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One of Stoicism’s Worst Ideas

Georgetown University professor uses Stoicism to sell collectivism to a modern audience.

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Stoicism is trending today in the form of “life-hacks” for self-improvement. “Become invincible.” “Master your emotions.” “Turn obstacles into opportunities.” But in a series of articles highlighting themes from her book Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, Dr. Nancy Sherman — a Georgetown University philosophy professor specializing in ancient Greek and Roman ethics — argues that this popular “self-help” Stoicism misses the philosophy’s actual message.1

Ancient Stoicism, Sherman argues, was not fundamentally about you, as an individual— it was not about your self-improvement or personal growth. It was about seeing yourself as a part of a larger whole and working for the “common good.” “It’s not self-help,” she writes, “but group help.”2 Stoic virtue “is about us and committing to the project of our common good.”3 What today’s readers should be taking away from the Stoics, she thinks, is a recognition of our fundamental dependence on others and our obligation to serve the “common good.”

As an interpretation of ancient Stoicism, Sherman has a point (as we will see). But, from the perspective of taking an individual’s life and happiness seriously, what she is resurrecting and encouraging us to emulate is one of the worst, most personally destructive aspects of Stoicism.

What Sherman draws attention to is the fact that Stoicism rejects individualism. For all their emphasis on self-mastery, Stoic thinkers like Epictetus (c. 50–135 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD) did not regard individuals as independent, sovereign beings — as ends in themselves with the right to exist for their own sake — but as fragments of a larger whole to which their lives and private ends should be subordinate. Epictetus expresses this viewpoint unequivocally.

Consider who you are . . . you’re a citizen of the world and a part of it . . . one of the leading parts, because you’re capable of understanding the divine governance of the world and . . . the implications of that governance. So, what is the job of a citizen? Never to act in his own interest . . .  but to behave as a hand or foot would if it had reason and was able to understand the natural order of things: it would never have inclinations or desires except by reference to the whole. Hence . . . if a truly good person were to foresee the future, he wouldn’t resist even illness, death, or mutilation, because he’d realize this is what he’s been allotted at the behest of the universe, and that the whole is more important than the part, the city than the citizen. (My emphasis)4

The perspective that Epictetus enunciates above — that the individual is but a part or fragment of a larger whole, that the well-being of that whole supersedes anyone’s private interests, that an individual is important only inasmuch as he serves the whole — is the essence of collectivism.

Collectivism is the theory that the group (the collective) has primacy over the individual. Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective — society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc. — is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it.5

For the ancient Stoics, their collectivism flowed from a deeply religious worldview. They held that the cosmos was a living organism animated and directed by a divine, benevolent rational agency (“God,” “Zeus,” “Fate” — they called it different names). It designed each thing providentially to serve the good of the whole cosmic entity.6 Even our individual minds were thought to be portions of God’s reason within us, interweaving all mankind into a single world-community of rational beings.7 The moral person, according to this worldview, is the one who understands and dutifully conforms to his place within this divine scheme.

Unlike the ancient Stoics, Professor Sherman (an academic philosopher appealing to a twenty-first-century audience) does not appeal directly to religion or endorse Stoic pantheism and its divine teleology. As she notes, merely in passing, “What the ancient Stoics meant by sharing in the reason of the cosmos is likely not ours.”8 But she endorses their collectivist view of individuals as interdependent parts and servants of a larger collective whole — only she repackages it in a way that a modern, secular audience might find more palatable.

Appealing to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sherman stresses: “We are interlocking pieces of a larger puzzle, in terms of protection and social behavior.”9 And “we are a global community . . . connected by virus, food supplies, transportation, medicine, and technology.” (My emphasis)10 She elaborates:

The notion of interconnectedness has deep Stoic roots . . . Marcus Aurelius puts it this way: “Beings endowed with reason, constituted for one fellowship of cooperation, are in their separate bodies analogous to the several members of the body in individual organisms. The idea in this will come home to you more if you say to yourself: ‘I am a member [i.e., a limb] of the system made of rational beings.’” California Governor Gavin Newsom, in his early “shelter-in-place” order to all state residents, put forth a message that echoes not just Marcus’s sentiment, but words: “A state as large as ours, a nation-state, is many parts, but at the end of the day, we are one body. There’s a mutuality, there’s a recognition of our interdependence . . .” He went on to say that we have moral duties anchored in our sociality.11

According to Sherman, the whole of which we are but dependent parts is not the divine cosmos of the Stoics, but society. And it is the “good” of society — the “common good” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) — that supersedes the good of any individual. Sherman’s secularization of Stoic collectivism may be more palatable to a modern audience, but it is a view of man and society that is both false and dangerous.

Specious body-part analogies aside, society is not a living organism. Individuals (you, your mechanic, your barista at Starbucks, your voice coach) are not cells or appendages of some larger mystic super-organism; they are separate, self-directing beings with their own minds, lives, and goals who can choose to disassociate from any given community without becoming the equivalent of severed heads or hands. It is society, not the individual, that is the dependent, derivative phenomenon. As Ayn Rand expresses the point:

There is no such entity as “the tribe” or “the public”; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; “good” and “value” pertain only to a living organism — to an individual living organism — not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships.12

'Sherman’s secularization of Stoic collectivism may be more palatable to a modern audience, but it is a view of man and society that is both false and dangerous.' Click To Tweet

Individuals can (and do) profit from their relations with others (and can suffer when those relations break down). But this does not justify the conclusion that individuals are subordinate to society or under any moral obligation to serve the alleged “common good,” rather than their own good, even in the context of a pandemic.

Contrary to Sherman’s urging, we need to reject this collectivist view of individuals and the specious analogies that perpetuate it. The purpose of these analogies is precisely to justify treating individuals, not as sovereign beings with a right to exist for their own sake, but as a man might treat his hand or foot — as valuable only insofar as it serves the whole — as something he can properly plunge into the mud or amputate for the “good” of the whole body. This is precisely how collectivists from Plato to Governor Newsom have used these analogies: to justify the subordination of the individual to the group.

READ ALSO:  The False Promise of Stoicism

Collectivism amounts to telling every individual: you don’t count — it’s society (or the collective) that matters. And the clear implication (and longstanding history of this doctrine when applied in practice) is that society has the right to sacrifice any individual so long as it, or its representatives, can claim that the individual’s sacrifice serves the “common good” or the “public interest.” For confirmation, see the well-documented history of the twentieth century, and the devastation caused by the collectivist ideologies of socialism, communism, and fascism across the globe.

Taken seriously, Sherman’s repackaged collectivism is profoundly destructive. The more you internalize “I am a limb of a body I must serve,” “It is not for the hand or foot to object to the body’s use of it,” “the whole is more important than the part, the city than the citizen” (as Epictetus puts it), the less you will think of yourself as having a right to exist for your own sake, the less you’ll think of your personal happiness, your personal goals, your own life and freedom as important and worth defending. That is the worst life-guidance I can imagine offering anyone.


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  1. Nancy Sherman, “Why Stoicism Isn’t Just about YouNew Statesman, May 14, 2022, “If You’re Reading Stoicism for Life Hacks, You’re Missing the Point”, New York Times, May 14, 2021, and “Five Myths about Stoicism Washington Post, June 1, 2021.
  2. Sherman, “If You’re Reading Stoicism.”
  3. Sherman, “Why Stoicism.”
  4. Epictetus, Discourses 2.10, lines 1­–5, in Epictetus: The Complete Works Handbook, Discourses, and Fragments, transl. Robin Waterfield, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022).
  5. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1982), 7–8.
  6. A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987): “They [the Stoics] say that god is mixed with matter, pervading all of it and so shaping it, structuring it, and making it into the world” (LS, 45H: Alexander, On Mixture, 225, 1–2). “For he [Chrysippus] says that divine power resides in reason and in the mind and intellect of universal nature. He says that god is the world itself, and the universal pervasiveness of his mind; and also that he is the world’s own commanding-faculty, since he is located in intellect and reason . . . also the force of fate and the necessity of future events” (LS, 54B: Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, I.39).
  7. LS, 53X: Diogenes Laertius, 7.143: “That the world is ensouled is evident, they [the Stoics] say, from our own soul’s being an offshoot of it.” LS, 63C: Diogenes Laertius 7.87–9: “Therefore, living in agreement with nature comes to be the end [i.e., the goal of life] . . . engaging in no activity wont to be forbidden by the universal law, which is the right reason pervading everything and identical to Zeus, who is this director of the administration of existing things.”
  8. Nancy Sherman, Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 6.
  9. Sherman, 43.
  10. Sherman, 6.
  11. Sherman, 45.
  12. Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, (New York: Signet, 1967 Centennial edition), 20.
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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs. He is a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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