Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Why Is Stoicism Having a Cultural Moment? (medium.com/eidolon)
83 points by diodorus on Oct 12, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments

Because everyone who cares eventually tries to read great literature and you make it to Meditations which is a great read for a 20+ year old immersed in a culture that tells you to connect your self worth to the score others give you. It's a self-help read for people who don't want to consume for profit self help. It's counterculture.

The problem is that stoic people can suffer a serious social penalty to their interests and the cooperation they get from others. It's expected that, once you are in a bad situation, you fight in an outwardly visible fashion. If you don't display the markers of frustration in an easily understandable way, people will think you just don't care enough. Meanwhile, there is little downside to histrionics and unreasonable demands, putting the stoic at a severe disadvantage.

I know what you mean, having been through this journey and experienced the kind of thing you're talking about. But in the end, the calmness and tranquility that comes from removing yourself from the drama and histrionics of the rest of the world is its own victory, and any "social penalty" turns out to be quite a gift.

There is only a disadvantage if you place value in externals. The most important lesson in Stoicism is that only the things in our power are good or bad, whereas externals have no intrinsic value.

"Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth - that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death."


There's a hidden assumption that signalling and belief have to be the same.

If some weird signalling is just an annoying valueless externality, then acting (assuming its any good) isn't as relevant as the belief within.

Maybe an analogy with politics, nobody really believes sloganeering except the smallest of minds; its merely a traditional weapon that has to be used as part of the show. Ditto obeisance to political correctness, its just signalling you gotta do in public, nobody believes that stuff internally or in private except a small cadre of insane people. "Emperor has no clothes" moment and all that.

I'm a little surprised that the article doesn't mention cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It is easily one of the "hottest" forms of psychotherapy in recent years, and is heavily inspired by Stoic ideas. Mindfulness more generally is also having a big moment in clinical psychology.

things change, CBT appears to be losing efficacy: http://digest.bps.org.uk/2015/06/is-cbt-for-depression-losin...

I wonder if this is due to allegiance effects [1] inflating the effect of CBT in the earlier studies. I would expect that the older a CBT study is, the more influence the originators and promoters of CBT had on it.

[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26033943

Best CBT books you can recommend?

Not sure, but I've seen Feeling Good by David Burns[1] recommended in ADHD circles. Can anyone back this up?

[1]: http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-The-Mood-Therapy/dp/03808...

This book is the standard book most doctors recommend (or so I'm told):


One of the things I did when I was in my 20s was to look for some kind of great person to adopt as a hero, or a philosophy that would cover all of the tough questions. I guess my feeling was that there was some exact solution to everything and that putting myself in the right bucket I'd have a lot of personal questions answered.

Looking back, this is probably a good reason to wait until studying philosophy until your 30s -- you need some time actually living in order to put things in their proper place. Epistemology, especially, can really take your head for a spin.

But I finally realized that various forms of thought are not solutions, rather they are tools for dealing with the day-to-day issues that life brings. Different situations? Use different tools. The goal wasn't to find an universal answer, it was to fill a tool belt with the tools you'd need for an interesting and rewarding life.

An obvious corollary here: it's okay if the tools don't all work together at the same time. I'm a human, not a math equation. It all doesn't have to add up and be consistent in the end. (Very tough to realize and accept this as well!)

Today the three main tools I use the most are agnosticism, existentialism, and stoicism. Between these three I find that I am safely and soundly able to navigate various difficult ethical, moral, and professional questions. In addition, they give me direction for further joy and fulfillment in life. And extra bonus points: they do not preclude any of the wonderfully human and irrational beliefs I may want to pick up along the way, such as using supplements for life extension, playing the lottery, or choosing to believe in the Great Pumpkin.

Modern life is one of people instantly connecting together in mobs. Nobody can tolerate being bored, and it's very easy to spend a lot of your life without really thinking about what you're doing. Stoicism, existentialism, and agnosticism guides me in mindfulness, self-directed purpose, and the limits of my knowledge. I'm very happy to have them as part of my tool belt.

Probably because it helps justify longer working hours and low pay.

There's a certain temptation to ascribe it to a cynical desire to convince people they shouldn't try to change their lot.

Viewed in the historical context, Seneca the younger lived in the time when crucifixion, impalement, and gladiator games where in full swing, so the comparatively speaking, the bad then was quiet a bit worse than the bad now. In my view that makes the grand parents comment quiet shallow.

This was a wonderful read.

Could someone who's gone down this path provide a reading list for someone interested in learning more?

The three best-known literary products of Stoic culture and philosophy are probably:

- Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (make sure to get the Hays translation! By far the best). Aurelius was an emperor of Rome; Meditations are his musings to himself in later life. It's interesting to reading the internal grapplings of a man who was, to his countrymen, basically a walking god.

- Lucius Annaeus Seneca's Letters from a Stoic

- Epictetus' Enchiridion, which translates roughly as "handbook" and was assembled from the teachings of Epictetus, an exiled former slave, to those who traveled to live and study with him.

I strongly recommend all three. If you're interested in more modern interpretations of the above, a couple good jumping off points would be A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine (which was mostly pretty good) or The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot (which studies Meditations). Ryan Holiday also has a book called The Obstacle Is The Way, though I didn't enjoy it as much as any listed above, to be honest.

A personal favorite gem which, found several years ago: http://stoicletters.blogspot.com/. This blog bundles Seneca's letters into a modern style of prose and is much more accessible while conveying much of the same meaning as the original letters.

Interesting that nobody seems to have had anything particularly worth writing on the subject of stoicism for the past nearly-2000 years.

Human condition writing like philosophy and religion formation peaked about two millennia ago. Once its figured out, there isn't too much new to say, unlike, say, technology or fashion. You can write a popularization or translation once in awhile. An eternity of profitable textbooks are possible, just like mathematics.

If you'd like a vision into what Moores Law or computer science will look like in 2000 years, you could do worse than comparing to the humanities peaking 2000 years ago. In 2000 years there will be academic disciples reading Knuth and the lambda-ites will continually be having "revival" journalist articles written about them every couple years and their heretical un-natural love of parenthesis.

It would be interesting to argue that position against something like geometry where at the entry level there really isn't much new beyond Euclid however at the higher end there has been progress and at the low end modern textbooks don't resemble "The Elements" very closely even if conceptually there is nothing new.

Strong fact based arguments could be made either way. Halting-problem-like, the most effective way to figure it out will probably be to wait 2000 years and see what happens.

Stoicism is a secular buddhism for people that don't like the buddhist brand.

Or, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it in Antifragile: "A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude."

Why "with attitude"?

I can't be 100% sure what Taleb had in mind, but I think the idea is that Stoics are a little more defiant than Buddhists, whose reputation is more for passivity. In fact I truncated the quote, both for brevity and because I don't like Taleb's self-censorship, but the original reads as follows:

    A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says "f*** you" to fate.
(asterisks in original).

Many places in the gospels and epistles in the Bible are directly addressing stoicism. Granted, those were also written about 2000 years ago. But people today write and talk about Philippians 4 all the time.

+1 to Pierre Hadot. I actually prefer the Inner Citadel to reading the Meditations. A good intro is also William Irvine's a Guide to the Good Life

I was introduced to stoicism through the writings of Admiral James Stockdale who was shot down in Vietnam, and was a prisoner of war for 7+ years.

In his philosophical writings, he talks about how during those seven years, when everything else failed him, he could only fall back on that which he could control, the heart of stoic philosophy.

This is from when he is ejected from his plane, after having been shot down by enemy fire:

"After ejection I had about 30 seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed on the main street of that little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: "Five years down there at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epicetus.""

Here are the two essays I read, and would recommend.

http://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/stoicism1.pdf http://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/stoicism1.pdf

I believe the second link should be to stoicism2.pdf

Apologies :P

Here is the second essay: http://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/Stoicism2.pdf

I'd suggest reading the Enchiridion first. It's arguably the most influential text of all, and it's a very quick read.


Thanks, I've started on Marcus Aurelius a couple of times, and it does indeed seem like a bunch of somewhat cryptical notes to self. Enchiridion seems relatively straight-forward in comparison.

Or how about a watching list? I'll start:

- "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga " http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1683876/

- "Oh Boy" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1954701/

- "American Beauty" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0169547/

- "Amélie" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0211915/

Meditations is the usual go-to read by Marcus Aurelius. Then if you are still interested check out the writings of Seneca, Epictetus, etc.

I have some resources on my personal webpage, hope you may find these useful:


(and will probably update it in a few hours adding stuff from this thread ;)

I'd start with "Letters from a Stoic" by Seneca, then read "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius. If you're looking for a modern interpretation of these thoughts check out "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday

For an Eastern flavored version of Stoic philosophy, take a look at the short Dao De Ching:


Many of the passages out of the Dao De Ching have a striking similarity to passages in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

Stoicism really helped me through some psychological difficulties. It contains truths which haven't altered in thousands of years.

Stoicism is basically Christianity minus God / Jesus when you really boil it down. With us watching a cultural trend of people rejecting faith regularly, yet at the same time watching a lot of the bad decisions that come from the "focussed on me" aspects that often come from it, Stoicism is a fairly expected non-theistic reaction.

In a lot of ways, the concept of the tiny house movement is sort of a reflection of Stoicism if you think about it.

The general idea is that if you lessen your needs, then what you have becomes abundant. It could also be considered a bit of a reaction to the debt crisis that individuals face on many levels.

As your expenses approach zero, your income approaches infinity.

Stoicism is much more self focused than Christianity. Christianity has the added dissociative effect of the source of your morals not being you, and lets one achieve a form of "humility" through being able to move thoughts judgement and morals that can't be reconciled over to the abstraction of an all-knowing other. Stoicism is much more fatalistic in that sense - whatever happens happens, rather than whatever happens is known and "matters" in the scheme of things because of God.

"Focused on me" culture is not inherently wrong for communities or cultures at at all, but when you compare straight hedonism to "selfless" christianity then its understandable to have some backlash on "me" culture. "Me focus" can also mean basically trying to achieve what is in the Serenity Prayer (written in the 1800s by a Christian theologian) -

"[God] grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference"

here they compare stoic virtues with Hindu notions of dharma. The author speculates that Stoics were somehow influenced by Hindu thought. Maybe a new interest in Stoicism is partly inspired by exposure to Hinduist beliefs.


> Hinduist thought

Nitpicking, but "Hindu thought" will do! Thanks for the link.

Is stoicism having a cultural moment?

I rather think that modern western culture is about as un-Stoic as it has been at any point since... sometime before Stoicism was invented, and that any explicit endorsement of Stoicism you may find among the remaining sane people is purely a reaction to that.

Stoicism teaches that suffering and misfortune are part of life, and that wisdom comes from learning to deal with this fact. Modern-day Oprah culture teaches that you are a beautiful and unique person and that any suffering or misfortune you may encounter is something that you should probably sue somebody about.

The snowflake syndrome is the modern means of building a minority political bloc - for any underrepresented group or condition, a representative comes along and declares themselves champion of the people(the people that they represent, that is), and encourages shaming of the rest as a form of unification.

It's the shaming that eventually got to me. It's such a prolific and harmful tactic. The people who do it the most tend to lack virtue themselves, when held up to the light. And it doesn't matter how well your internal sense of guilt works - you can always be judged poorly for reasons that become obviously unfair when pushed to far-reaching conclusions. It encourages you to polarize into a completely fanatical or disengaged state, without a healthy middle. If we've improved any, it's in that outright dehumanization is less common now, replaced with convenient euphemisms that diffuse blame.

Stoicism has the appeal of "It doesn't matter how bad the outside world gets - I am going to do my own thing and fix up my own principles and actions." It encourages you to work on small everyday behaviors instead of constantly diverting your attention to the Big Important Problem that the news is currently pushing at you(and that you can't do much about, without derailing your entire life).

Nailed my personal experience. I wonder how many others of us there are?

Millions or even billions if you accept that many, many attitudes and thoughts attributed to stoicism are taught in the Bible, both testaments.

In fact, the opening of the book of John was partially an appeal to the stoics to see that their philosophy is complete in the Christ.

And for what it's worth, Paul dialogued with the stoics in Athens in Acts 17, saying some of what I'm saying here... that stoicism part of a picture completed by the teachings of Christ.


There are DOZENS of us.

Hundreds of thousands, absolute minimum. You want to look at the small scale environmentalists as one specific example. Not the "fly my lear jet to the anti-nuclear protest" but the organic home gardener types. Chipsy sounds like he was channeling John Micheal Greer there, towards the end. JMG's blog is well worth reading for other insights, of course.

Modern-day Oprah culture teaches that you are a beautiful and unique person and that any suffering or misfortune you may encounter is something that you should probably sue somebody about.

close, but I'd generalize this more and adapt it so that it also relates more to non-US cultures (less Oprah, less suing), and by removing the action (suing) from it and replacing it with what people tend to think, not how they react to it - something like

"Modern-day culture teaches that you are a beautiful and unique person and that any suffering or misfortune you may encounter is somebody else's, or the system's, fault"

At least that is how I perceive the group I think you are targetting here.

I think it's the opposite, modern day culture celebrates individuals and their achievements as though they created their success on their own, that luck had nothing to do with it. We put people like Zuckerberg on a pedestal when at least some (much?) of their success comes from the luck of having the right parents, being born at the right time, having an interest that happens to be financially valuable and so on.

The downside to this attitude is that we look down on people who weren't lucky, who had the misfortune to be born into an uneducated family, who weren't in the right place at the right time and so on through no fault of their own.

The conclusions you've reached are not uncontroversial in the academic literature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor%E2%80%93observer_asymmet...

I see no reason to throw Oprah into this discussion. If she said that then quote, else cut the rubbish. If anything Oprah was the one that was sued by the meat industry for speaking about Mad Cow disease.

Modern day "nerd" culture teaches us that we are special snowflakes who are the only rational ones in a land full of sheep, persecuted and looked down upon for our virtue.

You are the thing you think you are criticizing.

I have to agree. It's been my experience at least among certain circles of atheism (Graveyard of the Gods forums) and even social activism (Twitter has a bit of this nonsense going on) where X group is special and isolated from the rest of human kind terms of suffering and/or significance. Frankly, I think it's a lack of empathy that drives this sort of thinking. It's easy to symbolically scream and cluck your pearl necklace than it is to actually do something or to reach out to others when in need. It just seems to me that the Internet just makes it easier to be angry or outraged than to be helpful and empathetic.

I agree with both of you but let's not lump the anger of the gamer gaters with the anger of the truly opprossed, exploited and abused.

I think it's more of a general trend. GG was just one minor spat in the larger scheme of things. Various forms of moral panic/outrage have been around forever. It's just becoming more concentrated into smaller segments of society. It's like targeted advertising but with more screaming and gnashing of teeth.

Stoicism teaches us that anyone can be rational, and that we're not really so different after all.

Was going to type up a similar response. This is exactly how I feel. Stoicism looks like it's gaining in popularity because of people reacting to the oversensitivity running rampant in society today. You can hardly teach people today that feeling bad is OK.

you are correct re: the modern day Oprah culture, but at the same time it is pretty clear that stoicism is having "a moment" precisely as a reaction to the saturation of the "get joy now!" self help book-club glurdge.

Who started it?

Who is the group X that started the routine of saying "we are group X and we are special and isolated from the rest of human kind because of our unique suffering and/or significance"?

I'll give you a chance to answer.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10376146 and marked it off-topic.

> Who is the group X that started the routine of saying "we are group X and we are special and isolated from the rest of human kind because of our unique suffering and/or significance"?

No one knows -- that pattern is evidenced as far back as recorded history goes pretty much everywhere in the world; its definitely older than writing, and quite possibly as old as the ability to communicate sophisticated enough concepts to express it.

I'm not sure the commenter is engaging the question in good faith. I'm going to suggest disengaging with them until they demonstrate their thesis. It sucks to do that, but this has that troll feel to me.

No group literally starts that way, but their behaviors exhibit as such and oftener there is a reason why terms like Oppression Olympics exist in the social media lexicon. It's not out of humor but that there's a core truth to it.

For example, there's a segment of gender critical feminists that believe that transgender activists are uniformly assaulting them on all fronts when in reality transgender activists have been focused on issues of non-discrimination in law (public accommodation, employment, and healthcare as big issues where activists seek redress). Neither side assumes one is special or better/worse than the other but both attempt grand standing on who is more oppressed/harmed by society. And how unique their position is in terms of said oppression. I've rarely seen either side (being trans myself here) extend a hand in regards to trying to understand the other. It seems the most vocal members of this fracas are doomed to bury each other in terrible memes and virtual shouting matches. Some have gone further like Cathy Brennan who has doxxed a transgender teenager (who had no quarrel with her or other gender critical feminists) for the Pacific Justice Institute (a right wing think tank out of California). So, I hope you can see where I'm coming from here.

Let's put together a bunch of what you said, because you are indeed so close to guessing, and I don't doubt you can, as a fellow anarchist.

Behavior patterns of Group X (that is then passed on to other groups):

- being a special and isolated group from the rest of human kind

- having suffered uniquely

- having unique significance

- pulling the special-group card all the time (say, to stifle criticism)

- believing other groups are assaulting them on all fronts (say, like a paranoia towards an outgroup)

- attempting grand standing on their being the most oppressed by society (say, by discussing on a TV show whether their suffering was the most awful of all)

- never admitting they are wrong on something (say, in History, where if you disagree with their version, it can only be because you might hate them)

I gave you many hints but as you can tell, the hints come from your posts. You are so spot on. But now you must guess, who is Group X who is influencing other groups to adopt this same behavior?

You seem to be playing the role of an obscurer. I'm going to suggest that if you want people to actually engage you that you engage them. Playing this sort of pseudo-socratic inquiry isn't going to get your point across. If you can't make it in less than a paragraph then don't attempt to make the point.

It's a /pol/ troll by the looks of it. They're referencing Jews. Just ignore them.

I take issue with your accusing me of trolling on the other comment. I am being playful but I am not trolling. What I am talking about is a concerted effort that began with Psychoanalysis in the beginning of the 20th century and moved on to the Frankfurt School and then the New York Intellectuals and now takes the form of Cultural Marxism. I recommend that you look up these keywords to learn more about the behaviors you have rightfully noticed. If you're interested in information with scholarly citations about this subject I recommend The Culture of Critique, it's a book that will open your eyes. I'd be willing to send you the book for free if you don't want to pay for it. That's because when I find people that seem to be on to the truth (like you), I give them a chance to peer deeper into the darkness.

Like I said, I took all the hints from things you said. It's clear you see it too. I understand people are very leery of pointing fingers especially when the conversation involves certain untouchable groups. However, as a trans person I'm sure you have courage in spades to study this subject without prejudice and preconceived notions you might have acquired during education in school.

If you still think I'm a troll, I'd really appreciate it if you could explain to me how better I could approach this subject with you without coming across as a troll. I can do it easily in person, but online it seems to always come across as trollish, I suppose because mentioning Jews is something usually seen done by shady characters with hidden agendas. However, I believe one can talk about Yakuza without indicting all Japanese, or talk about the Mafia without indicting all Italians.

I'm afraid your comments do come across as trolling, and repeatedly so. If you're serious about not coming across that way, two things you should do at a minimum are:

(1) not toss drive-by flamebait into the threads, like https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10382497 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10376183. Those are low-substance, high-provocation comments that are guaranteed to produce more of the same, only worse—exactly the opposite of what we want on HN.

(2) edit out every trace of snark like "But yes, evil Germans and their eugenics, carry on." That stuff is poison and adds fuel to the fire.

Beyond that: tone down your claims, substantiate them more, and stop using ideological buzzwords.

Thank you, dang, I appreciate the concrete guidelines. I was actually thinking of emailing you over this.

I promise you I will try to behave as you have proposed here. I think those are fair guidelines. In fact I very much appreciate your laying them down clearly like that. If the "no negativity" policy were as well fleshed-out as you just did here I think it would be more helpful.

I will abide by your rules because I want to keep posting here. But if I abide by the rules and you still detach my threads as off-topic, then it will have been an unfair deal in my opinion.

I'd be curious to know, respectfully, if you chided the user to whom I was replying, since what they said can easily be construed as instigation:

> No, it's not. The Eugenic movement started the quest for the "better" brain nearly a century and a half ago, and we all know how that turned out...

"we all know how that turned out" DOT DOT DOT is instigation and we all know he's rubbing the Holocaust on everyone's faces without spelling it out. To me that is a foul silencing tactic and it needs to be called out on. That is what I attempted to do when I made my "carry on" remark, after having substantially and politely fleshed out the topic in that same reply.

So as you can see, from my end your enforcement sometimes looks biased.

EDIT: In fact I'd like clarification on this: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10381398

Their post amounts to nothing more than "Intelligence research is actually 150 years old and it ended with the Holocaust".

Now what do you call that? Isn't that snarky flamebait? It looks like it to me. Shouldn't that claim be toned down a little? Shouldn't it be substantiated a little more?

I want to respect you but for that you will have to uphold your vetting standards equally amongst all players.

I'm going to be brutally honest and tell you that you are someone I probably wouldn't talk to in real life because you're eluding that Jews are trying to destroy the world. The fact you try to play up the cultural Marxism argument doesn't stand to reason that well before even the term existed that there were people acting like butt-clowns (like TERFs, New Atheism, and etc) without it.

So, you don't need a Frankfurt School. Just look at the Protestant and Catholic leagues which formed during the Reformation. You don't need to concoct some bogey man to prove people are inherently defensive in groups. We just do it by design like all primates of our kind.

So before you go throwing out silly concepts like cultural Marxism just take a moment to actually observe people with as little bias as you can muster. You'll see the patterns I'm talking about. And it doesn't require additional parameters to verify.

Again I must take offense at your misconstruing what I said.

If I actually had said that Jews are trying to destroy the world, you'd be able to quote that. In fact I do not think Jews are trying to destroy the world, and this can be easily verified by the fact that most of them are content to live their lives as normal human beings.

Secondly, if I thought Jews were trying to destroy the world, then I would be incredibly paranoid of talking about this subject, seeing that those who do foolishly believe in such an outrageous idea receive quite a bit of unpleasantries.

Instead, I am trying to civilly talk to you about a book I've read and the knowledge it imparted to me, and I'm even offering you to pay for the book and shipping so that you too can glance at this knowledge which you already basically understand half of, and your reply to my offer is to slander me and say you wouldn't talk to me in person. I would never expect this level of intolerance coming from a trans person who I'd assume has experienced first-hand the pangs of ostracism.

Please, listen to me. You are severely downplaying the influence of the schools of thought we have been talking about. I extend my offer once again to pay for the book and shipping if you promise me you will read it.

Also, being a former forum goer of Graveyard of the Gods, I know for a fact Francois Trembley pulls the whole special group atheist attitude all the time. Dude never seems to admit that maybe he's wrong on something, but then again he was a Randian much like myself. I guess some people never shake off that part of the Randian delirium.

wait what

Prisoner mentality.

Sorry, I like to answer titles that end in question marks. Because they're questions. Not Titles.

That was quite an article. Then I went to read the local newspaper and it was about how a man got charged for taking a naked stroll.

The news gave people what they want, shock and kittens. Blogging rules.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact