In Praise of Stoicism: Derren Brown’s Happy. Book Review.

Stoicism has got a bad rap lately. In the popular imagination, it is associated with reluctance—particularly male reluctance—to show vulnerability or talk frankly about emotions. The new APA guidelines on treating men and boys mention “components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism” and “male stoicism” among the societal messages which they, as an institution, wish to combat. Dylan Gallimore has recently discussed this in this magazine, as has Ben Sixsmith in Quillette. The controversial Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life has been interpreted as a recommendation of Stoic attitudes. Stoicism has become associated with an aspect of toxic masculinity, caricatured as a bottling up of emotions, an unwillingness to admit weakness which, at its worst leads men to fail to seek desperately needed treatment for depression and anxiety or confide in friends who might offer comfort. Such attitudes, some feel, have contributed to men’s higher rates of suicide. I believe this is wrong-headed. It’s time to reappraise Stoicism. Derren Brown’s book provides both a field guide to the Stoics and multiple suggestions as to how to incorporate their teachings into one’s life. It is a glorious, erudite romp through history and philosophy; a deeply compassionate and empathetic examination of human foibles; and a self-help book for hardened skeptics like me, who usually despise the genre. It eased my depression. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

Self-help is one of the most frustrating genres. The vast majority of these works are flimsy volumes, written in a glib, condescending tone, stuffed with facile truisms and overly pat, clearly fictional case studies designed to stretch a single threadbare idea to wafer-thinness over the regulation 200 pages, eked out with dad jokes and lengthy retellings of warmed-over psych experiments (many of which have since failed to replicate). This subject is treated with less care than almost any other—only diet books are more abundant, more full of cheap salesmanship and more dispiritingly trashy. And yet it is surely one of the most important topics of all: how to live a happier life.

Hypnotist, mentalist and stage magician Derren Brown is the unlikely author of this surprisingly scholarly tome, which is by turns profound and poetic and yet full of practical advice. Brown alternates between detailed historical surveys, literary close readings, examples from his own life and striking thought experiments.

It is not an easy book to summarize. Arguments develop over many pages—the analysis of anger is particularly exhaustive—and cannot be reduced to bullet points. The subject matter is kaleidoscopic and the shifts in focus extreme. The book contains large-scale, virtuosic romps through history. One moment, Brown is tracking shifting attitudes towards man’s natural state from the Greeks to the present day, elucidating the attitudes of Epicurus, Aquinas, Luther, Locke, Schopenhauer, Borges and Freud along the way; the next, he is describing, in minute detail, how he overcame his irritation at a lady with a persistent throat-clearing tic on a long train journey. In one chapter, he details the effects that Twitter trolls had on the stars of his Netflix shows Apocalypse and Hero at 30,000 Feet, catapulted into their fifteen minutes of notoriety: “We are given technology that far surpasses that which put man on the moon, and use it to tweet spite from the toilet,” he notes acerbically. And in another he offers extended thought experiments on the nature of time itself and advice on how to prepare for death.

What makes this compendium a coherent whole is the consistency of his approach and the even tone of his prose. Brown is pensive, disarmingly honest and detail-oriented throughout. Self-help authors usually conceive of themselves as tutors and make the mistake of speaking to us as if we were children. Brown, like all the best writers, addresses his readers as intellectual equals. He draws on positive psychology and on a “Western philosophical tradition, which … has offered millennia of rich advice to help us approach the span of our lives constructively”—and which, Brown argues, has been languishing in academic departments, when it could offer us a guide to “how best to live.”

A Magician Against Magical Thinking

The book opens with a lengthy, vivid and savage debunking of the doctrine of positive thinking, epitomized by Rhonda Byrd’s bestseller, The Secret, and exploited by everyone from faith healers to the authors of guides to business success. With its roots in the nineteenth-century New Thought Movement, founded by Phineas Park Quimby, positive thinking teaches that we can influence the universe into fulfilling our deepest desires. Through the power of self-belief alone, we can achieve worldly success, fame and riches. Brown describes this idea as “deeply infantile”: it posits us as wailing infants, trusting that a maternal, nurturing universe will provide for our every need, if we only cry loudly enough.

In addition to their egocentricity, such cults are both irresponsible and inhumane. They completely discount the possibility that things may go wrong. Blind, unwavering faith in the future success of a business project, for example, is far more likely to prove a recipe for bankruptcy than affluence. Survivorship bias distorts our understanding of how the world works—as does the narcissism of many successful people, who are keen to attribute their money or fame to merit, not chance. Such books are full, Brown argues, of

the self-serving rationalisations of people who, upon becoming successful, now wish to feel that they have rightfully earned their status … So they look back over their journey and filter through it for evidence of their deservedness. The perpetual and overwhelming play of random chance is glossed over, and in its place a hero’s journey is invented.

This philosophy places the responsibility for her fate firmly on the individual, for good or ill. Like Calvinism, it suggests the idea of an elect, who can be recognized by their prosperity, by having been favored in this world. The flipside of this smug, self-congratulatory attitude is the callous idea that the unfortunate have only themselves to blame, since success is within everyone’s power: you have only to think positive thoughts. This is a form of magical thinking: god or the universe will provide if you only believe. Brown has made a career of exposing the fakery of the charlatans who peddle such blandishments; a long section of the book describes his experiences with an especially slimy specimen of the genus: the evangelical faith healer.

But faith healers at least ostensibly deal with matters of life and health—by contrast with the shallowness of the type of happiness positive-thinking hucksters usually offer. One scene in the film version of The Secret shows a woman staring longingly at a diamond necklace in a jeweler’s window. After applying the requisite mental hocus pocus, she is shown, beaming with joy, with the necklace hanging around her neck. This is a consumerist notion of happiness. As Brown puts it, it “reduces the mighty macrocosm to a pandering mail-order catalogue.”

Happiness cannot be found in the cultivation of self-belief, Brown argues. As he puts it in a tweet: “Life is largely a catalogue of embarrassment & failures to do oneself justice. What a task to still pursue something worthwhile and try to take responsibility amidst one’s mess!” The book attempts to provide some suggestions for how to do this, employing what Brown, drawing on Martha C. Nussbaum’s work, calls a “permeable Stoicism.” This involves limiting our desires; recognizing the power of the narratives we tell about our lives and reframing those stories; relinquishing control over things we have no power to change; learning to appreciate how transience gives temporary things value; and, most importantly of all, finding connection with others.

Seek and Ye Shall Not Find

The first stumbling block towards true happiness is, Brown explains, the search itself—that is, our tendency to regard happiness as an ideal to strive for. He traces the growth of this idea from early Christianity to the present day: as we gradually moved away from a model in which we are born tainted with original sin and our purpose is to atone for that through a virtuous life and become reconciled to god and towards a noble savage model, in which we must seek to return to an original state of innocent happiness in childhood—as Wordsworth argued, for example—or in a more primitive state of society, as Rousseau believed. Religious duties were replaced by “the notion of progress towards a secular kind of salvation,” the unalienable right enshrined in the US Constitution: the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness, however, tends to elude us when we search for it directly. Scottish Enlightenment thinker Hugh Blair argued that happiness could not be found by simply seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, since, he observes, people often enjoy activities, such as haymaking and rowing, which involve uncomfortable physical exertion. Happiness, Blair concluded, was to be found in absorption in something outside and greater than the self. Likewise, J. S. Mill, cited in the book, recognized that “happiness should not be our goal per se, and to chase it directly is a mistake.” Happiness is a feeling that sneaks up on you while you are not pursuing it directly. In fact, the pressure to find happiness, Brown argues, “can be deeply counter-productive and lead simply to more anxiety.” Freud, Brown explains, believed that the therapist’s task was not to make his patients happy, but to help them overcome their neuroses and return them to a state of “natural unhappiness.” Sadness is inevitable and it is hubris to believe that we can avoid it. What we can do is try to avoid adding to it through unrealistic expectations, futile attempts to control things beyond our power and unhelpful interpretations and narratives.

Looking for Happiness in All the Wrong Places

Besides, as Brown points out, “we tend to grossly misunderstand what will make us happy.” We stubbornly equate greater material prosperity with greater happiness, even though all research suggests that, once our basic needs have been met, increases in wealth do not bring concomitant increases in contentment. “The natural flights of the human mind,” Samuel Johnson writes in the Rambler, “are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.” The protagonist of his novel, Rasselas, is restless and dissatisfied even in the elysian Happy Valley of his childhood. As our possessions increase, so do our desires, in a well-known cycle psychologist Michael Eysenck named the hedonic treadmill. Consumerism fetishizes and feeds desire. It is the pretty face of greed. “We indirectly find happiness in the absence of a stressor (money troubles) not in the having of something,” Brown suggests.

We seek happiness in professional success, in fame, in accolades, in reputation—all things lent us by others, distorted reflections, not the thing itself. “If you unconsciously think that more money … will make you happier because it will bring you higher status, then you are basing your idea of happiness on what other people feel,” Brown points out. And we intuitively know that there is an important difference between others’ perceptions of us and reality. Musing on the slippery nature of fame, Brown writes: “When the public face provokes so much idolisation, a sort of dissonance is likely to occur: it is as if the star has a twin who is receiving all the attention, [leaving] a gap left by an unnoticed and un-nurtured true self.” This phantom twin is also the subject of the eponymous short fiction Borges y yo (“Borges and I”):

I receive news of Borges in the post and I see his name in a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. … I live; I let myself live, so that Borges can weave his literary tales and that literature is my justification. … I am fated to lose myself, forever, and only the odd instant of me will survive, in the other. Little by little, I surrender everything to him, even though I’m aware of his perverse habit of falsifying and exaggerating [my translation].

Yet the fetishizing of self-esteem will not ultimately bring happiness either. The messages you can do anything you set your mind to and you can achieve everything you desire only fuel an unrealistic sense of entitlement. And they lead to an unhealthy, selfish fixation on yourself. “The message to believe more and more in ourselves is precisely what we need less of. When we consider things that make us angry … where does that fermentation process so often begin other than in the exultation of the self?,” Brown asks. Self-esteem often teeters dangerously close to self-aggrandizement. This is especially counterproductive if we care what others think about us—which most of us do, very much. Self-importance is a repellent quality which will win us no friends, while generosity and kindness are not only appealing to others, but bring intrinsic satisfaction. George Eliot recognizes this when she writes, in Middlemarch, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” As Brown puts it, “A large part of improving the ‘self’ is to shift the focus from ‘self’ to ‘other’ … the heart of true self-improvement surely lies in becoming kinder.”

We are left, then, with what Brown calls a “meaning-shaped hole,” which we may attempt to fill through conventional religion—which Brown, an evangelical Christian in his youth and now an atheist, rejects as “dogmatised.” In a beautiful passage on religious prophets, Brown speculates that such figures began as a “signpost to the transcendent,” but were quickly transformed into idols, becoming “the misplaced focus of worship,” as religions solidified into codes of practice and articles of dogma, too impersonal and arbitrary in form to really help us. New Age spirituality is too sentimental and narcissistic to provide a replacement.

We Tell It Slant

At the heart of Stoicism is a belief in the power of the stories we tell ourselves. As Epictetus puts it, “What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.” Much, though not all of our unhappiness—“a constituent part” as Brown puts it—stems not from the events of our lives, but from our interpretations of those events. This is also a central tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): our emotions are responses to our internal narratives. A popular misconception holds that Stoicism is about repressing feelings; but Brown’s version is more concerned with changing them. Alter the story and you alter your emotional reaction to it. “Stories affect us deeply,” Brown explains. “This book is at heart about how we might take control of those stories, with a view to living more happily.” This is a familiar idea, but it’s developed here in a far more sophisticated way than it is in classic works of CBT, such as David Burns’ Feeling Good, with their schematic division of mental statements into catastrophizing, mind reading, all-or-nothing thinking, etc.

As a conjuror and hypnotist, Brown is an expert in fooling people. Magic is about controlling the narrative: about making people suspend their disbelief as you spin a delightful but impossible yarn. He has demonstrated the power of suggestion in some especially dramatic ways. In his 2012 Channel 4 show Fear and Faith, Brown gave the placebo Rumyodin (an anagram of your mind) to groups of volunteers, claiming variously that it would clear up allergies, help people quit smoking or overcome phobias and social anxiety. Surprisingly, it worked—and the effects persisted even after Brown revealed that his team had administered only saline solution and icing sugar. Even more theatrically, in his Netflix show Miracles for Sale and the subsequent stage show Miracle, Brown demonstrates how susceptible people are to faith healing. In an episode of Derren Brown Investigates, he trails a psychic—greasy charlatan Joe Power. At one point in the show, Brown demonstrates how easy it is to fake psychic abilities by cold-reading a member of the public. Even though Brown tells her explicitly that he does not possess any supernatural gifts and is simply using suggestion, showmanship and psychology, she stubbornly refuses to believe him. “I think Derren really is psychic,” she says.

The power of our own internal narratives is the source of superstitious belief: “Each of us is born into a world where we know no better than to internalise every message we receive as being one about us.” We are our own protagonists and the world, to us, is merely the setting of our tale, a backdrop to our adventures. Every event and circumstance is as telling as the clues in an Agatha Christie mystery. This is the source of much anguish: when events go against us, we take it personally, we feel the universe is out to get us.

The stories we tell shape our conceptions of ourselves. Brown writes: “Our entire past, which we feel … is responsible for how we behave today, is itself just a story we are telling ourselves in the here and now.” “I’m like this because this happened to me,” we tell ourselves, and are encouraged in this by “familiar fragments of psychoanalysis and flatulent bubbles of self-help advice.” We are psychic ships of Theseus, every somatic cell replaced many times and yet the mental patterns, the design, remaining the same. But, while it is tempting to see ourselves as merely victims of circumstance, the products of our pasts, the fact that two different people can respond very differently to the same event demonstrates that it is our reactions, not the events themselves, that matter. “Out There and In Here are two very different kingdoms,” notes Brown, citing Marcus Aurelius, “two people with different judgements will live, by all accounts, in two different worlds.” Stoic philosophy warns us to regard our own narratives about ourselves with the same skepticism we generally reserve for those of others. Brown describes our memory as like a biopic playing in our heads, roughly based on real life, but not literally factual in every detail. Like any tale, it has been crafted to convey a specific message, follow a particular narrative arc. We are slaves to story. We view ourselves as omniscient authors, yet we are all the unreliable narrators of our lives.

This narrative bias can stymie empathy. We over-interpret the words and actions of others, we mind-read and embellish. “We create for ourselves a little narrative and respond to that,” as Brown puts it. And we operate with perverse double standards when it comes to judging others and ourselves: in both directions. When someone upsets or annoys us, we see every instance of his bad behavior as part of a pattern, an indication of character. “We’ll be sure to form that pattern in the way most likely to infuriate ourselves,” Brown suggests. Our own bad behavior, of course, we ascribe to a thousand specific mitigating circumstances. The annoying actions of those we have decided to dislike are intrinsic to their characters; our own are temporary aberrations. Yet, while we are overly condemnatory of those we dislike, we fail to recognize what we find likable in others. We are social animals and we want to be loved, and yet we believe, against all the evidence, that to be liked we must either impress or resemble others. As Brown points out, though, “we know, from every day of our own experience … that status and similarity are not especially attractive traits.” Most of us do not welcome honest feedback about our personal foibles: such criticism cuts deep because we fear being shunned, being judged unlovable—a needless anxiety, as we will realize if we can take a step backwards and examine those beliefs:

Consider your friends: you have formed an affection for them despite their obvious points of deficiency … These minor regrets, far from undermining your fondness, are in fact an important part of it; people’s vulnerabilities are near impossible to untangle from their strengths.

Judgmentalism—whether its object is others or ourselves—is a symptom of being stuck within our own narratives, unable to appreciate that others, too, are the heroes of their own tales: “The kind of self-consciousness that makes us uniquely human lies within the complex, story-forming realms of the remembering self.” Brown borrows the concepts of the experiencing and the remembering self from neuroscientist Daniel Kahnemann’s bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow. We can liken them to the Dionysian and the Apollonian, to the hedonistic experience of pleasure, the joy in doing, and to the very different satisfaction of having done. Happiness, Brown writes, “comes from a judgement we make, a sense of things being or having been right … and tends to be retrospective; whereas [pleasure] relates to what we are being made to directly feel right now.” Brown uses the example of the pleasure of spending the afternoon at a fun fair and the satisfaction of spending it at the sickbed of an ailing friend.

Both are important. There are joys to be found in living in the moment, especially in activities which allow us to enter a Csikszentmihalyian flow state, which Brown defines as an experience in which we find our skills perfectly aligned with the challenges the activity presents, perfectly poised between what Schopenhauer calls “the twin pitfalls of pain and boredom.” To live our lives only with regard to the future is to miss out on the here and now. We can only directly experience the present: past and future both exist in our imaginations alone. But we are also creatures of memory and story: we cannot live simply from moment to moment. We need pleasure and we need meaning. We need the framework which anticipation and retrospection provide. As Walter Landor puts it, “The present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come.” It gains its meaning from context.

The Diagonal

Traditional self-help advice emphasizes individual agency. With enough vision, determination and drive, we are told, we can further our own goals by molding events in the outside world and influencing the choices of others. We can keep ourselves healthy, make people like us, make suitors fall in love with us, get publishers to accept our manuscripts, make hiring committees give us employment. The Stoics, by contrast, emphasize that, as Brown puts it, “most of what happens in life is entirely out of your control.” The book’s central metaphor is drawn from Schopenhauer. We should imagine our lives drawn on a graph, with our aims on the y-axis and the events and circumstances we encounter on the x-axis: “We aim in one direction, events pull us in the other, and the line of our life is drawn along the middle.” The result is a diagonal.

Personally, I use this metaphor when dieting too: I do not aim to lose weight because that is outside my control. I cannot make the scale read out a lower number. I can only change my eating and exercise habits and use the scale as a monitor to check on progress. It provides feedback: like an interlocutor on the other end of a telephone line. I can try to convey my meaning clearly and hope for a specific response—I cannot control the words issuing from the other person’s mouth. Life is a dialogue, and we can only shape our end of the conversation. Brown compares it to a game of chess: we can move our pieces, but there is always an opponent moving hers in response. It does not always make sense to remain single-minded in pursuit of a goal. As in a chess game, we must adjust our strategies as we go along. And, borrowing from Schopenhauer again, Brown likens life to a game of tennis. If we decide we must win at all costs, we are attempting to bend fate to our wishes—a futile aim. Instead, all we can do is play our best.

This is not defeatism. It is about relinquishing the burden of responsibility for things outside our control. The sorting process by which we decide which things we can and cannot influence is known as the Stoic fork, and can be traced back to Epictetus. The principle is very simple: our own thoughts and actions are under our control. Everything else isn’t—and that includes other people’s behavior and our own fame, power, wealth and reputation. All four of these are lent to us by others—the result of their choices: to grant us their attention, to follow our lead, to elect us to office, to spend their money on the goods or services we offer, to think certain thoughts about us. The Stoic fork is a simple and even banal principle: we are all familiar with the version of it described in the Serenity Prayer. But Samuel Johnson’s maxim that “men oftener require to be reminded than informed” was never more apt. Much self-help advice is not as crude as that of the positive thinking gurus, but it falls into the same trap: encouraging us to believe that success and happiness are entirely within our control. This leads to a sense of entitlement, to frustration, to completely pointless struggles. Instead, the Stoics advocate arete: a psychological resilience against the accidents of fortune, a humility. Since we are not the masters of our fates, we should rein in our aims; aspire not to glory and greatness, but simply, as Brown, puts it, to “live ‘well enough.’” We should not make our dignity or our self-worth dependent on externals that we cannot choose. This is the core of Stoic philosophy, as expressed by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It is ironic that Brown should convey this message. He makes a living by appearing to control fate. He first attracted wide public attention after playing Russian roulette on live television, the supreme demonstration of his confidence in this ability. (We should probably not trust explanations of how this was done: according to some, by using neurolinguistic programming to influence his assistant to place the bullet in a specific barrel, and reading his ‘tells’ with a professional poker player’s expertise, in order to gather from tone of voice where he had placed it. Remember that magicians lie for our entertainment: the explanation is often part of the trick.) In his Netflix specials, Brown thrusts unsuspecting members of the public into elaborate scenarios in which everyone else is an actor while he, Prospero-like, manipulates every aspect of his subject’s experience from behind the scenes to try to influence his behavior with the ultimate view to changing his perception of himself and outlook on life. In real life, there is no god-like Derren figure off-stage, no deus ex machina. But we are equally subject to fortune’s whims, actors in a play we have not scripted. All we can do is respond as best we can as we go along. Hence the book’s subtitle: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine. As Brown remarks, “Anything other than our thoughts and actions—we can safely decide is fine … It truly is fine to let go of these things. Nothing bad happens if we stop trying to fix them.”

The Love Drive

Despite a superficial similarity between his approach and that of Eastern philosophies which teach non-attachment, Brown sees Stoicism as fully compatible with “an attitude of openness, [which] will allow us to connect … with the human race at large.” Preoccupation with our own wellbeing can make us self-absorbed. The anxiety which comes from attempting to control our circumstances traps us within our own preoccupations:

As we grow, we tend to become attached to external goods and our own safety. Aggression results from this interplay between our natures and the circumstances in which we find ourselves: ‘Life, if we attach ourselves to it, alienates us from our own humanity.’

Stoicism allows us to escape the treadmill of our obsessions and fears and connect to others. Unlike their predecessors, the Epicureans, the Stoics did not advocate a life of cloistered contemplation: they wanted to be active in the world. This also, for Brown, distinguishes Stoic philosophy from therapeutic techniques such as CBT, which are focused on solving the patient’s individual problems, while Stoicism, Brown argues, is outward-focused, with at its heart a “love-drive.” The self-examination it involves promotes empathy. He cites Seneca: “there is no justice in blaming the individual for a failing shared by all men.” The understanding that our conception of our personality, our understanding of our past, is just a story we are telling can help make us more open to “the complex narratives that lead to the imperfect behaviours of others.” For all the superficial differences between us in externals—in our levels of income, our looks, our occupations, our places of residence, our fame or obscurity—in the internal workings of our minds, we are profoundly alike. Even psychological outliers, like the mentally ill, simply possess to a greater degree weaknesses that we can all recognize in ourselves. We know how easy it is for others to misinterpret us—“all of us permanently lost in translation”—and that should alert us to how easy it is to misinterpret others. The ease with which we can identify with almost any sufficiently honest and intimate autobiographical writing illustrates just how much the tangled worlds of our inner experiences, so sedulously hidden from others, actually have in common. As Alain de Botton observes, a good writer, while revealing his own inner world, can make us feel he has peeped into ours. “Often,” Brown writes, “what feels most intimate tends to be what we have most in common.”

A frequent misinterpretation of Stoicism is that it is cold and unfeeling. The Stoics often encourage us to imagine what it would be like to lose our loved ones, so that we can develop the strength to deal with that loss with equanimity. To regard this as callousness is a misunderstanding of human psychology. Commitment-phobia and avoidance of intimacy are often symptoms of fear, of a reluctance to invest emotionally because it leaves us vulnerable to hurt. Stoicism provides a kind of mental training, which arms us with the reassurance that we will be saddened, but not destroyed, by loss. It is a workout that builds emotional strength, a caulking of the timbers to enable us to weather the coming storms—a preparation we make precisely because the ocean voyage is so rewarding.

Heaven Is Other People

In fact, the impermanence of things makes them more precious to us. Brown cites Freud’s maxim that “Transience value is scarcity value in time.” This applies not just to relationships, but to every aspect of existence, Brown argues. He retells Bernard Williams’ “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” If we could live forever, Williams speculates, our lives would quickly lose all meaning. There would be no urgency to any pursuit, no uniqueness to any experience, since every experience would eventually be repeated an infinite number of times, to the point of boredom and satiation. Without the risk of loss, there would be only endless complacency. Brown writes:

Why value time together when you have infinite repetitions ahead of you? Would you still fall asleep with interlocked forms and whisper ‘I love you’ every night for the rest of time? Would you continue to surprise each other with breakfast on any of eternity’s mornings you chose, knowing that the rapture of either activity would be quickly lost in the tiniest flickering instant of eternity’s interminable drudge?

The original Stoics have little to say about the afterlife. But Brown, an atheist, ends the book with musings on what will remain of us after death, coming to the same conclusion I have elsewhere in this magazine that “we must be each other’s afterlife; we must be each other’s heaven.” Two thought experiments, drawn from Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife and P. D. James’ novel The Children of Men, demonstrate how much more we care about humanity’s survival than our personal mortality. However much we may fear our own deaths, death does not make life less meaningful to us. But if the human race were wiped out by a meteorite (Scheffler) or by complete infertility (James) we would surely find all our current endeavors pointless. We want to be survived.

It is the web of connections between us, Brown writes, that brings us a kind of immortality, at least for as far into the future as we can envisage. He draws on Irvin Yalom’s idea of “rippling”: we live on in the ways we have impacted others, in the traces our influence has left on their lives (and their influences in turn are transmitted to others in expanding concentric circles, with no foreseeable end until—at least—the extinction of our species). He draws also on the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter: if what is most important about us is our personality, which is not something tangible but a pattern, a way of thinking and feeling, we will live on every time someone who knew us well attempts to see things as we would have: “if for a while I think and feel like you (perhaps while looking at a photograph of you or contemplating how you would behave in a certain situation), I am approximating in my body your brain pattern, at least a rough version of your ‘self.’ It won’t ever be quite you, but I can be you with, as Hofstadter would say, with a ‘Derren’ accent.”

A Caution Against the Stoics

Stoicism may not be ideal at all times and in all situations. We should be wary of suppressing feelings of anxiety, fear or sadness. It is very easy to fool ourselves as to the extent and strength of our emotions, and when we do not express how we are feeling it is much harder to come to terms with it. Amorphous, undefined worries tend to loom larger in the imagination, like ghostly shapes in the darkness which return to lifelike proportions and forms when we shine a bright light on them. Only once we have recognized and described our emotions can we begin to deal with them. There may be truth in Freud’s contention that the repressed always returns to haunt us, and in Jung’s conception of stifled, unacknowledged feelings as “offended gods,” liable to take their revenge later. The male tendency to just tough it out, to tell no one, to be strong and silent, may indeed contribute to the disproportionate number of male suicides.

Besides, anxiety is a motivator and sadness is a signal. These feelings are messengers, wordless prompts. They indicate that we need to change something. A constant, unruffled, Zen-like tranquility is inhuman—and unnecessary. As Brown concedes, “The Stoics can’t always be right. We cannot demand from them a formula for our happiness, because no such formula exists.” But, although the Stoics do not offer an adequate standalone guide to life, Stoic philosophy should be part of everyone’s psychological toolkit. For those who want to investigate their teachings more deeply, this book is an ideal guide.

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