The contemporary world is not a particularly philosophical place, the United States even less so. Philosophy’s reputation can be low enough to make it a convenient whipping boy, as when politicians join in a pile-on on it. So it’s a wonderful surprise when a philosophical tradition becomes a trend.
Such is the recent rise of popular Stoicism in the past decade. While it’s particularly influential in Silicon Valley, the modern Stoic movement is popular around the world, with conventions on multiple continents. Stoicism’s message that external goods are not what makes the difference to living well proved a particularly important consolation during the pandemic, when sales of the works of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius surged.
Now a common observation about the newly popular Stoicism is that it appeals primarily to men. I’ve often heard its practitioners dismissed as “tech bros”. An interview by Skye Cleary observed that Stoicon attenders were primarily men, and took this as an occasion for criticism: little surprise, perhaps, in an era that rarely uses the noun “masculinity” without attaching the adjective “toxic”.
I don’t believe that it is a strike against a trend for it to be popular primarily among men – or, for that matter, among women. But that brings me to the key comparison I want to make today: between modern Stoicism and another trend that has arisen in a similar time period, namely modern mindfulness meditation.
When Time magazine ran a cover story on the huge popularity of modern mindfulness, the cover displayed a picture of a blissfully meditating white woman. That cover has come in for criticism on the grounds that the practitioner was white – but I’ve heard no such criticisms of her being depicted as a woman. And indeed, market researchers found that in the US the “profile of a typical meditation user is a middle-aged female, highly educated (college or higher education degree), non-Hispanic White” – much like modern yoga, with which mindfulness practice frequently overlaps. Overall, in terms of their popularity and appeal, mindfulness seems to be about as female as Stoicism is male.
Where this gets particularly interesting to me, though, is that I think at their heart Stoicism and mindfulness teach something very similar. The Stoic Epictetus’s Enchiridion tells us, “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.” So too, modern mindfulness urges us to detach from our negative reactions to external phenomena, in a way that allows those reactions to fall away. They both help us deal with the bad external things that happen to us by being less affected by them.
In a sense, then, modern Stoicism and modern mindfulness are two sides of the same valuable life advice – it’s just that one is viewed as being for boys and the other is viewed as being for girls. I think this is fascinating, but perhaps not surprising.
Some of my earliest associations for Stoicism – well before it became popular – were with traditional masculinity, the John Wayne stiff upper lip. Stoicism, as I understand it, is one of the clearer premodern examples of an integrity worldview in Thomas Kasulis’s sense, which is close to a conventionally masculine approach. That is, for Stoics one retains one’s own integrity in a moral sense, along with one’s dignity: keeping one’s virtue pure so that one is independent of external events. Virtue is an armour or a shield, against which bounce off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Modern mindfulness, on the other hand, leans more in an intimacy direction, and thus one which our society codes feminine: one is supposed to be gentle, nonjudgemental, receptive, allowing the world to be what it is. In this, I think, modern mindfulness is quite different from classical Buddhist mindfulness, which is more judgemental and turns to military metaphors, and in that respect is more like Stoicism. But as John Dunne has noted, there are premodern precedents for modern mindfulness’s gentler nonjudgemental approach – and these are often in those East Asian cultures which gave Kasulis the idea of intimacy in the first place.
Our toy stores are deeply segregated into a boys’ section and a girls’ section. Children learn very early the lesson that some things are for boys and some things are for girls, often based on names and packaging: boys can play with dolls as long as they are called “action figures”, and girls can play with toy guns if they are pink and purple and white. And so it has come to pass that, in an era which desperately needs the wise advice to be less affected by external events, that advice too reaches us in boy form and girl form. Adult culture, fortunately, is not as gender-segregated as child culture: plenty of men practise mindfulness meditation, and women attend Stoic conventions, and both of these are good things. Nevertheless, it seems that in the way the trends have played out in general popularity, wisdom too has come in gendered versions: Stoicism the action figure, mindfulness in pink.