These are strange times. We have reached great heights in technological development: artificial intelligence manages our daily life, our cars are driving themselves with increasing confidence, we each carry a powerful computer in our pocket that enables us instant access to all of humanity’s knowledge, and yet there’s an overall meaning crisis.
Thanks to the advancements of modern medicine we live longer than ever before. But what are we living for?
Because of the Internet we have all the information at our fingertips, but what does any of it mean? Which sources can be trusted? Who’s saying what for which reasons? What is true and what are lies?
Our lives are broadcast across the internet, garnerning likes, favs and other markers we can and do count, but what does it all amount to?
Our leaders and those in power are demonstrating an ever more evident absence of vision and foresight, rampant opportunism and lack of character.
On the background of all of this, Stoicism, an ancient Hellenistic school of philosophy is experiencing a strong resurgence in the past few years. Stoic discussion groups and conferences (such as Stoicon) are popping up all over the world, both online and offline.
But why Stoicism? Why not any of the other Hellenistic schools such as Epicureanism or Scepticism, each comprehensive and valid approaches in their own right? In short: what is it that seems to make particularly Stoicism so pertinent for our times?
Founded in Athens around 301 BC, Stoicism is a philosophy that provides a complete and alternative worldview, which in many ways is very different from our modern Western perspective, and yet in others much more familiar than Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism.
While the word stoicism (“indifference to pleasure or pain” — Webster) continues to exist in the English language, many people are not aware of the fact that the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism provided a complex worldview which (like other schools of Greek philosophy) included the fields of logic, physics and ethics.
So, although you’ll find many blog posts and videos today that speak about Stoicism from a self-help perspective, which is fine, the actual philosophy is so much more than that.
In the following few paragraphs I want to show three reasons why Stoicism seems to be the particularly fitting for the unique challenges of our time.
1. Binary Control In a Digital World
Technology pervades our daily lives and habits at an ever growing pace. We get everything from our computers and smartphones: the news, groceries, movies, messages from friends, games, work emails and so on and so forth.
In short, we live more and more in a digital world which operates at its root with zeroes and ones, a binary system in which things are either on or off. Imagine millions of switches switching on and off rapidly in complex combinations each time you open an app, type on your keyboard, or watch a video. Even if you’re not aware of it, that’s just how it works. And the more we use these technologies the more it affects our thinking and patterns of behavior.
In fact, we’re so influenced by these binary processes that together with algorithms that encourage our built-in confirmation bias this has led to an increasingly polarized and dangerous discourse (not just online) where things are either right or wrong, good or bad, truth or lies, without any grey zone, synthesis or hope for reconciliation.
What does any of this have to with Stoicism? Quite a lot actually! Epictetus, the former slave and Roman Stoic philosopher states in his Enchiridion (bold font my own):
Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.
This Stoic principle, commonly known as the Dichotomy of Control, makes a sharp binary distinction about those things in our power and those which aren’t.
Keep in mind that this is an absolute distinction in philosophical terms, so while we may have some control over our “property, reputation or office”, we don’t have full and unlimited control over these aspects of our life. In that sense it’s truly digital. There is no inbetween. Things either are in our control (absolutely) or they aren’t.
Without going into the finer distinctions and explanations of the Dichotomy of Control which may seem simplistic but is often misunderstood (see this article for more information) let us just note its binary nature for now.
Doesn’t it seem plausible that people who spend so much time with computers and their binary systems would find a philosophy appealing that states things absolutely, in terms of yes and no, one and zero?
Furthermore, the world we live in today is so much more complex and interconnected than the world of our grandparents. When we look at the global economy, the global climate or relations between countries, all of these are affected by a mind-boggling number of different actors and factors, and we find ourselves strapped into this overwhelming web of cause and effect, often feeling powerless and ineffectual. What’s really up to us? And what isn’t?
Stoicism’s “binary razor” helps us cut through the complexity and determine how and where we can apply our willpower and skills to actually make a difference. Conversely it also can help us decide which things are (ultimately) outside of our influence and therefore not worth worrying about.
Contrary to some critics Stoicism certainly doesn’t encourage a passive, introverted, fatalistic approach to life — quite the contrary! (See here for example.) But at its root, the Dichotomy of Control is binary and therefore deeply fitting to our digital mindset.
2. Humanity As Cosmopolis
As mentioned before we live in a truly global world. We can try to deny that actions on one side of the planet don’t affect the other side, we can close our eyes and pretend that everything that matters is our local community, we can shield ourselves from this overwhelming complexity of cause and effect in our filter bubbles, but it doesn’t change the facts.
The Stoics were way ahead of their times when it came to understanding all of humanity as one great City. Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor, Stoic thinker and probably one of the few living examples that ever got close to Plato’s idea of the “philosopher king” stated:
Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture. — Meditations, Book IV, 40
Aside from terms such as “soul” and the implicit idea of “cosmic consciousness” which may seem vague and bewildering to modern readers (rightly so, because they require more explanation) the core conception here of one world, one humanity, one great web of cause and effect is deeply fitting for our times.
Compare the above quote from 2000 years ago with the words of ISS astronaut Ron Garan:
“When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism.
On the one hand we have more and more evidence how our planet is this intricate interconnected system of cause and effect, on the other hand there are efforts all over the world to retreat back behind national borders, to reject other cultures and shrug off our global responsibilities.
But in order to solve the global problems and challenges of our times (in economy, climate, migration, etc.) we need to start thinking and acting globally. Stoicism provides us with both the theory and actual practices to shift our awareness towards a truly planetary conception of humanity.
I’ll leave you with another quote by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell to illustrate the urgency such a perspective can bring with it:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
3. A Generator Of Meaning & Purpose
Over the course of the past few decades, we’ve seen a collapse of almost all sensemaking systems that used to provide our lives with meaning, especially in the West.
Christianity has become meaningless for many moderns due to its moral double standards and unwillingness to “get with the times”, political movements have likewise demonstrated ruthless opportunism and failure to live up to their promises, even science, that champion of rational inquiry has recently begun failing as a “motor of meaning”; to an ever growing amount of people scientific evidence has lost its authority, and instead ramshackle worldviews strapped together from hearsay and “alternative facts” abound.
Stoicism, due to its deceptively simple, yet complex and holistic approach is uniquely equipped to provide us with a new way to generate meaning in a rational way. It teaches us how to become better people by improving our character, dealing with negative emotions and encouraging social engagement on a local and global level.
While there are certain aspects that don’t seem rational, such as the “cosmic consciousness” of Aurelius or the talk of “soul” and “gods” we find in many Stoic writings, it turns out that many of these things can actually be put into perspective and correlated with findings from psychology, such as the astronauts’ “overview effect” for example.
At its heart though, Stoicism is not a metaphysical philosophy. While the Stoics weren’t exactly materialists either (such as the Epicureans), they also didn’t believe in other planes of existence, like Plato’s world of ideas for example.
In short, Stoicism insists that this world, this life, right here right now (hic et nunc) is all we’ve got. So we better make the most of it.