Why Stoicism is a scam

In the TV series The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes cites Yoda’s dictum, ‘Do or do not — there is no try.’

But what *should* we do?

Marcus Aurelius, who ruled after the most peaceful time in the Roman Empire and before the most violent time. Coincidence?

For Yoda, we will do what is right only when we ‘let go’ of ‘all [we] fear to lose’, since ‘fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering’: ‘fear is the path to the dark side’, therefore.

Now, in the Dropout, Holmes doesn’t feel fear per se. But she doesn’t feel much besides. Holmes does feel frustrated at the downfall of her fraudulent company, but tries to let go of the fear of losing that, too. By the end of the movie, Holmes is not so much immoral as amoral — lacking in care or concern, for anyone or anything, except, that is, herself.

But I don’t think this makes much sense. Everyone cares about something other than their self. Otherwise, what is the point in living? Holmes clearly unlocked her narcissistic psychopathy through trauma, trauma which disproved the idea that other people were going to take care of her. Constantly looking back to her parents for support and affection, she found herself rebuked, to the point of being completely alone in the world, filling the void with hollow romance and the most evil of all ambition: the pursuit of monetary profit, whatever the moral cost.

But really what Holmes wants is power. The whole series glistens with the glamour of her disgraced career and personality. There is even scheduled to be a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, if Amanda Seyfried’s chillingly affectionate performance in the Dropout series was not enough. Hollywood celebrity has something akin to the Roman political world as depicted in the British TV series ‘I, Claudius’ — or, more recently, ‘House of Cards’.

In the early-modern period, classical virtue was restored but without its moral content, leaving the political form bare and empty. In time, all sorts of strange concoctions filled the void, from nationalism to culture war. The reason for the evisceration of morality stems, ironically, from its elevation in medieval Europe — when theological concerns where held above all other issues, whatever the human cost.

But Christian Europe is not the only place to be infected with the pestilence of dehumanising ideology. Buddhism also acquired this high-minded valence after Alexander’s conquests of the known world led to the intermingling of eastern and western religious and philosophical ideas. Stoicism found an elective affinity with both Buddhism, on the one hand, and Christianity, on the other. While Buddhism emphasises meditation and Christianity contemplation, Stoicism emphasises the mediation of impartial repression of emotions. You’d think this is more centrally a Christian fancy, since Buddhism is about acknowledging the emotions, not eradicating them. But think about the WHS Smith book shelves these days: they’re all full of Buddhist and Stoic ‘wisdom’, not the writings of Augustine or Aquinas. Though there is often a handy copy of the Bible.

In bringing us away from the human being and towards God (Christianity) or Nature (Buddhism), the legacy of Stoicism is a fundamental repression of what it means to be human. For Stoics, the Platonic-Aristotelian logic of human beings standing between beasts and gods is turned on its head: humans must instead repress their beast-like characteristics to become gods, or embrace those characteristics in a way that prevents catharsis of repressed emotions.

Elizabeth Holmes was given Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations by her parents before embarking on her ill-fated Stanford degree. Yoda’s advice on repressing emotions follows this meditative tradition of emotional repression. It leads to panicked emotional outbursts. It cannot succeed. It is a scam.

Equally, although Stoicism is a scam, it is also an almost inevitable one. Attempting to pave a path between repression and catharsis is nearly impossible. The effort put into maintaining balance and avoiding cyclical extremism will inevitably put a strain on anyone practising this navigation between Epicurean pleasure worship and Stoical pleasure avoidance. Ultimately, the effort will lead us to forget why we are balancing in the first place: to do what is right, or (what is more likely) to die trying. Life depends on a kind of Stoical acceptance of the world that cannot ever lead to happiness. The good life depends on something a little more complex, but perhaps even more ungraspable. Therefore, it would be a scam for me to claim that we can avoid the harsh teachings of Stoicism, like how it is folly for Yoda’s students Dooku, Windu, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan to try ways of balancing moral attachments without following Yoda’s strict routine of repressive detachment. Synthesis of these balanced extremes is equally elusive. Perhaps it is worth a try.

2 thoughts on “Why Stoicism is a scam

  1. Hi Edmund,

    I think you are correct in your conclusion that Stoicism doesn’t lead to the Good Life like many are seeking but I don’t necessarily think that it presents itself as such a solution.

    Many people turn to Stoicism in times of trauma and crisis as it can be an effective coping mechanism to detach from your current surroundings.

    However, Stoic characters in media are not often presented as role models or to base your life on. Many of them are narcissistic and selfish, lacking empathy such as the protagonist of Nightcrawler. Other stoic characters are instead portrayed as foolish or weird such as Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. Similarly, we see characters who try overly hard to be stoic, such as Sheldon Cooper emulating his hero Spock, and have mental breakdowns often.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is true that Stoicism doesn’t work out well for people, even in fiction. I think Yoda is a rare case where there is Stoical theory and advice but a somewhat more sensitive approach in practice. This may also be Luna’s approach. I think Stoicism and repression go hand in hand just as Epicureanism and catharsis do. But balance requires a wisdom that traverses the gap. I think we can find the keys to true theory in true practice, where extremism rarely succeeds for as long as the more moderate path which incorporates the benefits of Epicurean and Stoic extremes into a balanced whole.

      Liked by 1 person

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