In the last decade or so, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has experienced a tremendous resurgence of interest. Why has modern Stoicism exploded in popularity? Why are contemporary people so interested in ideas that were formulated more than two thousand years ago?
The truth is, it's complicated. However, many chalk it up to the fact that Stoicism can be a highly useful philosophical framework during uncertain times.
There are other phenomena that seem to have come together at the same time to give rise to this movement, though, including the philosophy's ability to serve as an antidote to modern woes and vices, the increased interest in personal development, and more.
Let's take a look at what you should know about modern Stoicism, why it's so darn popular these days, how it compares to ancient Stoicism, and more.
Way back around 300 BC, a man we know as Zeno of Citium founded the Stoic school of philosophy. One of the four major schools of thought that were established during the Hellenistic period, Stoicism flourished until about the third century AD in both the Roman and Greek world.
Fast forward roughly two thousand years, and you'll find tons of books, videos, podcasts, websites, and other content discussing this ancient philosophy.
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts."
- Marcus Aurelius
Modern Stoicism is, in short, the contemporary interpretation and application of Stoicism in a modern context. Built off of the ancient ideas and teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and others, modern Stoicism also incorporates insights from other fields like psychology, mindfulness, and cognitive-behavior therapy.
Is it even true that modern Stoic philosophy is on the rise?
Looking at the available numbers, the answer is a resounding yes.
One indicator of the increasing popularity of Stoicism is the print sales of Stoic texts.
For instance, sales of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius increased by 28% in the initial part of 2020 compared to the previous year. Print sales for Letters from a Stoic by Seneca rose 42% during the same time.
"Why does no one admit his failing? Because he's still deep in them. It's the person who's awakened who recounts his dream, and acknowledging one's failings is a sign of health."
- Seneca the Younger
As far as eBook sales go, the early days of the pandemic led to a 356% increase in purchases of Letters from a Stoic.
According to Penguin Random House, Meditations sold 16,000 copies back in 2012. In 2019, they sold more than 100,000 copies.
It's not just ancient texts that are gaining attention-- popular modern Stoicism books like The Daily Stoic have also been doing quite well for themselves. This book by Ryan Holiday, published back in 2016, has spent 128 weeks on the Amazon best seller chart and still enjoys the rank of #12.
For one example, let's turn to one of the popular forums for discussing Stoicism, r/Stoicism, on Reddit. With more than half a million people in the community as of July 2023, the community has grown substantially over the past decade.
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
- Marcus Aurelius
Here are some of the numbers to give you a sense of the exponential rise in participation in the subreddit, with the date and the number of followers listed:
As you can see, in just a little over a decade, this particular forum has exploded in terms of activity and the number of followers.
There are a number of different factors that seem to have led to the rise in modern Stoicism. From navigating uncertain times to wrestling with easy access to modern vices, individuals across the world have found that Stoicism helps give them guidance as they move through their lives.
One of the major reasons that seems to explain the rise in modern Stoicism is the reality that we live in deeply uncertain times.
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”
- Marcus Aurelius
No matter your political persuasion, there's a good chance that you feel like things are a bit out of control. The 21st century has been a rollercoaster ride so far, and the 20th century was no picnic, either.
Ancient Stoicism first arose in trying times, as well. It was a time of change and chaos as the Greek city-state was collapsing.
Stoicism teaches people that they can focus on what's in their control in order to lead happy, peaceful, and meaningful lives. Essentially, it is a philosophy that can help you live a good life even when it feels like the sky is falling all around you.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the popularity of Stoicism is connected with the larger trend of increased interest in self-improvement and personal development movements. It wouldn't be surprising at all to find someone that posts on r/Stoicism is also reading Atomic Habits, for example.
“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.”
- Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism emphasizes the importance of self-discipline, the pursuit of wisdom, virtue, and the continual process of bettering oneself. It can, therefore, help to provide a philosophical framework for individuals that are focused on their own personal growth.
Though it isn't often discussed, another potential factor in the rise of Stoicism is the role it can play in defeating modern vices. We live in a world that values convenience, comfort, and material belongings, even though people will still use cliches like "money doesn't buy happiness."
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.”
- Seneca the Younger
It's all too easy for people in the modern world to get consumed by vices-- whether this means overindulging in drugs, food, social media, shopping, or things less tangible.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
Stoicism's four cardinal virtues-- wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance-- provide a map people can follow as they navigate their relationship with the world. The philosophy focuses on self-discipline, purpose, and duty, helping us move beyond instant gratification and start working toward something more meaningful.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found to be one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy in our current age through a long list of studies. The fact that this therapy was designed based on the teachings of Stoic philosophy is something that the public is increasingly aware of.
“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
- Seneca the Younger
This means that the research proving the usefulness of CBT has helped bring light to the effectiveness of applying ancient Stoic philosophy to one's life.
Another reason that modern Stoicism has grown in popularity is that, at least in its contemporary form, one doesn't necessarily need to believe in a higher power or supernatural forces to use Stoicism's techniques and ideas.
For this reason, it's becoming equally as popular with people that are religious, spiritual, secular humanists, and atheists.
When you dig into the ancient texts, though, the idea of Stoicism being a favored philosophy among atheists seems a bit strange.
Here are a few examples of Stoic quotes that push back against this notion (though, of course, you have to remember that these are translations from their original languages.)
"I will govern my life and thoughts as if the whole world were to see the one and read the other, for what does it signify to make anything a secret to my neighbor, when to God, who is the searcher of our hearts, all our privacies are open?"
- Seneca the Younger
"Renew every day your conversation with God: Do this even in preference to eating. Think more often of God than you breathe."
"So live with men as if God saw you and speak to God, as if men heard you."
- Seneca the Younger
If you're interested in the relationship between ancient and modern Stoicism in this regard, you might like to learn more about Stoic cosmology and theology.
Modern Stoicism has been particularly popular among entrepreneurs and in Silicon Valley. The reason for this is that these particular business worlds are well-known for their unpredictability and turbulence.
"Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal."
– Marcus Aurelius
Applying the philosophy of Stoicism is one way that individuals can find some form of emotional stability in chaos. Beyond that, it can help us to embrace adversity as experiences we can use to grow and develop as people.
Stoicism is also gaining in popularity because it's a practical philosophy. It's not just a bunch of abstract, complex ideas that you find in dusty old books. The ideas are just as applicable today as ever before, and you can use the principles to help guide you through day-to-day life.
"Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it."
This philosophy wasn't created for and by ascetics or monks-- the ancient Stoics were active participants in their societies. Applying it to your life can help you learn how to live the best possible life without denying the earthly realm and actively working to make your community and world a better place to be.
When researching the rise of modern Stoicism, it's worth taking a moment to touch upon the differences between the newest iteration of this philosophy and its original form.
The Stoicism that you come across in this day and age isn't exactly a reboot of the exact same philosophy from the days of Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
"All things are parts of one single system, which is called nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with nature."
Instead, modern Stoicism tends to emphasize certain aspects of the philosophy while downplaying or even basically ignoring other parts of it.
Here are some basic points about the difference between the two:
It's interesting to explore how modern Stoicism has borrowed from ancient teachings, as it helps to shine a light on our current society. While contemporary individuals might not be particularly interested in the heady ideas found in Stoic physics, for example, they seem very drawn to the dichotomy of control and other prominent concepts in modern Stoicism.
Our modern times aren't the only period in which Stoicism has enjoyed popularity. Let's check in with the three major eras in which Stoic philosophy was the talk of the town.
Stoicism flourished after the school of philosophical thought was first founded around 300 BC. Throughout the Roman and Greek world, this philosophy gained powerful adherents including the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."
- Marcus Aurelius
Along with Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Cynicism, Stoicism was one of the four major schools of thought during this time. As Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD, however, it experienced a decline.
In the late 16th century, a renewed interest in Stoicism led to the philosophical movement we refer to as Neostoicism.
Spurred on from the works of Justus Lipsius, this was a philosophy that aimed to combine the ideas and beliefs of Christianity and Stoicism.
This brings us to the main topic at hand: modern Stoicism. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Stoicism became so popular, but it's clear that its rise has resembled something like an exponential curve.
Of course, Stoicism didn't just pop up out of nowhere. There have been some key figures that have helped instigate the resurgence in interest in this philosophy. Let's take a look at some of the major players and the impact they've had.
If you've ever searched for information about Stoicism online, you've probably bumped into the work of Ryan Holiday. Not only does he have a YouTube channel with more than 2 million followers and a highly ranking Stoicism site, but he's also authored several successful books about Stoicism, including:
Combined, the books he's written have sold more than three million copies.
He's been credited by The New York Times for helping to bring about the renewed interest in Stoicism in recent years. He's also written for several big publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post.
William B. Irvine helped introduce Stoicism to a broader audience with his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Originally published back in 2008, this book still enjoys the #12 spot in the Kindle Store for the category of Greek and Roman Philosophy, and the #20 spot for Ethics and Morality.
A professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, Massimo Pigliucci is also credited with being one of the primary populizers of modern Stoicism. In fact, an essay that he wrote for The New York Times back in 2015 was one of the most shared articles to date for the publication.
His most popular book was published in 2017 and is titled How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.
Another big player in the world of modern Stoicism is Donald Robertson.
A cognitive behavioral therapist and writer, Robertson is one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism organization. He has authored several popular books, the most well-known of which is How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
Now that we've explored the rise of Stoicism, let's talk a little bit about how it could potentially help you in your everyday life.
Perhaps one of the ideas that seems to have been most influential in the rise of modern Stoicism is that you should focus on what you can control and learn to accept the things you can't control.
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
By learning to "take the rest as it happens" and making "the best use of what is in your power," you all of a sudden start turning your energy in productive directions. You can learn to stop obsessing over things that are far beyond your control, and start making a real impact within your own life and maybe even society as a whole.
The wise ancient Stoics discussed the reality that all we really have is the present moment.
"Life is divided into three periods: that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain."
- Seneca the Younger
Instead of dwelling in the past or fixating on the future, why not really be present right now? After all, there's nothing we can do about what's already occurred, and the future is far from guaranteed.
Rather than indulging in things that make you feel good right now but don't contribute to your growth, you can start to work on yourself and develop yourself over time.
"No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen."
Stoicism is a great philosophy to use to help you grow into the best possible person you can be. At the same time, it's important to remember that living is a process. No matter where you're starting from, progress is progress, and it's amazing what can happen when you commit to bettering yourself in little ways day after day.
Known in this day and age as negative visualization, premeditatio malorum is a practice where you imagine the worst-case scenario of any given situation.
“Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.”
– Seneca the Younger
This can both help you prepare for potentially negative outcomes in the future and also learn to be grateful for what you have right now. In using this Stoic exercise, you can focus on a minor inconvenience (what would happen if I got stuck in traffic on my way to work) to major catastrophes (what would happen if you lost your job, spouse, and house in the same week.)
Modern Stoics often advise that you practice this exercise daily at a specific time. For example, you might incorporate it into your morning or night routine.
It's all too easy in the modern world to feel like an island-- an isolated individual in a sea of other isolated individuals.
"I am not eternity, but a man; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day."
The truth is, though, that we really are all connected to one another. You don't have to subscribe to new-age beliefs to recognize that this is rationally true-- our actions impact those around us and the actions of those around us impact us.
Stoicism can help you remember that we are all a part of something much larger. This realization can be incredibly humbling, but it also doesn't need to induce a nihilistic frenzy. Just because we are small in the grand scheme of things doesn't mean we don't matter-- rather, it means that we are one crucial part of an incredibly complex system.
You can spend your whole life hoping that bad things don't happen to you, but this probably isn't the best use of your time.
As Jim Rohn once said, "Don't wish it were easier; wish you were better."
"It isn't the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them."
One of the ways we can become more resilient is by understanding that we are often more upset by our internal state than the actual external events that occur. If we can learn to be self-aware and have some control over our minds, we have one powerful tool to use in the quest toward becoming more resilient.
Stoicism can also help you tap into what you really want to do with your life.
"Man's ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy-that he live in accordance with his own nature."
- Seneca the Younger
By removing unnecessary distractions and working on yourself, you'll find that you start to learn more about what you can offer as a person to the world. The Stoics were big proponents of our duty to other people and society, and studying this philosophy can help you discover the most meaningful path for you.
The Stoics embraced a concept that is known as amor fati-- the love of one's fate.
"It's the great soul that surrenders itself to fate, but a puny degenerate thing that struggles."
- Seneca the Younger
This can be a powerful concept when you start really applying it to your life. The idea is that everything that happens is at least necessary, if not good. This means that, even if something seems absolutely horrible at the time, it is, at the very least, a necessary occurrence that can be embraced.
Cultivating and practicing self-discipline can help you overcome all sorts of negative habits. Beyond that, it can help you develop into the best person you can be.
"Man conquers the world by conquering himself."
– Zeno of Citium
Whether you want to develop a skill, learn something new, or build a business, consistently applying discipline will help you achieve your goals.
Finally, another important concept in Stoicism is the need to accept our own deaths.
"Given that all must die, it is better to die with distinction than to live long."
We don't always like talking about death in our society, but that's all the more reason for us to meditate on death personally. Memento mori is a concept that refers to the quiet contemplation of the reality that we will one day die.
With this practice, you can learn just how short our lives really are. Beyond that, it can remind you that there is no certainty that we will live into old age. If we have work to do in our lives, the time to get started is now.
Modern Stoicism has risen in popularity for a number of reasons, including its usefulness as a philosophy in uncertain times, its role as an antidote to vices, and the knowledge that the effective therapy of CBT was developed using the ideas of Stoicism.
Though modern Stoicism might not be identical to ancient Stoicism, it still emphasizes many of the important points put forward by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. The ideas that modern Stoicism focuses on can legitimately help individuals improve their lives and find some emotional stability (and even, potentially, happiness) in a chaotic world. Beyond that, it can help people focus on what they feel are their most important purposes, creating the potential for positive rippling effects through society.
Are you interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for thought-provoking quotes and articles.