A 5-minute animated guide to Stoicism

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/06/29/a-5-minute-animated-guide-to-s.html


The problem with stoicism is that it very easily drifts into some unpleasant “if you feel bad because I punched you, it’s your fault for choosing to feel bad, haha!” places. I found Epictetus particularly obnoxious that way.

Is that a straw man, or is there really somebody who would argue that? I mean, besides the internet.


No, the closest you might say is “you punched me, but I’m not going to let it get me down”. And indeed, that’s often good advice: “yes he was a dick, but move on”.


Epictetus came verrrryyyyy close, in my opinion. Closer than I found reasonable or morally comfortable. Your mileage may vary.

It doesn’t easily drift there if one understands the core philosophy. Stoicism first establishes the expectation that the punch will come sooner or later because the universe is an unfair place that’s also filled with arseholes (which Stoics, including Epictetus, assiduously attempt not to be via the cardinal virtues). That understood, it follows that if someone does punch you that you should: 1) not be surprised it happened to you (because it can happen to anyone); 2) be prepared to respond in a way that helps you more than it does the puncher, even though you are upset; 3) preferably do so by being a better human being than whatever or whoever punched you.

Stoicism does not deny that one might be upset, but it does suggest ways to channel that emotion productively. If there’s a real problem here, it’s that (because the universe is unfair) not everyone is temprementally suited to do this and not everyone has had the sets of privileges that allow one to train oneself to do so.


I would reply that, knowing the universe is filled with assholes, one shouldn’t promote a philosophy so easily misunderstood. Those are some very fine distinctions to expect people to understand, particularly when delivered through the lens of Epictetus’ snark. He repeatedly demonstrates in the Discourses a deep scorn for those who dare feel bad when bad things happen to them.

I wasn’t too much more convinced by Aurelius (after all I have the historical perspective to know that some things, at least, could get better), but at least he wasn’t a jerk about it.

Philosophy is all about those very fine distinctions, often filtered through a distinctive voice. Also, the cardinal virtues serve the purpose of making Stoicism unattractive to arseholes who might abuse it.

Epictetus was snarky not because people felt bad but because they often channelled the emotion toward self-defeating outcomes. People screwing up has entertainment value, and Epictetus is using those situations to both engage the reader and provide him with object lessons in what not to do when one is (legitimately) upset at being punched.

Aurelius wrote the Meditations (as the name implies) as much for himself as for others. Also unlike Epictetus, he wasn’t making his living as a teacher and writer of philosophy and advisor to the powerful. Finally, given his day job, Aurelius could afford the luxury of noblesse oblige.



One of my favorite characters from the current Squirrel Girl run is Brain Drain, the stoicist superhero.


I appreciate gfish’s worry that Epictetus engages in victim blaming. I think that some added detail about Epictetus’ life and philosophy helps alleviate that worry. On the one hand, Epictetus was born a slave and, according to legend, calmly endured his master breaking his leg. On the other hand, Epictetus confides that he tried to preach Stoicism on the street but felt deflated when people would mock and hit him (see Discourses 2.12.23-25).

Epictetus accounts for these differing responses in his ethics by recognizing that we each have an inner capacity determining what we can bear. But, Epictetus is not preachy or condescending about that capacity, He urges self-examination – “you are the one who knows yourself” (Discourses I.2.11). Pigliucci (the source of the video) discusses this aspect on his blog:

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