stoic

The Modern Man Is Getting Stoicism All Wrong

We think of stoicism as keeping our emotions hidden, but if you trace the concept back to its classical roots, it’s actually the complete opposite

I learned how to masturbate, how to smoke a cigarette like a cool kid and the difference between the main trigonometric functions, all before I began to vaguely understand that it was human for grown men to cry. 

I was 14. My dad was fighting back tears as he explained to my brother and I why he had fallen out of love with my mom. I blurrily remember the moment because of how uncomfortable it made me to watch tears inch down his face for the first time, seeping into the veneer of what I thought it meant to behave like a man, corroding that most stoic of masks he always maintained from the inside out. 

It would be disingenuous to categorize my dad as unemotional, but he was never sad. He never cried. The weight of our world always seemed light enough for him to carry on his back without wincing. It’s okay for mom to cry, I used to think — women are emotional. But dad, he doesn’t get depressed. Blue was never his color. To be like my dad, to be a man, was to keep all that locked away, hidden from others. 

As I would later discover, my understanding of male stoicism — even its designation as a masculine ideal, one that implied men should endure rather than display their emotions — was, to a degree, a perversion of actual Stoic philosophy. “Nobody’s going to pretend that ancient culture in general was feminist,” says Anthony Long, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of California at Berkeley. “It wasn’t. So inevitably when you’re reading ancient texts and philosophy, whether it’s Aristotle or Stoicism, the male gender will tend to be emphasized and male activities will tend to be emphasized. But that has to be seen in the kind of general context. And so if you’re looking at stoicism in its foundational ideas, I would say it’s gender-free. It’s multinational, multiethnic.”

There’s no denying, however, that the contemporary understanding of lower case “s” stoicism, which Long refers to as “neo-stoicism,” is bolstered almost entirely by traditional masculine ideals. In its most commonly understood form, stoicism, increasingly considered one of the more dangerous pillars of conventional masculinity, socializes men to hide their emotions. As we’ve seen all too many times, the result of this is a proliferation of male loneliness, violence and suicide

The American Psychological Association, in fact, in its first-ever guidelines for therapists working with men and boys released last year, listed traditional notions of masculinity, marked by “stoicism, competitiveness and aggression” as toxic for men and boys. “Nobody paid much attention to these for several months, but they went viral this week,” wrote Arwa Mahdawi for The Guardian earlier this year. “This was largely due to the APA condensing its academic report into a tweet explaining that the key takeaway is that traditional masculinity is harmful and socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage.” 

But again, according to Gregory Sadler, editor of the blog Modern Stoicism, dedicated to studying the ancient philosophy, actual Stoic philosophy — based in the ancient texts of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius — does not remotely suggest that one ought to “bottle up” emotions. “That’s what lower-case ‘s’ stoicism does, and that is indeed counterproductive [and] downright foolish from a genuine Stoic perspective,” he explains. “Stoic philosophy actually provides us with a complex, robust understanding of how emotions, desires, assumptions and judgements intersect. It also gives us tools for analysis of what’s going on inside of us, and a wide range of practices that allow us — if we put in the work — to respond in more rational ways to the challenges or setbacks we face.”

In other words, Stoic philosophy doesn’t declare that a person should suppress emotions like grief, joy, pity or even shame, but rather that they should examine their origins. “You try to understand where they come from,” says Nancy Sherman, author of Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind and philosophy professor at Georgetown University. “That is, what the beliefs of Seneca are about. It’s very much like cognitive behavioral therapy — the Stoics were early proponents of cognitive behavioral therapy insofar as they thought that emotions rested on, or had at their core, certain kinds of beliefs, impressions or judgements about the world.”

For that reason, Sherman says that men need not hold up as a model classically masculine mottos like “Tough it up and truck on.” “That’s detrimental to children, that’s detrimental to men and women, partners of all genders and it’s not a human-friendly trait,” she adds. “Stoicism that sees itself only as a form of rugged self-reliance is a misguided view of ancient Stoicism and of the works of folks like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca. The Stoics very much understood our social natures. They worried about acquisitive emotions that get us too stuck on money and fame.”

According to Sadler, Stoicism — which originated as a Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in 300 B.C.E. — holds that what is fundamentally good are the moral virtues: “Wisdom, justice, courage and self-control and that we ought to center our lives around developing these virtues, and removing the corresponding vices of foolishness, injustice, cowardice and lack of self-control,” he says. Long adds that Stoicism is a way of orienting yourself to the world, meaning the natural world as well as the human world in a way “so that you can take charge of your own life,” he says. “You can recognize things that are simply unnatural and out of human control.” 

This version of Stoicism, according to Long, isn’t remotely the same as the lower case “s” stoicism, which is based, as he puts it, on the “shallowness of the internet” and suggests “reasonable men” shouldn’t express their emotions. “The appropriation of stoicism in this way is extremely selective,” says Long.  

Sadly, it’s this “selective” version of stoicism that is, at least culturally speaking, by far the more viral interpretation. In 2018, Donna Zuckerberg, author of Not All Dead White Men (which looked at how Ancient Greek and Roman philosophies are used (and misused) by alt-right men’s groups to justify misogyny), told Time that she’d noticed how men in the Red Pill community love the Stoics. “It [Ancient Greek and Roman texts] becomes a coded phrase when they don’t want to talk about white identity or white history, because that brings with it all kinds of baggage,” she told Time. “Instead they talk about Western civilization, and it’s really a dog whistle.” 

You don’t have to squint too hard to see how Stoic philosophy can so easily be appropriated by men’s rights groups, desperate to root their beliefs in a classical foundation. In this case, their distorted understanding of Stoicism is based on the idea that control over one’s emotions is a sign of moral superiority. “In appropriating Stoic thought, the Red Pill aim to change their look from angry white men to rational Stoic sage,” writes Alex Skelton in his her review of Zuckerberg’s book. 

Case in point: Canadian writer Jordan Peterson — a man who believes that the patriarchy is Western civilization and claims “the masculine spirit is under assault” and therefore advocates for a return to 1950s gender roles — is often cited as one such truth-telling sage whose writings have been touted as a return to the Stoics. Even some academics are making this claim: This article in Modern Stoicism by Justin Vacula, for example, cites a Stoic Philosophy Facebook group whose members often share work from Peterson as evidence of the many parallels between him and Stoic text. 

Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at City College of New York, refutes Vacula’s essay in a different article on the same site, arguing that Vacula’s assessment of Peterson’s writings, which contend that “white privilege is a myth,” is inherently not Stoic. “This is one of the most un-Stoic aspects of his thinking,” writes Pigliucci. “The Stoics were among the first cosmopolitans, thinking that women ought to be educated in philosophy because they are just as capable as men, that all humans are equal and that our duty is to cooperate — not compete — with fellow human beings.” It’s a disagreement likely to come up at this year’s Stoicon in Athens, an annual, international conference on modern Stoicism, organized by Modern Stoicism Ltd.

Either way, Sherman isn’t surprised by this “hyped-up masculine version” of Stoic philosophy that urges men to “suck it up.” “People always appropriate things that have some standing,” Sherman tells me. She adds that this distortion speaks directly to a growing group of men who feel like they’ve been left behind, and who “can’t get the sexual goods they want or feel like women don’t know their place anymore and aren’t giving them the sexual favors or the life that they deserve.” 

“There’s competition in the workplace,” Sherman continues. “There are black faces, brown faces, trans faces out there. There’s gender-fluidity. There’s all sorts of perturbations to an old-school, traditional world in which men dominated and brought home the bacon, and it ain’t that way anymore. And for some, that’s scary. Some view it as a call to arms, which is even scarier. Others arm themselves with Marcus [Aurelieus] on a horse, which is what you often see in these pictures. It makes me vomit almost, because I’ve read Marcus Aurelius who, at night, often wrote in a diary about social connection and fellowship. Not alienation. Not isolation.”

Long, too, sees this distorted form of stoicism as a reaction to modern feminism. “You’ve got to see these cults of masculinity as some kind of defensive posture,” he says. “It’s a version of masculinity that just takes pride in physical strength, in not being emotional, gritting your teeth, all those kinds of things.” He then cites Elizabeth Carter’s translation of Epictetus: “There is no suggestion that Stoicism is particularly masculine,” he says. “‘Masculine stoicism’ is really a modern perversion.”

Still, Sherman — who spends a lot of time teaching in hyper-masculine environments, including giving lectures at West Point and at Annapolis and the Naval Academy — tells me that she understands why, historically, masculine groups like the military continues to promote “little ‘s’ stoicism,’” in spite of the damage it may cause soldiers in the future. “I’ve never seen a place like that before, where the deprivation was so great and the expectations were so high, and so, you had to kind of just button it all up in order to move on,” she says. “Compartmentalization of that sort is, in part, what can get you through a military career, or certain kinds of careers that are very demanding and kind of male-oriented, you might say, or have that side.” 

As damaging as it might be to make lower case “s” stoicism the basis of your entire personality, Sherman does believe that there is some value to it, even as our whole idea of masculinity continues to evolve. “The body needs to be able to ‘suck it up’ on occasion,” she says. “Everything has a time and place and it doesn’t have to be the military. It can be moving up the ladder in order to get to the next reasonable place in your career.” But even then, she says that a gentler version of lower case “s” stoicism, based in Seneca’s writings, “includes being able to find the trusted space to be able to process what are really deep wounds,” after you’ve reached your goal. So as much as you need to grit your teeth and get through it sometimes, it’s equally important to drop that facade and process your emotions when you’re done.

And it’s certainly important to not use a mistaken view of Stoicism as an excuse for, basically, being a shithead. Like anything, Stoic philosophy, Sherman tells me, isn’t a “black and white picture.” “You can cherry-pick as much as you like in order to get the picture you want,” she says. “But to use Stoicism for a political agenda, and in particular, a hyper-masculine political agenda based on anxiety and hate, which are precisely what the Stoics argue us to master and understand the sources of, is really misguided.”