When I was growing up, I always thought that calling someone "stoic" was more or less a compliment. It meant that they were in control of their emotions, and that they could deprioritize them in favor of more lofty aims. I no longer hold this view to the same degree, but there did at the time seem to be something heroic about having a stoic mindset or personality.
This perspective was based on a popular idea of what "stoic" meant — someone who has, as the British say, a stiff upper lip, who can endure pain and suffering, and who is not motivated by self-interest. But, of course, stoic describes a philosophical school — one with a long and complicated history — and which, for some reason has, after becoming increasingly popular over the last few years, has attracted an even larger audience during the pandemic. Vice reports a significant increase in sales of stoic-related literature in 2020, including a staggering 356% increase in sales of ebooks for Seneca's Letters from a Stoic.
In our discussion this week, Nicholas Gruen and I discuss this trend and possible explanations for it. We also compare ancient approaches to ethics and morality to modern notions of altruism.