Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
An introduction to Stoic philosophy and resilience-building [video] (donaldrobertson.name)
167 points by donjohnr on July 13, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments

This book by Ryan Holiday: "The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living: Featuring new translations of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius" is a good intro to the topic. https://www.amazon.in/Daily-Stoic-Meditations-Perseverance-t...

I double this recommendation - I read a chapter each morning on my commute to work.

Great book - I listen to it as an audio book.

A great book on the subject is called "A Guide to the Good Life", by William Irvine. It's a great read, and a good introduction to stoicism.

I read it while recovering from surgery when I was unable to walk for a few weeks, and found it to be very helpful in keeping sane.

I second this. "A Guide to the Good Life" is a fantastic introduction to Stoic principles.

I also read "Stoicism and the Art of Happiness", but did not enjoy it as much. I think Irvine's book is more to the point.

I've found that stoic practices help me in things I would not have thought of: job interviews, for example. Doing negative visualization, imagining interviewers asking me stuff I don't have complete knowledge of, and imagining how I'd respond to it was extremely helpful recently.

Best intro to Stoicism I've seen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seLLJP3H1FU

Massimo Pigliucci also have a great web site, how to be stoic https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com

Do you know where that video was recorded? I'd swear that's Bobby Knight at 12:36.

I maintain a small page about Stoicism here: http://pa-mar.net/Main/Lifestyle/Stoicism.html

I believe that the Stoicism's appeal (for modern tech people) is that it is basically a very rational approach to life and its problems. It is also very adaptable to modern day culture: it downplays Religion but respects Society, for example.

Last but not least, the image of dour, ascetical, judgemental party poopers is a bit off mark, I think. The ideal Stoic is of course quite restrained in everything, but feeling somehow superior, a part of some elite is a mistake in itself.

Why is Stoicism the philosophical flavor of the month amongst tech people?

I studied Philosophy at Harvard decades ago while working for Unitarians in Emerson's old church, had the privilege of paying Brad Cox's salary for a few years and now read Pali Buddhist Suttas, Stoics and Christian Scripture. 1) Stoics had huge impact on both pre-Christian Hellenized Jews and then centuries of early Christians. They distributed Epictetus' Enchiridion with "Jesus" penciled in for "Socrates." Most literate forefathers enjoyed some of that education. I even went to a Latin School. Stoicism runs DEEP in linguistic DNA like Aristotle. 2) Buddhism overlaps tightly with Stoicism and not by accident. Buddhists were all over the Silk Road alongside Stoics and Platonists for centuries surrounding O CE. Buddhism is also increasingly popular and the #2 religion in CA ahead of Islam. 3) Stoicism brings us back to personal regimen ethics components of philosophy most Philosophers of Math, Science And Language abandoned for a few recent centuries. 4) Smarter literate people are turning to Philosophy or High Orthodox philosophy-friendly religious traditions in rejecting Nationalist political ideologies. Traditionally "politics" was City-State local or School Cosmopolitan. City State politics are still quite strong here in DC or in NYC, BO or SF. Techies loving global protocols and online conversations are akin to Cosmopolitan Philosophical schools. We can think of geometry, applied maths and maybe Jupyter Notebooks soon as our Lingua Franca of sorts. Nation States are VERY recent Western fetishes that are less and less the focus of civilian political ambitions for overlapping good reasons. As a Sutta loving Stoic Cosmopolitan happier software engineering denizen of Christendom I judge that turning away from battle flags hopes very wise. [edits. Sorry for typos.]

Great explanation, thanks!

Because being in tech is life-ruining and only can only be propped up by ascetic myth-making, lol.

I suspect stoicism also appeals strongly to a personality that enters tech at a disproportionate rate -- like bodybuilding, nootropics, hackathons and life-hacks, it presents rigid, rationalized mastery of the self as both desirable and achievable. I'm hesitant to attempt to characterize the personality order to which this so strongly appeals, but it seems observable.

>like bodybuilding, nootropics, hackathons and life-hacks, it presents rigid, rationalized mastery of the self as both desirable and achievable.

This is a good observation. It reminds me of some kind of digital protestantism on steroids. The same kind of displayed humility, work obsession and so forth.

I think it's very self-aggrandising in a way.

So you want to live “according to nature?” Oh, you noble Stoics, what a fraud is in this phrase! Imagine something like nature, profligate without measure, indifferent without measure, without purpose and regard, without mercy and justice, fertile and barren and uncertain at the same time, think of indifference itself as power – how could you live according to this indifference? Living – isn’t that wanting specifically to be something other than this nature? Isn’t living assessing, preferring, being unfair, being limited, wanting to be different? And assuming your imperative to “live according to nature” basically amounts to “living according to life” – well how could you not? Why make a principle out of what you yourselves are and must be? – But in fact, something quite different is going on: while pretending with delight to read the canon of your law in nature, you want the opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to dictate and annex your morals and ideals onto nature – yes, nature itself –, you demand that it be nature “according to Stoa” and you want to make all existence exist in your own image alone – as a huge eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism! For all your love of truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to have a false, namely Stoic, view of nature, that you can no longer see it any other way, – and some abysmal piece of arrogance finally gives you the madhouse hope that because you know how to tyrannize yourselves – Stoicism is self-tyranny –, nature lets itself be tyrannized as well: because isn’t the Stoic a piece of nature? . . . But this is an old, eternal story: what happened back then with the Stoics still happens today, just as soon as a philosophy begins believing in itself. It always creates the world in its own image, it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical drive itself, the most spiritual will to power, to the “creation of the world,” to the causa prima.

This seems like a critique of what I would regard as Stoicism "taken too far."

The most helpful parts of Stoicism for me are understanding and accepting that awful things might happen I can't do anything about, the hedonic treadmill exists and a little more money, a car, a speedboat, or whatever I currently desire probably won't make me happy in the long term.

If I spend a week or a month in tatters over something minor, I can learn to adjust myself rather than trying to change the world to fix my own head. Long-term happiness is a mixture of changing the world to fit my goals and changing my goals and what I demand from it to fit the world - to learn that I cannot get everything I want.

Where I disagree with Stoicism is the ideas that my goal should be to optimize myself to some sort of perfection, and that I can ever have perfect control over myself mentally. My thoughts themselves live inside a biological brain which is affected by its construction, genetics, hormones, and many other physical influences. Beyond this, the idea that any specific thing must be the moral goal of all persons seems, as it is put here, like a gross presumption. But I never went in that far to the philosophy.

What does strike me, though, is your identification of various "self-improvement" techniques together under the Stoic banner - I've recently been confronting aspects of my personality in that sense and it made me jump a bit to read your description - it makes me think there is a bit of "There" there I should reconsider.

>Imagine something like nature, profligate without measure

If by "profligate" he means "wasteful in the use of resources" then this whole thesis falls apart immediately.

Ok, who wrote that?


It's actually Nietzsche -- "Beyond Good and Evil," Part 1, §9. I have very serious reservations about Nietzsche, but he doesn't pull his punches.


> protestantism on steroids

"Protestantism on steroids" (Puritanism / Calvinism) did conquer the world, so maybe there's something to it.

Weber made the early connection between protestantism and capitalism so it is surely no surprise that it would manifest again in modern tech hubs.

Easy fix: instead of Stoicism and weightlifting, choose Catholicism and BJJ. Similar benefits, but with much more human interaction.

Plus it comes with an extra helping of pedophilia!


There are probably a number of aspects:

- Rejection of the cult of personality & "cult of the founder": Stoicism promotes rejection of ego and constantly finding points for growth and adaptivity

- A reaction to current events in politics and tech: Stoicism promotes grounding yourself in what you can control, and not worrying about what you can't (such as the past, increasing complexity in social networks, whether or not North Korea or Trump is going to drop the bomb somewhere, etc.)

- Big names with big platforms like Tim Ferris have been promoting the philosophy lately

...though this is anecdotal and probably doesn't encompass all the reasons.

It's not just tech people, and stoicism (and its brethren in Buddhist philosophy) have been around for a very, very long time. I suspect it's just a right place and right time coincidence as it shares a lot of similarity with CBT, which itself is gaining traction as a psychiatric treatment.

Well, I was apparently practicing Stoicism for quite some time and then just found out there was a name for the way I try to live my life. And that people for millenia have put a lot of thought into perfecting this way of life and maybe there's something I could learn from them.

  flavor of the month
This has been a 'thing' in tech for at least 5+ years.

The stoicism movement has been going strong for more than a year (on HN and elsewhere).

Why, though? What has produced that effect?

It has all the elements to make it popular. The image of a strong and resilient sage and the implied idea that you can transform into such a being if you just follow the instructions. The gravitas from its association with the Ancients and books with cool titles penned by badass sounding people (most notably Marcus Aurelius). The appearance of having discovered a "life hack" based on rational thought. The fact that it can be neatly packaged into the modern day American self-help culture we are familiar with (LinkedIn "influencers", Tim Ferris-type books, self-affirmation, etc.)

Stoicism unites key principles of early Christian thinking, Buddhist thinking, and modern humanist techniques for transcending mental illness (CBT/DBT.) It filters down from here through almost every bit of psychological self help you can find. (See Scott Alexander's "CBT is in the water supply") - and through it, stoic principles.

The modern world confronts us with a planet of people who are better than us at one thing or another and a planet of risks we have no ability to confront. We might work five years on a project that never ships without ever experiencing the gratification of chopping wood to burn that night. I would bet there's a genetic correlation between programmer / good at tech and overthinking / predisposition to anxiety; even if not, humans placed in an environment which causes our brains to run wild will look for some sort of peace. We find this from many sources - especially through addictions (legal, illegal, television, refreshing HN) - prescription medications (different from addictions? sometimes!) - but the idea of being able to train ourselves out of our internal agony is quite appealing.

Stoic philosophy itself is the foundation of the ideas which come to us through every part of culture, so people who are into tracing the source are liable to find it sooner or later.

My opinion is that the popularity of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has brought the attention to Stoicism. I reached Stoicism by reading about CBT, and started reading about CBT because I wanted a proven tool to improve and modify my psychological state.

I would not call myself Stoic but there is a lot of wisdom there. I particularly like Seneca and Epictetus. The best modern book for me is "A New Stoicism" by Lawrence C. Becker.

This is also how I got interested in stoicism. This isn't about becoming some Ubermensch. It is about meaningfully improving one's ability to meet the commitments one makes and the obligations one has to loved ones.

Is CBT seeing significantly increased interest amongst people in tech? I haven't noticed that, but I also haven't been looking.

I actually happened upon Stoicism through both CBT and researching meditation. I had some anxiety issues that I more or less learned to control by implementing CBT on myself alongside meditation. Those issues aren't gone, but I now have the mental tools to manage them such that it doesn't affect my life.

Later, I found that if I tweaked those techniques, they were also useful for staying focused and clear-headed in stressful startup situations, as well as compartmentalizing work and life, and a number of other things. In practice it meant that by adopting certain mental exercises, I was able to sleep better, work better, take care of myself better, etc. I didn't encounter the term "Stoicism" until several years after, and I found that its practices aligned pretty well with what I was already doing.

I don't call myself a Stoic because it's really not a religion or philosophy to me. It's more of a set of mental practices that help me go about my life with a clearer head. However, if you dig through Stoic writings, there's a ton that resonates.

How would you best summarize those mental practises?

I'd probably summarize it into three general exercises:

1. Notice when I am feeling stress, anxiety, fear, anger, etc. Mentally identify and acknowledge the feeling, and then step out of the cycle. Meditate if I'm really having trouble detaching from the immediate situation.

2. Once I'm no longer stuck in the immediate situation, I have the space and mental presence to figure out the source of my problem. Why was I feeling anxious or stressed? What event caused it? What about it was bothering me?

3. Once I have that answer, I can understand my emotional situation rationally, and I can decide what I'm going to do about it. My goal isn't to stop feeling emotions, but rather to address the root cause or the mental pathway leading to it.

For the anxiety issues I mentioned, the conclusion to step 3 was to slowly recondition myself by exposing myself gradually to the triggering condition. Rationally, nothing bad was going to happen, so I needed my brain to learn that. I combined that with developing mental exercises to distract myself and get me away from the downward feedback loop of anxiety.

For general life situations, the answer comes closer to Stoic philosophy: understand what I can and cannot control, and then either decide to do something about it, or let go because further worrying about an effective dice roll is a waste of energy. Trying to influence the odds and making contingency plans counts towards "doing something about it."

The key to my happiness day to day was understanding that I actually have much more agency than I might initially assume. One or even several setbacks don't necessarily mean I fail my actual goal, and situations that look bad often only look that way because I think I'm out of options, or because I'm trying to eat my cake and have it too when I actually need to make a hard choice.

Among all of this, the key insight for me that CBT and meditation unlocked was that many of my limitations had a huge internal mental component, and if I can intentionally mold how I perceive the world, I can live much more effectively, and happily. The goal isn't to delude myself so much as to put myself in a mental state where I can be be more open-minded and deliberate.

The fact that our brains have "bugs" and biases has seen a significantly increased interest, so I suppose that methods to solve those bugs has seen an increased interest too.

I guess some books and talks from people who discovered stoicism i.e. maybe by reading Albert Ellis and put around some modern day self-help stuff. William Irvine, Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferris and so on. Stoicism as a label and some nice quotes from ancient authors and their stories make up for a good sell.

I still think stoicism is interesting but you are better off reading the original texts especially Epictetus and some books from historians about that time-frame for some context and criticism.

I don't think it's limited to just tech, I think it's become popular because of this guy Tim Ferriss and his TED Talks.


At the modern core, stoicism is self-therapy. It is about handeling set-backs by tempering one's emotions. Considering the amount of hype and bubbles in tech, this probably seems reasonable. Especially when you think the hype is nothing but empty hype.

It also just seems more sustainable than constant jubilee, and more honest for considering the possibility of failure.

Well, a certain sort of therapy.

It's pretty insightful to connect the increased interest in stoicism to the boom-and-bust cycle. As the specter of a bust looms larger (hallucinatory or not), I can imagine that people who would be affected by the bust might find themselves seeking out ways of psychologically weathering the storm. Stoicism ain't it, in my book, but it certainly presents itself as if it were.

I feel like it might be related to the interest, in the US at least, in Buddhism (like the secular version that people talk about with regards to meditation and yoga classes etc). I'm not sure where that started though.

Buddhism is about experiencing and understanding that suffering though, not trying to claim to be a great rock standing against the restful sea.

I think there is value to be derived from Stoicism but I'm leery about any reason to commit whole-heartedly to an extreme.

Perhaps it may be the increasingly worrisome and out of control political climate?

Brainstorming some ideas.

The name. 'Stoic' sounds cool. ('Ubermensch' just doesn't sound good. (Ahem. Was tempted to write "sounds like a Jewish thing".)

It's reassuring for those who feel they have no real control over their lives.

A strong resonance with a puritan loathing for the impure world.

Apatheia is the emotion for the modern world.

Edit: the four fold cure of Epicureanism is too easy: Don't fear the gods, don't worry about death, what is good is easy to get, and what is bad is easy to endure.

To be honest, I find Nietzsche more inspirational and life changing that the Stoics (of course, I'm more familiar with Nietzsche).

My favorite Stoic book is called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Extremely accessible compared to original Stoic texts and honestly changed my outlook on life for the better, especially how I view expectation and disappointment.

I came here to mention this. You beat me to it.

This is the third time I've seen this book recommended this week, time to download I think!

One of the best books I ever read was from a dude named Seneca (a stoic Roman philosopher).

The book is called On the Shortness of Life: Life is Long if You Know How to Use it[0].

[0]: http://amzn.to/2klxZky

Written in 49 AD, so out of copyright, and available free online. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Brevitate_Vitae_(Seneca)

Even better, although I like having a physical copy.

I suggest reading its twin On the Happy Life, as well as Letters to Lucilius.

Thanks. I haven't heard of On the Happy Life before. Letters to Lucilius is on my list but I haven't gotten to it yet.

This makes me remember this TED talk, that was the first time I heard of Stoicism. https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_ferriss_why_you_should_define_...

I really enjoyed this talk.

>Title: Stoicism in Five Minutes.

>Duration: Approx. 10 min.

Is it some meta stoicism to react stoically to that?

I like the principle of Stoicism. But I don't see how can that help with the suffering of the people I care about. I am fine with losing my job, my home or my social position (or at least so I think), but what about my spouse? my children? How can I still feel calm when I fail to support them?

I don't think the point is feeling completely calm when things are going bad.

For me, at least, one of the points of stoicism is learning how to take a step back and look at the situation through more rational lenses, and then figure out how to deal with it.

Take the situation you mentioned: failing to support for one's family. I think someone who strives to practice stoicism would do something like this:

- What are the reasons I'm failing to provide for my family? Am I spending too much? Is my salary too low? Is the place I live too expensive? Does my family spend too much money?

- Of those reasons, which ones do I have full control of? (This is were you can actually act on).

- Which ones do I have some control of? If your family is the cause of financial distress, there are some actions you can take (like talking to them and explaining things have to change), but you can't fully control their actions and thoughts.

- Which ones do I have no control of? Don't worry about these, there is nothing you can do anyways. But here is the catch, you are eventually going to worry about them. This is what people fail to get about stoicism. It is not a silver bullet that is going to take away all your worries. It is an instrument to help you overcome them, with reason. It takes some practice to get good at it.

Overspending is the first class citizen problem, there are many other problems can happened.

Billions of people live surrounded by crimes, wars and poverty.

> how can I still feel calm when I fail to support them

If your family can't continue "functioning" (like in pay rent maybe for a smaller place, pay for medical, pay for children's education) with only 1 active member working (your wife), you're living waaaay above the level you should be living at... Only one gaining form this is your employer because he knows you're "job addicted" and he can basically make you do anything. You're in a really bad deal, even if you're "livin' the dream" and not noticing it.

I enjoyed this podcast about stoicism http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/stoicism.htm

stoicism++ but I did a double-take at the site: it's a personal vanity site but styled as a MOOC? Ah, it's a hosted Teachable site on a custom CNAME.

I wish I could be truly stoic. Or a Vulcan. Instead, I constantly walk on the edge of a panic attack.

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