Why I'm not a Stoic

December 14, 2021

The Stoics were brilliant at finding meaning in life. Just not mine,

For a number of years, I read the Stoics pretty thoroughly and was super impressed with the insights they came up with, and how they are still relevant today. So much so that the current dominant take on psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is based on Stoic thought. So what’s the essence?

  • We only get raw data input from the world. It’s our choice of how we place significance on it
  • We find meaning in directing our life towards our chosen path
  • We cannot choose the outcome of what we can do, only choose how we approach it
  • Like is not best lived by goals, but by continually improving our thoughts.
  • Happiness comes from our thoughts, not our external circumstances

That’s kind of it. I 100% agree with all of those points and think the world would be a better place if more people lived that way.

However…

Stoic psychology is what gets all the focus and discussion, rightfully so as it seems a healthy mindset and approach to life. I try to use these principles daily as rules of thumb. But I’m not a Stoic.

Stoicism has three main components: logic, physics, and ethics.

Today people mainly talk about ethics, the development of inner calm, and self-discipline.

Stoic logic was foundational in the development of logic and is still in use in Universities, but rarely used outside of the classroom.

Their physics though, is a bit shit.

In a nutshell (much paraphrasing follows), “For life to have meaning, we should live life in the way life is intended to be lived”. Huh? OK, let’s try again, “A person lives a life well if they live according to their place in nature. Their place is as the rational creature. They should live rationally.” WTF? OK, it all makes sense when you understand the Stoics thought of the Universe as a rational substance (logos). Wait, what?

Stoics believed Zeus created/was the Universe, and mankind’s place in that universe was to be rational and to live well meant to live rationally. Some people water it down and say the Stoics may have meant ‘nature’ when they said Zeus. But it all boils down to the same point. For Stoicism to make sense as a whole philosophy requires believing in a rational, directed, universe. Which I think is bollocks.

Why you can’t have Stoicism without the Physics

The Stoics had some great ideas on ethics and came up with some tools for life. But it all rests on unfounded assumptions. The Stoics often used metaphor to describe how Stoic philosophy needed all three aspects. Often an egg was used to show how the three parts fitted together:

  • Logic = the shell
  • Ethics = the fruit
  • Physics = The the yolk

You take one part of these away and it’s no longer an egg. Or Stoic Philosophy for that matter.

Where that leaves me

I had high hopes in the Stoics, but they faded as I studied their philosophy closer. I can’t possibly see the universe as directed or having a goal. I see chaos. I see Stoicism as some great tools to help me think, but there’s no way I would call myself a Stoic.

30 by 30 #8


Profile picture

Written by Adrian Gray who's bootstrapping an EdTech startup in Sydney, and loves to chat with like minded people. Find him on Twitter