A subplot in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full involves a young husband and father named Conrad Hensley, a low-level employee in a wholesale food warehouse in California, who is unexpectedly laid off. While he is interviewing unsuccessfully for another job his car is wrongfully towed. His attempt to retrieve it from the impound lot involves him in a series of misfortunes, and he winds up doing time for assault. In prison he encounters, quite by accident, the teachings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
Epictetus was a former slave who, in the early second century AD, ran a school for young Greek and Roman aristocrats. One of them, Flavius Arrianus (commonly called Arrian), recorded his lectures in an eight-volume work we now know as the Discourses. Four books survive; the other four are lost. For those who wanted a simpler introduction to Epictetus’s thinking, Arrian produced the Encheiridion (the Greek word means a manual or handbook), which sums up the major points of the longer work.
In these volumes, Arrian’s Epictetus discusses the essentials of the Stoic system. For the Stoics, all human beings are gifted with a divine spark of reason—the same force that governs nature and the universe. The goal of life is to live according to nature, which is to say, virtuously. To be controlled by one’s emotions—lust, fear, anger, and the rest—is an obstacle to that goal. By contrast, things commonly regarded as misfortunes, such as poverty, physical pain, or the deaths of loved ones, are not obstacles. The true Stoic—the sage or wise man—is one who holds fast to virtue, having brought his will into harmony with the divine reason that rules all things.
Stoicism takes its name, rather unexpectedly, from an architectural feature. Its founders met around 300 BC in Athens to talk philosophy under a shady portico called a stoa. The most important of the early Stoics, the founder Zeno (not the Zeno of the paradox) and the slightly later Chrysippus, have left no complete texts; we reconstruct their thought from mentions in later works, like the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers by the early-third-century AD biographer Diogenes Laërtius.
For complete Stoic texts we have to go to the early and middle Roman Empire. The fictional anthology in which Wolfe’s character Conrad Hensley encounters Epictetus also contains the substantial surviving excerpts from the latter’s teacher, Musonius Rufus, and the Meditations of the second-century AD emperor Marcus Aurelius. All these men wrote in Greek, the usual language of philosophy, even in Rome. It was Cicero (not himself a Stoic but friendly to the school) who began the process of translating and adapting Stoic thought for Latin readers. His On Duties draws heavily on a lost work by the Stoic Panaetius of Rhodes; it was a central moral text in the Middle Ages and early modern period. No less influential were the Latin works of Seneca, the Stoic tutor (and ultimately victim) of the emperor Nero.
For Hensley, however, Epictetus is the man. Under the spell of the Discourses he achieves a new inner clarity, standing up for himself against a jailhouse strongman who plans to rape him. Thanks to a convenient earthquake he escapes from incarceration and makes his way to Atlanta. There, working under an assumed name as a home health aide, he is assigned to a redneck real estate developer named Charlie Croker. Croker is the novel’s actual protagonist, the “man in full” of the title. Among his properties, as fate would have it, is the warehouse from which Hensley had been let go. (Overleveraged and pressed by his creditors to liquidate some assets, Croker had opted for layoffs rather than give up his antebellum plantation and corporate jet.)
Instead of taking his revenge, Hensley introduces Croker to the teachings of Epictetus. And once more the Encheiridion works its magic. Croker throws off his spiritual shackles, walks away from his crumbling business empire, and rebrands himself as a Stoic inspirational speaker, touring the new South. As the novel closes he is about to sign a deal for a show on Fox Broadcasting—The Stoic’s Hour, it will be called. “He’s dynamite,” comments the African-American mayor of Atlanta, “at least among white folks who go in for that sort of thing.”
Wolfe’s use of Epictetus may have been partly inspired by Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the former naval aviator now best remembered as Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential contest. Stockdale had encountered Epictetus in philosophy classes as a graduate student at Stanford. When he was shot down over Vietnam he drew on the philosopher’s teachings to survive in the Hanoi Hilton, as the North Vietnamese prison was known to its American inmates. He would later reflect on the experience in a brief 1993 memoir, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior.
It was Wolfe’s novel, though, that really brought Stoicism to the attention of the American public. An early beneficiary was my own 2002 translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which spent two glorious weeks on The Washington Post best-seller list before it was bumped by new arrivals (notably The Sexual Life of Catherine M.). In recent years, the Stoic revival has gathered force. Since 2010 University of Chicago Press has rolled out a new, multivolume translation of Seneca. Now it offers John Sellars’s modern encheiridion, The Pocket Stoic. Stoics are well represented in Princeton’s series Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers, which repackages works of ancient philosophy as modern how-to guides. A.A. Long, among the most distinguished modern scholars of Stoicism, gives us Epictetus’s Encheiridion and selections from the Discourses in a volume titled How to Be Free. James Romm has translated roughly a third of Seneca’s On Anger as How to Keep Your Cool. Yale, not to be outdone, has dusted off Cora Lutz’s rendering of Musonius Rufus, originally published in 1947, and equipped it with a new introduction by the Notre Dame professor Gretchen Reydams-Schils.
These volumes are aimed at a particular audience. They are mostly small books—not just brief but physically compact, about the size of the self-help books one runs across in airport bookstores. This is no coincidence. Executives who dutifully ported about their copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War can now equip themselves with Seneca or Epictetus. Instead of wondering “Who moved my cheese?” they can ask “What things are in my control?” This is an audience publishers have long coveted. My Meditations was optimistically categorized on the dust jacket as “Philosophy/Business,” and the Random House publicity machine had me write an op-ed on Marcus Aurelius and leadership to pitch to The Wall Street Journal (mercifully without success).
But the Stoic revival extends beyond the bookstore. When Wolfe turned his corporate tycoon into a Stoic motivational speaker he may have thought he was being satirical. In fact, he was merely prescient. The Stoa-curious can now head to dailystoic.com to have philosophical wisdom delivered to their inboxes or order a “Memento Mori medallion” from the online store. At modernstoicism.com they can sign up to “live like a Stoic for a week.” Real enthusiasts can attend an annual convention, Stoicon, held (at least before Covid) in cities across the world, to hear talks by classical scholars like Long or movement luminaries like Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic.
Clearly, the Stoic’s hour has arrived. This past September a British judge recognized the philosophy as a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010. The decision was prompted after a supermarket employee argued that he should not have been fired for referring to people of Asian ancestry as “greasy,” because as a Stoic he was bound to express his convictions regardless of consequences. (The court was not impressed by the specific claim.) As this case suggests, the new Stoicism is not without its darker side. And like tech-bro libertarianism or the various forms of the “men’s movement,” it warrants attention even from those unmoved by its teachings.
The moving force behind dailystoic .com, and much else in the contemporary Stoic revival, is the publicist and media guru Ryan Holiday. A former director of marketing for American Apparel, Holiday has refashioned himself as a philosophical impresario, with a particular line in Stoicism. Since 2014 he has published various popular volumes on the subject, including The Obstacle Is the Way (a title drawn from Marcus Aurelius) and Ego Is the Enemy, as well as The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living and the recent Lives of the Stoics (the last two with Stephen Hanselman).*
One might suppose that Holiday’s work represents a dumbing-down of Stoicism—the reduction of great works of ancient thought to shallow self-help manuals. This is not the case. Holiday’s adaptations may emphasize professional success over virtue, but in other ways they are very much in the spirit of his ancient models: to a perhaps surprising degree, Stoic treatises really are self-help manuals.
This understanding of Stoicism owes much to the French scholar Pierre Hadot (1922–2010), in particular to his book Philosophy as a Way of Life. Hadot was a colleague of Michel Foucault at the Collège de France, and many English readers who have never heard of him have absorbed his thought through the third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, subtitled The Care of the Self. Hadot emphasized that many works of ancient philosophy aim not at scholarly investigation but at emotional persuasion. They want you to change your life. Musonius lists the philosopher’s characteristic activities as “exhorting, persuading, rebuking,” adding only as an afterthought “discussing some aspect of philosophy.”
This purpose is reflected in some of the genres ancient writers employed. One is the protreptic, a text designed to inspire the reader to the practice of philosophy. Plato’s Clitophon is a protreptic; Aristotle wrote one too, though it does not survive. Nor, alas, does Cicero’s Hortensius, whose powerful effect on the youthful Saint Augustine is recorded in the latter’s Confessions. Another favorite genre is the consolation, a work that aims to provide comfort for the death of a loved one or for other misfortunes (exile, for instance). These are the ancient equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul or When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Several of Seneca’s essays are framed as consolations to individuals, and consolatory arguments are frequent in other Stoic texts.
Hadot’s other major contribution to our understanding of Stoicism was his study of Marcus Aurelius, The Inner Citadel. He convincingly identified the Meditations as a set of spiritual exercises intended not as a guide for others but as a kind of self-improvement project. It breaks no new ground philosophically. Rather, its obsessive reworking of basic Stoic principles reflects the emperor’s own difficulties and uncertainties. Marcus, in effect, was trying to talk himself into mental health. The tactic is reminiscent of some modern therapies for depression and anxiety. The American psychotherapist Aaron Beck acknowledges Stoic influence on his cognitive behavior therapy; both Romm and Sellars invoke the rational emotive behavior therapy developed by Albert Ellis.
Holiday was on solid ground, then, in recognizing the Stoa’s potential relevance to modern self-help literature. From the overtly Stoic tenor of The Obstacle Is the Way he has gradually shifted into a more generic mode, a blend of Stoicism and Buddhism with dabs of Lao Tzu and Polonius thrown in. His 2019 book, Stillness Is the Key, has an epigraph from Epictetus and opens with a paraphrase of one of Seneca’s letters, but it is eclectic in its range of references.
That eclecticism is itself a Stoic quality. Stoicism was always shaped by and open to insights from other schools of thought. Since it shared many of its central propositions with Plato and the fourth-century-BC Cynics, it can sometimes be hard to decide how far a thinker is being specifically Stoic as opposed to generally philosophical—Yale’s Brad Inwood has questioned whether Musonius was a card-carrying Stoic at all. The second half of Seneca’s On Anger (from which Romm’s selection mainly draws) moves from Stoic doctrine to more all-purpose persuasion. In the Moral Letters to Lucilius, Seneca takes special delight in quoting Epicurus, whose philosophical system was Stoicism’s great rival and in many ways its diametrical opposite. (Where Stoics saw fate, design, and duty, Epicureans saw pure randomness, and advised savoring the pleasures that chance throws one’s way. Yet both ultimately had the same goal: to make the individual impervious to assaults from without.)
If Stoicism is only one strand of Holiday’s teaching, its influence is still felt in his form. Ancient philosophers made use of a style of discourse sometimes called diatribe (the Greek word does not have negative connotations). Ancient diatribe is akin to the performative schtick of the modern soapbox preacher. It privileges short sentences, paradox, and memorable one-liners. Like modern sermons, it often involves extended similes: the true Stoic is like an actor, an Olympic athlete, a passenger on a ship, a soldier, a rock in the middle of the sea.
Characteristic is the establishment of a direct rapport with an audience, often through questions or imagined objections (“Now, I know what you’re about to say…”). Seneca’s shorter essays are traditionally referred to as the Dialogues, not because they are distributed among different speakers like Plato’s but because of their conversational tone. Epictetus’s Discourses reflect this oral teaching, a style well rendered in Long’s plain, sometimes brusque English.
Holiday too adopts an intimate relationship with his audience. “We want to sit with doubt,” he tells the reader. “And you? Where are you on this spectrum?” Like many Stoic works (Meditations, Encheiridion, Seneca’s Moral Letters), his writing is divided into brief units and meant to be read in short stretches. Each chapter is only a few pages long, and paragraphs can be no more than a sentence or two:
Each of us needs to cultivate those moments in our lives. Where we limit our inputs and turn down the volume so that we can access a deeper awareness of what’s going on around us. In shutting up—even if only for a short period—we can finally hear what the world has been trying to tell us. Or what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves.
That quiet is so rare is a sign of its value. Seize it.
We can’t be afraid of silence, as it has much to teach us. Seek it.
Many of Seneca’s favorite devices are on display here: the embedded metaphors (“limit our inputs,” “turn down the volume”), the urgent imperatives (“Seize it”), the “we” and “us” that proclaim “I am here in the trenches with you, reader,” the casual self-correction (“Or what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves”) that insists, “I’m just thinking aloud here.” If the resulting thought seems a little banal, well, sometimes Seneca is too.
Storytelling is another feature typical of diatribe. As Seneca remarks, “learning by precepts is the long way around. The quick and effective way is to learn by example.” Holiday is also a great teller of stories. Here is one, about Ulysses S. Grant:
Before the Civil War, Grant experienced a long chain of setbacks and financial difficulties. He washed up in St. Louis, selling firewood for a living—a hard fall for a graduate of West Point. An army buddy found him and was aghast. “Great God, Grant, what are you doing?” he asked. Grant’s answer was simple: “I am solving the problem of poverty.”
An ancient reader would have recognized this passage at once as what the Greeks called a chreia: an exemplary story about a famous person, often culminating in a memorable utterance. Diogenes Laërtius’s Lives of the Philosophers is full of such anecdotes; so are the biographies of Plutarch. In the reign of Tiberius the otherwise unknown Valerius Maximus compiled a collection of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, neatly sorted to illustrate particular virtues with stories about famous Romans and foreigners. In the same way Holiday gives us generals, baseball players, Buddhist monks, John Cage, Anne Frank, JFK, and Mr. Rogers, along with Randall Stutman, “for decades…the behind-the-scenes advisor for many of the biggest CEOs and leaders on Wall Street.”
Committed Stoics could be tiresome people, in real life as well as on the page. The historian Tacitus depicts Musonius Rufus lecturing Vespasian’s troops on the blessings of peace as they marched on Rome in the civil war of AD 69. (“Wisdom unsuited to the times,” Tacitus comments dryly.) Musonius had to be escorted away for his own protection. Under Nero, Thrasea Paetus upheld the Stoic virtue of parrhesia (speaking truth to power) and paid for it with his life; his son-in-law Helvidius Priscus perished similarly under the Flavian dynasty. But like some modern senators, they seem to have been more concerned to defend the prerogatives of their order than to oppose tyranny per se.
Thrasea had written an admiring biography of Cato the Younger, a leading politician and Stoic in the last days of the republic. Cato was prominent in the senatorial opposition to Caesar’s coup. His suicide after the Battle of Thapsus cemented his position as a Stoic saint, abandoning life when he could no longer live in virtue and freedom. Dante put him in charge of Purgatory; in the eighteenth century John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon borrowed his name for their anti-tyrannical Cato’s Letters, which influenced the American Founders (and the founders of the Cato Institute).
As a politician, though, Cato was the spokesman of a rigid and ossified conservatism, wholly inadequate to address Rome’s actual problems. Cicero, who had to work with him as a colleague, complained that he talked “as if he lived in Plato’s Republic and not Romulus’s sewer.” In the mid-first century AD Seneca’s nephew Lucan wrote an epic on the Roman civil war in which Cato marches his troops into the Libyan desert. There they test themselves against thirst and poisonous snakes while Cato, from the sidelines, exhorts them to ever greater feats of virtue. Lucan’s poem depicts a society gone haywire under the stress of civil war. In this looking-glass world, Stoicism has been corrupted too, transformed into a kind of mad martial art, with Cato as its demented sensei.
The new Stoicism also has its pathologies. As Donna Zuckerberg shows in Not All Dead White Men, the philosophy has held a particular appeal for the misogynistic “Red Pill” movement nurtured in online forums. The name derives from the movie The Matrix, whose hero at a crucial point takes a red pill that enables him to perceive the world as it really is (also a Stoic goal). On Zuckerberg’s reading, Stoicism allows these young, white men to sublimate their frustrations (sexual and otherwise) by constructing themselves as dispassionate followers of reason, shaking their heads sadly at the irrational, emotional anger of women or African-Americans.
Marcus Aurelius seems to hold a particular attraction for these thinkers, perhaps because they identify with the autocrat rather than the man. To be fair, this has always been part of the appeal of the Meditations. One modern translation is entitled, with exquisite ambiguity, The Emperor’s Handbook. The psychotherapist Donald Robertson called his study of the work How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
The link between Stoicism and autocracy is in some sense a natural one. Stoicism, after all, is about being in control of one’s own thoughts and emotions, an absolute ruler in the citadel of the mind. And why should this philosopher-king not also rule others? Stoics often use the image of a body, in which all the limbs contribute to the whole—but that doesn’t mean the hands get to give the brain instructions. Or so the Red Pillers might argue.
Zuckerberg describes Holiday as “maintain[ing] a precarious balance between the mainstream media and the Red Pill community.” This seems a bit unfair to Holiday, who has made no secret of his disdain for the far right. (Stillness Is the Key illustrates the ravages of ego with an image of “Donald Trump in the White House at night…in his bathrobe, ranting about the news.”) Yet one can see why the Red Pill contingent might find his works appealing. His earlier books, especially, depict a world of famous generals, athletes, coaches, and CEOs in which women are not prominent, indeed barely even present. His exemplary stories often feature African-Americans (there are few other minorities), but they are generally well-behaved strivers: Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson, not James Baldwin or Angela Davis.
If there’s a road from The Daily Stoic to The Daily Stormer, it’s not a short or direct one. Even so, Zuckerberg’s discussion of the Red Pillers raises a disquieting prospect: not that Stoicism has been distorted or abused by its modern proponents, but precisely that it has not—that the attraction the movement exerts on its less appealing followers reflects real shortcomings in the philosophy itself.
The jacket copy of How to Keep Your Cool praises Seneca’s “timeless wisdom.” Yet in many ways ancient Stoicism was discouragingly of its time. Despite its claims to universalism, it was (and to judge from the mail I get about the Meditations, has largely remained) a philosophy for men. For Seneca, being a woman palliates moral error, like being an animal, or acting on orders or under provocation. Translators are plainly uncomfortable with this. Romm excises a particularly sexist passage in On Anger, and he and Long both turn some generic masculine pronouns into genderless plurals. But the implied reader remains an adult male, with a wife, children, and a career.
Musonius is a partial exception here. Like Plato, he is in favor of educating girls, and believes that women as well as men should study philosophy. But his feminism is in part a rhetorical ploy enabling him to demand from husbands the same continence they expected from their wives. (Listen, buddy, if she can keep her hands off the slave boys, you can too.) He often reminds one of an evangelical youth pastor, touting the virtues of purity, marriage, and large families, not always in realistic ways. “I am a poor man,” objects an imaginary speaker, “from what source should I find food for them all?” Birds manage somehow, retorts Musonius: “The plea of poverty, therefore, is unjustified.”
Stoicism was not just a philosophy for men, but for elite men. Indeed, part of its appeal to men like Cato was that it provided them with an intellectual grounding for things they already practiced and believed. Stoicism allowed, and even encouraged, its adherents to seek worldly success, including political office; it did not exhort them to tune in and drop out (as the Cynics did), or to live unnoticed (like the Epicureans). Wealth, social status, a large and flourishing family—these are not the Good, and the wise man will bid them farewell with equanimity. But among “indifferents” they fall into the category of things that are “preferable.” “Behave as you would do at a banquet,” says Epictetus. “Something comes around to you; stretch out your hand and politely take a portion.”
Roman Stoics by and large followed this advice. Seneca, for a time the young Nero’s de facto regent, was one of the richest men in the Roman world. Marcus Aurelius spent two decades on the imperial throne. The “Stoic resistance” of Thrasea and Helvidius centered around a small group of senior senators, many of them related by blood or marriage, all of them at the top of the social ladder. These are the kinds of people who could afford to employ a philosopher as a full-time life coach. Pliny the Younger, surely the least introspective of men, sings the praises of his own spiritual guide Euphrates (so eloquent, so distinguished-looking, so salonfähig…); Euphrates’s main duty seems to have been reassuring Pliny that he too was living the philosophic life.
Modern Stoicism is likewise a movement of an elite, or would-be elite. James Stockdale recalls his Stanford mentor’s recruitment pitch: “Rhinelander told me that the Stoic demand for disciplined thought naturally won only a small minority to its standard, but that those few were everywhere the best.” Soon after my translation of the Meditations appeared, I fielded an e-mail from the office of a former Clinton cabinet member who had enjoyed the book and wanted to chat (we never managed to connect). For several years thereafter I received invitations to the Renaissance Weekend retreats that the Clintons themselves frequented, where movers and shakers exchange off-the-record thoughts and attend improving seminars. Recently an executive at a major credit-card company e-mailed, expecting me to set up a Zoom meeting so I could answer his questions about Marcus Aurelius. To have leisure for such things is itself a status marker. Bill Gates takes “think weeks,” Holiday tells us, to consider “what to assign his people to work on.”
The ex-slave Epictetus is the obvious exception here, trotted out like the lone minority on a corporate board to prove the philosophy’s universal appeal. But he is the exception that confirms the rule. As the slave of Nero’s freedman Epaphroditus (himself one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the empire), even his experience of enslavement was exceptional. That we know about him at all is the result of his association with elite men. Indeed, as with the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues, we cannot be entirely sure how much of Epictetus is really Arrian.
Slavery as such was not something that bothered the Stoics, even Epictetus. One reason Musonius wants women to study philosophy is to make them “capable of directing the household slaves.” Slaves often crop up incidentally in these works, usually as sources of aggravation: disobedient, disrespectful, prone to breaking things. Like wives and children, they are what gamers would call “non-player characters,” existing only in relation to the elite male subject. “How many slaves does the angry master drive into flight!” exclaims Seneca. “How much more does he lose by getting angry than he lost from the matter that angered him!” The wise man, in contrast, will punish his slaves in a calm and rational manner: “Socrates said to his slave, ‘I would beat you if I weren’t angry.’”
Seneca’s Moral Letters are sometimes cited as evidence of a more enlightened attitude. The message of his letter 47 might be summarized as “Slaves are people too.” But Seneca’s objections are framed almost entirely around the perceived harm that slavery does to the character of the slave-owner. And as often in the Letters, a brief glimpse of Roman reality is quickly repurposed to become a metaphor. When you think about it, Seneca asks, aren’t we all slaves—to our vices, our ambitions, our desires? If Wolfe’s Conrad Hensley is master of his own mind, is he really a prisoner? Or is the real prisoner Charlie Croker, shackled (as he sees it) to his creditors, his charity dinners, and his unsympathetic wife? Well and good, one might respond, yet such “enslavement” is a bit different from being trapped in a sweltering and overcrowded California jail fearing violence and sexual assault.
It is no accident that Stoicism figures so prominently in Foucault’s The Care of the Self. It is, in the most literal sense, a self-centered philosophy. As such, it is at its strongest in addressing the challenges we face alone: anxiety, grief, disappointed ambition, the fear of death. This makes sense given the system’s basic tenets: we should direct our efforts to things within our control, and not things outside them. But it also makes it easy to persuade ourselves that the suffering of others is not our problem but theirs. Conrad Hensley wrestles with this issue when his future tormentor targets another prisoner, one even lower in the jailhouse pecking order. “What was his duty toward this sad, strange, friendless soul, if worse came to worst?” he asks, and falls back uneasily on a chapter of Epictetus headed “That We Ought Not to Spend Our Feelings on Things Beyond Our Power.”
The Stoic focus on the self makes it easy to blame the individual for problems that are in fact structural. Its current popularity reflects the same mindset that leads HR departments to hawk “wellness” or “mindfulness” programs in lieu of a functioning health insurance system, or makes us imagine that we can beat climate change if we just install solar panels or recycle a little harder. The philosophy’s claims to universalism can cut both ways. Reminded that Black lives matter, the Stoic may respond that no lives matter (very much); it’s all in how you see it!
There is much in Stoicism to admire, and it has provided great comfort to many people. When Stockdale tells us that Epictetus helped him survive with dignity in unbearable conditions, it’s hard to argue with him: he was the man, he suffered, he was there. No one is likely to be harmed by Holiday’s injunctions (“Slow Down, Think Deeply—Look Deeper”; “Enter Relationships”; “Take a Walk”), and many readers may draw solace from them. The Red Pillers would be misogynistic ghouls with or without Marcus Aurelius.
And yet. Stoicism teaches its adherents how to accept without complaint their place in a large institution—the universe, a corporation, the Roman Empire. “Obeisance is the way forward,” Holiday has written: “be lesser, do more.” “Your job,” says Epictetus, “is to put on a splendid performance of the role you have been given.” For Seneca, controlling your anger can help you survive in a tyranny: “The wrongs done by the powerful should be received not just patiently but with a cheerful expression.” But should they, always?
“This is—not right!” shouts Conrad Hensley as the impound lot’s forklift picks up his car. Epictetus will cure him of such outbursts, but he’s entirely correct: he’s in the hands of a corrupt industry that allies itself with politicians and the police to prey on working people. The Occupy Wall Street sign observing that “shit is fucked up and bullshit” may not have been very Stoic, but it wasn’t wrong. In that sense, the current vogue for Stoicism tells us something rather bleak about our own society. “Unhappy is the land in need of heroes,” said Brecht’s Galileo; unhappy too, perhaps, the society that produces Stoics.