Response: Why is Silicon Valley so Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering?

I’ve just read the op ed Why Is Silicon Valley So Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering? by Nellie Bowles in The New York Times.

This won’t be a long response. The essence of her argument appears to be that Stoicism advocates self-inflicted suffering and that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are obsessed with it for that reason. Of course, the premise is false. Stoicism does not advocate self-imposed suffering. Her examples are things like the following:

They [Silicon Valley types] sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.

Stoics didn’t sit in painful, silent meditation for weeks on end. They didn’t normally seek notoriety either. Some modern followers of Stoicism, myself included, fast. That’s not the same as starving yourself. Lots of people fast for health reasons and thereby develop self-discipline and acquire other benefits. The Stoics would be against unhealthy forms of fasting, which is what I take “starving” yourself to mean. The ancient Stoics didn’t take cold showers but they did sometimes bathe in cold water. Some modern Stoics, myself included, regularly take cold showers. That’s hardly unusual either – so do lots of other people. It’s healthy, it wakes you up better than a cup of coffee, and it arguably leads to a greater ability to endure cold and other forms of physical discomfort. (I’m pretty happy walking around Toronto without a jacket in the snow because it doesn’t feel very cold to me, although everyone else seems to be wrapped up in thick jackets.) So people don’t do it just to “suffer” but because it’s good for them both in terms of physical health in terms of developing strength of character and self-discipline, etc.

Not all modern Stoics take cold showers or fast, though – I’m guessing less than 5% of them do. The ones who do are no more “obsessed with suffering” than are people who do Pilates, lift weights, walk long distances, go camping in the wilderness, or follow diets. Lots of people do things that require self-discipline and endurance because they consider them healthy or beneficial in certain respects. The Stoics don’t follow regimes in terms of eating, sleeping, or exercising primarily to improve their physical health. They’re supposed to be doing it mainly to improve their character by developing self-control and endurance, etc. However, they choose disciplines that are healthy rather than ones that are unhealthy because physical health is a “preferred indifferent” in Stoicism, i.e., something that’s preferable to its opposite despite not being among the most important things in life. If you’re going to develop self-discipline, in other words, you might as well train yourself to do something healthy rather than unhealthy, even if health isn’t your main reason for doing it.

Anyway, we’re clearly told that this is an article about Stoicism…

So the most helpful clues to understanding Silicon Valley today may come from its favorite ancient philosophy: Stoicism.

A word of advice to readers… Articles like these which claim to be discussing Stoicism (or any similar topic) but make no reference whatsoever to the relevant primary sources should set alarm bells ringing. It’s not clear that the author actually researched the subject by reading the Stoics as there’s literally no mention of anything they wrote. Seriously, there’s not a single quote from a Stoic in the entire piece. Yet their philosophy is being criticized. It is, in fact, being totally misrepresented.

As for the other mistakes in the article, I’ll just cover those by providing a list with brief comments:

  • “Virtue of suffering” – Suffering is not a virtue in Stoic ethics; it would either be classed as something bad or indifferent depending on whether we’re talking about emotional suffering (pathos) or unpleasant physical sensations such as pain, cold, or discomfort.
  • Cicero – Cicero was not a Stoic but rather a follower of the rival Academic school, albeit one who admired some aspects of Stoicism. The article almost acknowledges this but not clearly enough as it seems to focus on him as its main example of a historical proponent of Stoicism.
  • “tenets of stoicism” – The word “stoicism” (lower-case) denotes the modern concept of a psychological personality trait or coping style in which upsetting emotions are concealed or suppressed, like having a stiff upper-lip. The word “Stoicism” (capitalized) denotes an ancient Greek school of philosophy. They’re two very different things.
  • “Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy ‘for a moment’ for years now — or two decades, by one count.” – I don’t know how you’d quantify this but Stoicism has gone through various periods of popularity. I’d say the seeds of it’s modern resurgence were planted in the late 1950s with, among other things, the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy, during which authors such as Albert Ellis drew inspiration from Stoicism in developing modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). That reinvigorated interest in Stoicism as a form of psychological self-help from the 1980s onward around the time CBT went mainstream. (Indeed, publication data from Google Ngram shows that the popularity of Stoicism began rising in the late 1970s, four decades ago.)
  • “Stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome” – There’s no question that Stoicism was popular with wealthy and powerful Roman elites. However, it’s not a “Roman” thing. Right from the very outset, early Greek Stoicism was popular with the ruling elite. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, taught King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia and other early Greek Stoics had wealthy and powerful students. Moreover, Stoicism was not confined to the elite. Zeno, by some accounts, lost his fortune at sea and lived like a beggar. Cleanthes, his successor as head of the school, was an ex-boxer who watered gardens at night to earn a living. Epictetus, the most famous Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, was a crippled former slave who lived in relative poverty.
  • “Joe Lonsdale […] sexual abuse” – This comes across as an ad hominem argument against the philosophy, i.e., one of the figures the author associates with Stoicism in the article has been criticized on the grounds listed. How does that actually reflect on Stoicism, though? Is Joe Lonsdale even a Stoic? (Not as far as I’m aware after searching on Google.) Is this meant to discredit Stoicism through some kind of guilt by association?
  • “Cicero Institute” – The whole article seems to be premised on the notion that the Cicero Institute has got something to do with Stoicism. Does it, though? I can’t actually see any mention of Stoicism anywhere on their website despite using a Google site search for the keyword .

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  1. It’s amazing how easy suffering is given the right drugs in unlimited qualities. Many of these people have no notion of true suffering and their attempts to mimic it are laughable.

  2. Taking a cold bath was a part of the Roman bathing sequence. The frigidarium can be found in every ruin of Roman bathing complexes.

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