How Stoicism Can Be Dangerous

Ryan Nehring

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“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism, as popularized by exceptionally talented writers and thinkers like Ryan Holiday, has been celebrating an amazing and unlikely resurgence in the last few years. Its brand of self-contained philosophy offers an easy on-ramp for people thirsting to think deeper about their place in an ever more complex socio-cultural world.

On its face, Stoicism is a powerful set of tenets about taking responsibility for one’s own happiness, often distilled down to its maxim of Amor Fati that “You cannot control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you react to them.” Packaged with the historical gravitas of its reluctant celebrity figurehead Marcus Aurelius, it has enough real intellectual weight that it cannot be dismissed out of hand and deserves real consideration in its teachings and their applicability to modern society.

Also deserving of consideration are stoicism’s very real limitations in both scope and practice.

Stoicism is For White Guys, by White Guys

Much like the concept of a Meritocracy and other nouveau egalitarian concepts, Stoicism’s starting point is one of privilege. It assumes an equitable playing field for everyone; something that simply does not exist. This is encapsulated perfectly in the quote by Marcus Aurelius I used to open this piece; just choosing not to feel harmed is a luxury non-white people in our world are absolutely not afforded because they are harmed often and intentionally by social and political structures.

Similarly, they are not given free choice or will in how they choose to respond. Repeated, systemic, institutional provocations denying the humanity of entire races of people cannot be effectively resisted or dismantled by choosing to not let it bother you. The effects of those systems are real, enduring, and crippling to those it victimizes. In short, you cannot tell Tamir Rice or George Floyd’s mothers to simply “not feel harmed”.

Memento Mori

Boiled down to its essence, the concept of Momento Mori is essentially “Live each day as if it were your last”, and again we run full-speed head-on into privilege. In our current era of late-stage Capitalism, Momento Mori is a nice dream at best when we are facing the greatest wealth disparity gap in history. For low-income families the idea of “Living each day like it’s your last” is more a bleak possibility then it is a mantra for living in the now and being present.

Again, it’d be malpractice not to mention race in this context as the United States has shown Black and Brown folks are NOT allowed to live each day like it could be their last. Routinely family gatherings and reunions have the police called on them by scared, racist white people. Black joy is never safe in the public commons.

It would be most fair to say that Stoicism itself is not the problem here, but rather the sound byte bumper-sticker interpretations of it, which have become so omnipresent. More than simply Amor Fati and Memento Mori, Stoic concepts like Sympatheia (the interdependence of all things) and Summum Bonum (to do for the highest good) can be amazingly inclusive and honorable approaches to daily life. Taken in its entirety, Stoicism offers true philosophical worth and intellectual value. Sadly, this is rarely the case in our world of ever diminished attention spans.

Worse than benign mischaracterizations of its teachings, Stocisim can also be easily weaponized to shift responsibility for society’s failures onto those it victimizes. When we conclude that individual happiness is entirely within the control of a person’s own perception, we abdicate responsibility for compassion and equity. We find ourselves bordering dangerously into “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” territory.

This is not the fault of the Stoics themselves by any means. The core of the philosophy really espouses virtue above all else, but that piece often gets left behind for it’s more digestible teachings. To aspire to act virtuously is always admirable, but virtue does not exist in a vacuum. The parameters under which virtue is defined and the starting point of all the people involved gives context to the academics, and in the United States in the year 2020, those starting points could not be more potentially disparate. We must recognize and embrace these complexities if we wish to be intellectually honest in our promotion of Stoicism.

In that way, perhaps Stoicism is no more inherently flawed than any other philosophy or belief system, it’s simply more popular right now; the flavor of the month for thought schools. I critique from a position of admiration. I happily receive my email newsletters from DailyStoic.com and read almost everything Ryan Holiday writes. I find and have taken immense value from the teachings of the Stoics, and hope others do as well. It’s my sincerest hope however that we also recognize its limitations and vulnerabilities and include them in our discussions, openly and honestly.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” — Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism has its own impediments, and I do believe that the obstacle is the way in which we should approach them, and ultimately find greater understanding in having done so.

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