A Critical Look at Stoicism — Five Potential Issues

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In today’s increasingly chaotic and stressful world, more and more people are adopting the philosophy of Stoicism to help improve their lives.

Stoicism is a philosophy that’s mainly concerned with adopting and developing certain virtuous beliefs that have to do with accepting your role in nature’s plan, not allowing yourself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or pain, striving to treat others fairly, acting rationally, and more.

Many best-selling authors, speakers, and vloggers are going as far as to say Stoicism may be the single best philosophy you can follow to live a great life.

It’s certainly true that many people have expressed an increase in life satisfaction after adopting many Stoic beliefs, and personally, I think Stoicism has a lot going for it.

But like with every philosophy, it’s important to examine the potential pitfalls and cons of Stoicism, and right now, there seems to be too much praise surrounding it. Maybe people are just hoping to get views and clicks since it’s a popular topic, instead of taking a critical look at it.

In fact, check out how many searches Google says there are of Stoicism per month:

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Now, if you want a full breakdown of what exactly Stoicism is and what its followers believe in, make sure to check out this Medium article as this article will be focusing on the cons of Stoicism.

What Did the Stoics Believe In?

The philosophy of Stoicism describes a set of virtues or behaviors a person should follow to live to achieve ‘eudaimonia,’ which translates as ‘happiness,’ or more specifically, as human flourishing and having a high-quality overall state of life.

Now, other videos and articles you’ll read on Stoicism say there are four main cardinal virtues to the philosophy, which there are, but really, it’s better to think of the Stoics’ approach to virtue and behavior as threefold:

  1. Living at peace with our own nature, as rational beings, without inner conflict and with self-love.
  2. Living at peace, or harmoniously, with other people, even those we think we despise, because we are all made up of the same nature.
  3. Living at peace with external events, by welcoming the fate that befalls us, without fear, complaint, or craving for more things.

Sounds like a pretty good philosophy to live by, right? And by many accounts, it is, but let’s dive into some of the cons, or potential cons, you may run into if you do indeed decide to adopt the life of a Stoic.

Issues with Stoicism:

The beliefs of Stoicism and how the ancient Stoics thought we should live our lives were derived from logic about their metaphysics, or what they thought reality was and how it operated.

The problem with their metaphysics is, well, it’s wrong. At least, according to the best theories modern scientists and researchers have about what reality actually is.

The Stoics believed that something called ‘pneuma’ resides in everything, including us. ‘Pneuma’ translates as ‘breath,’ which they thought of as a fiery element.

The Stoics believed events were deterministic due to everything just being nature acting accordingly to logical rules.

But because of the pneuma in us, we do have some degree of free will in how we choose to respond to these predetermined events that are going to happen to us whether we like it or not. This forms the grounds for the Stoics’ virtues and beliefs.

Science has indeed indicated that the universe is deterministic, but not that there’s this fiery God-like element or soul in us that gets to choose and, in a way, override determinism.

If that’s the case and the Stoics’ basic metaphysics is flawed, then the very foundation of how they derived their virtues and beliefs is fundamentally wrong and the philosophy comes crumbling down.

Now, you could argue that since Stoicism is a philosophy, modern Stoics could amend the metaphysics to something that is more logically correct.

Plus, just because their metaphysics is wrong, it doesn’t mean we have to abandon the philosophy.

There could be some practical things we can pull out of it that can greatly improve the quality of our lives after all.

Some people misinterpret Stoicism to mean having to suppress all your emotions, which is incorrect. You don’t need to push emotions away; you just control how you respond to them.

Some followers of Stoicism believe you should keep your emotions and your reactions fully in check at all times. According to many theories of mind, that’s not only extremely unhealthy to do, but probably impossible as well.

For example, according to many Stoics, it’s OK to feel sad at a funeral or happy for an engagement, just as long as you keep your reactions to emotions in check at all times. When you start to let emotions get the best of you, that’s when you stop living virtuously.

But one could argue that part of being truly happy and healthy and embracing the human experience is to let our emotions get the best of us.

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Some studies have shown that in order to process trauma, you need to let yourself angry and emotional to fully process the event. Keeping your emotions in check won’t do that and could make your life worse over the long run.

Same with feelings of joy and elation. Yes, for some, keeping those in check may result in a reported higher quality of life over the long run. But for others it may not, and suppressing your elation at getting engaged, for instance, could just make your overall quality of life worse.

Many existential philosophers, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, had issues with this idea as well.

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Sartre saw Stoicism as an evasion that aims to keep both master and slave in their places.

This meant that if a ruthless dictator got into power, people may try to accept that it happened instead of becoming enraged and overthrowing him.

A Stoic would argue that you can rationally work together to overthrow the dictator without letting emotions get the best of you, but as Sarte would respond, Stoicism would be unable to work the “magic” of emotion. Have you seen a successful revolution without intense emotional desire driving it at its core?

This sort of ties in to the previous point.

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The Bull of Phalaris

The philosopher Seneca talked about the Stoic sage as something the Stoics should ultimately strive to be. This is someone who has full control over their emotions and can remain serene in the Bull of Phalaris, a terrible torture device.

Now, he didn’t say that anyone could actually achieve this, just that it’s something we should strive for. Essentially, Seneca believed we should try to make our body a fortress able to withstand all struggles with calmness and strength.

However, some of our best theories of how the mind works suggest that’s impossible to do and even come close to. There’s no way a healthy functioning person will be able to fully suppress and control emotions like that, meaning the ultimate goal is impossible and potentially extremely unhealthy and perhaps even dangerous to one’s psyche.

Stoicism says that things not in our sphere of influence, like the actions and opinions of others, our health, our reputation, and our wealth, are things we have no control over.

The key to living a good life is to learn to control things within our sphere of influence and learn not to worry about things outside of it.

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Our Spheres of Influence

But sometimes it’s difficult to determine just where the sphere of influence ends, potentially making Stoicism not as practical as some may portray it to be.

For example, imagine you’re going to visit a very sick relative on the verge of death and your flight gets indefinitely delayed due to very bad weather.

One Stoic may say, “I feel disappointed but this was out of my control, so there’s no use getting too upset. Hopefully the delay will be lifted and I’ll visit them in time and wait out the weather.”

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Another Stoic may believe the situation is still in their control and spend several hours or days attempting to figure out how to get to their destination by an alternative means, like a train or driving themselves, not wanting to risk losing their relative before seeing them.

Let’s say the latter Stoic put himself through much more emotional stress driving in a storm at a fast speed, but actually ended up seeing his sick relative before they passed away, while the other did not.

Were both people Stoics because they tried to keep their emotions in check the entire time? Both clearly took much different paths and lived much different lives, though. Do they really fall under the same philosophy? Was one more of a Stoic than the other?

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Stoicism may not be for everyone. The claim that a person can achieve eudaimonia exclusively through virtue may not be true, and virtue may not be needed for eudaimonia, or a good life at all.

For example, there are other philosophies of wellbeing that may work better and be more logically correct than Stoicism.

Certainly, it seems Stoicism is a much better way to live than something like traditional narrow hedonism where we only strive for pleasure.

But, hedonism has evolved to something called ‘preference-hedonism’, which encourages us to strive for any desired mental state, instead of just chasing pleasure and happiness. With the preference-hedonism philosophy of wellbeing, we can choose to pursue happiness, sadness, pain, and more.

This philosophy allows us to adopt some parts of Stoicism that may work for us, but leave other parts of it out that aren’t making our lives better, making it potentially a better philosophy for wellbeing.

Another example is the ‘objective list theory’ of wellbeing. This philosophy basically states that there are things out there in the world that are objectively good for us and produce wellbeing, and we should strive for these.

If that’s the case, and maybe that philosophy is right, we should be striving for things outside of our control instead of not worrying or not letting it affect us.

Stoicism, for some, is yet another way to label yourself and box yourself in a rigid system for life that may not actually work. Who’s to say Stoicism is right for everyone? Can we go into other people’s minds and know exactly what they are feeling? Of course not.

So in conclusion, I’m not suggesting Stoicism is a bad way to live a life and I actually think it has a lot of pros you could apply to your life to be happier, which we’ll be getting into soon.

It’s just important to critically examine any philosophy or theory, especially when that theory is really taking off in popularity which was the point of this article.

So, let me know what you think. Do you disagree with any of these issues or maybe have additional ones you want to add?

Let me know below.

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