As Nancy Sherman writes near the beginning of her new book, Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, we are having a Stoic “moment.” Sales of the Penguin Classics edition of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations have skyrocketed—from 16,000 copies in 2012 to 100,000 in 2019. One Stoicism group on Facebook has 93,000 members. There are new books on Stoicism, Stoic conferences, Stoic podcasts, Stoic merchandise (for example, a memento mori coin can be yours for as little as £8.99 on Amazon)—and you can even get a Stoic tattoo. The modern Stoicosphere is so well developed that it has inspired its own heterodoxies, such as broicism (“chicks love guys who follow this ancient philosophy”) and $toicism (“make loads of money by following these ancient thinkers”).
This is not the world’s first Stoicism revival. It made a brief reappearance during the Renaissance, after scholars discovered some of the original Stoic texts. (In Dante’s fourteenth-century Divine Comedy, the only two pagans who manage to make it into Purgatory are the Stoic hero Cato Uticensis, and Statius, who was believed to have secretly converted to Christianity.) And it has attracted the interest of prominent figures throughout history—including Frederick the Great, Zhou Enlai and Bill Clinton.
Stoicism was founded around 300 B.C. in Athens, by Zeno of Citium, a Cypriot merchant who had lost all his wealth in a shipwreck, which inspired him to become an adherent of Cynicism, a school of thought inspired by Socrates’ insistence that virtue is the only good. The Cynics had taken this to its logical conclusion, reasoning that everything other than virtue must therefore be bad, and so if one wished to be good, one had to get rid of everything except one’s virtue: this led to an extreme form of asceticism and a commitment to owning the fewest possible possessions. (Famous early Cynic Diogenes reduced his belongings to a cloak and a cup, and then decided even the cup was unnecessary after he saw a child cupping his hands to drink from a public fountain.)
Having initially fallen in with them, Zeno came to believe that the Cynics’ hardcore approach was impractical. Most people cannot pull off the level of self-deprivation it demanded; they want to own such things as houses and clothes. Zeno agreed that virtue was the only good, but disagreed that it followed that everything else was bad—rather, he argued, most things were morally neutral—which he called indifferents. Zeno distinguished between “preferred indifferents” (things one might reasonably want to possess, such as wealth) and “dispreferred indifferents” (things one might reasonably want to avoid, such as ill health). He argued that it was fine to pursue “preferred indifferents,” so long as you did not acquire them unvirtuously or act unvirtuously in order to keep them. Thus, to Zeno, it was not per se wrong that Seneca—a famous Roman Stoic—was the richest man of his day.
From Stoicism’s beginnings as an ethical philosophy, it developed a metaphysics, a logic and a sophisticated psychology. Many of the early texts have been lost or have reached us only in fragments. For example, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote 705 books, but none survive intact. All the complete texts we have are later, Roman ones such as those of Cicero, who wrote a lot about the philosophy during his self-imposed retirement (though he never felt able formally to become a Stoic).
Our contemporary understanding of Stoicism relies mainly on the writings of three later figures: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Seneca became Nero’s tutor and was effectively regent during the early part of his reign. Epictetus was a lame slave (later freed) who became educated and set up his own Stoic school, which became so famous that the Emperor Hadrian risked the hazardous crossing of the Adriatic Sea to visit it. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called five good emperors (portrayed by the actor Richard Harris in the film Gladiator); his notebook on Stoicism has been preserved as The Meditations.
Contemporary works on Stoicism for the general reader are generally in one of two genres: philosophy (for example, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic) or self-help (for example, Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). Pigliucci uses the literary device of having Epictetus take him on a tour of Rome, while Robertson’s most recent work, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, focuses on the writings of Marcus Aurelius.
The title of Nancy Sherman’s new book, Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, suggests that she is aiming at the self-help market—and, judging by whom she quotes most often, she seems to have a soft spot for Seneca. In a way, this is refreshing; among the ancient authors whose works survive, he was the most prolific, and yet today his thoughts on Stoicism are seldom discussed. However, he may be seldom discussed for a good reason: his adherence to Stoicism has always been an open question, since he was fond of quoting the Epicureans (who were the Stoics’ rivals), and his life choices suggest that he was less than totally Stoic in practice: he successfully pursued the acquisition of vast wealth and failed to restrain Nero’s unvirtuous actions (which included numerous attempts at matricide).
Sherman’s book is organised into nine “lessons.” The first is an introduction to the book, and the second is a spin through the history of the philosophy. In Lesson 3, “Finding Calm,” Sherman introduces some Stoic concepts: the dichotomy of control, the premeditation of evil and the reserve clause. Lesson 4 expands on the Stoic theory of emotions, and particularly on the idea that we have “proto-emotions” that give rise to full-blown emotions (an idea that today has some scientific support). She pays particular attention to the emotion of anger, of which the Stoics particularly disapproved. Lesson 5, “Stoic Grit and Resilience,” debunks the common false impression that Stoicism is a philosophy of isolated individuals: it introduces the reader to a Stoic practice known as Hierocles’ Circle—which may be thought of as the Stoic equivalent of Buddhist lovingkindness meditation.
However, for the rest of the book, she focuses less on the ideas of ancient Stoicism, and more on her thoughts about the potential application of those ideas to modern ethical dilemmas—particularly those encountered during warfare. (Sherman is an expert on this topic, having served as the US Naval Academy’s first Distinguished Chair in Ethics from 1997 to 1999.) While these ideas are interesting and include fascinating anecdotes—including one about Hugh Thompson’s efforts to stop the My Lai massacre—one might reasonably wonder whether they count as descriptions of “ancient lessons for modern resilience.”
In the book’s final chapter, “A Healthy Modern Stoicism,” Sherman admits that she is not herself an “orthodox Stoic”—but has merely put herself “in the position of a curious and inquisitive neo-Stoic, capturing the best of ancient Stoicism and lessons worthy of a modern Stoicism.” This may partly explain why she often seems less interested in exploring how to live as a Stoic in today’s world than in attributing Stoic virtue to the political positions of America’s left wing—often in ways that strain credulity. For example, in Lesson 3, she praises Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, saying that he “echoes Marcus Aurelius.” But the resemblance is dubious since Stoic philosophy emphasises conforming one’s deeds to one’s words. By contrast, during the Covid pandemic, Newsom urged his constituents to avoid household mixing while himself attending a multi-household birthday dinner. And Sherman’s other purported examples of “modern Stoicism” include the Black Lives Matter movement and the behaviour of Christine Blasey Ford at Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing. (Sherman informs us that Ford, who testified that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her, was “credible” and displayed “composure … grace and courage under intense questioning,” while Kavanaugh’s response, by contrast, was “belligerent and aggressive … his face contorting at times … the sort of depiction that recalls Seneca’s warnings about the ugliness of anger.”) She also condemns what she calls the “work of the patriarchy” and “white privilege”—the implication being that these phenomena fall short of Stoic ideals.
While Seneca may be Sherman’s favourite Stoic, it seems that Epictetus is her least favourite. “He is a popularizer,” she writes, “and not our best representative of more nuanced Stoic thought.” Popularizer is a strange term for a man who left no published works (the books that bear his name were written by his pupil, Arrian) and who ran what was basically a finishing school for young Roman aristocrats. Elsewhere, she describes Epictetus as writing “with his usual hyperbole” and in “quotable one-liners.” And she attributes Epictetus’ focus on the value of inner freedom to his status as “an enslaved Roman” for whom “outward freedom was not possible,” even though she earlier expresses discomfort with the idea that being a slave would be seen as anyone’s “whole and enduring identity.”
With this kind of dismissive rhetoric, Sherman avoids confronting the challenges that Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism poses for her own view of it. Speculating about why he focused on inner freedom does nothing to disprove the lengthy arguments he makes in favour of its importance. Nor does pointing out instances of hyperbole address the substance of his arguments. For example, one of her core tenets is that “psychological mastery cannot be at the cost of human vulnerability,” which seems to contradict Epictetus’ claim that Stoicism will make one “proof against harm of any kind” (Enchiridion I.iii)—but nowhere does she actually attempt to disprove this claim. Her denigration of Epictetus is also hard to understand in light of her praise for James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for seven years after his plane was downed during the Vietnam War. As she notes, Stockdale was a dedicated follower of Epictetus. But if Epictetus was merely a hyperbolic populariser, how did his writings help Stockdale survive those years of captivity?
There is no need for her to treat Epictetus this way. Stoicism was already about 400 years old by Epictetus’ time; it is reasonable to expect that, by that point, Stoic philosophers held a range of opinions. After all, by the time Christianity was 400 years old, it had developed the Arian and Pelagian schools of thought as well as Augustinianism, which would become the orthodoxy. Modern scholars generally see both Epictetus and Seneca as Stoics even though they differ on numerous issues, with Epictetus representative of the harder-core, Cynic-leaning end of the spectrum, and Seneca representative of the other end, which might be called cuddlier.
It is perfectly noble to use the tools of an ancient philosophy to provide succour in the present—as many of the modern self-help-oriented books on Stoicism do. But Sherman’s primary aim seems instead to be to find ancient justifications for the moral intuitions of a subset of modern humanity. Her book can be characterised as an attempt to build a Stoicism for the modern faculty lounge. Rather than setting out what the Stoics believed in all its complexity and asking how this might relate to the modern world, she takes some of the beliefs of the modern American left and points out where she thinks the Stoics would agree. If you share that cultural background and political orientation, this may work for you. If you do not, it might be more of a struggle.
Sherman’s book has another flaw, in common with many other books about modern Stoicism: it is hard for them to compete with the original, ancient sources, which have survived more than 1,800 years for a reason—they are great works of literature. Generation after generation, people have deemed them worthy of preservation. None of the modern works really compare. If you want to learn about Stoicism, then, read the originals. And start with Epictetus.