Stoicism in the Digital Age: An Oxymoron?
BY AUSTIN KIM '25
What do a Roman emperor, Andrew Tate, the co-founder of Twitter, and bots on Instagram have in common? They all love stoicism, an ethical framework that values “self-help” and abiding by the rules of “nature” over all else. However, stoicism has conflicting narratives with the onset of technology. Is stoicism in this digital age an oxymoron?
Stoicism, a corporeal philosophy, idealizes a system of virtue ethics where the virtues or characteristics of individuals are the keys to morality. In stoicism, the end goal of said virtues is the state of being called a “sage” where materialism and emotional impulses do not deeply influence oneself.
Stoicism can be simplified to “living according to nature” in some aspects, but if the world is constantly changing, it calls into question what nature would even entail. Whereas crypto bros may believe that the NFT marketplace is natural, the far-right may believe that the nuclear family is the only natural society, the Amish may disagree with both. Other naturalistic movements differ from stoicism in their definition of what nature means by completely rejecting society, wishing for a return to wildlife, whereas stoicism believes that society is nature. Nietzche, a famous German philosopher who popularized nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless, criticizes nature’s vague definition in his book, Beyond Good and Evil, by basically saying that living according to this so-called nature is futile. However, since nature is a key aspect of the stoicism ideologies, how does a Stoic adapt to the changing nature of modern times? Due to the structure of stoicism being mainly based on virtues, they become meaningless without a concrete standard present. In a time where humanitarian crises are constant and a technological revolution with AI is underway, these virtues will constantly be changing, ultimately misaligning with the stability needed for stoicism.
Unfortunately, nature within stoicism is fundamentally unable to coexist in the digital age with the onslaught of new ideas and technologies developed practically every day! Stoicism as a form of virtue ethics strives to promote improvements in its followers until the best version is created, but with the onset of the metaverse and reality-bending technologies, are you truly yourself at all? For example, the theoretical limit of a metaverse would allow individuals to basically fictionalize their identity. Multiple personas would still be you, but not you at the same time. When the digital is more real than the real in societal terms, individuals undergo a process called derealization or depersonalization where individuals start losing their sense of reality or self. There are studies that conclude that virtual reality in its current elementary state is already able to conceive these mentally degradative symptoms, which overall makes it more difficult to form stable ideas of self-perception.
Despite all of these issues, many people still preach stoicism as this panacea to all issues in life, unfortunately, preachers are not always practitioners. Other than the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, the rest of the individuals previously listed strongly contradict key aspects of stoicism, such as materialism and emotions: Andrew Tate focuses in on the color of a Bugatti, Jack Dorsey also has an issue with excessive luxuries and is a technocrat, and bots on Instagram cannot be wired to physically nor metaphysically pursue stoic values.
Why is this ancient philosophy experiencing drastic increases in popularity in recent decades? It allows individuals to stop rapid change. Stoicism embraces fatalism towards revolutionary ideas. As a system of virtue ethics, stoicism focuses on the individual, thus it rarely sparks societal reforms. Historically, conservatives have attempted to stop societal reform through a focus on individual action, tying back to key aspects of stoicism. Conservatives by definition generally want to conserve and particularly to preserve a conservative political landscape. Stoicism works as a method of incentivising individual action which takes off the focus of forced wide scale reform across society. Groups such as bro culture, specifically in tech, have a system where individuals praise competition and believe that financial success is vital in life. However, bro culture only benefits those at the top, because it works as a justification for their wealth, ignoring others’ poverty. Success is thought to be solely based on self-sacrifice and work ethic under bro culture; however, in reality, it is a far more complex and multifaceted issue.
Still, there are some merits to stoicism: it advocates for a better you every single day, and it keeps you calmer. Many people who actually practice stoicism themselves are not by people. For example, Marcus Aurelius himself was put into this difficult situation of ruling a whole empire from a young age, and he embraced stoicism to keep calm in order to successfully maintain control. Stoicism even advocated for the human dignity of enslaved people and the intellectual presence of women. Stoicism positively impacts society and already has in many circumstances.
Stoicism is certainly not the greatest idea of all time, considering its flawed logic behind its ideologies and the applications in modern society. Although the philosophy was useful for certain populations in an incredibly malicious manner, it became outdated long ago. Today, it is well past its time as the 21st century takes hold and leading scientists rapidly develop new technologies, and the philosophies behind stoicism must be transformed to be in tune with the changing times.