How to be a stoic - a cynic’s guide

10:40 05 January 2017

Zeno of Citium, considered the founder of stoicism, was born in Cyprus in around 334BC

Zeno of Citium, considered the founder of stoicism, was born in Cyprus in around 334BC


It is the latest self-help craze, but being stoical isn’t as easy as it sounds

How to Stoic

Self-help means helping yourself to whatever you can get.

Stoicism is philosophical self-help, helping you to help yourself to anything you can get, philosophically.

Sally couldn’t be a Stoic. She was a woman, you see.

“Stoics are magnanimous,” said Jasper. “They rise above the petty troubles of the world, like poverty and that.”

John couldn’t control the air conditioning. It made him really mad. He was a rubbish Stoic.

Jed was self-medicating, snorting Zeno in the committee room before the meeting.

Jeb told his wife she only looked fat in her dress if she thought she did. He is divorced now.

Max was a lapsed Stoic. He liked cute animal pics and dreamed of going to yoga with Sarah.

Doug coveted a flat-screen telly, a big expensive one with flashy things. That was OK because he was a “modern” Stoic.

Stoics were the great men of history. They were tough, powerful dudes. So they must be right.

I’m cool with it said Josh, vaping anxiously.

“Keep Calm and Carry On,” said Bill, walking briskly past the rough sleeper.

“Man conquers the world by conquering himself,” Rod said to himself. Well, it was better than dieting.

Victor wanted to control everything. He was a control freak.

Ted likes sports. He doesn’t fence. He uses his fists.

Miles was distressed by women in the boardroom. Stoicism helped him tough it out.

Axel grew a great big beard. He wanted to be a Stoic.

Dick was a hacker, a life hacker, hacking his way through life.

Bo had work addiction. He couldn’t stop checking out his daily exercises on his smartphone.

“Very little is needed to make a happy life,” said Dave the Stoic, “just a hot woman and a fast car.”

Rex dealt with his status anxiety stoically. He didn’t care what anybody thought of his BMW X6 G-Power Typhoon Widebody.

Oscar said Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was for wimps. Real men went for Stoicism.

Stoicism is trending. That means that it is the trend, which means that it must be good for you.

‘He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe’: Gary’s divorce lawyer was unconvinced.

Dan wasn’t a Stoic. He was a Bear. That’s something else. Wrong book mate.

Peter binge-watched 10 episodes of Absolutely Fabulous. He was a survivor, self-recovering from Stoicism.

Self-help books are hot right now. If you’ve a how? there’s a how-to book for you.

Theresa May is a sport. She’s thinking about writing How to Brexit.

A few people, it is said, are working on the sequel, How to Bloxit. Perhaps the time will come. Such books thrive in a world in which if you big something up enough people will go for it. But don’t fall for the hype. I’m not buying it, and neither should you.

The latest shocker involves a sales offensive from an author who epitomises the age of Trump and Farage. This is Ryan Holiday, a PR strategist turned self-help guru with his own marketing firm.

He lives on a Texas cattle ranch with a walk-in gun closet. Holiday is pushing his own version of Stoicism, a 2,300-year-old philosophy, cashing in by rebranding it as a self-help system for over-achievers.

He told a New York Times reporter: “if you’re shameless enough, you can sell anything”. She appears not to have fallen for his charms, describing him as ‘a professed media con man’ and detailing his ‘depraved’ and ‘galling’ business tactics.

Holiday’s how-to Stoicism puts its central tenet as: “you don’t control the world around you, you control how you respond”.

He flogs it through his website “Get Your Free Daily Stoic Starter Pack. A 7 Day Dive Into Stoicism”. I’ve seen better sales pitches for time-shares. But here’s the thing: Stoicism actually counsels self-effacement, and repudiation of one’s desire for esteem and wealth, detachment from material gain. It is fundamentally about virtue. On all these counts Holiday is no Stoic, bigging up his success in capturing the market. It is all reminiscent of ‘Thank you for Smoking’, in which a guy who PRs for the tobacco industry sells the line that smoking is perfectly healthy.

Holiday’s own how-to is The Obstacle is the Way. I’ve read it so you don’t have to. It is comically macho. The bravado kicks in from the off with Marcus Aurelius in his battle tent, intended to flog you the ‘timeless truth’ of ‘the obstacle is the way’.

Personally I don’t really identify with Roman emperors. Holiday does though. Hilariously, he places himself squarely in the shoes of the great Roman: “this philosophic approach is the driving force of self-made men… we are the rightful heirs to this tradition”.

From this he departs entirely from philosophy and instead launches into some bad psychology instead, on things like recognising your power, steadying your nerves, and controlling your emotions. It reaches a climax with “Bill Clinton reads Marcus Aurelius”.

The book concludes with another big sell: “Postscript. You’re Now a Philosopher. Congratulations”. This tells readers they are joining the ranks of the great men of action, and blathers on about various famous dead men who read Stoicism.

This is all designed to sucker readers with an enticing but basic error, that of the blatant appeal to authority: Hey dude, those powerful guys were into this stuff, it must be sick! Holiday follows up with a hackneyed attack on intellectuals and academics, no doubt anticipating that such have the power to expose him.

They, according to him, have “deprived us of philosophy’s true use” and he gets in another dig, inviting readers to write them off as not-doers. This is all bosh of course, the greatest Stoics being intellectuals and academics of the ancient world, and not politicians or emperors at all.

In any case, I don’t see how anybody could take Holiday’s ode-to-macho seriously, although he trumpets that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a fan. The best response is to laugh, and then look elsewhere for worthwhile philosophy. And so in that jocular spirit, we might play a little.

The only self-help books worth buying are Penguin’s spoof Ladybird books for grown-ups. These are brilliant parodies of first-world problems and their hipster solutions. I have the one on mindfulness, which includes this delightful little nugget of hilarity:

“Alison has been staring at this beautiful tree for five hours. She was meant to be in the office. Tomorrow she will be fired. In this way, mindfulness will have solved her work-related stress.”

So save your pennies, buy a bag of chips and kick back with my parody, How to Be A Stoic...

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the 
University of Cambridge

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