Is Naive Stoicism Bad for Mental Health?
Deep vs shallow Stoicism
Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.
Typically – we share two emails a week to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. This week is the last week, I’ve cut back to one as we run our live course.
A recent study found that Naive Stoicism is associated with unhappiness.
The question that immediately arises is, what is naive Stoicism?
In the study, it’s defined as:
This version is naive because it doesn't get at what Stoicism ultimately is. It’s closer to the “stiff upper lip.” At its core, Stoicism promotes acting with virtue. That’s what’s up to us.
What about taciturnity, serenity, endurance, and death acceptance? Let’s go through each one.
Taciturnity: do Stoics believe that emotions should not be expressed?
Not exactly. You’ll find many Stoic lines against complaining. Many of us can certainly over-express our emotions. Yet you’ll also find Epictetus encouraging his students to commiserate with others and Seneca writing “You may weep, but you must not wail.” The Stoics were against passions, those intense emotional states that are grounded in false beliefs. But Stoics are not against showing or having feelings.
Serenity: do Stoics believe that strong emotions should not be felt?
This one is ambiguous. Stoics are not opposed to strong feelings. Sensations and thoughts come and go of their own accord. What they’re opposed to is endorsing impressions of the world that are false. We all feel things that could make us angry. But that doesn't mean we endorse those feelings and see the whole world colored with our wrath.
The Stoic doesn’t feel intense negative emotions. But there’s a whole class of positive emotions that Stoics revel in.
Endurance: do Stoics believe that physical suffering should be endured?
The ancient Stoics often promote endurance, but this idea is misframed. It's not just about enduring pain. We should ask if we can avoid it. To know the answer to that question, we need to internalize the deeper Stoic ideas of virtue.
Acceptance: do Stoics accept mortality?
Yes. This is the only idea that seems completely Stoic. The Stoics did not believe we should fear death:
What’s the point of all this?
I do not know whether naive Stoicism is that bad. The study has its limitations. Yet, it does point to the need to ground one’s Stoicism in deeper understanding. Stoicism is a philosophy of life. It has a theory of what good lives have and how to get there. That involves more than endurance and taciturnity. The acceptance of death and serenity may come as benefits, but they aren’t the root purpose.
Take a moment to evaluate the merits of naive Stoicism. Consider how you might deepen or enrich the philosophy.
🛋️ Psychologist and Stoic, Donald Robertson on the lump theory of emotions
Managing negative emotions well involves diving into the details. An emotion really is a composite of judgments, behaviors, and feelings.
📔 One of Epictetus’s lines is “persist and resist.” He’s talking about not giving in to adversity and exercising self-control. However, there’s no point in enduring wrongs or experiencing pain that can be avoided.
What did you think about today's letter?