Silicon Valley tech workers are using an ancient philosophy designed for Greek slaves as a life hack

The philosophy of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who lived as a slave, has inspired those in Silicon Valley.
The philosophy of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who lived as a slave, has inspired those in Silicon Valley.
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Stoicism is having a moment. The ancient Hellenistic philosophy, more than 2,000 years old, has recently been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian. And, as these articles note, Stoicism has caught on among those pioneers of social trends: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Ryan Holiday, who’s written several popular books with a life-hacking take on Stoicism, says the philosophy gained attention among startups after Silicon Valley guru Tim Ferriss bought the audiobook rights to his works. He’s given several talks on the subject at Google’s offices and chatted about Stoicism with such eminent figures as Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, venture capitalist Brad Feld, Digg co-founder Kevin Rose, and GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving.

In some ways, this makes sense. Though several Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism have a clear practical element, Stoicism is one of the most accessible and explicitly practical schools of western philosophy. The philosophy advocates self-control and not being overly indulgent in sensual pleasures. Marcus Aurelius, one of the early Stoic thinkers, described sex as, “internal rubbing accompanied by a spasmodic ejection of mucus.” Of course such a levelheaded philosophy has appeal in the land of hacking and Soylent.

But there’s also something a little, well, eye-rollingly predictable about Silicon Valley elites latching onto a philosophy that teaches them how to accept the things they cannot change. This is a world that’s already seen as doing far too little to address real world concerns, is largely populated by privileged white men who are less affected by such issues, and is notorious for being a closed bubble. One Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, was born a slave and wrote extensively on how to accept one’s fate. Can such a philosophy be of equal use to those coming to terms with the daily grind of life in Silicon Valley?

What is Stoicism?

Though the very word “stoicism” now means enduring difficulties without complaint or emotional displays, the ancient philosophy is more complex than that. And Massimo Pigliucci, philosophy professor at CUNY and author of a blog and upcoming book “How to Be a Stoic,” warns that no philosophy can be reduced to a bumper sticker explanation.

But, to give a simple overview, Stoicism advocates developing four virtues: courage, temperance (namely self-control), justice (which Stoics described as treating all others with fairness), and having the practical wisdom to navigate complicated situations. These virtues, says Pigliucci, allow you to develop equanimity. “You will take the good stuff in stride and enjoy it but not get too attached to it, and take the bad stuff in stride as well. You’ll develop serenity or peacefulness of mind that allows you to look at what happens in your life with a bit of detachment,” he adds.

Another crucial component is the Stoic mantra, where practitioners constantly repeat the idea that some things are under their control and some are not. Ultimately, Stoics must recognize that they can control their own will and behavior but not the eventual outcomes of such actions.

Stoicism was written for everyone, not just those enslaved—Aurelius, after all, was an emperor. But, as Sandy Grant, philosopher at University of Cambridge notes in a recent interview with the American Philosophical Association, “Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies.” And Pigliucci adds that Stoicism is certainly “more useful” for the oppressed. “If you’ve had a pampered life, sure, you can practice stoicism just like you can practice Buddhism but it doesn’t seem to be so crucial,” he adds.

Why the philosophy is “hopelessly outmoded”

Stoicism is a nuanced and compelling philosophy that has been widely read for thousands of years for good reason. So perhaps it’s no bad thing that tech gurus become a little contemplative?

Holiday insists that Stoicism is not meant to encourage passivity. By recognizing what is not within our control, he says, we can focus on influencing things we can affect. For example, he writes in an email, a Stoic wouldn’t spend time complaining about whether Trump deserves to be president and worrying about the uncertain terrible effects of his leadership. “Instead they’d focus on what’s in their control: their own actions, working for the next election, making sure they are prepared in case of an emergency, comforting others, etc,” he adds.

But even within the world of academia—let alone the popularized version of Stoicism—others are not so sure. Skye Cleary, philosophy lecturer at Columbia University and Barnard College, says she sees a “lot of problems” with Stoicism, particularly in a contemporary context. She explains, “I think there’s a really blurred line between what we can and can’t control. This is something Simone de Beauvoir talked about in terms of women’s oppression. She said it might seem like there’s very little individuals we can do but, collectively, we can and should do things to combat oppression and inequality and discrimination.”

In other words, individually, it might often seem like we have very little impact on the world—and, with this interpretation, Cleary says Stoicism “can be used an excuse to do nothing.” But together with others, we can, slowly and collaboratively, have massive effect. This has always been true, and is particularly so today with such mass action problems such as climate change and systemic racism.

Or, say, if you work in a tech company with millions of dollars in resources and the technological capabilities to transform the way we live and work.

Grant agrees that Stoicism today is “hopelessly outmoded.” The philosophy written thousands of years ago “cannot grasp the modern predicament or suggest to people how they may best live now,” she writes in an email. “Stoicism gets the question wrong. It is no longer a matter of ‘What can I control?’ but rather of ‘Given that I, as all others, am implicated, what should I do?’ The control fantasy is ridiculous in an interdependent, globalized world,” she adds.

Not only is the potential for Stoical apathy a concern, but the philosophy’s emphasis on muted emotions can seem wildly inappropriate to those who are truly angry, terrified, and upset by world events. “I think here are some things we should get upset about,” says Cleary. “I think it’s a problem if we do keep calm and go about our everyday lives in the face of terrible things going on in the world when we should be engaged.”

The problems with life hack Stoicism

The original Stoic texts aren’t exactly flying off the shelves today. Instead, the ancient philosophy has been merged with that quintessentially modern phenomenon: The life hack.

Holiday is proud of depicting the philosophy as such, and says that the Stoics themselves presented their works as life hacks. Epictetus told his students that the chief task in life is simply to identity and separate what is in our control from what is outside our control. And “Is that not a thought exercise designed to improve your life?,” asks Holiday. “Obviously he [Epictetus] and the other Stoics speak a great deal about virtue and duty and honor—which I think a lot about myself—but in terms of explaining the philosophy as its core level, they presented it as a way of thinking and a formula to end suffering, anxiety, and stress at the individual level,” he adds.

Holiday, who previously handled PR for American Apparel and has written about the art of manipulating the media, views the Stoics as similar marketing gurus. He believes the ancient teachers used lifehack elements of the philosophy to appeal to the masses and that, “Stoicism was a philosophy of the world, of the marketplace.”

Others are less convinced. Pigliucci acknowledges that Holiday knows a great deal about Stoicism and that life hacking-type tools are one element of the philosophy. These tools can provide a benefit in and of themselves, even if they don’t capture the full depth of Stoicism. “If people are interested in something more, in a broader framework to make sense of your life and decide on priorities, then one needs to study the philosophy, not stop at the level of lifehacking,” he says.

But Pigliucci warns that there can also be downsides to the lifehacking approach. “There’s a danger that if you just use the tools and are detached from the general philosophy, you could end up misusing the tools,” he says. “Stoicism, like everything else, doesn’t come with guarantees. It also comes with the idea that you’re ultimately responsible for what you do. So if you stop at one level instead of going to the next, you ought to realize you’re not getting the full picture. By not getting the full picture, you might end up worse off than you were before.”

Grant is more scathing, arguing that a lifehack version of Stoicism distorts the philosophy so much it does not even present a limited version of the ancient writings. She describes Holiday’s work as “bad pop psychology of a comically macho bent for sale to entitled and arrogant successniks.”

Ultimately, there’s great intellectual depth to Stoicism, and Holiday’s work deserves recognition for making a fascinating ancient school of thought so widely read. But with titles such as “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph,” it’s easy to see why his brand of Stoicism can grate. The notion of turning trials into triumph is an easier pill to swallow when you have few trials to face.

Cleary comments that Stoicism’s emphasis on controlling emotion can make life seem rather flat. “Being emotional, having highs and lows, are an important part of life and I don’t want to get rid of that,” she says. Around the world, people today are devastated and furious, and with good reason. Those in Silicon Valley may be practiced at remaining Stoical in the face of 2016. But then, they aren’t the ones facing the ultimate tests.