Stoicism and Mimetic Desire

American cultural lumineers like Tim Ferriss (stoicism is “an ideal operating system for thriving in high-stress environments”) and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking”) have embraced and promoted the philosophy in their work. Ryan Holiday built a brand around it. The high priests of Silicon Valley like Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Kevin Rose (Digg), and Phil Libin (Evernote) promote Stoicism as a transformative wellness practice.

So how does stoicism relate to mimetic theory?

First, stoicism is a practical philosophy of desire. It equips followers to deal with unexpected events, people, and passions. Stoicism seems to grasp that desire is social in nature, but assumes that people can basically learn to become indifferent to desire through stoic practices.

The first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus—arguably the most influential late Stoic, who is still influencing minds today as he did in the Roman empire—recommended indifference to desire as part of his practical guidance for life. “If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate,” he wrote. “If you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy. As for desire, suspend it completely for now.” According to Epictetus, if desire causes you trouble (and it inevitably will), it’s better to do away with it than grapple with it. 

But doing away with desire is not an option. To suspend it would be to suspend a core constituent of the human soul. Epictetus is asking the impossible. We are homo desiderius—the creature who desires. We can desire not to desire, but the circularity would make us dizzy.

The second way that stoicism related to mimetic theory is this: stoicism provides an incomplete answer to the question of desire which mimetic theory completes. The incompleteness of stoicism can be grasped by seeing that desire is mimetic and therefore not something that can be “thought” away. Even solitary hermit monks have desires because they are social beings in the world and are still in relationship with others, even if they are separated by physical distance. Stoicism does not address the fundamental question of what to do about mimetic desire—that is, about desires that are not able to be extinguished but must be grappled with as living, dynamic realities in human life.

Third, and lastly, stoicism intuits the nature of rivalry and provides practical guidance to finding tranquility amidst a world constantly in flux. In our liquid modernity, stoic thinking offers some respite from the winds of change by allowing people to sink down into a deeper layer of psychology that is less mimetic and therefore less prone to disturbance. Stoicism counsels taking specific measures to decrease or even empty one’s self of desire.

But the “emptying” of desire is never enough. Once we become aware of mimetic desire, we can channel it for good. Our ability to want things beyond our basic psychological drives, like meaningful work, is one of the most important things that differentiates us from animals. Intentional desire is what propels us to create a better world.