© John Harrison
(From left to right) Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, Zeno of Citium.
I’ve known Joe for years, and he’s always been an interesting character. But lately, his behavior has taken an extreme turn as Stoic philosophy deeply enthralled him. He now lives strictly according to the teachings of the ancient Stoics like Seneca and Aurelius. While I admire some Stoic ideals, Joe’s militant Stoicism is a bit much to take.
Joe abruptly started embracing radical Stoicism a few months ago. He concluded that most modern society’s beliefs and practices were misguided, and only the Stoics understood how life should be lived. This meant major lifestyle changes were in order.
He decided that being engrossed in social media and popular culture were “indifferent” things, distractions from what really matters - virtue, discipline, and tranquility. So he deleted all his social media accounts and stopped watching TV or movies. He felt pursuing status, or material wealth was also “indifferent,” so he now lives very simply and minimally.
On the positive side, he has become very devoted to constant self-improvement. But his methods are severe. He starts each day with a brisk cold shower to build mental toughness. He eats plain food without seasoning to be less distracted by pleasures. When stressful events occur, he tells himself it’s all in how he chooses to react and that he should remain calm and unaffected.
Having a chat with Joe these days can be exhausting. Any conversation tends to loop back to Stoic teachings and how various behaviors or situations exemplify or violate them. If I complain about anything, he reminds me that our thoughts, not external events, determine our suffering, and I should simply change my reaction. If I get excited about some success or opportunity, he cautions me against emotional indulgence.
I think the Stoics had some useful ideas, but Joe’s extreme, unyielding adherence to them can feel a bit grim and joyless. Even when we meet up with old mutual friends, he seems aloof from the lively discussions and laughs, sticking to principled objections or infusing Stoic sayings. Our acquaintances have started to notice and comment, half-joking that “Stoic Joe” needs to lighten up.
Though we’ve been friends for years, Joe’s militant Stoicism is testing the limits of the relationship. I’m happy he has a philosophical system giving purpose and guidance, but talking with him has become like enduring a ceaseless Stoic lecture. Some of our best conversations were lively debates embracing a diversity of views, but now any discussion gets dogmatically steered back to Stoic doctrine.
I hope Joe will eventually soften his extreme views and become open to occasional moderate pleasures and emotions again. Even the ancient Stoics acknowledged that while virtue is the ultimate goal, “preferred indifferent” like friendship, leisure, and enjoyment have value, too, in moderation. If Joe can’t find a more balanced way of applying Stoic thought, he may end up very virtuous but lonely.
Such is the conundrum of Stoic Joe, an old friend who took an admirable philosophy too far.