Mind the Stoics
For smartphone-addled youth, the Stoics offer an antidote.
Gateway to the Stoics: Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, Epictetus's Enchiridion, and Selections from Seneca's Letters, foreword by Spencer Klavan, Regnery, 208 pages.
In late May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a new advisory warning of the perils of social media for young Americans, especially in regards to their mental and emotional health. “The most common question parents ask me is, 'is social media safe for my kids?' The answer is that we don't have enough evidence to say it's safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people's mental health," Murthy said.
That seems a bit of unnecessary hedging given how demonstrably unsafe and infantilizing social media have been for an entire generation of our nation’s youth. That said, as much as social media are by their very nature problematic, with addictive and distracting features that deaden our intellects and communication skills, the threat posed by the technology is not just a matter of character, but also of content. That content, of course, as many parents are discovering, is driven by themes of "wokeness," tied to racial and sexual ideologies that not only confuse but foster feelings of grievance, victimhood, and suspicion towards their patria. What is needed is an alternative source of wisdom whose origin is not found in the gender and race theory courses of higher education, but something more venerable and time-tested.
One such source, and one with a non-religious appeal giving it currency even with secular Americans, are the Stoics, who have been having a bit of a renaissance of late, championed (ironically) even by the same technological elite responsible for pushing social media and woke ideology. But that does not detract from the great wisdom of this ancient Greco-Roman thought, some of which was even praised within the pages of the New Testament. A new edition of Gateway to The Stoics — a compilation of writings from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, with an introduction by Russell Kirk and foreword by Spencer Klavan—persuasively proves the point.
Epictetus, a first- and second-century Stoic philosopher who spent part of his life as a slave, and whose writings likely influenced Paul of Tarsus, offers perhaps surprisingly relevant commentary for our dysphoric adolescents. His recommendation on how to address information or imagery that unsettles us is particularly germane for our digital age:
Straightway then practice saying to every harsh appearance, You are an appearance, and in no matter what you appear to be. Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say that is does not concern you.
This is good advice for anyone confronted by digital content that enrages, discourages, shames, or tempts. All of us, and certainly the young, need to understand the transient, impersonal quality of ideas and images we encounter on our smart devices. And yet that content so easily makes us miserable, filling us with self-hatred despite the fact that we enjoy an unprecedented degree of comfort and ease. Epictetus offers an arresting caution: “For it is better to die of hunger and so to be released from grief and fear than to live in abundance with perturbation.”
There is little patience for victimhood and grievance in Epictetus, which he interprets as necessarily enervating anxiety and anger. He writes:
When then we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions. It is the act of an all-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself.
Those who blame others for their problems are, in Epictetus’s view, weaker and less in control of their will, because they are dependent on external things (e.g. wealth, approval, sensual pleasures) for their happiness. Those who refrain from grievance are more capable of maintaining their composure and self-confidence even when truly terrible things happen to them. And the one whose “instruction is complete” is the one who not only repudiates victimhood, but also refrains from those things that undermine his well-being.
In place of grievance, Epictetus urges us to embrace humility, emotional detachment, and self-governance. “If you shall seem to some to be a person of importance, distrust yourself,” he argues. To those eager for worldly success, he warns: “But if you ask me to lose the things which are good and my own, in order that you may gain the things which are not good, see how unfair and silly you are.”
First-century philosopher Seneca in turn shows that even the ancients could appreciate the equal inherent dignity of all men. He writes: “There are some who would say, ‘Well, but they’re slaves!’ No indeed: they are men.” Moreover, Seneca argues, our social disparities can obscure the fact that even those who outwardly appear rich and powerful are often the weakest.
“He is a slave.” But he may be free in his soul. “He is a slave.” So will that hold him back? Show me the man who is not a slave: some are slaves to their sex drives, others to their greed; some to their ambition, and all to fear.”
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Has not social media effectively made our young slaves to these very things, exacerbating the negative aspects of their hormonal tendencies to view endless novelty, social approval, and sex as of pinnacle importance? The promises of wokeism are based not on freedom, but fear.
Second-century emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is also filled with valuable exhortations and rejoinders for our anxious age. That his book begins with an extended series of “thank you”-s to all those who had a positive influence on him—family members, political figures, teachers, writers—is itself a valuable model for imitation for young people increasingly encouraged to despise their patrimony. “I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me”; these are remarkable words from a man who governed one of the greatest empires in human history.
On their own, the Stoics may not be sufficient to redeem a generation driven mad by social media and its dehumanizing content. G.K. Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man was quite willing to praise Stoicism and other ancient Greco-Roman philosophies for their ability to identify and integrate great truths identifiable from the natural law; nevertheless, Chesterton argued, even the very best philosophy could not redeem man, or fully orient him to his ultimate telos. For that, we require something more powerful and transcendent than Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. But they are a start.