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Over the past decade, and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more Americans have reoriented their lives in accordance with Stoicism.
Stoicism sought what the Greeks called eudaimonia: wellness of being, or ‘the good life’. The Stoics taught that, by practising their set of exercises, practitioners could learn to see the world from a universal perspective, understand their place in it, and freely and dispassionately assent to carry out the duties imposed upon them by fate.
Stoic happiness comes from wisdom, justice, courage and moderation – all states of the individual soul or psyche, and therefore under our control. Everything else is neither good, nor bad. While these beliefs about daily life rested on a foundation of physical and metaphysical theory, the attraction of Stoicism was, and is, in the therapeutic element of its exercises: cognitive behavioural therapy, or Buddhism, for guys in togas.
Despite the benefits of Stoic spiritual exercise, you should not become a stoic. Stoic exercises, and the wise sayings that can be so appealing in moments of trouble, conceal a pernicious philosophy.
Stoicism may seem a solution to many of our individual problems, but a society that is run by stoics, or filled with stoics, is a worse society for us to live in. While the stoic individual may feel less pain, that is because they have become dulled to, and accept, the injustices of the world.
Stoicism responds to real injustices such as slavery by pointing out that we are all at least metaphorically enslaved. In doing so, it elides and occludes the real horrors of a slave society – or of our own wildly unequal world.
The world stands in the middle of a pandemic, a climate crisis, and, in many countries, our own crises of (at least quasi-) democratic self-governance. It may be tempting to embrace a philosophy that counsels us not to be sad, not to mourn the things we’ve lost, to accept all that happens as fate, and to do our duty even as the world crumbles around us.
We should mourn our families when bad things happen to them, our cities when they are threatened, our houses when they burn or flood. It is not easy to feel grief, and it is tempting to seek out exercises to suppress it.
But to look around the world and feel the pain of injustice, to understand and wallow in the hurt of the natural world – this is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of humanity, and the first step towards taking action. Because if you accept your fate joyfully, as a Stoic sage should, you’ll never try to change it.
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