Stoicism and self-help

I was at Kinokuniya on the weekend with a group of friends who were all looking for the same book. On the third floor of a mall in the city, Kinokuniya basically occupies the entire level, wrapping around the escalators from which you enter. Most bookstores have a history section, Kinokuniya has a Latin American history section. That row is next to Russian history, and behind cultural studies. It’s big.

There were two copies of the book, but three friends. While they argued about whether priority should be given to those who saw the book first, or those who touched it first, I walked over to the philosophy section. The covers of philosophical books are often very enticing, I expect to compensate for what lies beneath the covers; even the impenetrable Being and Time looks like a fantasy novel from a distance.

The slickest covers were reserved for the books on Stoicism – poor Hegel was in ghastly green. It was hard to miss them, perhaps 40% of the philosophy section was devoted to Stoic philosophy. Seneca rubbed shoulders with six different editions of Marcus Aurelius. Modern entrants crowded about the primary texts, countless handbooks and beginners guides, each promising happiness, resilience, or ‘the good.’ The rest of the philosophical canon was squeezed onto another shelf around the corner, where my friends were still arguing, now about whether being more likely to read it first was a relevant consideration.

Stoicism was not the first school of philosophy to deal with the good life, nor was it the last. Everyone from the ancient Epicureans to Nietzsche has opined on it. Still, Stoicism has the closest relationship with contemporary self-help. On there are over 1000 results for stoicism under “self-help.” Only one book on the first page was a primary text (Seneca), the remainder are made up of books with titles like, “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” or “The Good Life Handbook.” There was also “The Stoic Cop – Policing through Stoic Virtue.”

Mentions in books scanned by Google Ngram

Part of the attraction is Stoicism’s accessibility. Seneca or Marcus Aurelius write with clarity and a minimum of jargon. They wrote short essays and aphorisms which directly relate to everyday human issues like death, anger, or boredom. There are few areas of philosophy where a lay person can read a primary text unaided.

Still, are there are other reasons Stoicism is so popular? To paraphrase Nietzsche, what is the meaning of the desire for what Stoicism has to offer? Does the popularity of a philosophy which emphasizes self-regulation and resilience say anything about our social world?

Isaiah Berlin thought that the emergence of ideas had something to do with particular historical moments:

It sometimes happens in human history – though parallels may be dangerous – that when the natural road towards human fulfillment is blocked, human beings retreat into themselves, become involved in themselves, and try to create inwardly that world which some evil fate has denied them externally. This is certainly what happened in Ancient Greece when Alexander the Great began to destroy the city-States, and the Stoics and the Epicureans began to preach a new morality of personal salvation, which took the form of saying that politics was unimportant, civil life was unimportant, all the great ideals held up by Pericles and by Demosthenes, by Plato and by Aristotle, were trivial and as nothing before the imperative need for personal individual salvation.

All I’m saying is, there is a gap in the market for self-help with Hegel.