Welcome to a New Gathering Place, Practicing Stoics!
For those who have been following me on Twitter for a while: it's good to finally converse with you in more than 280 characters. The launch of this blog has been long overdue, and if you give me about 15 minutes of your time I'll explain why.
This will be a long piece; part background story, part mission statement.
I'll start by introducing myself, and tell a bit about where I grew up, why I became interested in Stoicism, and how I struggled to understand the philosophy. I'll then move on to my analysis of the modern Stoic community on the internet, and propose a solution to the problem I see.
In this article, I'll assume you already know a thing or two about Stoicism. I don't expect you to be an expert on philosophy, nor do I expect you to be a practicing Stoic. Just knowing the basics is enough.
Ready? Let's start!
In this article
- Who am I, and how did I become a Stoic?
- How I struggled to understand Stoic philosophy.
- The problem with Stoicism in the internet age.
- How to fix Stoic education.
- The purpose of Practical Stoicism.
My journey to philosophy
Let's start by properly introducing myself.
My name is Ramses, and I'm a Stoic. I've been practicing Stoicism for over three years now, after thinking for several years I didn't need anyone to tell me how to live. Poor life decisions caused me to rethink my course in life numerous times. In the end, it led me to Stoic philosophy.
It took a while to get there though, so let's rewind a few years.
For a long time, I believed philosophy was for people with too much time on their hands. Being raised a Christian, I thought I knew where to look for answers on how to live. When I left Christianity, I thought I could easily rely on my instincts to find my path in life.
Going to college, I was not exposed to philosophy. I was living a kind of philosophy though, called "enlightened hedonism". That was way more fun and rewarding than my previous lifestyle. I held a fine balance between partying and studying, which seemed to work great.
I'm a foreign language teacher by training and thought I was destined to teach for years to come. I had taught myself Spanish in college and believed my "language hacking" skills would earn me big bucks once I got to teach.
Boy was I wrong!
The offering of teaching jobs was poor, and the pay was even worse. Student debt and no perspective. You must think I found philosophy at that moment.
A recruiter tried to sweet-talk me into an IT job. I always liked computers, taught myself to code, and could never shut up about new technologies. I took the recruiter's bait and left education to work for a large software company.
Working for a multinational I got to travel a lot. Work hard, play hard. The cliché was real for me.
But living large is living on borrowed time. My health started to deteriorate, and I was ignoring all the warning signals. It was not long before I started to become ill, and was forced to drastically change my direction in life.
The first step was to face some things from the past that I had chosen to ignore. Meditation helped tremendously, and I became a daily practitioner about 5 years ago (which also explains the logo of this website).
Through mindfulness meditation, I became aware of the bullshit stories I was telling myself. This way I was able to reason with myself and consciously change course.
Starting and ending the day with mediation has done a lot in terms of how I react to situations. But becoming aware of thoughts and emotions did not provide me with a comprehensive system to live by.
When I was still a practicing Christian I knew where to look for directives on how to live. But the Christian way of life did not make me happy ("So what if I get a reward in the future, I need direction on how to live this life. I don't have proof this future thing might happen anyway!").
Praying had always felt very passive, and meditation soon felt not enough either.
But then the internet gods started to suggest content to me on ancient philosophy. This was the beginning of my "conversion" to Stoicism.
Stoic ideas sounded so easy and logical, yet they had never entered my mind before. They were close to many of the principles I was raised with, without the religious fluff. And although Stoicism is older than Christianity, it seemed way more modern and practical.
I was hopeful, thinking: "Learning how to become more than just a functioning adult? Through a structured system that makes sense? Oh what's this, it's even evidence-based? Where can I sign up!?"
- Leaving Christianity, I thought I could rely on gut feeling to direct me in life.
- The "enlightened hedonist" lifestyle is only fun while it lasts.
- Mindfulness meditation helps to become a calmer person but does not necessarily provide a guide to life.
Struggling to understand Stoicism
Soon I devoured all modern Stoic books I could get my hands on. I also started to read the classic Stoic texts and worked my way back to Socrates.
The introductory books on Stoicism were nice, but they lacked power. Some were written by "Silicon Valley Stoics" mostly interested in how to stay calm as a start-up entrepreneur. Others were simply confusing; they were by no means meant for people who were not familiar with modern philosophy. It all felt very stuffy or lifehacker-y.
After about a year I had seen enough. Stoicism was confusing.
I had no time to get used to the academic language most modern Stoic writers seemed to love. I had hoped to find some actionable advice, not a 6-page essay on the subtleties of the Greek word oikeiosis.
The lifehacker scene had looked interesting, but it also lacked any depth. Maxims are simply not enough to become the best version of myself.
Still, during my first year of studying Stoicism, I had been incorporating certain Stoic techniques that improved life little by little.
As a by-product of my new diet, I became familiar with long stretches of fasting which was not easy to stick to. That it was difficult made it the perfect Stoic exercise for me.
Like a young Marcus Aurelius, I thought that practicing voluntary discomfort would make me a philosopher. So after a doctor recommended me to sleep on the floor to alleviate back problems, this became a recurring ritual.
Cold showers helped reduce skin problems. That I hated them seemed like a good Stoic practice, so I decided to only take cold showers from then on.
I have Type A tendencies; I warn you in advance.
For a time, that's all I did. I would return the Mediations, Letters, and Discourses from time to time, but virtually ignored the online Stoicism scene. The return on investment of digging through Stoic blogs and communities was too low.
I was still aware I needed further understanding of Stoicism to make it a life practice. I was becoming more disciplined through voluntary discomforts, but this was not resulting in more happiness. The virtues were not top of mind, because I had no real understanding of the principles behind them.
Regardless, I was growing as a person. By going back to the wisdom contained in the ancient texts, and reading bits and pieces of content produced by modern Stoics, I noticed that I was changing my behavior. Whereas before my endeavors were always all or nothing, I was now slowly chipping away at my bad habits.
For example, the more often I journaled, the easier it would become to stick to my goals. I did not have to continuously remind myself to act a certain way; I was simply doing it if I set my intention during my morning journaling session and explored the concept on paper.
As a result, I started to make smarter decisions that influenced my happiness positively.
Beginning this year I decided to take my Stoic studies serious again, and make the philosophy my own. I always thought I had to interpret Stoicism the way other writers do, but that has been holding me back.
Now that I found momentum in my studies and write to myself extensively, my understanding of Stoic philosophy has grown by leaps and bounds. It's no longer just cultivating knowledge and habits; my view of the world has changed dramatically for the better.
- Reading books on Stoicism does not make you a Stoic.
- Stoic exercises work even if you're not a Stoic, but it does not necessarily lead to happiness.
- The powerful words in ancient Stoic texts are what causes people to keep returning to Stoicism, but we need to make the philosophy our own.
Stoicism has a marketing problem
The modern Stoic community can be roughly divided into two groups: academic Stoics and the so-called Silicon Valley Stoics. These are the people making the most noise on the internet, where Stoicism is primarily discussed.
The academic Stoics (unsurprisingly) work in academia and often found Stoicism through the philosophy department of their university. On the other hand, there are the entrepreneurial types that welcome any framework that helps them handle their emotions and anxieties in doing business.
They may be the most prolific in writing about Stoicism, but their material is not always accessible (regardless of what group they belong to).
In academic flavored Stoicism there's a lot of explaining of abstract concepts, dissecting of Greek words, while the actionable advice is buried somewhere deep in their articles. The average Jane who works 9-5 outside of academia does not have the energy left to do a deep dive into academic philosophy. She is not their target group. At least, that's what it looks like.
Academics are also very busy reinventing Stoicism, often to fit their current worldview. They seem to think it's necessary to try to disprove the Stoic concept of god. This has resulted in movements like Modern Stoicism and books like A New Stoicism by Lawrence Becker, which tries to make the case to reform Stoicism to fit an atheist worldview.
Then there are people like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, who did a lot to popularize Stoicism. They combine many different philosophical practices to live an "optimal minimalist" life (as Tim Ferris likes to call it). Stoicism is just a small part of their lifestyle.
Lifehacker Stoicism was also my entry point to Stoicism. But if you're like me and are looking for a serious philosophy for life, these are not the people to follow.
No matter how much I respect Ferriss and Holiday, they're not full-blown Stoics and merely pick and choose Stoic techniques to supplement their lifestyle. If this is what works for them, great, but it's not what most people are looking for.
Apart from academic and lifehackers, there are other (smaller) groups discussing the Stoic lifestyle in depth. The most notable of these are the traditional Stoics.
Traditional Stoics come together in their Facebook group, but I also see quite a lot of them hang around on Reddit and Discord channels. These people treat their online meeting place like a digital stoa poikile and are not ashamed to discuss personal and deep philosophical matters.
I'm all for people coming together online with like-minded people. The academics and lifehackers should discuss and practice their type of Stoicism. And the smaller Stoic groups work because they are small. But I think the Stoic community has more potential.
We're now missing out on a huge group of people who would benefit from Stoicism and could contribute, simply because the philosophy is not packaged right for them.
- Lifehacker Stoicism may seem attractive to many but does not lead to personal transformation.
- Academic Stoicism, due to its use of language, does not resonate with the majority of people.
- Practicing Stoics should repackage Stoicism in a way that makes it easier to understand and appealing to dive deep into the philosophy.
Let's repackage Stoicism without losing depth
Friedrich Nietzsche said that "Christianity is Platonism for the masses".
Stoicism does not need this kind of repackaging. It's inherently a practical philosophy that's been proven to work. The problem is that only parts of the philosophy receive attention, and not the whole.
As I already mentioned, the two groups most prolific in promoting Stoicism tend to do away with parts of the philosophy. Modern Stoicism is trying to get rid of the Stoic God, and lifehackers are only interested in building their resilience.
This shows in the state of Stoic education.
No matter where you look, the emphasis is on the ancient Stoics. We have works by Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and some fragments from other ancient Stoics. As if they were the bible, these works are quoted over and over. And each group picks and chooses the parts that fit their arguments.
Don't get me wrong, the ancient texts are essential to gain a deep understanding of Stoic philosophy. But is it really the best way to start for new students of Stoicism?
I've seen introductory books on Stoicism that spend a whopping 100 pages naming and explaining all the philosophical systems that arose around Stoicism's founding. They then only discuss Stoicism up until Marcus Aurelius.
Is this interesting? Yes.
Is it useful for the newcomer who has no idea what Stoicism is? The newcomer who thinks Stoicism is about not showing emotions? Not so much.
By focusing on history and theory, you don't make ancient philosophy attractive to most people. If this is how you approach Stoicism, then you'll attract the academics.
On the other hand, by focusing on simple Stoic exercises that give zero explanation about why this lifestyle works, you get blogs and Instagram accounts filled with "inspirational quotes". Those may attract thousands who seek direction in life, but it does next to nothing in the department of personal transformation.
I believe Stoicism could benefit millions around the world, regardless of culture - although the Western mind seems especially suited for Stoicism.
Stoic philosophy has the potential to be a help for people in these crazy times of political extremes and connectedness through the web. We just need to bring it to them, in a way that does not require a philosophy degree.
My point is this:
People's attention span is low, so you'll want to trigger them with wisdom that they recognize at first sight. But then should start a gradual learning process.
People need to be taken by the hand and shown what the Stoic worldview looks like. The problem is, you don't get experience this view of the world in just a few days; it takes hard work and persistence.
To help people now, we need to make philosophy easy to understand and show value right away.
This is why we need to discuss Stoicism in terms the majority can relate to. We need to trigger them to start doing just one thing, so they can see if it benefits them.
And if it does, we're here to help make understandable the next piece of Stoic philosophy.
All the way to the deep ends, into personal transformation.
- Modern Stoic teachers pick apart Stoicism, using only the parts that appeal to them. This takes away the power of Stoic philosophy.
- Too much emphasis on historical context will scare away potential practitioners, as it brings philosophy into the academic setting.
- Stoicism has the potential to help millions if guided properly to understand the whole of Stoicism.
The purpose of Practical Stoicism
For the last three years, Stoicism has been purely personal for me.
I don't tend to talk philosophy at work, and I try to keep my practices to myself. Online I don't participate that much, although I do love to have Twitter conversations and chat with other Stoics on Discord (check out the channel of the r/Stoicism subreddit!).
With my friends, however, I have lively discussions.
Talking about Stoic principles has helped me understand my life philosophy more deeply. Through discussions and teaching friends bits and pieces of philosophy, I force myself to think and to write things down. When they come back for more or to share their experience in applying Stoic principles, my understanding of Stoicism grows too.
For long I've been thinking of a way to further my progress as a Stoic while helping others. I hope to give this ambition form by starting Practical Stoicism.
The idea for Practical Stoicism arose when I became familiar with online learning communities. By participating in online courses with others and by creating them, I've grown a lot professionally.
Online learning has helped me so much that a year ago I decided to pursue a second bachelor's degree (psychology) through an online university.
I've seen how well this type of learning works for many, and hope to replicate it for Stoicism. It's one of the main reasons for founding Practical Stoicism.
But Practical Stoicism will be more than online courses.
You're currently reading the blog part of Practical Stoicism. Here I want to start public discussions about Stoicism and life philosophy in general.
I'm a student of Stoicism like everyone else and am continually structuring my thoughts when it comes to philosophy. By blogging about current topics in the Stoic community I hope to be able to contribute to the discussion and engage with others.
Another part of Practical Stoicism will be an index of links to useful content made by others.
I've been gathering Stoic materials for years and seen that most top-notch content rarely receives views nor is discussed. By providing an ever-growing repository of Stoic materials I want to provide a platform to Stoic authors, so we can help more people together.
- Online courses are super valuable to learn almost any topic, and the Stoic community could benefit from actionable course content.
- The blog part of Practical Stoicism is to openly discuss the pros and cons of the Stoic lifestyle and to hear from the community what they're struggling with (myself included).
- The best Stoic content online does not receive enough clicks, Practical Stoicism will hopefully act as a gateway to this material.
What to expect next
During the launch period of Practical Stoicism I'll focus on distilling the content I found online into free tools for every level. Think of popular exercises like journaling, visualization, meditation, but also exercises that were developed by CBT and Positive Psychology practitioners. The focus will be on actionability, with clear instructions and an abundance of background information to learn about the why of each exercise.
Next up on the blog will be an article to make the case for becoming a philosopher.
The weekly newsletter will be sent out on Mondays, and the first month I'll share Stoic exercises to get you started. These will be part of a free course I'm working on, and by signing up for the newsletter you'll get the content first.
Through the newsletter, I'll also share links to useful materials created by other Stoics. You can sign up by entering your name and email address below.