Contemporary Anti-Stoicism

If Stoicism is the belief that exterior circumstances are at most of minimal significance to happiness then it strikes an interesting contrast with the dominant social theories of the contemporary West. The Social Gospel Movement, Progressivism and consumer culture take extrinsic circumstances as essential to happiness and even as foundational to it. As FDR put it:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident.

Self-evident indeed. Compared to Stoicism, most of us see social justice/Progressivist/consumer culture as a blast of real life and cold hard facts. The reasons for this came from all over:

1.) The Gospel Christ. In the Nineteenth Century, Christ’s Kingdom message was given a new emphasis, and was reinterpreted neither as spiritualized or as concretized in Catholicism but as a project for social reform. Part of this was a bona fide work of exegesis trying to discover the Gospel Christ actually preached, which seemed to demand his followers exercise a great deal of care for the poor and the oppressed. Another part of this was Christians having to keep up with the new claims of the social sciences that were arising in response to changing social conditions. As the CCC puts it:

The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership.

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But these “new structures” were themselves an impetus for anti-Stoic feeling in…

2.) The critique of Christianity. Preaching that the goods of the world are irrelevant to human fulfillment easily becomes a tool for social oppression. Why should you care if the Kings and lords have everything and the peasants and slaves have nothing? There’s no relation between having stuff and happiness, right? While Marx may have had something different in mind by “opium of the masses”, it stuck in the popular mind as a bumper-sticker critique of the Stoic contempt of external circumstances which seemed to be a core teaching of the Christian Church.

3.) The Behaviorism-Advertising Complex. If ever there was a philosophy of happiness consisting in external circumstances, it was Behaviorism, where external circumstances and environment were the only causes of human activity. The truth of Behaviorism would render Stoicism not just false but absolutely unthinkable.

The link between Behaviorism and advertising is logical because genetic. After losing an academic post for an affair with a student, leading Behaviorist John Broadus Watson went to work on Madison Avenue, supported by the idea that if he could make baby Albert hate anything he wanted, he could make men reach for their wallets. The advertisement, in other words, is simply operant conditioning, and it carries with it a set of assumptions about what provides human fulfillment.

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