Mark Athitakis is annoyed by the current fad for books about Stoicism, but what he presents here isn’t a review so much as a grunt of disapproval. He comes off like any old hipster grumbling that their former favorite band sold out. When he was in college, you had to find Epictetus in a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore, not on a set of inspirational refrigerator magnets, harrumph. I haven’t read any of the titles that raise his ire, but I’m willing to take his word for it that they offer vapid affirmations and motivational aphorisms. What makes me laugh is that he picks what, in my view, is precisely the weakest part of classical Stoicism to champion, i.e. the transparent rationalization:

Part of the problem is that contemporary Stoicism dearly wishes to escape its founders’ most severe dictates. Aurelius and company insisted that we be cool in the face of death, be it our own or a child’s. They tended to see matters of love and affection as a distraction. (Seneca: “Friendship is always helpful, yet too often love causes harm.”) Robertson attempts to sell its virtues by connecting it to modern cognitive behavioral therapy, while the Dummies authors try to reframe the love-starved idea by asserting its practical uses in friendship. Still, this amounts to a lot of tut-tutting about squishy emotions — that we must keep even loved ones at arm’s length: Epictetus wrote that in the same way we should see a jug as a thing that can break, when we kiss our child or spouse we should tell ourselves that we’re “kissing a human being because then you won’t get upset when they die.”

Well, yes. The problem with the “most severe dictates” is that they’re fucking stupid if taken seriously as philosophy. That’s why, as with Stoic theology, most people have ignored them in favor of the more pragmatic suggestions. We all know the fox in Aesop’s fable is full of merde when he claims that those grapes were probably sour, so he didn’t want them anyway. Granted, when faced with the agony of your wife’s or child’s death, you might resort to rationalization in a desperate attempt to numb the pain enough to carry on. “She was only a skinsuit full of blood, bone, and protein, after all.” You won’t really believe it, but maybe it will serve as an anesthetic for a little bit. In theory, at least. The wife of one of my employees died last month from cancer, and there’s no way in hell I’d suggest an Epictetian perspective as consolation. As philosophy, it’s ridiculous. As poetry, though?

This world of dew
Is only the world of dew
And yet…oh, and yet…

— Issa

Written after his daughter’s death. The same attempt to rationalize away unbearable pain, the same inevitable failure. And yet, this is beautiful and consoling in a way where the Stoics were just absurd and insulting.