Distinguishing Between Ancient Wisdom And Pop Culture Emotionlessness

Stoicism, an ancient philosophy originating from Greece, is finding its way back into the limelight of modern culture. Yet, as with many teachings that are revived or repurposed for contemporary audiences, Stoicism is often misinterpreted, leading to misconceptions that are starkly different from its core principles.

Stoicism’s revival in modern discourse, while a testament to its value, has led to a series of modern-day misunderstandings. As the philosophy gets distilled for social media soundbites and casual conversations, nuanced principles are often oversimplified or misinterpreted. Below are some of the most common misconceptions people have about Stoicism with a capital “S”.

Emotionlessness: One of the most widespread misunderstandings about Stoicism is that its adherents promote a life devoid of emotion. On the contrary, Stoicism doesn’t teach suppression of emotions but rather understanding and managing them. Stoics believe in experiencing emotions fully but responding to them in a measured and rational manner.

Indifference to Others: Many believe Stoics promote a life of solitude and indifference to the struggles of others. In reality, Stoicism emphasizes the importance of social duty and the interconnectedness of all humans. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote extensively on the importance of understanding and compassion for fellow beings in his seminal work, Meditations.

“Human beings are social animals, created for the sake of one another. So either teach others, or be patient with them.”

Material Rejection: There’s a misconception that Stoics are strictly against material wealth or any form of earthly pleasures. While Stoicism teaches that external possessions shouldn’t be the core of one’s happiness or self-worth, it doesn’t advocate for complete renunciation. Rather, it advises recognizing the fleeting nature of material wealth and not letting it govern one’s life.

Fatalism: Some perceive Stoicism as advocating for a fatalistic attitude, suggesting that one should simply accept their fate without resistance. However, Stoicism teaches recognizing what’s within our control and what’s not, and acting with virtue and integrity within those bounds. As Epictetus famously stated, “we must distinguish between things we can change and things we must accept.”

Modern Misconceptions: Stoicism’s revival has led to some bizarre associations. Using Stoic teachings to endorse unrelated modern movements or ideologies is but one example. It underscores the need to approach ancient wisdom with discernment, caution, and in the context of the time.

While Stoicism offers tools to navigate life’s challenges, it doesn’t provide a one-size-fits-all solution. No philosophy, for that matter, does. Its teachings are more of a guiding framework rather than strict principles.

In today’s age of rapid information exchange, where ancient teachings can be distilled into bite-sized, often oversimplified messages, it’s important to seek deeper understanding. Every enduring philosophy, from Christianity to Existentialism, shares these same problems. Whether you’re interested in Stoic thought or just someone encountering the term in passing, remember to go beyond surface interpretations. It’s crucial that we return to the source material if we want to avoid mischaracterizing and misunderstanding the core tenets of Stoicism.