Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. Stoic philosophy consisted of logic,1 (meta-) physics,2 and ethics. There has been a bit of an upsurge of interest in stoicism recently among widely different segments of society, ranging from right-wing extremists and male supremacists to Secular Buddhists and self-help gurus. Typically, this resurgent “stoicism” ignores most of Stoic philosophy and focuses on a simplified version of selected ethical doctrines. (And that selection, moreover, depends on the interests of the group that does the selecting.3) The most prominent doctrine of this “pop-stoicism” is the idea that while one cannot control things that are external to one’s mind, one can control the mind’s response to those things, often graphically expressed in figures like the following:4
The issue I want to address here is not the origins of this doctrine and/or whether it is properly “Stoic”. (It undeniably has Stoic roots, and it isn’t hard to mine the Stoic textual corpus for quotations that support this doctrine.) Instead, I want to discuss the doctrine’s content, perverse implications, and ideological character. I will argue that the doctrine rests on two fundamental mistakes (and thus, on quicksand), but before addressing those, it is worth writing a few words about its context.
In Stoic philosophy, versions of this ethical doctrine are built on a metaphysical foundation. Specifically, the Stoics believed in the existence of human souls (which are parts or emanations of a larger universe-spanning soul-like substance, aether, or fire, but that is mostly irrelevant here). Their idea that we aren’t really hurt by things external to us (i.e., things we cannot control), but only by our responses to those things (i.e., things we can supposedly control), was based on the conviction that only the latter affect the soul (and thus, our essence). Hence, I need not concern myself with what is outside me / outside my control, because that cannot really hurt my true essence or soul. Instead I should focus on whatever can hurt my soul – that is, the way I experience things and respond to them.
Pop-stoicism rarely, if ever, accepts this metaphysical foundation. (Usually because it ignores metaphysics, and thus, consciously or more often unconsciously accepts some other metaphysics.5) Without some kind of foundations, a building falls apart or sinks in the mud,6 and the same is true of theories and doctrines. It is, however, far from clear whether pop-stoicism can offer an alternative foundation. The self-help-guru version of the doctrine appears to be based on the idea that focusing on what you control and not being affected by what you cannot control results in peace of mind or happiness or something similar, but how is that supposed to work? In case of the Stoic doctrine the answer could be that the belief that external things, like losing one’s job or getting sunburned, do not affect my true self (i.e., my soul) is sufficient ground for peace of mind, but that answer is not available to a self-help guru (etcetera) who doesn’t accept this aspect of Stoic metaphysics.7 Losing one’s job or getting sunburned does hurt someone in one way or other, and merely stating that one shouldn’t fret about these things because they are outside one’s control does neither significantly change that, nor automatically lead to happiness or peace of mind.
This is merely a weakness of pop-stoicism, however. That weakness is that it lacks a sufficiently solid theoretical foundation (or really any kind of theoretical foundation). For the doctrine’s followers that’s not a problem, moreover, as pop-stoicism is part of a larger culture that shuns theory and anything else that reeks of science, philosophy, or erudition. A much more fundamental (if not fatal) problem for the pop-stoic doctrine is – as mentioned – that it rests on two fundamental mistakes. The first of those is that it treats control as a dichotomy; the second is that its two-category classification is based on an outdated and largely delusional view of the human mind.
The first of these two mistakes should be fairly obvious. Indeed, I cannot “control” the growth of the fruit trees in my garden, but there is much I can do to stunt them (like bad pruning, for example), and there is also much I can do to help them grow (like watering them during an extended drought). It is absurd to think of control as an all-or-nothing, black-or-white-type category. “Control” is not a dichotomy, but a spectrum or scale. Some things I can control or influence to a greater extent; others to a lesser. There are things that I cannot influence at all. Past events are a good example. There isn’t anything on the other end of the scale, however. That is, there is nothing that is purely and completely under my control (and not influenced or “controlled” by anything else in any other way).
So, rather than with a dichotomy, we are dealing with a spectrum. But does the pop-stoic doctrine at least place things on that spectrum more or less correctly? The answer to that question is a resounding “no”.
Pop-stoicism is based on an old and very influential belief in first-person access to, and control over our minds. Interestingly, that idea is itself a facet of a kind of binary opposition that runs as a red thread through Western thought and that I have addressed before in this blog.8 This association explains the dichotomous (i.e., binary) control/no control classification discussed in the previous paragraph, but it explains much more than that, so it is worth very briefly recapitulating it here.
There is a set of binary oppositions in Western thought that are closely related, and that ultimately (appear to) go back to a male/female dichotomy. The following table lists some of the most important versions of these binary oppositions, but there are more, and there are many subtle variations. On rows (i.e., horizontally) the table shows conceptual oppositions; in columns (i.e., vertically), it shows associations.
The associations are what is most important here. Mind is associated with control, and therefore, what is outside the mind is associated with a lack of control. But mind is also associated with masculinity and with civilization, among others, and those are similarly associated with each other.9 This helps explain how pop-stoicism fits in a male supremacist or (extreme) right-wing worldview. Most important aspect of this binary thought here, however, is that it gave rise to a view of the mind as being mostly or even fully transparent to oneself, while the external world cannot be known and understood or even experienced as easily and directly. Moreover, this transparent mind is not just knowable to the self, but can also – at least in principle – be controlled by it (by means of reason), while the much more opaque external world (which includes the body) is subject to chaos and outside one’s control. While this view is extremely widespread and very influential (and for reasons that should be obvious upon a little closer reflection, this is is especially the case among conservatives and male supremacists), it is also outdated, if not downright nonsensical.
Fact of the matter is that our minds are much more opaque to ourselves than often assumed. We do not have perfect access to the contents of our minds, to what motivates us, and so forth. In the contrary, we know very little about what goes on in our minds, what we think and believe (and why), and what motivates us.10 Pop-stoicism is supposed to lead to happiness (or something similar), but we don’t even know very well how happy we already are or what really makes us happy (and what doesn’t).11 Our minds really are terribly opaque. Moreover, this is a fundamental problem (if it is a problem; perhaps, it is better to call it a “feature” of the mind, rather than a problem) and not something that can be fixed or substantially “improved”. Perhaps, it is possible to improve control over aspects of one minds through meditation, but it must be recognized that there is no scientific evidence for this,12 and more importantly, even if this would work, there is no reason to believe that it would ever be able to make our minds significantly more transparent to ourselves – much will remain fundamentally inaccessible. And by implication, much of what goes on in our mind – what we think, what we believe, what motivates and drives us, what we fear, what triggers us and in what way, and so forth – is also mostly out of our control. What we cannot know (because it is inaccessible due to the opacity of mind), we cannot control either. To control something, you must know its present state first, and it is the latter we cannot do.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look back at the picture shown above. According to that picture and the pop-stoic doctrine it summarizes important things that go on in the mind are “in my control”, but much of that is nonsense. Indeed the goals I set for myself explicitly and consciously are – to some extent! – in my control, but only to some extent, because what motivates me to prioritize certain goals is mostly outside my control. Moreover, most of my “goals” are just such unconscious (and largely inaccessible) motivations. Similarly, my thoughts are only to some extent under my control. Most of my thought is unconscious, and even my apparently conscious thoughts aren’t as clear and transparent to me as I would like (and as I would like to believe). My actions are partially under my control, with an obvious exception for reflexes, but often we act before thinking and our actions are controlled by our un- or semi-conscious minds. My “boundaries” aren’t really under my control, but are largely created by experiences. I can try to move them, of course, and become more or less tolerant of certain things, but there is no guarantee of success whatsoever. On the other hand, I can control to a large extent what I give my energy to, except that the choices I make in this regard are rarely rational (which is a requirement for control) and are motivated by largely unconscious motives and desires. Like my boundaries, how I speak to myself and how I handle challenges is mostly the result of previous life experiences (although genetic dispositions might play a role as well), and similarly, I can try to change this to some extent, but that is not as easy as flipping a switch.
In summary, what is presented as “in my control” in the figure is mostly out of my control, albeit not completely out of my control – that is, much of this I can try to change a little bit through intensive training and/or therapy. In as far as some of this is “in my control”, this is the same kind of control that I have over my body. I could, in principle, start a strenuous training regime to build muscle mass and look like a body builder.13 In that sense, I do have some “control” over my body. But I cannot just decide that from now on I will look like a body builder, and the problem is that the “in my control” category of pop-stoicism suggests that when it comes to the mind, I can do something very much like that.
So, what is supposed to be “in my control” is actually mostly out of my control. Then, what about what is supposed to be “out of my control”? Obviously, I cannot control the past, so the figure is entirely right there. However, I can have significant influence on everything else in the “out of my control” category in the figure, albeit to differing extents. What happens around me and what other people think of me is strongly influenced by what I do myself, so there is very significant control there. The outcome of my efforts is largely determined by (the extent of) those efforts themselves, and thus, mostly in my control (except that, of course, how motivated I am to make those efforts is mostly out of my control, as pointed out in previous paragraphs). Influencing the opinions of others and how others take care of themselves is hard, but not impossible, and thus not completely out of my control either. The actions of others around me partially depend on what I do and say myself, and can thus be strongly influenced by me as well, but of course, I have no influence whatsoever on the actions of strangers that I do not interact with in any way. A similar caveat applies to the future: I can strongly influence aspects of my own future and the future of a few people that are close to me, but I have very little influence on the future of human civilization, and none whatsoever on the future of the universe.
In summary, while what is presented as “out of my control” can indeed not be fully controlled by me, but much of it can be influenced by me, and moreover, much of it can be influenced or “controlled” by me to a greater extent than I can control my own mind. What happens around me, what other people think of me, and the outcome of my efforts are all much more “in my control” than my boundaries, how I handle challenges, and my largely unconscious goals and motivations. And depending on my personal situation, I might even have more influence on the opinions and actions of others and how they take care of themselves, than on much of what goes on in my mind and what drives me.
Hence, the figure – and thus the pop-stoic doctrine – gets things completely the wrong way around. What it presents as “in my control” mostly isn’t, and what it presents as “out of my control” can be influenced by me much more than the doctrine suggests (and indeed, often more than what’s in the “in my control” category as well). Pop-stoicism, then, is nonsense, but it is actually worse than that – it is harmful nonsense with perverse implications.
According to pop-stoicism, what happens to me is out of my control while how I respond to it is in my control. This – as explained above – is nonsense. I often have greater control over what happens to me than over how my mind responds to it, even if there are cases where I have no control over what happens to me whatsoever (but in those cases too, I have very little control over my mental responses). The pop-stoic holds that if I suffer, this is due to my inappropriate or unhelpful mental responses to the things that happened to me. Hence, rather than blaming what has happened to me, I should blame myself for my unhelpful mental responses. This idea completely ignores the fact that I have very little control over my mental responses, of course, but it is also a malicious kind of blaming the victim. Imagine telling a rape victim that she is only suffering by her own mental responses to her experience! Of course, this is an extreme case, but there is no significant difference with less extreme cases – that certain experiences (i.e., things that happened to us) were less severe does not imply that we have more control over our mental responses to them.
It is also for more or less the same reason that pop-stoicism is ideology. Ideology in the here relevant (i.e., sociological rather than political) sense is a collection of ideas, beliefs, values, perspectives, and so forth that serve the interests of an already privileged and/or dominant social group.14, 15 Thus, if some theory, doctrine, idea, and so forth serves the interests of those who are socio-economic and/or politically dominant and/or privileged then that theory (etcetera) is ideology in this sense. By implication, one can (at least in principle) unmask ideology by asking “Whose interests are being served by me believing or accepting this?” If the answer is: the interests of those who are already in a privileged position (etcetera – see above), then you’re dealing with ideology.16
Pop-stoicism is ideology in exactly this sense. By “blaming the victim” and by telling me to focus on what is in my mind and “in my control” rather than what is out there and “out of my control” it eliminates me as a potential nuisance to those who profit from the status quo. Rather than do something about whatever out there that causes suffering for me or for others, pop-stoicism tells me – falsely! – that the real suffering is just in my mind and that I should focus on that. I should not try to change the world, but merely the way I respond to it, and thus my mind. If I or others around me are poor, homeless, hungry, or otherwise suffering due to a socio-economic system that promotes inequality, then I should not try to do anything about that, but rather meekly accept the way things are and just change the way I think about them and respond to them. Suffering is all in the mind! Change yourself, not the world! Accept, don’t protest! Submit, don’t object! Based on delusions about mental self-control, pop-stoicism tells us to ignore the real causes of people’s (including my own) suffering. That’s why pop-stoicism is ideology: by dissuading people from seeking change in the world around them, by dissuading people from seeking change in the economic and political systems that cause suffering particularly, pop-stoicism serves the interests of the people who profit from those systems – that is, the socio-economic and political dominant groups (or class or elite or whatever you want to call them).
Pop-stoicism, then, is ignorant of the metaphysical basis of Stoic beliefs, is based on delusions and mistakes, leads to blaming the victim (rather than the causes) of suffering, and is ideology due to its emphasis on changing oneself rather than the world. These are all “features” and not “defects”, of course, at least form a certain point of view. Pop-stoicism is fashionable due to its shaky foundations, delusions of control, and ideological character, moreover, and not in spite of them. As such, it is a perfect match for the world we currently live in.17
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- “Stoic logic” includes epistemology, which is generally considered a separate branch of philosophy. (Epistemology concerns the nature and sources of knowledge; logic is about the principles of correct reasoning.)
- The part of Stoic philosophy that concerns questions about what exists and the nature of reality if generally called “physics”, while the common term for this branch of philosophy is “metaphysics”. Hence, somewhat confusingly, “Stoic physics” is really Stoic metaphysics.
- For example, right-wing extremists and male supremacists tend to focus on “stoicism” as a kind of idealized hyper-masculine self-control and repression of emotion, while Secular Buddhists and self-help gurus are more likely to see “stoicism” as some kind of path of acceptance leading to peace of mind.
- Graphic by Antonio Grasso. Source: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=737233827757484&set=a.220349026112636
- A metaphysics is just a doctrine or conviction about what kinds of things exist and about the nature of reality. Everyone has a metaphysics, whether they are aware of it or not, because everyone has (conscious and unconscious) beliefs about what exists and what does not.
- Except if it is built on rock, of course, but then that is its foundation.
- It certainly isn’t available to a Secular Buddhist, as she would have to reject the soul (or some other kind of self or personal essence) both on “secular” grounds and on Buddhist grounds, as the rejection of souls or personal essences is one of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism.
- See: Death, Masculinity, and Hegemony and Some Remarks on the Notion of “Cartesian Dualism” in Continental Philosophy.
- Masculinity is also associated with self-control and with repression of emotions. Civilization is associated with control over nature. And so forth. These examples can also be easily derived from the table.
- Peter Carruthers (2011), The Opacity of Mind: An Integrative Theory of Self-Knowledge (Oxford: OUP).
- Dan Haybron (2008), The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (New York: OUP). Daniel Gilbert (2006), Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Knopf).
- There are, of course, very many studies about meditation, but most of them have serious methodological problems, and to my knowledge it has never been shown unequivocally that meditation leads to better control over one’s own mind. To the extent that people who believe that meditation has given them better control over their own minds, this is more likely due to self-deception resulting from expectation than any real substantial control.
- And similarly, I could study logic, mathematics, and philosophy to strengthen my mind.
- Hence, ideology in the sociological sense is not the same as political ideology. Political ideologies include socialism, fascism, etcetera.
- Strictly speaking, an ideology doesn’t need to serve the interests of a privileged and/or dominant social group or class, but the interests of any social group or class. However, when an ideology is not in service of the dominant class, this must be specified. Thus, while “worker ideology” refers to the ideas etcetera that serve the interests of the worker class, “ideology” simpliciter refers to the ideas etcetera that serve the interests of the dominant class.
- Notice that this does not imply that ideology is necessarily false, although it usually is.
- As much as shit is a perfect match for a sewer.