The Modern Assault Against Ancient Wisdom

Douglas C. Bates
5 min readJun 18, 2022

The emptiness of a fashionable modern critique

Many recent articles have criticized Stoicism. I’m even the author of some of them (this, that, and the other). However, the June 15, 2022 publication of Henry Gruber’s Don’t be stoic: Roman Stoicism’s origins show its perniciousness published by the popular online magazine Aeon represents a now fashionable form of criticism that, while in this article is almost entirely directed at Stoicism, actually broadly implicates almost all ancient wisdom traditions, and in particular, the ancient Greek ones, saying that these eudaemonic “philosophies taught that the good life was attainable through concrete exercises, performed in accordance with the correct philosophical worldview.”

As the article points out, “the attraction of Stoicism was, and is, in the therapeutic element of its exercises: cognitive behavioural therapy, or Buddhism, for guys in togas.” It is this therapeutic element that Stoicism shares with other ancient wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, that is the focus of the article’s criticism, albeit mostly camouflaged by criticizing particular therapies associated with Stoicism. This is clear in the article’s thesis statement (n.b., capitalization errors are in the original):

Despite the benefits of Stoic spiritual exercise, you should not become a stoic. Stoic exercises, and the wise sayings that can be so appealing in moments of trouble, conceal a pernicious philosophy. Stoicism may seem a solution to many of our individual problems, but a society that is run by stoics, or filled with stoics, is a worse society for us to live in. While the stoic individual may feel less pain, that is because they have become dulled to, and accept, the injustices of the world.

So, any philosophy that helps you feel less pain is pernicious. Feeling less pain will cause you to become dulled to and accept the injustices of the world.

That’s a big — and unsubstantiated — leap.

The Buddha famously pointed out that life entails dukkha (instability, bad standing, perturbation). The Pyrrhonist and Epicurean philosophers say that the objective of their philosophies is ataraxia (the end of perturbation and mental suffering). This alleviation of perturbation was important for other ancient Greek…

Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”