Ivo Delingpole

Stoicism is back

This time it’s vapid

  • From Spectator Life
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If Marcus Aurelius were around today, would he have a podcast? The answer, of course, is no. His meditations were for his own guidance and never knowingly meant to be published. This doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have found himself shoved forward as a hero of a new resistance. His sound bites would be rendered into TikToks while teenagers put his quotations as their phone backgrounds. Twenty-somethings working in industries he couldn’t conceive of (‘digital marketing’? Quid est?) would stutter his words like mantras as they shiver in Clapham back garden ice baths. For stoicism has returned, and in its strangest form yet.

The lives of many of those who adopt Stoicism Lite™ do improve

The philosophy truly got its modern mojo back in the books of American marketer and author Ryan Holiday. Three million book sales and a top podcast later, you’re now just as likely to find Meditations or Letters from a Stoic on the bookshelf of a pop diva as your perma-bachelor Latin teacher. It helps that the most popular works have just enough mysticism to seem exotic and intellectual, but have enough pithy quotes you can highlight and write on fridge-door post-it notes. Indeed, the core philosophy of stoicism is very simple: you cannot truly fight the vicissitudes of fate, but you can learn to face them more nobly. It’s a tenet that has universal appeal. 

Inevitably though, its latest incarnation has been monopolised by Americans, with its most prominent advocates usually based in California or Austin, Texas. It’s a lot easier to be stoic when you have sunshine and surfing for 284 days of the year, less so when it’s a damp English February and you’re still waiting for the plumber to come fix your boiler (then again, it’s nothing new: ancient Greece wasn’t exactly known for its inclement weather). 

The new adherents wear their stoicism like those who’ve just embarked on a new diet. Just as keto/vegan/paleo/seed-oil-free diets are alternately presented as the one true path to health enlightenment, stoicism takes on the role of moral panacea. And where stoicism in its original form taught emotional resilience, this has been re-marketed as ‘ignoring things makes you cool’. Your cat’s died? Turn to stoicism. The Bitcoin price is going down? Turn to stoicism. Your girlfriend’s leaving you because you won’t open up emotionally? Turn to stoicism. This indiscriminate application of a nuanced and complex philosophy has ended up with its followers’ outlook being practically indistinguishable from the millennial cohort who tried to seem edgy by proclaiming themselves nihilists.

The truth is though, as easy as it is to be a detractor, the lives of many of those who adopt Stoicism Lite™ do improve. There is of course a certain self selection bias – that those who choose to investigate stoicism are already the type attempting to improve and ‘optimise’ (the buzzword of the moment) their day-to-day lives – but it helps that much of the philosophy is anecdotal and often just common sense (though sometimes you have to fish it out of a series of clauses). Just as we might cite an author who said something clever we found on BrainyQuote, Marcus Aurelius might do the same – as when he cites Asclepius who was ‘commonly said to prescribe horse-riding, cold baths, or walking barefoot’. I’ve heard my father discourse on the benefits of each of these three habits, and I know for a fact that he has never read any of the Stoics. Stoicism is, after all, one of the philosophies that emphasises the passing on of acquired wisdom to an unworldly youth, and where the wisdom’s value lies in its effect rather than just its source. 

It makes sense that nuggets of stoicism have been so readily adopted by the younger generations. Belief abhors a vacuum. Where one’s forebears would have struggled with the notion of theodicy – the idea of reconciling worldly evils with a loving god – stoicism provides a vehicle for dealing with suffering’s existence while helpfully purporting to be non-religious. ‘It’s philosophy, not religion!’ The acolytes cry. Yet there’s something comforting in communal belief and the idea of human suffering as a shared and historic inheritance. As each generation becomes progressively less tied to the religions and nations that once might have united them, they’re left scrabbling for a new fundament. Stoicism offers a set of catechisms to the disaffected that they can take or leave as they see fit. You get all the street cred of presenting yourself as worldly and well-read, but none of the stuffiness associated with actually believing in something. In his Meditations Marcus Aurelius questions man’s purpose, asking, ‘was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?’ The younger generations have answered, and they seem rather to like their ice baths.

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