The Vanity of Virtue: Contemporary Pseudo-Stoicism

In an age which is rapidly becoming a parody of itself, it is nearly impossible to distinguish sincere utterance from satire. And so, the distance from Trump to Trimalchio is bridged readily enough. Anyone who reads this New York Times piece on Silicon Valley and Stoicism may be forced to pause and confirm that they are not perusing the pages of The Onion. (Though, perhaps this is a testament to the satirical skill of that publication, which has not so much mocked the world as predicted its future.)

The article offers a glimpse at the strange obsession among Silicon Valley’s monsters with the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. There may be some irony in the fact that the technocratic capitalist-engineer class which directs the tech world is in large part responsible for the rapid devaluation of and divestment in meaningful humanities education at all levels. Billionaires can purchase self-satisfied virtue readily enough through philanthropy and shopping at Whole Foods, but nothing will assure one’s reputation for moral rectitude and intellectual seriousness quite so well as embracing a “life philosophy”, ideally one covered over with the pleasing patina of venerable antiquity. Just as these captains of industry who have addicted the rest of humanity to the ephemeral pleasures and pressures of the cyber world are able (i.e. have the capital and the time) to go on device-free retreats, so too they are able to idly subject themselves to salutary forms of self-sacrifice in the spiritual retreat of a recondite philosophy about which few ordinary people know or care.

Of all the passages in the article, this is the one which reads most like outright parody:

“We’re kept in constant comfort,” said Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, in an interview on Daily Stoic, a popular blog for the tech-Stoic community. Mr. Rose said he tries to incorporate practices in his life that “mimic” our ancestors’ environments and their daily challenges: “This can be simple things like walking in the rain without a jacket or wearing my sandals in the December snow when I take the dog out in the mornings.”

What could be more patently absurd than wearing sandals in the snow in order to rid oneself of “constant comfort”? One can readily re-imagine this interview:

As we approached the already-open automatic sliding doors of his office building, he veered right and manually opened the traditional handle-and-hinge door directly adjacent to it. When I asked him why, he responded, “My life has become too frictionless, and I like to be maximally inconvenienced at times of my choice.”

For much of the world, suffering is still very much a part of daily life even though our material circumstances have been substantially improved. To be sure, we may not need to trudge through the snow barefoot to get to work, but sitting through a painfully long commute in gridlock while contributing to global catastrophe for the sake of ploughing through a soul-crushing grind at work is perhaps enough suffering for one person, though it involves no physical pain. What more disgusting sign of privilege than announcing that one is too comfortable, and then proudly undertaking to suffer something wholly unnecessary while couching it in the language of ancient philosophy?

Nellie Bowles, the author of the article, fudges on some of the basic tenets of Stoicism:

Instead, Stoics believed that everything in the universe is already perfect and that things that seem bad or unjust are secretly good underneath. The philosophy is handy if you already believe that the rich are meant to be rich and the poor meant to be poor.

This makes Stoics sound like the precursors of Dr. Pangloss. Stoic thought is intimately wrapped up with the notion that the world is not an ideal place. Otherwise, what is the purpose of cultivating virtue and fortitude under suffering? It serves to note that Stoic thought, especially in the hands of Seneca, was used to enhance the Roman cult of the noble suicide. Consider this typical anecdote from Seneca:

“When a certain man was recently being brought in a wagon under guard to a morning spectacle, he nodded off as though sinking under the weight of sleep, and let his head droop so far that he inserted it between the spokes of the wheel. He held himself in the seat long enough to break his neck from the rotation of the wheel. And so, he fled his punishment in the same vehicle which was carrying him to it.”

Cum adveheretur nuper inter custodias quidam ad matutinum spectaculum missus, tamquam somno premente nutaret, caput usque eo demisit donec radiis insereret, et tamdiu se in sedili suo tenuit donec cervicem circumactu rotae frangeret; eodem vehiculo quo ad poenam ferebatur effugit. [Epistulae AD Lucilium, 70]

I have written before that antiquity should be an object of study, not of emulation. Reading too deeply in ancient literature may give one the sense that it serves as useful life advice because of its constant recourse to paradigmatic exempla. Ancient Stoics may have admired Cato for tearing his wounds open and spilling his guts onto the floor, but who among even the most fanatical of modern Stoics would counsel or even calmly approve of such a course of action? However fashionable it may be, or however likely to increase one’s clout, there are serious problems with employing any ancient philosophy to grapple with modern life.

As Joel points out in his conversation in the most recent Itinera podcast, Nestor’s advice to the Achaeans fails to persuade them because the exempla no longer map meaningfully onto the contemporary world. So too, the world conjured up in the exempla of the ancient stoics is no longer our own, and much of the moralizing advice ultimately rings hollow. Whatever the continuities in human nature, the structure and rhythms of modern life are so wholly different from those of antiquity as to create an unbridgeable gap between the contemporary and the ancient. Scholarship is meant to help us bridge this gap in our minds, not to summon that world back to life.

Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius are among the ancients on whom the new Stoics seem most keen. (Why do they so rarely cite Greeks?) These modern Stoics have, at any rate, one thing in common with these ancient forebears: in all of their proud and horn-tooting display of virtue and fortitude, they reveal how out of touch they are with the real suffering of mundane existence, and remind us that it’s easy to play at suffering when you’re on top of the world.

Image result for cato suicide
Johann Michael Rottmayr, The Suicide of Cato

6 thoughts on “The Vanity of Virtue: Contemporary Pseudo-Stoicism

  1. This is just the best thing I read all day, you sir are my Lucian, my Seneca writing his Apocolocyntosis

    “As we approached the already-open automatic sliding doors of his office building, he veered right and manually opened the traditional handle-and-hinge door directly adjacent to it. When I asked him why, he responded, “My life has become too frictionless, and I like to be maximally inconvenienced at times of my choice.”

  2. Excellent! The rich geeks shall not rest until they have monetarised, corrupted and destroyed everything of any worth in pursuit of their shallow, if not childish, quest.

  3. Billionaire have more virtuous ways to shop than Whole Foods, but otherwise I coukdn’t agree with this post more. I tried listening to Marcus Aurelius in my car and bailed after one commute because who needs a god damn Emperor lecturing about life unless one is himself an Emperor?

  4. Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are basically the people from whom texts are easily available. Posidonius, Zeno, and Chrysippus are only available as quotes. While there are some Herculanean scrolls that are believed to be by Chrysippus, this does not help . So naturally reading tend to focus on the people who are most famously associated with Stoicism. And the people who do turn to Stoicism in these times are not necessarily foolish. Stoicism was one of the two empirical schools in Athens (Aristotle’s Peripatetic school was the other) and as a result Stoicism’s basic tenets were confirmed by Lawrence Becker in 1998. We just need to find out and root out whatever bullshit was added by more irresponsible Stoics like Musonius Rufus.

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