Designing the Mind


The Problem and the Alternative


Stoicism is a modern phenomenon. With thousands of books on the ancient Greek philosophy being published and millions following The Daily Stoic, the philosophy is more popular now than ever in history. And there is a lot to like about it – I mean a lot to like. Yet I don’t consider myself a Stoic, and while I think you could do a lot worse than Stoicism as a philosophy for life, I also think you could do a lot better.

Now some might assume that I’m going to make a superficial attack on the philosophy, with tired criticisms like “oh I don’t think we should suppress our emotions,” which is largely a misconception based on the modern use of the word “stoic.” But I’m coming at this from a standpoint of deep familiarity. I’ve been studying Stoicism for well over a decade, and I’m going to share the legitimate issues I see with the philosophy, and why I don’t think you should become a devotee.

“What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.”

– Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Psychitects – if you liked my “brutal takedown” of Eckhart Tolle, get ready, because I’m about to slam some Stoics. No, I actually want to reiterate that I love this philosophy – out of the hundreds of philosophical and psychological influences that have inspired my work, the Stoics top the list. Much like the South Park joke that the “Simpsons Already Did It,” as a practical philosopher, I often find myself saying the Stoics already did it. I even went through the entirety of Marcus’s Meditations and highlighted every word of it to develop a color-coded psychotechnology system.

But there are several reasons why I don’t think Stoicism is an ideal philosophy, in its empirical accuracy, its practicality, or its capability to guide us in the 21st Century. Let’s go through some of them.

Outdated Beliefs

Alright now everyone knows that the ancient Greeks who were writing 2,000 years ago didn’t have a fully modern understanding of the world. They thought animals and children didn’t have emotions, thought the earth was at the center of the universe, held conventionally misogynistic views on women for the time, and failed to condemn slavery. But these are all peripheral ideas in the philosophy that can fairly easily be updated in light of a modern scientific worldview.

But there are deeper issues in Stoic metaphysics that are far more difficult to resolve. Stoicism was built from the ground up on the belief in divine providence. The belief in a reasoning logos directing the universe is absolutely foundational to Stoic psychology and ethics. And while many have attempted to secularize Stoicism, it doesn’t ever quite work.

Epictetus is thoroughly theistic, and while Marcus is a bit more agnostic, often making provisions for the possibility that it’s all just atoms and chance, he doesn’t explore the implications of this possibility. In Meditations, he says:

Just as you overhear people saying that ‘the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him’, say this: ‘Nature prescribed illness for him.’ Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There ‘prescribed’ means something like ‘ordered, so as to further his recovery.’ And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny…

For there is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes…. And in that case, let’s accept it—as we accept what the doctor prescribes. It may not always be pleasant, but we embrace it—because we want to get well. Look at the accomplishment of nature’s plans in that light—the way you look at your own health—and accept what happens (even if it seems hard to accept). Accept it because of what it leads to the good health of the world, and the well-being and prosperity of Zeus himself, who would not have brought this on anyone unless it brought benefit to the world as a whole. No nature would do that—bring something about that wasn’t beneficial to what it governed.

It’s a beautiful and therapeutic message. As anyone who has ever been a Christian will tell you, it’s quite comforting to believe that everything happens for a reason and is all a part of a divine plan. But what if it’s wrong? If you don’t subscribe to belief in a divine logos, the whole idea falls apart. Why accept everything that happens as a perfect, harmonious unfolding, leading to the ultimate good and health of the world, if it all may be as accidental and arbitrary as an oil spill?

What’s more, Stoic principles are built on the axiom that we should live according to nature, and that human nature fundamentally boils down to reason. Because humans have a unique capacity for reason, the ancient Greeks argued, it must be our natural purpose. Just as a good chair appears to be made for sitting on, humans appear to be made for reason.

But what if we weren’t made for anything? What if we are the product of an unconscious process of natural selection, with no goal or purpose? How should we live then? If you subscribe to a modern, naturalistic view of the universe and human nature, you understand that the rational capacities of humans are more of a “bonus feature” that was tacked onto our brains, just a couple moments ago in evolutionary time. Based on this view, living according to nature would mean being irrational apes, seeking out food and sex most of the time, and occasionally using reason when expedient.

Evolution has different implications for how I think we should be living as well. If our brains were ultimately “designed” for the arbitrary purpose of propagating our genes, as neo-Darwinism suggests, we must question whether nature’s “purpose” is worth living according to in the first place. I would argue it makes far more sense to ignore, or even rebel against nature in this regard, putting our own values and well-being above the good of our genes. We should transcend our nature, and go beyond natural selection in optimizing for human health and happiness.

Nietzsche actually made a very similar criticism of Stoicism, despite lacking a modern understanding of Darwinism:

You desire to live ‘according to Nature?’ Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves indifference as a power—how could you live in accordance with such indifference?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

In other words, how can you live in accordance with nature’s plan if no such conscious plan exists?

Divine providence is, according to the Stoics, the reason we should embrace everything that happens to us, the reason to see ourselves as part of a harmonious whole with all of humanity, and the reason why reason itself must be the driving principle behind virtuous action and our natural duty. Without divine providence, it all falls apart, and modern Stoics are left living according to axioms with no justification.

There are a number of other specific beliefs the Stoics put forward, which I don’t find compelling, either empirically or practically. The Stoics believed that only a perfect sage could be virtuous or happy. Unless you had fully mastered the Stoic mindset, you were still completely in the dark. The problem with this belief is that arguably, no perfect sage has ever existed. Even Socrates was an imperfect human who we can be sure had flaws and at least occasionally failed to perfectly embody wisdom and virtue. The Stoic use of him and others as an ideal may be a useful thought experiment, but it’s not literally true. And that means no one has ever truly been happy or virtuous.

You might argue that this only means we can’t be perfectly virtuous or happy if we aren’t perfect sages. But you would be mistaken – the Stoics were quite clear that this was not a spectrum. It was binary – if you were 99% perfect in your wisdom and virtue, you were still fully under water and unhappy. To me, it makes far more sense to see reason, virtue, and wisdom on continuum that can be increasingly optimized and mastered.

They believed there were four cardinal virtues, which some say are actually all one virtue, that a person either had or they didn’t. They came as a package deal – you couldn’t have one without the others, and anything other than wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice was a false virtue. Kindness, creativity, and curiosity – sorry, not real virtues. I think in the modern world, we have to question these four cardinal virtue and ask why? Why would our brains have evolved to prioritize these four virtues over everything else? What psychological or evolutionary evidence do we have that suggest only these traits are responsible for our well-being?

On the other hand, Aristotle presented what I think is a far more sensible perspective – that there were many virtues, not just one with different aspects. Ambition, wit, and generosity were all different virtues. And he thought we could all have any combination of virtues in varying degrees.

The Stoics thought all circumstances were completely indifferent to our well-being. Whether you were in paradise or prison, your ability to thrive was equal. In fact, a true Stoic would say that even if you are being actively tortured, your ability to flourish is just as great as someone who is on a tropical vacation, enjoying time with their loved ones, after just putting on clothes that are still warm from the dryer.

While I have argued that circumstances are overrated and virtue is what drives well-being, I think our circumstances can affect our ability to act with virtue. Someone with no friends, no relationships, and no work will generally have far fewer opportunities to exercise their virtues than someone with all these things.

More confusingly, the Stoics held that there was such a thing as a “preferred indifferent.” All circumstances were indifferent to us and didn’t matter at all. But some circumstances, like not losing our legs, were preferrable to losing our legs, which explains why ancient Stoics weren’t known for sawing themselves in half for fun. While some scholars have attempted to resolve this apparent contradiction, I have never found these arguments particularly compelling. If something is truly indifferent to us, we shouldn’t prefer one outcome over another. So the Stoic approach just comes across as saying, officially, money doesn’t matter, but like, we all know it does.

Modern Stoics have made admirable attempts to patch the philosophy together for modern times, but even the most modernized version of Stoicism is still lacking.


I’ll be the first to say that Stoic philosophy is an absolute Logos-send when you are going through adversity and hardship. This is what it was made for. Stoicism flourished during the Hellenistic period, a time of great political and social upheaval following the conquests of Alexander the Great. This era witnessed wars, political instability, and rapid cultural changes, so it makes sense that Stoicism puts so much emphasis on resilience and inner strength in the face of adversity.

I discovered Stoicism when I was still in high school, a period when we often don’t have a whole lot of control over our lives. Teenage drama makes for a more volatile emotional experience, and being constrained by school and parents means you have a lot of things that just “happen to you.” Your life is on a track, and your options are limited. So adopting a philosophy centered around accepting what you can’t control can be highly adaptive.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that fewer and fewer things seem to just “happen to me.” I have more choices, more influence, and it just isn’t everyday that I find myself saying “I have no control over this situation.” If you’re a soldier or a prisoner, Stoicism can be an incredibly useful tool. But if you’re thriving, exploring opportunities, and working toward big ambitions, you may find yourself utilizing it less and less like I have.

But there is a bigger sense in which I question Stoicism’s relevance today. We live in a world that Zeno and Epictetus could not possibly have anticipated. The globalized and technologically connected world of the 21st century would be so shocking to these ancient thinkers that their heads would fall off.

This matters, because the goal of a practical philosophy – ultimately, a religion – is to guide people to a positive place, both individually and collectively. And humanity faces problems and risks that Stoicism just wasn’t built to help us through. These thinkers had no concept of existential risks like nuclear war, climate change, or artificial intelligence. They weren’t grappling with the rapidly spreading misinformation of the internet. They didn’t have to deal with those recipe websites that tell you a whole story about their childhood and then show you a bunch of ads and won’t just tell you how to make the tiramisu.

As a result, we can’t expect an ancient philosophy like this to guide us along the narrow and treacherous path toward a sapient society. If everyone on earth became an ardent Stoic tomorrow, I’m sure we would see a lot of improvements. But we don’t just need greater tranquility, courage, or even justice. We need new systems built to manage complex information, economics, and collective coordination. Even with far more Stoic virtue, humanity might just calmly drive itself right off a cliff. Despite its many merits, Stoicism is not the philosophy to guide the 21st century.

So what exactly does humanity need at this point? I think it’s very possible we’re in a need of a brand new practical philosophy – a modern, secular religion, built from the ground up on a scientific and forward-thinking foundation. An ecology of ideas, practices, institutions, and wisdom, build to guide individuals and society to a healthier, happier, more sustainable place. Maybe. Or maybe this would just create more dogmatism, tribalism, and polarization. Maybe what we actually need is to:

Be a Psychitect

Prior to launching Principles, I ran a small giveaway – a Kindle with a few books preloaded on it. Epictetus’s Enchiridion, The Mind and the Brain, Rationality: From AI to Zombies and The Mind Illuminated. Four exceptional books that I thought any psychitect would appreciate.

At one point, I shared the giveaway on a Stoic Facebook group. I should have known better. The giveaway was attacked for mixing Stoic works with non-Stoic works. In sharing non-Stoic works, I had questioned the philosophical gospel of Stoicism. I had attacked the loyalties of its most devoted followers.

You might assume this was just typical Facebook noise. But I have had conversations and email debates with multiple scholars of Stoicism, who have demonstrated complete inflexibility, dogmatism, and devotion to stoicism. Stoicism was not just a philosophy they appreciated – it was their religion – and deviating from it was an attack. They cited Socrates like they were quoting scripture.

The irony is that Socrates is the last person who would have approved of unquestioning loyalty to his ideas. Most of the philosophical visionaries we hear of today were extremely skeptical of their own ideas – and quite open about essentially “just being dudes” imperfectly exploring ideas. The dude known as the Buddha famously said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” meaning, don’t worship me, don’t take my ideas as gospel, try them out for yourself, improve upon them. Of course, this hasn’t stopped millions from worshipping him.

And the Stoics were no exception. Seneca said:

Let us thank God that no one can be held a prisoner in life – the very constraints can be trampled under foot. ‘It was Epicurus who said that,’ you protest. ‘What business have you got with someone else’s property?’ Whatever is true is my property. And I shall persist in inflicting Epicurus on you, in order to bring it home to the people who take an oath of allegiance to someone and never afterwards consider what is being said but only who said it, that the things of greatest merit are common property.

He repeatedly cites Epicurus throughout his work, despite his being the founder of a rival school, because true wisdom isn’t copyrighted by any philosophical school. If an insight can be gleaned from the introspective inquiries of any person, it does not belong to some ancient thinker, even if they were the first to express it. It belongs to us all.

Why pledge allegiance to a single philosophy when you can benefit from them all? My approach of taking what’s useful and leaving out the rest may not seem to pay proper tribute to these insightful visionaries, but reverence is not my priority.

All these original thinkers, Zeno, Plato, Epicurus, the Buddha, Nietzsche, Maslow – they weren’t trying to create a cult to be followed unquestioningly by their disciples. They were trying to figure out the path to the good life for themselves, and sharing what they learned along the way. They were interested in taking the wisdom they could gather from other thinkers and philosophers, putting it together in new ways, improving it, and making it their own. In other words, they were psychitects.

A psychitect is a collector of adaptive mental mechanisms—a craftsman of strategic psychological structures. As Eric Weiner, author of The Socrates Express kindly put it, “a forager of wisdom” who applies “systems thinking for the soul.” A psychitect doesn’t necessarily subscribe to any one philosophy, religion, or tradition. This type of person sees all existing philosophies, from Stoicism, to Buddhism, to Dudeism, as goldmines of precious insights to be extracted and installed.

In case anyone was thinking about worshipping me, sorry, I’m just a dude too. I’m not the first to advocate for this approach to wisdom, and I won’t be the last. If you’re trying to choose which philosophy to center your life around, I hope you’ll shop around and explore all the options. And then, I hope you’ll find that there are so many philosophies, with so many tools and so many flaws, that it doesn’t make sense to pick one at all. If you want to take on a psychitectural journey, I invite you to join us.

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