Grin and Bear It: On the Rise and Rise of Neo-StoicismHistorians in the News
tags: neoliberalism, philosophy, classics, Stoicism
FOR THOSE SEARCHING for something loftier than traditional self-help, trade books about Stoicism, an ancient philosophy of individual resilience, have become popular in recent years. The titles that belong to this non-fiction genre are explanatory, self-assured, and optimized for the all-seeing eyes of search engines: Stoicism: How to Stop Fearing and Start Living; The Stoic CEO; The Obstacle Is the Way; How to Think Like a Roman Emperor; How to Be a Stoic; A Guide to the Good Life; The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient; How to Keep Your Cool (Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers); Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life. While these books differ in content and style, certain features apply across the board: pithy aphorisms about the power of resilience, rationality and fortitude apply primarily to those with plenty of freedom to make choices already; readers are presumed empty vessels for authors’ edifying wisdom; and emotions are treated as imaginary things that reside only in your head.
Stoicism has been experiencing something of a resurgence in the last decade, its popularity traceable from Reddit forums to Instagram accounts to think pieces and inspirational quotes splashed on Etsy coffee mugs. In fact, the trend dates back longer; using Google’s Ngram feature, you will find a steep incline in uses of the word “Stoicism” in English-language books published between 1980 and 2019. It slowly rises during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan before climbing dramatically after the End of History and ascending further up to the present day. The graph is at its lowest point in the post-war decade.
The renewed appeal of a philosophy that asserted “security” was a psychological state fleshy mortals would rarely attain makes sense when you think about the conditions facing people born after the 1970s: lacking in time, upward mobility, and religion, they live in a world where disasters are perpetually looming, optimistically whiggish ideas of liberal progress have been slowly extinguished for those who don’t own assets or stand to inherit family wealth, and even the rich still want to believe they hustled their way to the top. “I remember a stand-up comedian, a year or so after the crash, who said: ‘Can’t we go back to the good old days when everyone just bought what they wanted on credit and didn’t worry about the future?’” John Sellars, author of Lessons in Stoicism and organizer a popular series of Stoic-related events, told me. “All that sense of optimism about the future has gone.” The Stoics’ ideas are consonant with a moment when life is sometimes hard, and stability—whether real or perceived—continues to elude many.
The pandemic has further entrenched the popularity of these ancient thinkers. Marcus Aurelius had the benefit of living through the Plague of Galen, which has made him a frequent citation for writers seeking to capture the horrors of coronavirus while avoiding by now well-worn subjects like sourdough or Albert Camus. Writers and journalists have told us the Stoics “would have thrived under lockdown” because they believed pain “was a part of life”; that their ideas provide “enlightenment for a time of benightedness”; that they allow us to see “there’s no problem so bad that some good can’t come out of it.” Headlines such as “How Marcus Aurelius can help” or “Take it like a Stoic” suggest both an attempt at wise counsel and the reality that it’s very difficult to think of things to write about when you can’t leave the house.
That the Stoics have often been interpreted as more concerned with individual virtue than structural critique is particularly convenient for those searching for examples of goodness in a context that has been made unequal by design. One recent article in the Telegraph declared that “Stoicism is on the rise—and it’s why some people come out happier of this pandemic than they were before.” The author pointed to the centenarian Captain Tom Moore, who delighted headline writers in Britain after he slowly trudged one hundred times around his garden to raise $40 million for the National Health Service. According to the article, Moore is an example of “stoicism in action,” but the story looks different depending on your politics. Within the ghoulish machinery of Britain’s right-wing press, Moore was an exemplar of patriotism and dedication: look at what a one-hundred-year-old veteran is willing to do for the NHS! Viewed from another angle, he was a depressing spectacle, a reminder that the welfare state has been emaciated to breaking point and now relies on perambulating hundred-year-olds to fundraise cash.