Towards a Stoic revivalism

The 20th century was an age of ideologies. People lived and died for their beliefs about human nature and the nature of society, its destiny and future. ‘Capitalism’ and ‘communism’ were totemic code words for opposing visions of the good life.

The 21st century is unlikely to witness the same ideological fervor. This is not because people have outgrown the need for ideas expressing the truth about human nature. It is because climate change has placed the destiny and future of our societies in question.

Rather than a new ideology, our century needs a Stoic revivalism. Like us, the Greek and Roman Stoic’s lived in an age of crisis. The ancient city-states had yielded to war and empire. The old gods had survived, but failed to inspire a living faith. Political leaders bickered and fought without any social vision. Anxiety was the order of the day.

Stoic philosophy was shaped by all this. In a world of constant change, the Stoics sought to develop a philosophical account of the challenges presented by change. This is what makes the Stoics relevant to us today.

The Stoic thinker is beset by a world beyond their control. Like a sailor on a stormy sea, they must find out what is within their control, and tie themselves to that mast for the sake of their survival. Here is the crux of it: according to the Stoics, the only thing you and I have any real power to control is the way that we respond to the world, our emotional and intellectual responses.

The Stoic philosophy-as-life hinges on cultivating the power within.

The Stoics may have been optimistic about the extent of control that is granted by reason (significantly, they don’t have a concept of the unconscious, as we’ve had since Nietzsche and Freud). But their influence on medieval and modern thought is decisive. To cope and endure in a world of change, the inner life of reason must become a sanctum against the world, sealed off against storms and upheavals, sheltered from the blows of fate. To negotiate and even flourish in a world of change, we must become guardians of our inner world, champions of our rational tranquility.

The Stoic rule is:

‘There is one thing I know I can control, and that is how I respond to events’.

The Stoic lesson is:

‘To find tranquility in the midst of change, and fulfillment in relation to the challenges of fate, cultivate the power within’.


  1. I’m working on an extended comment (Hegel and Stoicism). Meanwhile, I’d like to add the link for my general précis:

    “Philosophy for Change”

  2. Mary Ellen Gottlieb says:

    “The 21st century is unlikely to witness the same ideological fervor.”

    When I read this I had to wonder if you caught that story about the theocracy in Iran or the minor incident in NYC with a group of boys from Saudi Arabia in airplanes or the trouble makers somewhere near Pakistan. Need I go on? Darfur, Indonesia….

    Religious fundamentalism versus humanism is the 21st century’s answer to the idealogical battle between Facism and Socialism. Its the same old ideological battle reframed in terms of religious beliefs: traditionalists who favor the status quo and progressives calling for change. The side one takes is usually determined by whether or not the current system offers an unjust advantage, or not, to the individual.

    As oil prices continue to rise in direct relationship to demand, without regard for “climate change”, I don’t see evidence to support your premise that climate change has trumped ideological conflicts in the 21st century. Do you really believe that President Bush was elected not because of support of those sharing his ideological and/or religious beliefs but because of his stance on climate change? Time for a reality check!

  3. If the climate science is correct – and I admit I have much respect for mainstream climate science – then the ‘reality check’ is just over the horizon. No doubt the confluence of crises we can expect as a result of continued global warming will incite various expressions of ideological fervor, both in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world. My point is that these are unlikely to be determinative to the same extent as was the conflict between capitalism and communism in the 20th century, since the focus of politics will no longer be on shaping and cultivating economies (along free-market or socialist lines) but rather on saving them (which in a globalized market-system is ultimately a common goal).

    My argument is not that climate change ‘has’ trumped ideological conflicts in the 21st century, but that it will. Soon. Do you really believe that Barack Obama became the Democratic Presidential nominee yesterday because of his ideological point of view? Or could it have something to do with the growing awareness in the US and elsewhere that genuine action on climate change is necessary?

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