The other day, as I was flipping through stations on my car radio, I started thinking about the challenge of raising morally excellent kids in a world in which being cool means not really caring about anything besides yourself. No matter what kind of music or tv shows you like, it’s hard to escape the cultural message that being edgy, transgressive, or emotionally irresponsible, is the way to be cool. So lately I’ve started asking myself how an ethical system like Stoicism, which is highly demanding and is opposed to much of what passes for cool in pop culture or alternative cultures, could ever appeal to young people. Do Stoics have their own brand of cool? Can Stoicism itself be cool?
So I first dug into a google search of “what is cool.” (I know.) In almost any other context I would not turn to Wikipedia for definitions, but for a popular definition of cool I think crowdsourcing might actually be a good place to start. “There is no single concept of cool,” Wikipedia tells us. But as a behavioral characteristic, “Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.” Hmm. Well that sounds kind of like the ancient Stoics, except that many of them DID directly confront tyrannical authority. (Also see Leah Goldrick’s recent post on How to Be a Badass According to Cicero.) Several Stoic heroes–Cato, Diogenes, and Socrates–were among the great disrupters of the ancient world. Does that make them cooler than cool?
Then I found a study reported in the L.A. Times in which a group of social science researchers asked over 500 people of all different ages what cool is. They found that it has two components, social desirability and rebelliousness. While it has somewhat softened over time to mean anything nice and likeable, the original and core meaning of cool, according to the study’s author, is “a detached, effortless attitude defined in part by emotional control and a certain unflappable confidence.” Like those pop culture icons James Dean and James Bond. Or like those Stoic icons Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
I found a lot of other definitions of cool on various websites, and based on this research it seems that Stoicism is the perfect definition of coolness. See what you think:
- “Coolness is the art of being pleasant or commendable without making any discernible effort to do so, revealing in the process that your values are not contingent on the approval of others. It is a subtle display of power, courage, and maturity” (The Science of Cool, mysteriousuniverse.org)
- “The coolest people in the world are the rebels with a cause. The people who are confident in their gifts and talents, while also unafraid of their failings and mistakes. They take chances and are willing to risk it all for what they believe in. These are the true heroes in our world today, the coolest people – the revolutionaries who are going to change the world.” (What is Cool, acculturated.com)
- “You must have that essential balance of humor, charisma, authenticity, confidence and a repertoire of impressive actions behind you; basically Samuel L. Jackson” (Anonymous user on quora.com)
- “A cool person is someone who has most of the following characteristics:
- They like themselves
- They know themselves (not the same thing as #1)
- They have a relaxed attitude toward life
- They are open and accepting toward others
- They have the guts to take a stand
- They are honest but not hurtfully so
- They dress in an intentional way, even if that way is to seem unintentional
- They know interesting things and/or have interesting habits
- They are anti-authoritarian
- They stick up for those who aren’t so cool :-)” (Danielle Blumenthal on quora.com)
Well my friends, if that’s what cool is, then Stoicism is definitely cool. Not that Stoics care if they are cool or not, but it might be helpful to attract new Stoics (especially if they are young people, and especially if they are your own kids). I would argue that a lot of what passes for cool in pop culture and alternative cultures is simply self-serving posturing rather than genuine coolness, and that we Stoics are authentically cool. Stoicism by its very nature is a philosophy of emotional control, unflappable confidence, and even rebelliousness (when appropriate). For anyone who stops to think about it, living an unconventional life of moral courage and wisdom is far edgier–and cooler–than blindly following the crowd and/or slavishly seeking money and popularity. Even after 2,000 years, it is still revolutionary. The idea that you can achieve complete freedom–and that it is you who can set yourself free–has to seem incredibly alluring to those who are willing to think for themselves.
To top it all off, I found an article by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein on Philosophy Now that explicitly links Stoicism (particularly Epictetus) and coolness. He writes that coolness is inherently paradoxical: “Instead of revelling in either total control or total detachment, the aesthetics and ethics of cool fractures and alienates in order to bring forward unusual constellations of ideas and actions.”
Returning to the original question, how can Stoicism appeal to young people in general, and our own children in particular? I think it requires being a good psychologist. Stoicism gets some things very right about psychology, and one of them is that our life is made up of the narrative we tell ourselves. (This is what “making proper use of impressions” is, right?) So if we can change our inner narrative–or help our kids to change theirs–we can change our lives. We can’t control the messages our kids receive from peers and the world at large, but we can suggest a counter-narrative of Stoic cool as an alternative to pop-culture cool, indie cool, grunge cool, hipster cool, etc. You could say that Stoicism is ultimately a philosophy of rebellion: rebellion against conventional ways of seeing the world, and rebellion against anyone or anything that tries to constrain your true self. As Epictetus was fond of saying, no one besides you can constrain your power of judgment.
How would someone go about constructing a narrative of Stoic cool with their kids? Well, of course you have to live an authentic Stoic life for it to make any sense. I think the key is not just to criticize pop culture, but rather to offer a valid and attractive alternative. If you live a Stoic life of justice and are actively engaged with your family, community, and the world, your children will hopefully also have a sense of identity and commitment to Stoic ethics. They will learn that being cool is not about acting like you are cool or caring what other people think, but rather about being truly virtuous. And of course you always talk to your kids about why you make the choices you make, and be honest with them about what you are doing.
Maybe it’s asking too much for your kids to think their parents are cool. But if you give them the opportunity, they might come to see that Stoicism–that rebellious, edgy, wise and wonderful philosophy of life–is very cool.