I’ve been taking my time wading through the different sections of the recently published Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. This collection is excellent for getting an overview of where the scholarship is on Stoicism is right now, from Ancient Greek and Roman sources to the contemporary Stoic revival.
It goes without saying that, as a non-specialist, I was initially drawn to this publication because there has been a popular revival of Stoic philosophy, especially in the past few years. I’ve covered some of this trend in earlier posts. My entry on Tim Ferriss and Tara Brach focused on how Eastern meditation was being blended along with Stoic philosophy in order to produce a version of Mindfulness ready-made for Bay Area entrepreneurs. The Ferriss-Brach hybrid (blending Buddhist meditation techniques with Stoic techniques drawn from Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius) has the goal of redefining success in a post-Jobsian era. Whereas Steve Jobs expressed the era of complete devotion to the perfect product at the expense of healthy relationships and fulfillment in life more generally, the new Silicon Success strategies emphasize a centered frame of mind that balances personal productivity and group work in order to maximize one’s influence on potential followers. Stoic Mindfulness is good for business because its emphasis on self-control and happiness mitigates awry emotions, producing an entrepreneur who is now free to hack themselves to perfection while simultaneously establishing a carefully constructed bond with potential followers. “Always Hinged” could be their slogan.
This mindful approach to success has seen some push-back recently, which I’m going to briefly summarize. I should probably clarify here that I don’t necessarily subscribe to any of the critiques below. In fact I personally practice a form of meditation that combines elements from Buddhist, Stoic, and Christian traditions. Yet I find the critiques to be a helpful reminder that there’s more than one way to understand this self-hacking trend.
The Will Davies critique: My entry on Ferriss and Brach brought in Will Davies’ The Happiness Industry in order to summarize the gist of most Foucault-inspired critiques of Mindfulness. Basically, the complaint against our culture’s obsession with Mindfulness (whether in the form of CBT, Stoicism, Buddhist, or Transcendental meditation) is that it epitomizes “neoliberal ethics,” a phrase that refers to the expected mode of living in a world that has been completely taken over by free market ideology. In such a world, the risk has been transferred from governments and corporations over to individuals. As individuals become more exposed to risk, we become sicker creatures, and yet it’s also our responsibility to dig ourselves out–to pull ourselves up by our own psychological bootstraps. Davies’ critique is quasi-Marxist inspired. His proposed alternative to individual mindful techniques is a communitarian ethos, one that doesn’t get much play in popular media.
A Nietzschean critique: That brings me back to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition, because Michael Ure’s “Stoicism in nineteenth-century German philosophy” offers a fascinating critique of contemporary Stoicism by way of Nietzsche. Since a flurry of recent self-help books have re-packaged Stoicism as Western mindfulness, Nietzsche’s commentary feels strangely relevant.
In order to appreciate Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism (and, by extension, a Nietzschean critique of Western mindfulness more generally), it should be noted that during his middle period he actually embraced Stoic elements. Ure points out that Nietzsche was especially drawn to the Stoic ethic of eudaimonism (living in such a way as to maximize personal fulfillment) as a counter-point to the “communitarian ethos” of modern political philosophy (582). A crude way to put this would be that Nietzsche saw Stoicism as offering a strong individualism in contrast to herd morality.
In ancient Stoic philosophy Nietzsche believed he had found a salutary reminder of an ancient ethic based on pride in oneself and love of fate that stood in sharp opposition to the self-contempt and hatred of this world that he saw as the basis of Christian and secularized versions of Christian ethics. (583)
This critique of Christianity is probably outdated. As Sloterdijk suggests in Rage and Time, 20th-century Christianity pivoted away from a life-denying “otherwordly” emphasis and more or less embraced a “thiswordly” ethic. But Nietzsche’s vision of Christianity is beside the point right now. What matters is the basic opposition he drew between Stoic eudaimonia and modernity’s collective ethic. The result is that Nietzsche “pinpoints and affirms the general Stoic ideal of rational self-sufficiency through independence of all externals” (583). Furthermore, for Nietzsche, this quasi-detached ethic of “going negative” is what aligns Western Stoic philosophy with Eastern Buddhist meditative techniques.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In the 1880s, according to Ure, Nietzsche re-evaluated Stoicism as he developed his own philosophy of the will to power. As he advocated for an embrace of risk, chance, and periodic self-transformation in dynamic response to those elements, Nietzsche began to criticize Stoicism’s “extirpation of the passions and idealization of tranquil self-control” (589). He came to dislike the entire Western project of rationalism, which he saw as less an expression of strength than one of “fear of chance and risk” (589). The alternative, for Nietzsche, is to intensify the passions and ride the roller-coaster of pain and pleasure to a higher form of joy–an experience of life more intense than mere happiness. This higher joy, Ure explains, “hinges on maintaining our vulnerability to chance” (591).
In his later philosophical works, Nietzsche thus criticizes what we now would call mindful techniques because they insulate subjects against the “gifts of chance” (qtd. in Ure 591). In fact these same techniques can be interpreted as an extension of Western decadence insofar as they attempt to eliminate “all sources of fear and danger”. Nietzsche argues that we’re producing a society that is increasingly incapable of motivating individuals “to risk their own or others’ security and ‘happiness’ for the sake of a higher goal” (592).
Nietzsche’s ideal sounds a lot like the version of Steve Jobs that Ferriss and Brach wanted to extirpate from the list of Bay Area saints.
Some of Nietzsche’s positions remain controversial (and perhaps rightly so). However, his challenge to risk one’s own personal happiness and security for the sake of a higher goal offers, I think, a genuine challenge to the Happiness Project and its corresponding mindful techniques.