June 03, 2021 5 min read

Stoicism as a trend 

I've noticed over an extended period of time that there are an incredible number of Instagram accounts spreading "stoic wisdom" and getting some insane reach in the process. It's definitely a trend. However, if you look closely, these "wisdoms" are just replicating the typical calendar-saying motivational posts that I thought were more appealing to the boomer generation and actually get little attention on Instagram. The difference is probably that the propagated stoicism has an intellectual veneer; after all, it's easy to feel - through likes and mutual self-affirmation - that you're part of an elite philosophy that suggests willpower and is also represented by powerful and influential men from antiquity. At first glance, the aphoristic style makes sense to everyone; you inevitably nod as you read the short sentiments and participate in a community of the seemingly educated middle class, in stark contrast to the otherwise superficial social media content. Who to follow. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, or rather fashion model XY, food blogger XY, or some celebrity who shamelessly holds their children up to the camera to generate reach.


Why a stoic attitude fits so well into our time

Vulgar stoicism nowadays excuses the impotent ego in a world where we can consciously watch misery without really being able to do anything. The "Stoics" say, "Why should I worry about things that are beyond my reach? That only harms me." The very fact that the boundary of one's sphere of influence can never be precisely delineated makes this statement obsolete and makes it seem more like a poor excuse. Can I really do nothing against child poverty in India? Is the only one so powerless? Why do I then go to vote at all and do these people actually pay attention to where, for example, the clothes they buy come from? In fact, this alleged powerlessness is mirrored into the opposite in one's own ego; after all, as a "stoic sage," I am aware of exactly what I am NOT capable of accomplishing, while the deluded idealists rush after their dream of social change. Subtle yet impactful, it can be said that this vulgar view serves the status quo alone, while also flattering one's ego. So it also seems to me to be no coincidence that this view is ostensibly found among young men who like to be in finance and business and who like to have self-flattering "entrepreneur" written in their biographies.


Social responsibility among the ancient Stoics 

First of all, it should be remembered that the ancient Stoics were firmly anchored in the political life of Greece and Rome. They were maximally privileged and busy. One could conjecture that their teachings had already been a coping strategy for them, which they successively developed and preserved for posterity. A certain proximity to the so-called "philosophy of consolation" (Boethius) is not entirely absurd, even if it simply lacks the "bro vibe" of a Marcus Aurelius. Nevertheless, all known authors were already somewhat progressive in this sense, that they e.g. critically questioned the slave system or also the brutal Roman "games" in the circus (Seneca), likewise the "solution" actually also seems rather neoliberal, if Seneca finally comes to the conclusion that if one already holds slaves, one has to treat these nevertheless obligingly decently. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, did not tire of listing political office and the social responsibility that goes with it among the Stoic virtues. A mere reduction to what is really within the realm of the possible seems to be an understatement for a Roman emperor that is unparalleled. If we now compare ourselves in a self-flattering way with this "philosopher-emperor", then we should be as interested as possible, just like him, in defining and expanding precisely this framework of self-efficacy, instead of surrendering to mere apathy in the face of a profoundly unjust world.

What does stoicism mean today? 

With it, we can do far more than ask, "What do I care about the world I can't change?" and conclude, "I can go on just as before." We can be more than status quo warriors on our way to now becoming bookish scholars. Vulgar stoicism has become a coping mechanism in late capitalism. You take out what you can use and drop potentially onerous obligations under the table. The whole thing resembles a shopping tour in the department store of parceled-out ideologies. I am therefore not at all surprised that this phenomenon has become so popular. You could say, and I will allow myself this punch line here, that I view all this stoically. Drastically pointed, I formulate as a conclusion that vulgar stoicism is primarily interested in feeding and thus inflating the ego of its recipients, thereby excusing social inaction and, in sum, promoting the preservation of the status quo. Of course, the ancient Stoics had something quite different in mind, but you don't have to ask about that so exactly if you want to sell something. So one could likewise parody another often quoted phrase, if one understands oneself as a follower of the modern Stoicism and thereby also clearly understands, what this transports besides still at ideology: So one excuses oneself by chanting, "This is not REAL Stoicism," or even, "REAL Stoicism has never been achieved." This is actually true, because the Stoic way has always been formulated as an ideal, that is, ultimately describing a state that will never be reached, but which is nevertheless worth striving for. The ideological misinterpretations arise precisely from the formulations of any ideal, since the question of how exactly this ideal is to be realized logically follows the formulation of any ideal.


The specter of Neoliberalism behind the trend of stoicism 

Not only does vulgar Stoicism flatter inwardly, but this also makes an appearance outwardly; the disciple immediately receives an intellectual veneer, and one can follow a "philosophy" without having to soil oneself with "esotericism." This also has an outward effect, and so it is not at all surprising that there are already coaches and business guidebooks for executives who make use of aphoritic wisdom to communicate to their own audience what they are only willing to understand anyway. Thus, this vulgar stoicism actually supports self-exploitation tendencies (others call it self-optimization), as well as the obvious neoliberal dogma that everyone is the architect of his own happiness. I don't think any of this can be a coincidence. The retreat into oneself or "taking care of oneself" propagated by the ancient Stoics seems too well interlocked with Randian-style individualism and objectivism. This is also supported by the particularly widespread distribution in North America or the fact that relevant book titles are mentioned on digital marketplaces with other titles that are typically listed as evergreen books for people who want to build up a side income on their own without usually having to accept that they have to exploit themselves (keyword "gig economy" or "clickworker"). The vulgar stoicism of our days provides the appropriate ideology for this.


If you want to read more about this, I can recommend the book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher from 2009. It was published before the trend of stoicism, but it also shows other examples and gives an outlook on what we are experiencing today.

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