(problem n. 1: $toicism)
Stoicism is back, baby! As anyone who has been paying the slightest attention should have realized by now, the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy founded around 300 BCE by Zeno of Citium is more popular than ever. As modern Stoic Bill Irvine told a large gathering of Stoic practitioners in New York three years ago, “this is the largest group of Stoics ever assembled.” And it’s gotten bigger since. Stoicism’ online presence (over 58k members at the largest Facebook Stoic group), the growing number of books on popular Stoicism, and the ample media coverage are all witnesses to that fact.
Yet, modern Stoicism has a problem. Three, actually. I’m not talking about the still surprisingly many people who criticize our philosophy from the outside, usually on the basis of simple misconceptions, such as that Stoicism is about suppressing emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. (Examples here, here, and here, just to mention a few.) I’m talking about three somewhat related “internal” misapplications of the philosophy: what I call $toicism, Broicism, and stoicisM. The first one is a distortion of Stoicism that is employed to achieve wealth and fame; the second one is a different kind of distortion, which makes Stoicism into a precursor of and philosophical foundation for “men’s rights” nonsense; while the last one is a potentially even more dangerous distortion that turns Stoicism into a tool for military training and aggression.
Let’s take a brief look at each in turn, then see what they have in common and why they should concern Stoic practitioners as much as, say, the “prosperity gospel” and any mention of the world “crusade” should concern Christian believers. I will address $toicism in this post, and follow up with two more, one each on Broicism and stoicisM.
As you might have heard, Stoicism these days is popular in Silicon Valley. And among coaches of Super Bowl-winning football teams. Consider, just as an example, this article from Business Insider. The very title should give it away: “7 ways billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates demonstrate the ancient philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.” While wealth is certainly not forbidden for Stoics, Seneca is still mentioned with embarrassment in that respect. And Marcus — though unquestionably the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world at the time — was in fact unhappy about all that his royal purple entailed, and gladly gave away a large part of his personal fortune when the Empire was in distress. In other words, there is a tension between being ultra-wealthy (i.e., a billionaire) and practicing Stoicism.
What are these 7 ways of the billionaires? N. 1 on the list is Bill Gates, who allegedly embodies Stoicism because he is a voracious reader of all sorts of books. Which is exactly the opposite of what Seneca counsels his friend Lucilius:
“Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.” (Letters, II.2)
While reading selectively made Seneca wiser, I don’t think there is much of a connection between Gates’ fortune and his scattered reading habits. I suspect his wealth came instead from a combination of undoubted business genius, competence, willingness to steal ideas from friends and competitors, tax avoidance, and questionable labor practices.
Incredibly, n. 2 on the list is Jeff Bezos — most certainly not a Stoic — from whom we learn that “it’s important to not waste time with people who aren’t resourceful.” The authors of the article connect this pearl of wisdom with the following from Epictetus:
“Above all, keep a close watch on this — that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined. ... You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends. ... If you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.2.1 & 4–5)
But Epictetus was talking about moral improvement (“become a better person”), and I wager that Bezos would make a perfect example of the sort of person Epictetus would warn us would pull us down to his level.
The third wise billionaire is Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, who tells us “You can do so much in 10 minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.”
This is based on Seneca:
“Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives — worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tightfisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” (On the Brevity of Life, III.1–2)
The problem is that Seneca very clearly is talking about all the time we waste not focusing on improving our character and learning how to do right by our fellow human beings. He is not talking about increasing efficiency so that you can rack up a few more billions of personal fortune. Oh, and I’m pretty sure the Stoics (particularly the so-called Stoic opposition) would frown on Kamprad joining two distinct pro-fascist organizations when he was young. To be fair, the BBC reported that a spokesman said that Kamprad “had long admitted flirting with fascism, but now, there are no Nazi-sympathizing thoughts in Ingvar’s head whatsoever.” Glad to hear that, better late than never.
Next up is one of my favorite people in the world (just kidding): Elon Musk, who allegedly said that he approaches life by always questioning himself so that he can continue to improve. That’s not exactly what transpires from Musk’s public record (see link above). Regardless, Musk said this, again, in the context of explaining what makes for a good entrepreneur. And maybe his advice there is on target (though it seems a bit too generic to actually be of use to anyone else). But the goal of Stoic philosophy is not to become a good entrepreneur. Indeed, when Epictetus above was saying “if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had,” he was talking about either living a life devoted to the pursuit of externals or one devoted to self-improvement and concern for others. I think it’s pretty obvious which way Musk went.
Did you know that “New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has won five Super Bowls with a Stoic approach to both success and failure”? Business Insider got to this stunning conclusion by making a parallel between the indubitably impressive accomplishments of coach Belichick and the following quote by Marcus Aurelius:
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice — giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life — for, if you keep watch over these things, the gods won’t ask for more.” (Meditations, II.5)
Right. Except that while certainly Marcus was able to deal with the incredible daily stress of being an emperor — facing a plague that killed millions, two frontier wars, and an internal rebellion — his goal in life was to be a good Roman and, especially, a good human being. Marcus’ case is perhaps the best documented one in which we see how Stoic techniques and philosophy are tightly linked. Sure, you could use the techniques in order to become rich, or famous, or win the Super Bowl. But that doesn’t make you a Stoic. No more than practicing meditation makes you a Buddhist. For that, you have to buy in the philosophy, which means you end up completely revisiting goals and priorities in your life. There is no evidence of which I am aware of that any of the seven billionaires mentioned in the article has done that, not along Stoic lines, at least.
Highly successful investor George Soros said that “Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.” True. And somewhat related to the following, by Epictetus:
“If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you’ll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behavior.” (Discourses, II.18.31)
But the context is different. Soros is talking about being wrong, and correcting your mistakes, in business. Epictetus is referring to being wrong, and correcting your mistakes, as a human being who wants to excel at being human. Not at all the same thing, and although the two are not strictly incompatible, Epictetus (again, see early quote) clearly thinks that there is such a tension that one cannot do well at both.
Finally, Warren Buffett, who — despite being one of the richest people on the planet — says that his favorite restaurants is McDonald’s. Setting aside Buffett’s obviously questionable taste in food (not to mention his willingness to risk diabetes and heart attacks), what’s the point here? That Buffett is a man of simple pleasures and somewhat of a minimalist. Despite a net worth of approximately $65 billion, he lives in the same house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. Business Insider connects this with the following from Marcus:
“What’s left to be prized? This, I think — to limit our action or inaction to only what’s in keeping with the needs of our own preparation. ... It’s what the exertions of education and teaching are all about — here is the thing to be prized! If you hold this only, you’ll stop trying to get yourself all the other things. ... If you don’t, you won’t be free, self-sufficient, or liberated from passion, but necessarily full of envy, jealousy, and suspicion for any who have the power to take them, and you’ll plot against those who do have what you prize. ... But by having some self-respect for your own mind and prizing it, you will please yourself and be in better harmony with your fellow human beings, and more in tune with the gods — praising everything they have set in order and allotted you.” (Meditations, VI.16.2b–4a)
While minimalism with regard to material possessions is certainly in synch with Stoic philosophy, again I fail to see any evidence that Buffett is a practitioner of Stoicism in any meaningful sense of the term. I don’t know the man, but is he concerned chiefly with refining his ruling faculty, so that he will arrive at better judgments about himself and how to improve as a human being? If not, the facts that he eats at McDonald’s and lives in a small house are nothing more than curiosities about a rather eccentric man, not an indication that the man in question is living a Stoic life.
I think the proper Stoic attitude toward the kind of men Business Insider lists as examples to be emulated is the very same one that Diogenes of Sinope (a Cynic, not Stoic, philosopher) famously displayed toward the ancient equivalent of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk: Alexander the Great. A well known story goes that Alexander visited Diogenes in Athens, impressed by the renown of the philosopher. Alexander (who was well known for his hubris, and always in search of a good photo opportunity) asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him, as a token of his magnanimity. After all, he didn’t call himself “The Great” for nothing! Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander, a bit taken aback, declared, affecting a modesty that ill-fitted him: “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes,” came the further sarcastic reply.
In the end, an argument could easily be made that just like Alexander would not have been “The Great” without hurting large numbers of people, so one can hardly become a billionaire without exploiting others. Seneca or no Seneca, that’s just not the Stoic thing to do.