Computer programmers and Quentin Compson: American Stoics?

9 April 2019

The New York Times recently ran an entertaining—if somewhat unnerving—piece on Silicon Valley’s fascination with Stoicism. A number of prominent tech entrepreneurs claim to follow the philosophy of self-mastery taught by Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—or at least the version of Roman thought popularized by writers like William Irvine and Ryan Holiday. The Daily Stoic blog markets momento mori exercises, and the international Stoicon conference now boasts Stoicon-x events. These have apparently led to an uptick in cold showers, periodic fasting, and voluntary treks through the rain.


Such latter-day Stoicism may be no more than a fad. It surely tells us more about the way cultishness comes and goes in California than about actual first-century philosophy. Yet this got me wondering if there exists something we might call an American Stoic tradition.


The candidates for Stoicism who come first to mind are literary figures: Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury, Jack Burden in All the King’s Men, and William Stoner in Stoner. All are Southern characters, haunted by wars they didn’t fight and disillusioned by the discovery that their educations won’t actually enable them to conquer history.


In his 1956 essay, “Stoicism in the South,” the novelist Walker Percy saw a tendency toward Stoicism in upper-class white Southerners, who combined their prideful traditionalism with a “poetic pessimism.” Percy argued that, in the first half of the twentieth century, this worldview created something of a patronizing alliance between Southern neo-aristocrats and African Americans (the political theorist Peter Lawler told the Daily Stoic that Atticus Finch is a good example of the dynamic Percy described). According to Percy, Brown v. Board exposed the shallowness of such Southern noblesse oblige. The white upper-class confirmed that traditionalism would trump any previous willingness to support their black neighbors. As a committed Catholic, Percy worried that the Southern leaders of the 1950s and 60s had proven their preference for “the nobility and graciousness of the Old Stoa” over a Christian belief in equal rights.


Now, Silicon Valley is so thoroughly secular that the Christian hypocrisy that concerned Percy doesn’t seem to apply. And tech culture lacks the historical dimension that gives Southern literature its tragic force. William Faulkner’s insistence on family inheritance and Robert Penn Warren’s obsession with capital-T Time aren’t quite consistent with the anxieties driving the Bay Area to Stoicism. In the American imagination, California stands for youth, and its tech whizzes are among its youngest professionals.


Still, as the University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer told the Times, the tech entrepreneurs she’s met seem plagued by a “sad lethargy.” Palmer adds, “When you’re 37, rich, retired and unhappy, it’s very perplexing.” Palmer speculates that Stoicism is attractive to this set because it encourages striving after personal tranquility, while still permitting the accumulation of property and prestige. Stoicism affirms that, no matter how things might appear, the order of nature is rational; mass political reform isn’t what’s needed. In this sense, Palmer says, Stoicism’s popularity among tech the tech crowd mirrors its appeal in ancient Rome, “because it was the one system of ethics that worked well for the rich and powerful.” So Stoicism is self-help for those who have made their peace with the status quo, even if, like the characters of great novels, they feel old before their time.


Tocqueville may lend a perspective to why the Californian variety of Stoicism is both ahistorical and unhappy. In Democracy in America, he noted that “commercial ties” drove citizens toward national assimilation, as they shed the “fantastic terrors” of history, like those “that had tormented the imagination of 1789” (DA 1.2.10). The industrial developments of the nineteenth century certainly helped Americans conquer geography, as they looked forward to the West rather than backward toward Europe. Such industriousness, Tocqueville predicted, would end the idleness of neo-aristocrats. Watching as the Northern economy outpaced them, Southern landowners would come to absorb the customs of the dominant commercial culture. Tocqueville posited that American industry would urge the individual states toward feeling a closer bond to the point that national Union is “no longer a matter of opinion, [but] becomes a habit” (DA 1.2.10).


The Internet clearly compounds a trend that was already well underway in Jacksonian America, when inter-state canals, roads, and banking helped overcome the limitations of time and space. And yet, the Facebook and Google employees who have done so much to shape today’s national habits seem somewhat disillusioned with the networks they’ve fostered.


On one hand, the tech titans have created the perfect tools of mass democracy. In theory, access to information has never been cheaper, and self-expression never so automatic. A Wi-Fi connection is our mass equalizer. On the other hand, we all know that the Internet has made us restless and angry and uprooted in a way that exacerbates our differences. Faulkner’s characters tried to cope with class and racial conflict by literally burying their gold in the land. In Silicon Valley, the aristocratic impulse is more existential: Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, while Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos have sponsored longevity research that flirts with the notion of its investors living forever. Steve Huffman, the C.E.O of Reddit, talks about buying his way out of the apocalypse.


As Tocqueville observed, an America that abandons its republic forms is susceptible to the dominance of an “aristocratic body.” This class, “though not far removed from the crowd, nevertheless stands permanently above it” (DA 1.2.10). California’s executives personify an American version of aristocracy. So much of Silicon Valley ‘s wealth is built on technologies that intensify crowd mentality, even as the technologies’ designers express a desire to exempt themselves from the virtual masses. Perhaps this explains America’s Stoic sub-culture. Our tech economy exposes the tension between aristocratic lifestyles, meritocratic pedigrees, and democratic ambitions. It’s the tension of Cicero’s biography and Faulkner’s tragedy.


Photo Credit: Keith Wong, via Unsplash.

Photo Credit: Amogh Manjunath, via Unsplash.

Photo Credit: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Bust of Cicero, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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