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183. The taming power of the small (VI)

Stoicism has become a trend over the last decade, a trend supported by YouTube channels, self-help books, and even “Stoicon” conferences. I can attest that the techniques of Stoicism work—at a price, a price too high. I tried Stoicism when I worked as an audio typist and so materialised at HR panels for various London banks. I watched the futile struggles with “the grievance panel”, as redundant employees sought supposed justice for petty slights through passive aggressive manoeuvres: “She moved my chair when I was out; she always did it. She moved my chair.” “You mean Sharon, Senior VP of Corporate Affairs?” It was never about the chair, not really.

I watched men burst into tears when they were fired for illicit Internet chats and saw the subtle knife of racism deployed—the amiable Irishman who made a mutual joke with his Jewish friend about the Jews, but did so before an envious Indian. “I’m not, not racist,” stammered the avuncular man. “Yes, the panel clears you completely, but obviously we’re still putting this on your permanent record.” It is an offence for which even to tried is to be found guilty.

For the most part, my job was typing—each transcript graded A, B, C, D, E; just like at school. My supervisor was a neocon with a hard-on for T.S. Eliot and no sense for poetry. You have met the type; had a novel in mind and “got the beer in, lads”—everyone hated him. A genuine miniature William F. Buckley; a narcissistic prick who never said a real thing in his life. Stoicism made me tolerate him, and the miserable HR panels. When I left he said, “Glad to see the back of you,” at the same moment as I said, and meant it, “I hope they publish your novel.” The little girl who wanted to do a PhD in Children’s Literature and the friendly Jew who fed me sweets just gawped at him.

The problem with Stoicism is that it is slave morality. I would have been better off if I had delivered a headbutt to my former manager—emotionally, if not from a liberty perspective—or least spat in his face. The apostles of Stoicism: Marcus Aurelius, emperor; and Epictetus, slave—neither were free men. I would like to be Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, but at the same time—just like Aurelius—I know they are owned: they have power, but they have adamantine obligations—and almost everyone they meet is after something from them. The emperor can never retire; only one Roman emperor managed that without a knife in the back. Aurelius became a Stoic because he had to learn to chew glass and, if not like it, then tolerate it. The slave is also an owned man; he relies on his master’s discretion; he lacks the luxury of an emperor, but he is no more free. Hence Stoicism appeals to slaves and emperors, but not to yeomen or aristocrats.

Stoicism is popular today because the yeoman and aristocrat have disappeared. We are corporate workers who need to bite our tongues in the face inanity or pettiness, or we are the few billionaires—Bezos or Musk—who are tied to a huge network of responsibility that effectively owns us. The counterpoint to Stoicism is Epicureanism, the philosophy preferred by Nietzsche. The Epicurean does not endure pain, except for his goals: a walled garden, a library, and select friends. The Epicurean discriminates and retreats from the vulgar and stupid; and these are aristocratic attitudes that are impermissible today.

Stoicism works—James Stockdale, Vietnam PoW provides the best contemporary account—but it should reserved for unavoidable disaster: war, serious illness, and shipwreck; to live every day as a Stoic is to embrace slavery and repress anger, often legitimate and healthful. But the economy does not support the yeoman or aristocrat and our morality condemns discrimination. Hence there are no Epicurean self-help books or conventions, just various forms of Stoic slavery.


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