NEW YORK, N.Y.—The history of Stoic philosophy is an education in the school of hard knocks. Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium, discovered philosophy after being shipwrecked on a voyage to Peiraeus. Its most eminent statesman, the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, spent his life in military camps far from home warding off threats to the Roman Empire. Its most impressive philosopher, Epictetus, was a crippled slave. Its most prominent modern practitioner, U.S. Admiral James Bond Stockdale, used Stoic teachings to bolster morale during seven years of torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Seneca complied with an order to commit suicide, offering a libation to "Jupiter the Liberator" as he exsanguinated in the tub. Cato the Younger killed himself as an act of defiance against the emperor, spilling his bowels after uttering the words "now I am my own master." Of the Stoics who did not die violently, many were banished as political nuisances because of the dangerous things on which they insisted: upright conduct in public affairs, justice toward their fellow man, self discipline, virtue.
Stoicism is simple to comprehend but radical in practice. The Stoics say that the tumult of life, and the emotions we experience as a result, clouds our ability to act virtuously. They advocate quieting our emotions so they do not influence our decisions. The Stoics see this not as an act of suppression but of liberation. The fully virtuous slave, Epictetus taught, was free in the highest sense because he was master of himself, despite earthly circumstances that others call miserable. The fully vicious emperor, by contrast, was to be pitied because he was a slave to his own body, with its nightmarish tangle of appetites, passions, and desires. Stoicism has always appealed to those who are assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because it teaches that the only important thing, their inner life, is under the control of them alone.
Ironically, given its association with hardship, Stoicism has flourished during times of prosperity, even decadence. Zeno lived during the early Hellenistic period, when Western civilization was coasting on its inheritance from Alexander the Great and Ancient Greek philosophy. Epictetus and Seneca taught during the height of imperial Rome. Epictetus had the difficult task of convincing young male aristocrats that an ascetic life of virtue was better than carousing and pleasure seeking. Seneca’s job was more challenging still: He was moral adviser to Emperor Nero.
Now the self-denying philosophy of Stoicism is making a comeback. The military is investing in a contemporary version of it, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to help veterans cope with combat-related stress. The New England Patriots are using it to teach their players mental and emotional resilience. Supermodel Elle Macpherson named one of her sons Aurelius.
The historical irony of Stoicism’s success was not far from my mind as I checked into an unnervingly hip hotel in Manhattan’s Lower East Side the night before the largest gathering of Stoics in human history. I shared the elevator up to the fourteenth-floor lobby with a group of girls with exposed midriffs who were swaying slightly in a state of pleasant inebriation—epicureans. They were headed for a nightclub on the fifteenth floor whose electronic music thumped, buzzed, reverberated through the expansive lobby below it. Their night was beginning as mine was ending. I went to my room, set my alarm for 7:00 a.m. with stoic resolve, and went to bed.
The Stoic gathering, dubbed Stoicon 2016, was held in the gymnasium of a nearby YMCA. Speakers stood up front at a simple lectern, with slides projected behind them on the wall. There was a table with large dispensers of bitter coffee and another table selling Stoic self-help books—the classics as well as more recent books with hard-bitten titles like The Myth of Self-Esteem. The rest of the gym was filled with rows of hard white chairs occupied by the conference’s 350 attendees. I was shifting uncomfortably in mine by the end of the morning lectures, but I knew better than to complain.
The crowd was two-thirds male. Other than that, the attendees seemed, well, normal. Though I wasn’t sure what I had expected. People who lived in the desert and ate locusts? People who took cold showers and volunteered for dangerous missions in the army? Calvin’s dad, who relished the character-building power of adversity?
The directory of attendees revealed the cosmopolitan makeup of the audience. While most were from the United States, others hailed from Belfast, Dublin, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Oslo, Oxford, Sao Paolo, Thessaloniki; the distance award went to an attendee from Henan Province, China. The international character of the crowd was fitting for a conference about Stoicism, a universalistic philosophy that taught (radically, for ancient times) that all humans are related to each other, all are capable of virtue, and all should be treated justly. This attribute would go on to influence Western thought through Christianity, whose apostles were certainly familiar with Stoicism.
I fell in with two young attendees from abroad—both very pleasant, non-locust-eating types who were models of Stoic cosmopolitanism. James, a businessman educated at Cambridge, had flown in from Hong Kong for the one-day conference and would fly back the next day. I joked that his 15-hour flight was the perfect opportunity for Stoic meditation. Leticia had been raised in Sao Paolo, was pursuing her doctoral studies in Denmark, and was currently studying stateside.
Interestingly, both learned of Stoicism through contemporary resources rather than ancient texts, a credit to the explosion of Stoic podcasts, blogs, and books that has occurred in recent years. They had been attracted to Stoicism because it promised to give discipline and order to their lives after falling away from organized religion and insular cultural traditions earlier in life. Neither identified as a Stoic. Instead, they were using the conference to learn more about the philosophy. They were past dipping their toes in the water, but had not yet decided whether to wade into the deep end.
I can’t know for sure, but I suspect many in the room felt the same way. During one of the lectures, a speaker asked attendees to raise their hands if they considered themselves Stoics. About 40 percent raised their hands, an impressive number, but one that left lots of fellow travelers, dabblers, and disengaged undergraduates fulfilling a requirement for course credit.
Judging from questions that were asked, many attendees were on a spiritual journey. My ears perked up at the use of religious language I had encountered in Baptist ministries growing up. "You will stumble, you will fall," said one speaker about Stoic practice, mimicking language from Paul’s letter to the Romans. "It’s good to be here in this sanctuary of sanity," said another. Then there was the eastern influence. More than a few speakers and attendees expressed that they had been attracted to Stoicism after experimenting with Buddhism because both offered a path to cultivate self-control and inner peace. I began to keep a tally each time eastern spirituality was mentioned in lectures and questions. The Buddhism Counter had reached four by the end of the day.
As strong of an undercurrent as spirituality was in the day’s proceedings, there was another force lurking just beneath the surface. A sinister force, a riptide that was unnerving less-practiced Stoics in the audience. That force was Donald Trump, the Un-Stoic Man, the neo-Nero.
What did the Stoics think of the emotional conflagration that had engulfed the country, from Trump to the campus left? I didn’t have to dig to find out what they thought about these matters. The first lecture, by a Scottish psychotherapist named Donald, began with a Trump joke. Later, an earnest questioner asked, "You talked about the Stoic response to tyranny. Could you say which of the two candidates, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, is more tyrannical?" (The lecturer, an owlish professor from the University of Exeter, politely demurred, but added, "I think any reasonable observer can conclude whom I would vote for.") The Trump Tally I kept on my notepad ran up a half-dozen marks by lunch.
Another lecture, by Wright State professor Bill Irvine, addressed our un-Stoic society head on. He directed most of his fire at the sheltered culture of college campuses. "There was a time when, if you wanted to escape the world’s crudeness, you went to a monastery," Irvine said. "Today, you can enroll at Yale."
"Epictetus would say this is a recipe for a sorry life," he said about students’ inability to cope with opposing ideas, much less with fate.
"I would not want to teach in American academia," Leticia, the cosmopolitan doctoral student, said later over lunch. "It is too restrictive."
Yes, the Stoics were agreed: The state of the culture was bad. As to how to solve it… like most cultural pessimists, the Stoics were stumped. There were some suggestions of evangelism (Irvine recommended that college kids take introductory philosophy courses with a heavy dose of Stoicism), but mostly I could sense resignation, a bracing for things to come. They were getting good at this.