We Need Stoicism More Than Ever: A Response to the New APA Guidelines

Recently, the American Psychological Association took aim at “traditional masculinity,” when they released their “first-ever guidelines for practice with men and boys.” They summarize these as follows:

Once psychologists began studying the experiences of women through a gender lens, it became increasingly clear that the study of men needed the same gender-aware approach … the main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.

Since the announcement, it’s been open season on the APA among conservative thinkers, who’ve assailed everything from the content of the guidelines to the APA’s treatment of masculinity itself. The APA is charged with turning masculinity into “a pathology in need of a cure,” and the guidelines have been called a “profound and appalling” rejection of “the inherent nature of men”; “the equivalent of 1,000 detached human hands nervously wringing themselves in the corner of a dark maze of funhouse mirrors accented by occasional annoying bursts of extremely woke strobe lights.”

I largely agree with these colorful criticisms. But there’s something more important at stake here. Stoicism—which the APA’s guidelines mention twice—should not be challenged or eradicated, but understood, embraced and promoted. Stoicism is, contrary to the APA’s criticism, a really, really good thing.

The APA lists “stoicism”—alongside “competitiveness, dominance and aggression”—as one of the tenets of traditional masculinity. And, while there are certainly moral and psychological arguments against dominance and aggression (both inherently negative emotions, which motivate individuals to gain power over others) the APA’s attack on stoicism is misguided and harmful.

There are two types of stoicism. The first, capital ‘S’ Stoicism, is a Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium and developed by Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, Cato the Younger and Marcus Aurelius, among others. Stoicism values character, wisdom, judgment and self-discipline; it teaches “that we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses … [and] that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.”

The second, lowercase ‘s’ stoicism, is a general disposition of calmness and sobriety; a commitment to remaining unemotional, dispassionate and non-reactive in the face of external events. The dictionary defines it as “enduring pain and hardship without showing one’s feelings or complaining.”

The APA’s new guidelines take aim at a cartoonish version of the latter, a clichéd image of the man who refuses to engage with his emotions and instead bottles them up, destroying himself in the process. This is a cheap stereotype: men and women alike both struggle to grapple with and express their emotions. In taking aim at this convenient straw man, the APA overlooks the value of both attitudinal stoicism and philosophical Stoicism alike.

That’s a shame, because a heaping dose of stoicism—both as a general demeanor and a philosophical practice—is exactly what American men and women need right now.

We live in an increasingly hysterical society, plagued by constant outrage, political upheaval and an abiding, ubiquitous feeling of cultural despair. Driven by bombast and fury in our politics and culture, we’ve entered a period of tribal warfare, defined by self-righteousness and by blind solidarity with our cultural allies and fear and hatred of our supposed cultural enemies. This is having a measurable impact on both our culture and our individual psyches: politics is driving people into therapists’ offices, and depression, anxiety, drug use and suicide are skyrocketing.

These unfortunate trends are encouraged and exacerbated by a cable news outrage industrial complex, which churns out a kind of constant you’re right, but you’re losing; they’re wrong, but they’re winning anger-tainment, aimed at keeping fearful, angry eyes glued to television screens and an impending sense of doom fresh in viewers’ minds.

The path to happiness and personal fulfillment at a harrowing cultural moment like ours is not more outrage, more activism, more shouting, and more political and cultural warfare, as many suggest. Rather, it is the conscious, careful cultivation of a stoic attitude: an attitude of calmness, acceptance and rationality in pursuit of inner peace, in the face of trials, tribulation and confusion.

Stoicism teaches that we have no power over external events and they have no power over us, if we train our minds accordingly. Marcus Aurelius writes:

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable … then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.

Epictetus argues that “it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Seneca the Younger warns that, “we suffer more in imagination than in reality,” and asks “how does it help … to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them? … There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Stoicism teaches that the antidote to anxiety, confusion, frustration and anger is not to relentlessly rage against circumstances, but to accept our relative powerlessness over them and instead focus on improving ourselves and our characters through sobriety and self-discipline. No matter how breathlessly they are reported, the political events of our time—and all events of any time, for that matter—are endurable, so we ought to endure them and conserve our emotional energy for that which truly matters: pursuing better versions of ourselves.

Lines of stoic thinking can be found in every major religion: all of which, in one way or another, teach that inner peace is achievable, even at times of tremendous hardship. We have little control over the future and even less knowledge of it, and our anxieties, outrages and visceral reactions to external events often inflict more damage on our psyches in the present than the events themselves.

The suggestion that we should adopt a Stoic approach to external circumstances can seem anachronistic, or, to some—especially those who have spent the last few years incorporating their outrage into their identities as a means to make sense of things—even offensive or condescending. “Why be stoic at all,” the National Review’s David French asks rhetorically, “when everyone around you is indulging in the emotionalism that’s often a hallmark of ‘self-care’?’

The emotionalism French correctly identifies is, itself, responsible for a great degree of our cultural dismay. Paradoxically, the fact that the recommendation to cultivate stoicism as a healthy response to political and cultural despair stirs such a visceral response among those who live and breathe modern outrage is itself an indicator that it’s the right prescription for them. Stoicism involves mastery of one’s emotions, not their repression.

Now is exactly the wrong time to sneer at the notion of taking events one at a time and striving to be judicious, calm, patient and wise in our emotional reactions to them. For many, a stoic demeanor and the conscious practice of Stoic philosophy may provide the best possible antidotes to the feelings of anger, confusion, bewilderment and helplessness that have come to define the zeitgeist.

Traditional masculinity, like modern feminism, means well but is imperfect and, at times can be more interested in destruction than affirmation. But stoicism—real stoicism, not the cheap caricature conjured by the APA—is among masculinity’s greatest gifts to humanity.

In this time of conflagrations, we’d be fools to cast it into the fire.

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15 comments

  1. I agree with everything here, and the pathologizing of masculinity that seems all the rage these days is both ridiculous and terrifying.

    But to offer some nuance, it’s not an either-or problem. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. It’s possible for aspects of masculinity such as stoicism to become “toxic.” (The same is true for femininity)

    I offer my own upbringing as an example. My father was former Navy. He was like a machine. No emotion. It was eerie. It allowed him to carry out brutal punishments that have scarred me. He had no tolerance for crying or emotional outbursts. (I was a very emotional and expressive child.) He would hit me or ground me for hours every time I cried. He relentlessly trained me to suppress my tears and the emotions that lead to them. This led to an emotional stunting. I had to channel my fear and sadness into anger, hatred, and hostility.

    This sort of training makes sense if you’re trying to indoctrinate young men to be soldiers, as men have had to be in much greater numbers throughout history. The destruction it creates within the society (and the men themselves) is more than offset by the large numbers of machine men trained to channel debilitating emotions into ones more constructive emotions for destroying an invading army.

    The problem is, this is outdated, the trade-off no longer works. We don’t need to destroy invading armies like we have in the past. Stoicism is incredibly valuable to a certain degree (especially when we are surrounded by outrage). The woke left is trying to throw the baby out with the bath water here. But there is nonetheless a kernel of truth to what they are saying.

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    1. I’m so grateful for this comment! It’s what I was thinking through the whole article. I’m really interested in psychotherapy and I’m currently having it myself for anxiety issues. Before the help of my therapy I was a Stoic fanatic and as you quite rightly said in your comment, stoicism is useful and was useful but “to a certain degree”. Stoicism doesn’t mean your in control of ‘what’ you feel but more of a guied as to ‘how’ to deal with that feeling. I do hope you have managed to find so peace and healing after your upbringing you describe.

  2. Stoicism is one of the traits women look for even if they never label it as such. Women want a husband who is calm when they are crying.

    If you are able to stay calm rather than freaking out you are more likely to be able to solve the problems you face.

    It is helpful to remember that the brits endured months of nightly bombing but now we are supposed to freak because someone held the door for us or did/didn’t make eye contact? Please.

    The APA forgot to label teamwork as a key masculine trait. For 300,000 years men have worked in hunting teams, building teams,war parties. We like it. It works.

  3. I enjoyed this article. It was shared by a mentor of mine.

    At the end, you said, “Traditional masculinity, like modern feminism, means well but is imperfect…” I want to agree with this, except it seems to draw on the categories governed by the discourse on this stuff (e.g. by the APA). It tacitly equates “traditional masculinity” with so-called toxic masculinity (an instance of unintentional category creep?), when they are two different things as I believe the article supports. I get that the focus of the article is on S/stoicism and not the difference between traditional and toxic masculinity, so this is perhaps a minor point. And yet, it is best to untangle our arguments (which are otherwise good!) from the terms of those aiming to destroy the categories.

    If I may make a positive contribution: Aaron Beck, founder of modern-day Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (CBT) and Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), both repeatedly cited the Stoics, specifically Epictetus, as a cornerstone for their insights. These (especially CBT) are among the most successful and widely used therapeutic modalities in clinical practice today. One key quote cited from Epictetus is:

    It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things. For example, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgment that death is dreadful—this is the dreadful thing. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments.” (The Encheiridion 5.1.4)

    The APA is not helping CBT by vilifying S/stoicism. What is suggested? Our most successful model for care is ultimately based on toxic masculinity? Or what?

    Thanks for the great article!

    1. I was thinking along the same lines. How could the APA attack stoicism when the most scientifically valid form of psychotherapy (CBT) is based upon it? I do think the APA is focusing on “stoicism” though, and not “Stoicism”. In defence of the APA, and as a Stoic practitioner myself, I would argue that “stoicism” is unhealthy, as modern dictionaries have it defined. However, “Stoicism” is the single best thing to have happened to me in the last few years. It’s a philosophy that makes sense, and one that is particularly relevant in times when making sense and maintaining our rational faculty is more difficult than ever.

  4. the psychological community (and amateur psychology enthusiasts) needs to stop diagnosing vast swaths of the population. it’s unethical, and socially corrosive. we’ve got people convinced that their political opponents are literal sociopaths. and now there’s something inherently unwell about men. where does this lead? othering/demonization? social ostrisization? justification for violence? forced or compelled re-education? perhaps programs to medicate the socially undesirable?

    why not, we’ve already decided that the same genius that pulled us out of the dark ages and built the modern world (Da Vinci, to Newton, to Einstein, all of whom have been diagnosed ex post facto, and indeed ex post mortis) is actually a malady known as autism, and whomever the modern equivalent of those people be, you can rest assured that their abilities are being squandered as technicians or placated with video games instead of making the next big discoveries. because if they were right in their heads they’d place a priority on socialization over chasing down the answers to the big questions all through the night, right?

    and now you face the judgement of the psychological community for expressing the innate tendencies of a particular gender that have been built into you by millions of years of evolution. well at least this is all in the service of a level-headed, sober-minded movement that just up and decided evidence doesn’t matter anymore, and celebrity gossip is the most important tool of social change.

    sorry, but I just think if the world is full of humans, we should learn to accept humans, weaknesses and imperfections and all.

  5. If I have a son, I’m gonna raise him to be a real man. Yes, I mean masculine. I was actually raised by a single mother, my father was a pedo, who encouraged me (still does) to be a man. She even encourages my sister, to no avail, to be feminine. Shame other single mothers raise criminals and weak men.

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    1. Of course this comment is Anonymous, aggressive, overly emotional and simplistic. It advocates violence against all men, not just “evil macho men,” all men. Exactly the type of thinking and world view that measured stoicism might help.

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