Ever since the release of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck back in 2016, many people have compared my work to Stoicism. Some have even gone as far as to say that my work is merely regurgitating Stoicism with a couple cool stories and F-bombs thrown in to spice things up.
Initially, I found this amusing. I had read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in college, as well as bits and pieces of Seneca. But other than that, I knew very little about the Stoics when I wrote the book. Since then, however, I’ve learned quite a lot more, and the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized that (and sorry to rain on your parade) I’m not a Stoic.
So what I’m going to do is give you a brief overview of Stoicism, look at its basic tenets, and then discuss the ideas I agree with and the ideas that I don’t. I’ll then finish the article by talking a bit more about my philosophical background—which isn’t Stoicism—but rather Buddhism and Existentialism. And then, of course, I’ll cover how these philosophies differ from Stoicism.
Get your nerd hat ready, because shit’s going to get thick.
Table of Contents
What Is Stoicism?
You often hear about the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome, but if you’re like me, it’s hard to sort out all the names and ideas in your head. Here’s a simplified way to think about it:
You’ve likely heard of Socrates. He’s the OG, the godfather of western philosophy. Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle. You’ve probably heard that too. Then, Aristotle taught Alexander the Great but Alexander the Great skipped the philosophy and went straight to conquering most of the known world. You do you, Alex.
This sounded great on the surface. The problem was that people soon realized they had different ideas about how to measure virtue. Is “temperance” three beers or twelve beers? Is it right to be honest even if it will hurt somebody or should one be compassionate even if it means being slightly dishonest?
These perennial arguments caused Greek philosophy to split into four schools of thought. These four schools would then dominate philosophical discourse for more than five centuries… until the Christians showed up and burned everybody’s books.1
The four schools were:
The Cynics distrusted all worldly things. Today, we would consider them as a kind of weird cross between minimalists and nihilists. Cynics gave away their possessions, opted to live in poverty, and turned down any favors offered to them. There are many famous stories about Cynics being homeless, running around naked, pooping and fucking in strange places, and basically being the trolls of the ancient world.
Whereas the Cynics thought everything was pointless, the Skeptics believed that little to nothing could ever be known for sure. What was virtue? What was truth? How do you know that the world was real, that your memories are real, that anything is real?
No, they weren’t smoking pot in a college dorm. These were serious philosophers with some serious points about what is knowable. They may not have been a hit at parties, but they did make important contributions to the philosophy of science—contributions that are still felt in philosophy and science today.
Meanwhile, the Epicureans were hits at parties. Epicureans believed that we’re all going to die, so fuck it, might as well enjoy yourself as much as possible between here and there. Sometimes Epicureans are characterized as “anything goes” libertines, but there was a lot of subtlety and nuance to Epicurus’ ideas — it wasn’t just all about having fun all the time, it was a different approach to virtue. That said, Epicureanism is the “YOLO” philosophy of the ancient world.
Then there’s Stoicism. Stoicism is probably the most complex of the four schools. Stoics believed in rationality as the path to virtue, and therefore, happiness. They saw emotions as potentially dangerous distractions from one’s goals. The Stoics believed that one should minimize one’s passions and make decisions based as much as possible on facts.
Stoicism has made a bit of a comeback the past decade, largely due to a number of popular books by Ryan Holiday and William Irvine, as well as outspoken support from prominent thought leaders like Tim Ferriss. Stoicism has become the philosophy du jour in the world of tech and business advice and it’s not uncommon to see discussions of Stoic ideas pop up at conferences, on podcasts, or even in business books.
I think this resurgence in Stoic philosophy is great. There’s a lot of value in it. But there are also some aspects of it that I’m not so certain about.
First, I’ll go through the parts of Stoicism that I think are helpful and backed up by what we know in psychology. Then I’ll touch on some of the aspects of Stoicism that I’m a little less sure about and that is less supported by the data.
Obviously, what follows here is predominantly my opinion, backed up by my understanding of some relevant research. Many of these points can (and should) be debated endlessly. So, before you send me an angry email (not very stoic of you, by the way), just know that I know my summary here is not perfect. But it’s not meant to be.
What Stoicism Gets Right
1. Focus on things you can control, ignore the rest.
Epictetus was a slave who arose to become one of the most important Stoic voices of the Roman Empire. Perhaps his most famous and important idea was that of only focusing on what you can control.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”2
This idea has persisted throughout the millennia in various forms. Perhaps you know it better as Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Serenity Prayer:”
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Psychologists sometimes differentiate between something called an “internal locus of control” and an “external locus of control.”3 People with an internal locus of control tend to believe that they are responsible for most of what happens in their lives. They focus on what they could do better or what they can influence in pursuing their goals.
People with an external locus of control are the opposite: they blame others for their problems, find excuses to not pursue their goals, and generally bitch and moan about the world until you’re ready to put your head in an oven.
In fact, this notion of “focus on what you can change, ignore the rest” is so powerful that it’s been the core of just about every self-help movement, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Tony Robbins. It’s so ubiquitous that the genre is literally named after the idea. Samuel Smiles, the author of the 1859 book titled Self-Help, wrote the book because he wanted people to understand that, “God helps those who help themselves.”
2. Accept pain and don’t chase pleasure.
The Stoics rightly noticed that most of the stupid shit people do, they do because they think it’s going to make them feel good. People have a tendency to overestimate the benefits of something that feels good in the short-term and underestimate the costs in the long-term. Chasing things like status and wealth and excitement can backfire terribly.
The Stoics also correctly noted that most of the good things in life are painful and require some degree of sacrifice. Therefore, they framed their idea of virtue in terms of being able to resist short-term pleasures for some long-term gain.
This is just incredibly practical life advice that has become ubiquitous throughout the world. The Stoics were just some of the first to clearly explain it.
3. A good life is a virtuous life.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an extremely long article where I explained why valuing highly abstract principles such as honesty, integrity, courage, etc.—or what the ancients would call “virtue”—was, psychologically speaking, probably the healthiest thing we can do, both for ourselves, but also for our relationships and society.
I won’t try to sum up the arguments here. Instead, go read it if you’d like to understand more.
Read: How to Grow the F*ck Up
4. Materialism – what is real can be calculated and measured.
Now we’re getting into the philosophical weeds.
One of Plato’s core beliefs was that the physical world was merely an imperfect reflection of a deeper, metaphysical realm of ideas.6 Plato’s ideas were later adopted into Christian ideas of a permanent “soul” and ideas about spirits.
The Stoics and Epicureans famously took a different tact. They believed that nothing existed other than what we can see and experience ourselves. Once you’re dead, you’re fucking rat meat, bro. There’s no soul, no heaven, no spirit world to save you.
For these beliefs, the early Christian church would go on a rampage and burn thousands of books, libraries, and people. Whereas Plato’s beliefs about a parallel world of ideas and the soul were integrated into Christian theology and preserved, Stoic and Epicurean ideas would take over 1,500 years to be rediscovered, oftentimes by accident.7
Eventually, these materialist ideas did make it back into Europe in the 15th century, where they were soon devoured by hungry minds of the Reformation. These texts would then get passed around and soon inspire the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. Then everyone lived happily ever after.8
5. Memento Mori.
Finally, the Stoics were fond of a practice they called Memento Mori, or “Remember that you will die.” While that sounds dark and like something a kid with too much eye makeup would say, there’s a real practical application to thinking about one’s own death.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
As I wrote in my book, thinking about one’s death forces you to consider what is truly important in your life. It’s only by imagining not being alive that you can properly prioritize everything you are doing while being alive.
This is another idea that shows up in a number of traditional religions. I was first exposed to the idea in the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, where meditation is described as a means for preparing for one’s death. But it’s an idea that has found its way into modern times from philosophers such as Nietzsche and Camus to business leaders like Steve Jobs.
The Problems With Stoicism
1. It is impossible to detach from our emotional reactions and remain rational.
Before I dive into this, I should note that there’s a lot of debate around this subject, not just today, but apparently even back in antiquity.
One of the core concepts of Stoicism is apathy. Today, we understand apathy as a kind of laziness, but back then it meant something closer to “unaffectedness” or “detachment.”
The Stoics argued that because emotions are excited by external events, and external events are outside of our control, we should therefore detach ourselves as much as possible from being affected by them in an effort to remain rational. Seneca wrote about the process thus:
“Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it;… in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer…. So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is… virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.”9
So, the problem isn’t that stuff harms you (or others). It’s that you decided it harmed you (or others).
Obviously, there is a lot of truth to this. In fact, I’ve argued in my books that this realization is at the heart of building resilience.
But does this mean we should be entirely indifferent to harm? Should we have no opinions or judgments about our emotions at all? What if someone kills our family member? What if someone is sexually abusing a child? Aren’t these righteous reasons to get angry or indignant or hateful? These questions arose in the Stoics’ time and the question of how much we should detach from our external experiences has been up for debate ever since.
From the get-go, people criticized Stoics of being heartless “men of stone.” Many Stoics argued that it wasn’t that you got rid of all emotions, it was simply that you trained yourself to be unmoved by them—that you are always able to pursue virtue in even the most heated of moments.
But, even then, that’s probably just unrealistic. With modern psychology, we know that emotions penetrate much deeper into our conscious thoughts than we originally thought. Much of what we experience as rational thought is still highly laden with emotions. It’s actually impossible to separate the two — and worse, when we believe we’re detaching from our emotions, we’re often simply tricking ourselves. Not only is being unaffected by our emotions probably impossible, but often we find that people who try to resist their emotions usually need a lot more therapy than those that embrace them. Paradoxically, it’s only by engaging and expressing our emotions that they lose power over us.
2. It is impossible to be entirely rational.
I think one of the reasons the Stoics went astray on the emotion question was simply because their understanding of human psychology was much simpler than it is now.
Plato famously posited that the human mind had two parts: a horse and a chariot. The horse was our emotions and the chariot was our reason. Everyone back then assumed that the goal was then to tame and train our inner horses to behave and do as they are told. In my book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I refer to this as the “Classic Assumption” and I explain why this is wrong.
The more we understand about the mind, the more we understand that much of what we consider “rational” is merely the side effect of cognitive biases, prejudices, and faulty perceptions—you know, emotions.
I’ve written at length about how our minds often hijack us when we attempt to be rational and how we’re incredibly short-sighted in much of our decision-making. You can read two articles that describe these issues below:
But wait, it gets worse.
Sure, you might say, most of us are bad at making decisions. But we have things like mathematics and logic and science! These tools correct for our inherent irrationality.
Well, yes and no. On a practical level, sure. It’s important to apply the principles of scientific experimentation in our own lives to make sure we’re not getting carried away and doing something dumb.
But on the other hand, even these rock-solid fields of logic have been undermined and shown to be contradictory in the past 100 years. Whether it’s Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem showing that all mathematical sets are internally inconsistent, or Derek Parfit’s incredible proof demonstrating that the ideas of self-interest and individual identities are logically inconsistent, in terms of knowing what’s objectively true in the world, the Skeptics were kind of right: we don’t know a damn thing.
3. We should give a fuck about some external things.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention what is perhaps the most common ethical argument against Stoicism: shouldn’t some external events affect us? Shouldn’t we care if someone threatens to kill our friend or our boss takes credit for our work or our mother gets cancer?
I think there’s a fine line between prioritizing what you can control and focusing on what you can control to the exclusion of all else and that line is left muddy by the Stoics.
We should care about starving kids in Africa and the oceans warming and federal reserve interest rates and the fact that we’re proud of our new jacket. This is simply being human. The question is not about shutting out the outside world, but rather having the correct prioritization for the things that happen in the outside world versus our internal thoughts and feelings.
I understand that this criticism is debated, and many, including Ryan Holiday, vehemently argue that the Stoics did not mean that we should totally remain indifferent to external events. But, to me, the fact that this clarification needs to happen in the first place is an issue itself.
My Background: Buddhism and Existentialism
I was late to the Stoicism party. I didn’t read the Stoics seriously until after people began assuming I was a Stoic. Since then, I have found a lot to love in their work.
But I would not classify my work as Stoicism. While there is overlap and many similar messages, my focus and prioritization is a bit different.
My background is primarily Buddhism (in my twenties) and existentialism (in my thirties). There is a lot of overlap between Buddhism, Stoicism, and existentialism but there are also some key differences that are worth understanding.
Buddhism and Stoicism
In many ways, I think Buddhism and Stoicism are perfect complements to each other—the strengths of one compensates for the weaknesses in the other.
But, to me, Buddhism handles the nuance of emotional attachment much better than Stoicism does. Whereas the Stoics focus on an apathetic detachment from their passions in favor of reason, Buddhists believe that both emotions and reason are equally illusory. Therefore, to detach yourself from emotions in favor of reason, to a Buddhist, is just as much an error as attaching yourself to your emotions.
I think the extra step the Buddhists found that the Stoics didn’t was the illusory nature of “no self”—i.e., the idea that the ego doesn’t actually exist, that it’s merely a ball of tightly knotted beliefs that can potentially be undone. While the Stoics correctly pursued minimizing the ego, to my knowledge, they never went as far as recognizing that the ego itself can be dissolved entirely.
That said, I think the Stoics’ approach to how to go about living your actual life is far more practical than Buddhism. Buddhism is pretty hardcore. It believes that everything is illusory and, therefore, anything other than sitting in a cave and meditating until we achieve enlightenment (or ego dissolution) is pointless.
But even when you’re not meditating for years on end, Buddhism is stuffed with tons of convoluted rules and prerogatives. Aside from the Four Noble Truths and Five Aggregates, the Eightfold Path is full of divisions, sub-divisions and lists of minor rules within them. Many of these rules are incredibly ambiguous and hard to pin down (i.e., “don’t be rude” or “no unwholesome states of mind.”)
I find the simplicity of Stoicism incredibly appealing in this regard. Stoicism recognizes that virtuous acts require a constant effort, that virtue can be approached but never permanently achieved, that what is “right” in one context may not be “right” in another. Due to the infinite complexity of our lives, this strikes me as a far more realistic approach to living a good life.
Existentialism and Stoicism
Existentialism is a loose school of philosophy that began with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the 19th century and came to prominence in the mid-20th century, primarily through the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.
Similar to Skeptics, existentialists start with the assumption that it is impossible to know anything for sure and any attempt towards a concrete rational understanding of the universe is going to be completely limited at best, horrifically wrong at worst.
But instead of focusing on disidentifying with the world like Buddhism, or seeking rationality like Stoicism, existentialism is concerned with responsibility and authenticity.
The reasoning goes like this:
- None of us have any fucking clue what we’re doing. Our default state is anxiety because we are constantly forced into making choices in a life where we do not know what is right or good.
- Because we’re always making choices, we are inherently responsible for everything we choose to think, do, feel or experience.
- We avoid this responsibility because it triggers more anxiety. Instead we make up stories to ourselves and others about how it’s not our fault, there’s nothing we can do, why is the world so mean to me, etc. Sartre called this, living in “bad faith.”
- Once we choose that we are responsible for the experiences in our lives, it frees us to be who we really are. This is living in authenticity.
- Authenticity is acting in the world in a way that is an accurate reflection of your feelings, beliefs, and ideas.
- Emotions are not necessarily good or bad, they are simply more experiences that you are responsible for. Like anything, emotions can either hide your true self or express your true self.
- Behaving authentically requires courage and faith in oneself, but it also rewards you with a better life, better relationships, and enables you to achieve more of your goals.
You can already see some of the overlap with Stoicism here. The existentialist focus on responsibility and choice is similar to the Stoic reminder to only focus on what you can control.
The call for authenticity echoes many of the Stoic virtues such as courage and wisdom.
The necessary confrontation of anxiety in every moment is similar to the Stoic acceptance that life requires a certain degree of suffering.
In my opinion, I think the existentialists have a more realistic understanding of human psychology than Stoicism or even Buddhism.10 They understand that knowledge is inherently limited, emotions are inevitable, and that life is inherently flawed no matter what we do. Therefore, all there is to do is develop enough self-awareness to take responsibility in each and every moment for the choices we make, even when they blow up in our faces.
Long-time readers will see pretty much my entire body of work reflected in the last few paragraphs. That’s because I’m an existentialist. And while I think the Stoics lay out some fantastic tools for navigating the world and determining what is worth doing and what is not, existentialism lays a philosophical foundation that I haven’t found anywhere else.
But that’s just me…
Discover for Yourself
The American philosopher Ken Wilber used to joke, “No one is smart enough to be wrong all the time.” His point was that every school of thought is right about something. But every school of thought is also partial and incomplete.
I believe that is true. As a result, I believe that it’s our responsibility to seek out various philosophies and construct a coherent belief system for ourselves. For some people, Stoicism will be a bedrock for that system. For others, it won’t. But as any good stoic would say, that’s fine.
Seek out and discover for yourself what your belief system consists of. It’s a duty we all have and no one can do for you. My belief system is a hodge-podge of the three schools of thought discussed here.
What will yours be?
Books on Stoicism
Books on Buddhism
Books on Existentialism
- For more on this, see: The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey.↵
- Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5↵
- Rotter, Julian B (1966). “Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement”. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. 80 (1): 1–28.↵
- Tas, I., & Iskender, M. (2018). An Examination of Meaning in Life, Satisfaction with Life, Self-Concept and Locus of Control among Teachers. Journal Of Education And Training Studies, 6(1), 21-31.↵
- Boone, C., Van Olffen, W., & Van Witteloostuijn, A. (2005). Team locus-of-control composition, leadership structure, information acquisition, and financial performance: a business simulation study. Academy Of Management Journal, 48(5), 889-909.↵
- Plato’s most famous explanation of this idea came from his Allegory of the Cave.↵
- For an awesome explanation of this, check out The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt.↵
- Seneca, Epistles, lxxviii. 13–16↵
- In the Stoics and Buddhists’ defense, the existentialists have had about 2,000 more years of human civilization to work off of.↵