Book Review: Beware of the dark side of Stoicism

As anyone who cares at all about science fiction, fantasy, or even just pop culture knows, the Star Wars universe is characterized by a mysterious Force that pervades everything, and that can be harnessed for good by properly trained individuals, known as Jedi Knights. However, the Force also has a Dark Side, which provides plenty of drama and mayhem throughout the 12 movies belonging to the franchise.

Far from me to play the character of the wise Yoda, which would certainly be presumptuous, but I have to warn people about the dark side of Stoicism, my chosen philosophy of life. The occasion for doing so here is provided by a book that I just finished reading, William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure (O-Books). It is comprised of thirty chapters, loosely inspired by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I can see why Ferraiolo wrote it, as a kind of self therapy where he bares his troubled soul (just like the emperor-philosopher did), and I sincerely hope it was a worthwhile exercise for him. But I fear it will also project the wrong image of Stoicism, and this review is an attempt to provide a corrective to that.

Full disclosure: I actually endorsed the book after having seen a pre-publication version. These were my words: “Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure will make you pause and reflect, whether or not you agree with any or all of its contents. Written in the style of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and with a strong flavor of Epictetus, it confronts the reader with what happens if one looks at reality in the eyes and considers regulating his life accordingly. To do so takes both wisdom and courage, but Ferraiolo argues that it is well worth the effort.”

Notice the rather cautionary tone of my endorsement, with no clear advice to the reader to actually go through the book. Still, it was an endorsement, and I understand that William has been making good use of it. Which is what endorsements are for in the first place. But during my recent Stoic School in Rome this past summer one the students pointed out to me several dark, and even disturbing, passages in Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure, which prompted me to download the book and read it from scratch. I would not recommend it today.

I have organized the rest of this review in three blocks: quotes from Ferraiolo were what he says sounds eminently Stoic, to give credit where credit is due; quotes where he sounds Stoic, but in fact significantly departs from the philosophy, and not in a good manner; and quotes that are definitely un-Stoic, and moreover seriously disturbing. The latter is what I refer to as the dark side of Stoicism, and I am pushing back toward this sort of pernicious, yet somewhat popular, misunderstanding of the philosophy.

(i) Reasonably Stoic quotes

Here is a sampler from the book, no need for a quote-by-quote commentary, as this is standard Stoicism, the sort of sentiment readily found in Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius:

“Choose your role models and exemplars carefully.” (IV.4)

“Money is … merely an instrumental good. Utility is the sole virtue of the stuff. In and of itself, money makes you no wiser, no more virtuous, and no more admirable, than does any other instrument.” (IV.8)

“Avoid rushing to judgment about events, about other people, and even about yourself.” (XV.8)

“How small and insignificant you are. Consider the billions of years already elapsed, and the seemingly endless future. Your life is as nothing by comparison.” (XVI.7)

“There is, in fact, no such thing as dying ‘before one’s time,’ any more than there is such a thing as being born ‘before one’s time.’ (XXX.2)

(ii) Misleadingly Stoic sounding quotes

The below is also a sampler, of course, but I will follow each entry with a short commentary, to explain where I think William begins to go astray.

"What business is it of yours if lives begin or end, warfare erupts here or peace is restored there, economies shudder, earthquakes strike, or storms beat down upon the land? Will it all to be otherwise if you can.” (I.1)

This sounds superficially like Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: after all, wars, economies, and the like (and certainly earthquakes and storms) are outside of our control, and so are, in the famous words of the Enchiridion (1.5) “nothing to us.” But the Stoics also taught that what happens in the world, especially what is caused by human beings, like wars, is very much our business. “Nothing to us” in Epictetus refers to the wisdom of accepting that we cannot change certain things, it is not a license not to give a damn. Consider Marcus, for instance:

“As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.” (Meditations, IX.23)

Or Seneca:

“The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability.” (Letters V.4)

Ferraiolo here begins to show a degree of callousness, or at least indifference, toward human affairs that will soon be in full view, and which is most certainly both un-Stoic and not a good thing in general, quite apart from the specifics of Stoic philosophy.

“Epictetus would not even have allowed you to enter his schoolhouse. Socrates would not have kept company with you—unless he sought a bit of comic relief. The Buddha would not have wasted a robe and an alms bowl on you. Alexander would have cleft you in twain with a single stroke. Diogenes would have urinated on your leg and demanded that you thank him for it.” (IX.10)

This may strike some as a good exercise in modesty, perhaps along the lines of Seneca (Letters LXVIII.9), but it comes close to unnecessary self-flagellation, which, again, is on full display elsewhere in Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure.

“You should conclude each day by asking yourself how you have failed and fallen short of your responsibilities since you awoke that morning. … You are not likely to feel better about yourself when you are done. That is not, after all, the point of the exercise.” (XXVI.6)

Actually, it is, in part. At least according to Seneca, who describes this sort of exercise in detail in On Anger (III.36, see also Epictetus’ version in Discourses III.10). In general, William seems to have missed out on the Stoic notion that we should not only not blame others (since they make mistakes because they are unwise), but even ourselves (because we too are unwise). Stoicism is a very other- and self-forgiving philosophy, which is nowhere on display in this book, unfortunately.

“If you wish to be free of all encumbrances, by all means, put an end to yourself and your whining as soon as the opportunity arises.” (XXIX.4)

This is a reference, I take it, to Epictetus’ “open door” policy, i.e., the Stoic endorsement of suicide. But Epictetus would definitely have thought Ferraiolo’s invocation of the policy far too casual (indeed, in Discourses II.15 he chastises a friend who has decided to commit suicide for no good reason at all). Wanting to be “free of all encumbrances” is not, for the Stoics, sufficient reason to exit through the door, because we have an ethical duty to be helpful to the human cosmopolis. William makes similar remarks in other places in the book, and one needs to worry about what he is thinking, as well as the message he is sending to others. More on this specific issue below.

(iii) Definitely un-Stoic and disturbing quotes

Here is where the meat of my criticism lies. Again, let us take a look at some select (but by all means not unrepresentative) quotes and discuss them in some detail. I have grouped sets of quotes by general theme. The themes highlighted here are not the only ones running through the book, of course, but they are the most distinctively un-Stoic and corrosive ones.

To begin with, let’s talk about how Stoics approach insults. Here is what Epictetus says on this topic:

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Compare this to Ferraiolo:

“You need not take seriously anyone’s alleged ‘right’ not to be ‘offended’ (whatever that supposedly means). Another person’s mental states are entirely beyond your control and ought, therefore, to lie entirely beyond your concern as well.” (I.3)

Noticed the difference? Epictetus is telling us, students of Stoicism, that we should not get offended by other people’s perceived insults. He is not telling others, meaning non-Stoics, how to feel or react. William, by contrast, is using the Stoic approach as an excuse to disregard other people’s feelings, which is not ethically acceptable. True, other people’s thoughts lie outside of our control, but that doesn’t mean they should lie outside of our concern. That would make us, quite frankly, into assholes. Perhaps the world would be a better place if more people adopted the Stoic perspective and did not react to insults. But that’s not the world we live in, and to go tell people “bad Stoic!,” especially when they don’t even profess to embrace the philosophy, is an exceedingly bad idea.

Next we come to a major disconnect between Ferraiolo’s approach and actual Stoic philosophy. Consider these two quotes:

“Do not be taken in by specious arguments about equality or universality when it comes to unique duties based in biological, or otherwise intimate, associations. … The human race is not, in fact, ‘one community’ in any viable sense.” (IV.3)

“Tribalism is not to be underestimated, nor is it properly dismissed as inherently irrational or without merit. … A good tribe, however, endures. Rome has fallen, but the Jews persist.” (VIII.7)

Oh no, not at all. Cosmopolitanism is one of the pillars of the Stoic approach, shared with the Cynics, and inherited directly from Socrates. Consider these two quotes for contrast:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Discourses I, 9.1)


“My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” (Meditations VI.44)

Epictetus, according to scholar Brian Johnson, was adamant that while we play a number of roles, including those of citizens of a particular nation and members of a particular family, roles that do carry duties with them, our most fundamental role, the one that overrides everything else, is that of a human being, a member of the human cosmopolis. So, no, tribalism is very much to be dismissed as inherently irrational and without merit, self-professed “chosen people” notwithstanding.

Let me now briefly touch again on the issue of suicide, already discussed in the previous section. Here are two more quotes from Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure:

"Perhaps you would do better to grow up, stop your whimpering, and try not to be a malignancy upon this world that has no need of you.” (I.2)

“What kind of pathetic coward are you, that you cannot face the truth about yourself, your failings, and your poorly-lived life? … . Do not be a waste of your own time.” (XVIII.2)

Again, there is absolutely no place in Stoicism for this sort of self-flagellation, and this attitude can be seriously damaging, fatal even, if endorsed by readers of Ferraiolo who are not in a good place in their life at the moment. I hope William himself is, and that if he is not he will reach out to get help beyond what Marcus and Epictetus can offer.

We then find this quote later on in the book:

“The unborn are human, and they are beings. Check the genetics. Note the continuum from zygote to adult human being. … Abortion is the moral equivalent of murder.” (XXI.3)

This comes seemingly from nowhere, as the Stoics certainly did not have a position on abortion (and they considered human life precious, but not sacred). But Ferraiolo here is far too quick both with the biology and the philosophy (and since I’m also a professional geneticist, I can comment with some knowledge of the subject matter).

Yes, of course there is continuity in biological cycles, though if taken literally then one would have to prohibit the “murder” of any living being at all, since genetic inheritance has gone on uninterrupted for billions of years and connects all life on earth. More seriously, just because there are no sharp discontinuities it doesn’t mean there are no important differences. One of the most common criteria for the permissibility of abortion is the approximate moment when the foetus begins to feel pain, on the ethical ground that it is wrong to inflict suffering unless there are seriously countervailing reasons (such as the life of the mother, for instance). Moreover, there is much philosophical debate to be had about what counts as a person, persons -- not just living organisms -- being usually the entities accorded inviolable status. This is a very complicated matter, both scientifically and especially ethically, and to dismiss it with a quick, self-assured judgments along the lines of “abortion is the moral equivalent of murder” betrays the Stoic emphasis on the crucial role of both reason and empirical evidence in ethical discussions.

Several parts of the book nakedly display a degree of paranoia and callousness that, again, badly fit the Stoic demeanor:

“You see your nation and its culture in precipitous decline.” (I.8)

“Kindness within reason is a virtue. Pathological, indiscriminate kindness is a recipe for personal disaster and cultural extinction.” (II.6)

“The collapse of your nation appears to be irreversible. A culture bent on suicide can only be saved if it is shaken out of its moribund haze. You see no sign that this is at all likely.” (VIII.3)

“It seems that some terrorist attack or other occurs every week—sometimes it is several per week. Mass migration seems almost designed to make life unlivable for the native inhabitants of the nations on the receiving end.” (XVIII.6)

Setting aside that the frequency of terrorist attacks is greatly exaggerated by certain media outlets (I do wonder where William gets his news), and that mass migration has not happened yet (and that if it will happen, it will be the result of climate change caused mostly by, you know, us), what’s with this notion of cultural decline and collapse? How, exactly, does Ferraiolo arrive at this dark view of modern American society or Western civilization, according to what sort of empirical evidence? And even if he is right, and the current times turn out to be more than a blip on the screen, why on earth does that imply that kindness can be pathological and a recipe for cultural extinction? These are the sort of thoughts that permeate dark places on the internet, from which nothing constructive has come out of lately, and which, again, are definitely not to be identified with Stoic philosophy, but rather with a perverted version of it.

Finally, let me get to the most profoundly disturbing, and potentially damaging, aspect of Ferraiolo’s philosophy. Let’ begin again with some pertinent quotes:

“There is a time for violence. … Should the need arise, the failure to resort to the requisite ferocity is nothing short of cowardice.” (III.3)

“Violence is not always avoidable without resort to cowardice, or without shirking your responsibility to protect the innocent in your charge. When it is necessary, strike without hesitation or compunction. Strike to incapacitate as quickly as possible, and terminate the threat with brutal decisiveness. Be always prepared and always armed with appropriate means. … Brutality may be called for. If so, be brutal. Kill if necessary.” (X.2)

“Become brutality incarnate if necessary. Do not deny this element of your nature. You have always been aware of what smolders beneath your façade of civility.” (XVIII.7)

“Savagery must often be met with greater and more acute savagery. Do not turn away from cases of bestial carnage in horror, despair, or indifference. … Killing terrorists is not evil. They have jettisoned their humanity … they are mere things, masquerading as persons. Pitiless brutality is their lot.” (XXIV.3)

I’m sorry to say this, but the dehumanization of others, even “terrorists” (a label that could easily be applied to a good number of actions perpetrated by the United States over decades), as well as the repeated invocation of violence and even brutality is simply sick. And, one more time, most definitely un-Stoic. Yes, the Stoics did take up arms against tyranny (e.g., Cato the Younger, or the famous “Stoic opposition”), but you get none of what you just read above from any of the Stoic philosophers. Violence may be necessary in extreme cases, but never savagery and brutality -- which are the result of anger and hatred, condemned by Seneca in no uncertain terms. And the Stoic attitude is very clear even toward the worst of enemies: they are unwise, they do what they do because they don’t know better. They may need to be stopped, but never dehumanized. They are fellow human beings, sharing in the cosmic Logos. We, given different circumstances, could very easily have been in their place.

So, dear reader, despite my initial incautious endorsement of Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure, Ferraiolo’s book does most definitely not reflect Stoic philosophy, and is moreover disturbingly pernicious in more than a few places. Let me leave you, by contrast, with a more positive quote, which I think reflects the Stoic spirit far better than anything you can find in this book:

“I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country.” (Letters XXVIII.4)
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 8 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 8 exclusive posts