If you’re a frequent YouTube consumer like myself, then you’ve probably stumbled across the productivity, “life-hack” and hustle sphere of the site. These anti-procrastination “sweat-of-the-brow” warriors promote all sorts of methods, routines, lifestyle tips and attitudes in an effort to change the lives of the “lazy” and “unmotivated” online masses. Especially since the Covid-19 lockdown has forced us all into hiding, the “lifestyle gurus” and “habit-masters” have made me feel even more unproductive than usual as they smirk at me through my laptop screen. Life’s maelstrom has simultaneously thrown a curve ball into all our faces, and people have yet again turned to the internet for advice on how to cope. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that what links all of these YouTube channels and productivity pushers together is an odd trend of co-opting Stoicism into their advice and worldview. Here at the Tribune’s one man philosophy department, I’ve been asking how does this ancient philosophical school of thought manifest itself today? Are people playing fast and loose with the term? Should it be forgotten about altogether, or is it ultimately useful in extraordinary times like these?
Stoic philosophy can find its roots in Athens around 300 BC with a scholar names Zeno of Citium before branching out into numerous forms and schools taking influence to varying degrees from the likes of Socratics, Cynics and Epicureans. It would eventually grow in popularity during the Roman period with figures like Seneca, Epictetus and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius writing incredibly quotable treatises. At its core, Stoicism sees philosophy as a practice, exercise or activity in an almost transformative or therapeutic sense as a type of guidance for ordinary everyday living. Stoicism promotes control and self-discipline over passions and emotions, building good habits and living an orderly life. Stoics see the cosmos as being animated by a rational principle (Logos) of nature that determines external events, and thereby we must accept that there are things we cannot change. We have to learn to live happily within these conditions and avoid succumbing to the whims of passion and appetite. To be a Stoic is to live according to nature, or in other words what we by nature are equipped with, our rationality as the path to a worthwhile life in the midst of a harsh world.
Today many people would define their iteration of Stoic thought as the usage of inner rational will power, in order to live a more productive, thankful and disciplined life that avoids external incentives that pull us towards procrastination or an illogical usage of our time. From this perspective, in periods of crisis we should adopt a state of acceptance or indifference towards the world around us and live in strict rational moderation, as to limit our encounters with pain. While preserving many of these core elements, Stoicism has become an increasingly tired term on the internet, it’s quite frequently bandied about to such a degree that it has become an interchangeable, commodified and almost trademarked word. It seems like any run-of-the-mill online personality can instantly refer to themselves as a Stoic™ after they have a particularly productive day or do their daily meditation but will never reflect on Stoicism as an actual philosophy. Yet, within this there lies a certain degree of resignation, passivity and lack of passion when it comes to our relation to reality. For the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Stoics attempt to minimise both pleasure and pain through a disdain for acting upon fundamentally natural human passions. Intense suffering and intense joy are part of the human experience, and refusing to engage with the passions denies both. He also rejects the Stoic notion of a rational framework or Logos structuring events, claiming that life needs to be experienced in its chaotic diversity and referring to it as by nature rational or irrational, good or evil is a complete mischaracterisation of the universes amorality. You can’t rationalise reality away that easily, to reject your life as something you cannot fundamentally alter and to just resign yourself to harsh conditions or injustice because its “above you” or part of a rational Logos subtracts from human agency and potential.
However, I believe that the Stoic trend reflects a larger shift in how people come to identify themselves and what they invest their faith into during times of constant flux and change brought about by hyper-capitalism. What can be seen is a rejection of traditional religions in favour of atheism on the one hand, but on the other hand towards a vaguer modern spirituality. While rejecting claims of religiousness, people often claim to be “spiritual” in some sense but are frequently unable to define it properly. They often pull and blend elements from other religions such as Karma, good and bad energy and types of transcendental meditation into some type of religion without religion. What does that person mean when they say, “I’m sending good energy out into the universe” or claim they’ve found their inner selves by just looking inside? This “spirituality” linked to the modern condition can be seen most overtly in its commercial claims to offer reprieve from the crazy dynamics of the modern consumerist material world, a retreat from the external into a kind of inner truth and peace. The funniest thing as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, is that this western “spirituality” forced into modernity is often combined with those who promote Stoic productivity and efficiency in engaging with the very work you sought to meditatively escape from in the first place. This modern contradictory blend of mish-mash “spirituality” and Stoicism™ is a symptom of the battle for identity and alienation from the self within a system that makes you feel very small, and boy does the current state of affairs make you feel tiny.
Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist