Modern stoicism or neo-stoicism is a philosophical movement growing in popularity among business leaders—and for good reason.
- On January 10, Gateway Editions released Gateway To the Stoics, a collection of classic Roman writings on the philosophy of Stoicism with an introduction by Claremont Institute Associate Editor Spencer Klavan.
- It was not the only recent book on the topic. Philosopher Ryan Holiday’s Discipline Is Destiny is the second book in a New York Times best-selling series about the stoic virtues, and it was released on September 27.
- Amazon.com lists Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic and Holiday’s The Daily Stoic among its bestselling philosophy books.
- Penguin Random House says that sales of its edition of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations sold 100,000 copies in 2019. The book’s overall sales then increased by 28% in 2020, while Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic increased e-book sales that year by 356%, according to Vice News.
- Podcast host and author Tim Ferriss hosted a 2017 Ted talk on the subject of stoicism that has drawn 3.8 million views.
- According to Google Trends, searches for “stoicism” have increased four-fold since 2016, with the highest number of searches ever peaking in January 2023.
Why It’s Important
Stoicism teaches the importance of discipline, rational thinking, and, most importantly, enduring the difficulties of life. It is a life philosophy well designed for civil participation, building virtue, and resiliently tackling the challenges of leadership and pain. It tends to historically become more popular during periods of political chaos, pandemics, famine, and societal uncertainy.
Created by the ancient Greeks and popularized by the Roman Empire, stoicism is a philosophical system that has remained in circulation and popular for nearly 2,300 years. However, within the past decade, it has seen rapid adoption from a small but vocal group of online philosophers who have emerged in the past decade called the neo-stoics, who have embraced ancient philosophy as a modern secular religion and life philosophy.
Prominent business leaders like former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have adopted stoic practices, virtues, and books into their leadership philosophies and daily habits, with prominent leaders being described as stoics like entrepreneur Mark Cuban and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It is very popular within the U.S. military and Silicon Valley. Theranos founder (and felon) Elizabeth Holmes considers Meditations her favorite book.
Nancy Sherman is a distinguished university professor at Georgetown University who studies Greco-Roman philosophy. She released her own book on stoicism in 2021—Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons For Modern Resilience. She tells Leaders Media that Stoicism often appeals to hypermasculine men and can manifest into toxic and misogynistic variants. It has been adopted equally by entrepreneurs and by political agitators who use the life philosophy as a form of toxic self-help—which Stoicism Today editor Greg Sadler describes to Vice News as “bro-icism.”
“Stoicism has really gotten hot, and I did not like what I saw—this idea of a retreat to the inner citadel, this notion of invincible, resilience, and invulnerability. It is not the Stoicism I knew, so I wrote my book in response to that,” says Sherman.
Neo-stoicism can be quite egocentric and isolating, unconcerned with the outside world and improving parts of the world that seem unchangeable. Unlike Christianity which explicitly condemns the love of money, or Buddism, which teaches detachment from material goods, Neo-Stoicism does not address the spiritual challenges of wealth accumulation or that some level of engagement with society is necessary.
“The philosopher Seneca was in the imperial realm as Emperor Nero’s minister. He had wealth, vineyards, and servants and longed for an ascetic life to tap down all the opulence and angst that comes from being in power. If you’re a CEO of a very big company, it’s a model, and it’s not surprising that people with power and attachments would figure out ways to tamper with it,” says Professor Sherman.
None of this is to say classical stoicism is wrong or that the users of the philosophy are innately toxic. Professor Sherman affirms that Stoicism is a complex and valuable philosophical way to understand the world, albeit one that has been somewhat mutated and commercialized.
Neo-stoicism has largely arisen because of the internet, and it exists to fill a need. Reddit’s R/Stoicism board has hundreds of thousands of users, and they help each other with exercises and discussions on philosophy. Philosophers like Ryan Holiday have created a valuable industry of Stoic thinkers, think tanks, and leaders that apply the philosophy as a useful tool for mental and emotional well-being, in the midst of a growingly chaotic world.
“The resilience that comes from stoicism is based on social connections and social fiber. It is not a retreat, which could really lead you into a lonely and unhealthy place. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, If you ever see a hand or foot cut off lying anywhere apart from the body, such is a man who separates himself from others. That is a message I repeatedly find in stoicism and is critical,” says Sherman.
“A second aspect is that stoics are good at helping you with how you see the world and how much of it you can control. You can be in charge of how you process and interpret the world. That is a very positive message for change—change that may not amount to what we would call “structural change”—but it certainly is a way in which you can rethink assumptions of how you have taken in the world.”
“Stoicism is a philosophy that suits an atmosphere of deprivation and tough times. There are alot of people who are looking for online communities, secular religion, and highly practical daily exercises. It shares Christianity’s values about a commonwealth of shared humanity, the best of Greco-Roman philosophy, and it is a practical street philosophy,” says Sherman.