Stoicism For the Digital Age

Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung B...

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This is old, but I just stumbled on it last week: Boing Boing’s threepart series on Stoicism, written by philosophy professor William B. Irvine. Irvine is also the author of a book on Stoicism, and his posts for Boing Boing serve as both an introduction to some of the concepts in the book and a pitch for why we all might want to consider becoming Stoics.

I’m fairly persuaded. In fact, I’ve been practicing some Stoic aggravation-management strategies with positive results. But while most of the strategies seem pretty timeless, I can’t help but wonder if a modern-day Stoic wouldn’t face some unprecedented challenges and temptations.

Mostly I’m thinking of social networking. Stoicism prescribes reflection, reserve and abstention from competing for social status. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al encourage certain behaviors that would seem to be entirely antithetical to that project. Twitter in particular is pretty bad: it creates a social hierarchy by follower-to-followee-ratio, retweet count, and so on. Playing the game and trying to accumulate more followers is one of its most addictive features. Plus, in order to do so successfully you need to produce as much content as you can. Complaining is a good content production strategy, especially if you figure out a way to do it ironically.*

And it (complaining) is addictive! “Venting” and “blowing off steam” are misnomers, because kvetching isn’t just some sort of release valve to set you back to zero. It’s an engaging, (superficially) rewarding activity in of itself. Once you get a taste, you want to do more of it. And if you have an audience — say your followers — at the ready to validate your complaints, that just ups the opiate quality.

Obviously Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and all the other Roman stoics struggled to various extents with the attractive qualities of status obsession, kvetching and thoughtlessness. Petty bullshit is at least as old as our species, and it will outlast all of us. But social networking, for all of its marvelous blessings, has a way of compounding the incentives to behave in a particularly un-Stoic manner.

That said, this isn’t some kind of cranky, anti-modern rant. Nor do I think it’s impossible to be a Stoic who embraces all of our modern communication tools. Where we run into trouble is when we use these tools without thinking about how they influence our real-world psychology and behaviors. The 21st century Stoic must, at the very least, be mindful of this.

*See also: #firstworldproblems

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