as “something goes” libertines, however there was a variety of subtlety and nuance to Epicurus’ concepts — it wasn’t simply all about having enjoyable on a regular basis, it was a unique method to advantage. That stated, Epicureanism is the “YOLO” philosophy of the traditional world.

Then there’s Stoicism. Stoicism might be probably the most advanced of the 4 colleges. Stoics believed in rationality as the trail to advantage, and subsequently, happiness. They noticed feelings as probably harmful distractions from one’s targets. The Stoics believed that one ought to reduce one’s passions and make selections based mostly as a lot as attainable on information.

Stoicism has made a little bit of a comeback the previous decade, largely as a consequence of numerous in style books by Ryan Holiday and William Irvine, in addition to outspoken assist from outstanding thought leaders like Tim Ferriss. Stoicism has change into the philosophy du jour on this planet of tech and enterprise recommendation and it’s not unusual to see discussions of Stoic concepts pop up at conferences, on podcasts, and even in enterprise books.

I feel this resurgence in Stoic philosophy is nice. There’s a variety of worth in it. However there are additionally some elements of it that I’m not so sure about.

First, I’ll undergo the elements of Stoicism that I feel are useful and backed up by what we all know in psychology. Then I’ll contact on a few of the elements of Stoicism that I’m rather less certain about and that’s much less supported by the information.

Clearly, what follows right here is predominantly my opinion, backed up by my understanding of some related analysis. Many of those factors can (and will) be debated endlessly. So, earlier than you ship me an offended e-mail (not very stoic of you, by the best way), simply know that I do know my abstract right here isn’t excellent. However it’s not meant to be.

What Stoicism Will get Proper

1. Concentrate on issues you’ll be able to management, ignore the remaining.

Epictetus was a slave who arose to change into one of the vital Stoic voices of the Roman Empire. Maybe his most well-known and vital thought was that of solely specializing in what you’ll be able to management.

“The chief job in life is solely this: to establish and separate issues in order that I can say clearly to myself that are externals not beneath my management, and which should do with the alternatives I really management. The place then do I search for good and evil? To not uncontrollable externals, however inside myself to the alternatives which are my very own…”2

This concept has continued all through the millennia in varied kinds. Maybe you already know it higher as Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer:”

God, grant me the serenity to just accept the issues I can not change,
braveness to vary the issues I can,
and knowledge to know the distinction.

Psychologists generally differentiate between one thing referred to as an “inner locus of management” and an “exterior locus of management.”3 Individuals with an inner locus of management are inclined to imagine that they’re liable for most of what occurs of their lives. They concentrate on what they may do higher or what they will affect in pursuing their targets.

Individuals with an exterior locus of management are the other: they blame others for his or her issues, discover excuses to not pursue their targets, and usually bitch and moan concerning the world till you’re able to put your head in an oven.

Reams of proof present that individuals with inner locus of management are typically happier, much less anxious,4 make higher selections, accomplish extra of their targets, yada yada.5

In actual fact, this notion of “concentrate on what you’ll be able to change, ignore the remaining” is so highly effective that it’s been the core of nearly each self-help motion, from Alcoholics Nameless to Tony Robbins. It’s so ubiquitous that the style is actually named after the thought. Samuel Smiles, the creator of the 1859 guide titled Self-Assist, wrote the guide as a result of he wished folks to know that, “God helps those that assist themselves.”

2. Settle for ache and don’t chase pleasure.

The Stoics rightly seen that many of the silly shit folks do, they do as a result of they suppose it’s going to make them really feel good. Individuals tend to overestimate the advantages of one thing that feels good within the short-term and underestimate the prices within the long-term. Chasing issues like standing and wealth and pleasure can backfire terribly.

The Stoics additionally accurately famous that many of the good issues in life are painful and require a point of sacrifice. Subsequently, they framed their thought of advantage by way of having the ability to withstand short-term pleasures for some long-term achieve.

That is simply extremely sensible life recommendation that has change into ubiquitous all through the world. The Stoics have been simply a few of the first to obviously clarify it.

3. life is a virtuous life.

A few years in the past, I wrote an especially lengthy article the place I defined why valuing extremely summary ideas comparable to honesty, integrity, braveness, and so forth.—or what the ancients would name “advantage”—was, psychologically talking, in all probability the healthiest factor we are able to do, each for ourselves, but additionally for {our relationships} and society.

I gained’t attempt to sum up the arguments right here. As an alternative, go learn it in the event you’d like to know extra.

Learn: Develop the F*ck Up

4. Materialism – what’s actual may be calculated and measured.

Now we’re stepping into the philosophical weeds.

Considered one of Plato’s core beliefs was that the bodily world was merely an imperfect reflection of a deeper, metaphysical realm of concepts.6 Plato’s concepts have been later adopted into Christian concepts of a everlasting “soul” and concepts about spirits.

The Stoics and Epicureans famously took a unique tact. They believed that nothing existed apart from what we are able to see and expertise ourselves. When you’re lifeless, you’re fucking rat meat, bro. There’s no soul, no heaven, no spirit world to save lots of you.

For these beliefs, the early Christian church would go on a rampage and burn 1000’s of books, libraries, and other people. Whereas Plato’s beliefs a couple of parallel world of concepts and the soul have been built-in into Christian theology and preserved, Stoic and Epicurean concepts would take over 1,500 years to be rediscovered, oftentimes accidentally.7

Finally, these materialist concepts did make it again into Europe within the fifteenth century, the place they have been quickly devoured by hungry minds of the Reformation. These texts would then get handed round and shortly encourage the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. Then everybody lived fortunately ever after.8

5. Memento Mori. 

Lastly, the Stoics have been keen on a follow they referred to as Memento Mori, or “Keep in mind that you’ll die.” Whereas that sounds darkish and like one thing a child with an excessive amount of eye make-up would say, there’s an actual sensible utility to fascinated by one’s personal loss of life.

You would go away life proper now. Let that decide what you do and say and suppose.

Marcus Aurelius

As I wrote in my guide, fascinated by one’s loss of life forces you to think about what is really vital in your life. It’s solely by imagining not being alive which you could correctly prioritize every part you might be doing whereas being alive.

That is one other concept that exhibits up in numerous conventional religions. I used to be first uncovered to the thought within the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, the place meditation is described as a method for making ready for one’s loss of life. However it’s an concept that has discovered its means into fashionable occasions from philosophers comparable to Nietzsche and Camus to enterprise leaders like Steve Jobs.

The Issues With Stoicism

1. It’s unimaginable to detach from our emotional reactions and stay rational.

Earlier than I dive into this, I ought to be aware that there’s a variety of debate round this topic, not simply at present, however apparently even again in antiquity.

One of many core ideas of Stoicism is apathy. As we speak, we perceive apathy as a type of laziness, however again then it meant one thing nearer to “unaffectedness” or “detachment.”

The Stoics argued that as a result of feelings are excited by exterior occasions, and exterior occasions are outdoors of our management, we must always subsequently detach ourselves as a lot as attainable from being affected by them in an effort to stay rational. Seneca wrote concerning the course of thus:

“Ache is slight if opinion has added nothing to it;… in considering it slight, you’ll make it slight. Every thing depends upon opinion; ambition, luxurious, greed, hark again to opinion. It’s in line with opinion that we endure…. So allow us to additionally win the best way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is… advantage, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that’s gained forever.”9

So, the issue isn’t that stuff harms you (or others). It’s that you just determined it harmed you (or others).

Clearly, there may be a variety of fact to this. In actual fact, I’ve argued in my books that this realization is on the coronary heart of constructing resilience.

However does this imply we ought to be totally detached to hurt? Ought to we’ve got no opinions or judgments about our feelings in any respect? What if somebody kills our member of the family? What if somebody is sexually abusing a baby? Aren’t these righteous causes to get offended or indignant or hateful? These questions arose within the Stoics’ time and the query of how a lot we must always detach from our exterior experiences has been up for debate ever since.

From the get-go, folks criticized Stoics of being heartless “males of stone.” Many Stoics argued that it wasn’t that you just removed all feelings, it was merely that you just educated your self to be unmoved by them—that you’re all the time capable of pursue advantage in even probably the most heated of moments.

However, even then, that’s in all probability simply unrealistic. With fashionable psychology, we all know that feelings penetrate a lot deeper into our acutely aware ideas than we initially thought. A lot of what we expertise as rational thought continues to be extremely laden with feelings. It’s really unimaginable to separate the 2 — and worse, after we imagine we’re detaching from our feelings, we’re typically merely tricking ourselves. Not solely is being unaffected by our feelings in all probability unimaginable, however typically we discover that individuals who strive to withstand their feelings often want much more remedy than those who embrace them. Paradoxically, it’s solely by partaking and expressing our feelings that they lose energy over us.

2. It’s unimaginable to be totally rational.

I feel one of many causes the Stoics went astray on the emotion query was just because their understanding of human psychology was a lot less complicated than it’s now.

Plato famously posited that the human thoughts had two elements: a horse and a chariot. The horse was our feelings and the chariot was our motive. Everybody again then assumed that the objective was then to tame and practice our inside horses to behave and do as they’re informed. In my guide Every thing is F*cked: A Guide About Hope, I consult with this because the “Basic Assumption” and I clarify why that is fallacious.

The extra we perceive concerning the thoughts, the extra we perceive that a lot of what we think about “rational” is merely the facet impact of cognitive biases, prejudices, and defective perceptions—you already know, feelings.

I’ve written at size about how our minds typically hijack us after we try and be rational and the way we’re extremely short-sighted in a lot of our decision-making. You possibly can learn two articles that describe these points beneath:

Learn: The Cognitive Biases That Make Us All Horrible Individuals

Learn: The Regulation of Unintended Penalties

However wait, it will get worse.

Certain, you may say, most of us are dangerous at making selections. However we’ve got issues like arithmetic and logic and science! These instruments right for our inherent irrationality.

Properly, sure and no. On a sensible stage, certain. It’s vital to use the ideas of scientific experimentation in our personal lives to ensure we’re not getting carried away and doing one thing dumb.

However then again, even these rock-solid fields of logic have been undermined and proven to be contradictory previously 100 years. Whether or not it’s Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem displaying that each one mathematical units are internally inconsistent, or Derek Parfit’s unbelievable proof demonstrating that the concepts of self-interest and particular person identities are logically inconsistent, by way of understanding what’s objectively true on this planet, the Skeptics have been type of proper: we don’t know a rattling factor.

3. We must always give a fuck about some exterior issues.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to not point out what is probably the commonest moral argument in opposition to Stoicism: shouldn’t some exterior occasions have an effect on us? Shouldn’t we care if somebody threatens to kill our good friend or our boss takes credit score for our work or our mom will get most cancers?

I feel there’s a positive line between prioritizing what you’ll be able to management and focusing on what you’ll be able to management to the exclusion of all else and that line is left muddy by the Stoics.

We ought to care about ravenous youngsters in Africa and the oceans warming and federal reserve rates of interest and the truth that we’re pleased with our new jacket. That is merely being human. The query isn’t about shutting out the surface world, however slightly having the right prioritization for the issues that occur within the outdoors world versus our inner ideas and emotions.

I perceive that this criticism is debated, and plenty of, together with Ryan Vacation, vehemently argue that the Stoics didn’t imply that we must always completely stay detached to exterior occasions. However, to me, the truth that this clarification must occur within the first place is a matter itself.

My Background: Buddhism and Existentialism

I used to be late to the Stoicism occasion. I didn’t learn the Stoics critically till after folks started assuming I used to be a Stoic. Since then, I’ve discovered quite a bit to like of their work.

However I might not classify my work as Stoicism. Whereas there may be overlap and plenty of comparable messages, my focus and prioritization is a bit completely different.

My background is primarily Buddhism (in my twenties) and existentialism (in my thirties). There may be a variety of overlap between Buddhism, Stoicism, and existentialism however there are additionally some key variations which are price understanding.

Buddhism and Stoicism

In some ways, I feel Buddhism and Stoicism are excellent enhances to one another—the strengths of 1 compensates for the weaknesses within the different.

Like Stoicism, Buddhism’s start line is that life is painful and tough and chasing pleasure or in search of happiness merely compounds that ache slightly than assuaging it.

However, to me, Buddhism handles the nuance of emotional attachment significantly better than Stoicism does. Whereas the Stoics concentrate on an apathetic detachment from their passions in favor of motive, Buddhists imagine that each feelings and motive are equally illusory. Subsequently, to detach your self from feelings in favor of motive, to a Buddhist, is simply as a lot an error as attaching your self to your feelings.

Buddha statue

I feel the additional step the Buddhists discovered that the Stoics didn’t was the illusory nature of “no self”—i.e., the concept the ego doesn’t really exist, that it’s merely a ball of tightly knotted beliefs that may probably be undone. Whereas the Stoics accurately pursued minimizing the ego, to my information, they by no means went so far as recognizing that the ego itself may be dissolved totally.

That stated, I feel the Stoics’ method to tips on how to go about residing your precise life is much extra sensible than Buddhism. Buddhism is fairly hardcore. It believes that every part is illusory and, subsequently, something apart from sitting in a cave and meditating till we obtain enlightenment (or ego dissolution) is pointless.

However even if you’re not meditating for years on finish, Buddhism is full of tons of convoluted guidelines and prerogatives. Except for the 4 Noble Truths and 5 Aggregates, the Eightfold Path is stuffed with divisions, sub-divisions and lists of minor guidelines inside them. Many of those guidelines are extremely ambiguous and exhausting to pin down (i.e., “don’t be impolite” or “no unwholesome states of thoughts.”)

I discover the simplicity of Stoicism extremely interesting on this regard. Stoicism acknowledges that virtuous acts require a relentless effort, that advantage may be approached however by no means completely achieved, that what’s “proper” in a single context will not be “proper” in one other. Because of the infinite complexity of our lives, this strikes me as a much more practical method to residing a great life.

Existentialism and Stoicism

Existentialism is a unfastened college of philosophy that started with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche within the nineteenth century and got here to prominence within the mid-Twentieth century, primarily via the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.

Just like Skeptics, existentialists begin with the idea that it’s unimaginable to know something for certain and any try in the direction of a concrete rational understanding of the universe goes to be fully restricted at greatest, horrifically fallacious at worst.

The existentialists: Jean-Paul Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus

However as a substitute of specializing in disidentifying with the world like Buddhism, or in search of rationality like Stoicism, existentialism is worried with accountability and authenticity.

The reasoning goes like this:

  • None of us have any fucking clue what we’re doing. Our default state is nervousness as a result of we’re continuously pressured into making decisions in a life the place we have no idea what is correct or good.
  • As a result of we’re all the time making decisions, we’re inherently liable for every part we select to suppose, do, really feel or expertise.
  • We keep away from this accountability as a result of it triggers extra nervousness. As an alternative we make up tales to ourselves and others about the way it’s not our fault, there’s nothing we are able to do, why is the world so imply to me, and so forth. Sartre referred to as this, residing in “dangerous religion.”
  • As soon as we select that we are liable for the experiences in our lives, it frees us to be who we actually are. That is residing in authenticity.
  • Authenticity is performing on this planet in a means that’s an correct reflection of your emotions, beliefs, and concepts.
  • Feelings should not essentially good or dangerous, they’re merely extra experiences that you’re liable for. Like something, feelings can both conceal your true self or categorical your true self.
  • Behaving authentically requires braveness and religion in oneself, but it surely additionally rewards you with a greater life, higher relationships, and allows you to obtain extra of your targets.

You possibly can already see a few of the overlap with Stoicism right here. The existentialist concentrate on accountability and selection is just like the Stoic reminder to solely concentrate on what you’ll be able to management.

The decision for authenticity echoes most of the Stoic virtues comparable to braveness and knowledge.

The required confrontation of tension in each second is just like the Stoic acceptance that life requires a sure diploma of struggling.

In my view, I feel the existentialists have a extra practical understanding of human psychology than Stoicism and even Buddhism.10 They perceive that information is inherently restricted, feelings are inevitable, and that life is inherently flawed it doesn’t matter what we do. Subsequently, all there is to do is develop sufficient self-awareness to take accountability in each second for the alternatives we make, even after they blow up in our faces.

Lengthy-time readers will see just about my whole physique of labor mirrored in the previous couple of paragraphs. That’s as a result of I’m an existentialist. And whereas I feel the Stoics lay out some improbable instruments for navigating the world and figuring out what’s price doing and what’s not, existentialism lays a philosophical basis that I haven’t discovered anyplace else.

However that’s simply me…

Uncover for Your self

The American thinker Ken Wilber used to joke, “Nobody is wise sufficient to be fallacious on a regular basis.” His level was that each college of thought is correct about one thing. However each college of thought can also be partial and incomplete.

I imagine that’s true. In consequence, I imagine that it’s our accountability to hunt out varied philosophies and assemble a coherent perception system for ourselves. For some folks, Stoicism shall be a bedrock for that system. For others, it gained’t. However as any good stoic would say, that’s positive.

Search out and uncover for your self what your perception system consists of. It’s an obligation all of us have and nobody can do for you. My perception system is a hodge-podge of the three colleges of thought mentioned right here.

What is going to yours be?

Books on Stoicism

Books on Buddhism

Books on Existentialism


  1. For extra on this, see: The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey.
  2. Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5
  3. Rotter, Julian B (1966). “Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement”. Psychological Monographs: Common and Utilized. 80 (1): 1–28.
  4. Tas, I., & Iskender, M. (2018). An Examination of Meaning in Life, Satisfaction with Life, Self-Concept and Locus of Control among Teachers. Journal Of Schooling And Coaching Research, 6(1), 21-31.
  5. Boone, C., Van Olffen, W., & Van Witteloostuijn, A. (2005). Team locus-of-control composition, leadership structure, information acquisition, and financial performance: a business simulation study. Academy Of Administration Journal, 48(5), 889-909.
  6. Plato’s most well-known clarification of this concept got here from his Allegory of the Cave.
  7. For an superior clarification of this, try The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt.
  9. Seneca, Epistles, lxxviii. 13–16
  10. Within the Stoics and Buddhists’ protection, the existentialists have had about 2,000 extra years of human civilization to work off of.

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