Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism

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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. the-tao-of-senecaWhereas 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 a variety of traditions, including mindfulness training. Yet I find the critiques below 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.nietzsche1882

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 counterpoint to the “communitarian ethos” of modern political philosophy. 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)

Nietzsche’s 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 draws 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 increasingly pressed 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”. 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”. The alternative, for Nietzsche, is to intensify the passions and ride the rollercoaster of pain and pleasure to a higher form of joy–an experience of life more intense than balanced happiness. This higher joy, Ure explains, “hinges on maintaining our vulnerability to chance”.

One way of reading Nietzsche’s later rejection of Stoicism is that he criticizes what the self-help industry now calls mindful techniques (esp. negative visualization) because such practices ultimately provide a buffer of indifference rather than intensifying exposure to chance. The mindfulness industry is based on integration and balance, and the “untimely” message of Nietzsche is that we might need to occasionally interrogate those virtues.

However, it’s also true that, in a sense, Nietzsche advocates an “integration” of sorts with his will to power. But Nietzsche’s integration works through active differentiation and selection rather than suspending judgment. The main target of his critique is how integration is achieved.

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6 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism

  1. Wuth stoicism you learn to control your response to a situation but are also more open to change as you respond to the reality as opposed to what you want to happen. It canbe community based as your interactions with people are based on things as they really are and you don’t bring all of your previous baggage into social interactions- you respond to just that instance. As such you can deal with actual situations, and not what they evoke in your memory, rationally and find new answers that may be to everyone’s benefit. It is far from perfect but it is certainly not anti community.

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    1. The community ethic vs. Stoic eudaimonism is Nietzsche’s dichotomy. By contrast, I think Pierre Hadot emphasizes the point you’re trying to make in his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life (which is mainly about the Stoic tradition), where he suggest Stoic philosophy creates a civic community.

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  2. This is great, something that’s been bothering me. I’m a semi-serious meditator and have studied Stoicism quite a bit. Both mindfulness folks and Stoic folks say it’s not about numbing your experience, but all the detaching and re-romanticizing is tough to do without losing the good stuff.

    Nassim Taleb even offers a barbell solution: “Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

    A couple of years ago I found this NIetzsche quote challenging Stoics and their ‘nature’:

    “So you want to live ‘according to nature? Oh, you noble Stoics, what a fraud is in this phrase! Imagine something like nature, profligate without measure, indifferent without measure, without purpose and regard, without mercy and justice, fertile and barren and uncertain at the same time, think of indifference itself as power — how could you live according to this indifference? Living — isn’t that wanting specifically to be something other than this nature? Isn’t living assessing, preferring, being unfair, being limited, wanting to be different? And assuming your imperative to ‘live according to nature’ basically amounts to ‘living according to life’ — well how could you not? Why make a principle out of what you yourselves are and must be?”

    (I posted it to a Stoic group and there was quite a decent conversation: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Stoicism/permalink/678692558850517/ )

    Would love to see more on this! I’ve been going back and forth and haven’t made much progress determining which leads to the Good-er Life

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  3. This was a good read, thanks. I do enjoy elements of Stoic philosophy, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is perhaps my favourite example of how philosophy can be both bursting at the seams with wisdom even expressed in very concise, but still quite beautiful prose.

    Nonetheless, I do have concerns about parts of it, and part of my concern is one you mention at the start of this essay: It seems to be a response or defence mechanism against a world full of avoidable evil and suffering. Instead of putting in the very difficult work of fixing it, one merely ‘accepts it’ as a given and learns to live with it in a way that maintains a ‘healthy’ balance internal psychology.

    But I think I agree with the sort of Marxist critique here. It potentially acts as a kind of opiate, sedating people into just accepting that these awful things we see every day will always happen and things can never be any different. We ought to take very personally the suffering all about us and let it in motivate us to action.

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