Stoic Materialism
Dhruv Makwana
Key Contributor


First, I make a distinction between Stoicism and Stoic Materialism. Then, I use some real-world examples to show the consequences of the latter contradict the values of the former. I argue this is a problem in practice as well as in theory. I do so by comparison with an analogous case, that of Buddhism/Hinduism and mindfulness. Lastly, I propose some inoculations/antidotes for Stoic practitioners who wish to avoid the trap of Stoic Materialism.

The Distinction

Ego is able to convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.
Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

According to the Stoics, the only good/desirable thing, is a virtuous character. All their theory and practice, are in one way or another, in service of this primary goal.

A Stoic would encourage you to ask the question: “How may I act Stoically, that is virtuously, in my X?”. X may be relationships (family, friends, romantic, sexual, professional), career, education, finances. They would cringe if you asked “How can I use Stoicism to advance in my X?”. Distinguish the former, Stoicism, by calling the latter Stoic Materialism.

The distinction is subtle, but important. In the first, X is a means towards Stoicism; in the second, Stoicism is a means towards X. In the first, one has assumed Stoicism as valuable; in the second, one has already assumed (advancement in) X as valuable. In the first, one assumes the questioner is willing to consider the answer “by abstaining from it” but in the second, one assumes the questioner is expecting as an answer, a few Stoic exercises and techniques. The questioner is probably unwilling to entertain the idea that correct answer could be “you can’t”.

For the rest of this piece, I’m not actually going to argue in favour of Stoicism over Stoic Materialism; that’s a piece for another time. Nor am I going to provide a Stoic rebuttal against MLK Jr’s idea that the ‘drum major instinct’ should not be extinguished, but instead directed towards the right causes. Instead, what I wish to encourage is honesty and caution. Basically, if you are practising Stoic Materialism, whilst pretending to practise Stoicism, then please, don’t bullshit yourself.

Examples of The Distinction

To make things more concrete, let’s go through some of the examples of X that I laid out above. We shall see how this subtle distinction between Stoicism and Stoic Materialism has huge ramifications. Thankfully, Pigliucci has written about this at length, for three examples: “$toicism”, “Broicism” and “stoicisM”. I refer the reader to the modern master himself if they wish to learn more beyond the below summaries.

I now invite you to examine your own life. Ask if there are any ways your application of Stoicism may be similarly misguided, and thus undermining the fundamental Stoic pursuit of a virtuous character. If so, there’s no shame — none of us are sages. Finding such a thing could actually be a great opportunity. You could use it to learn how to proceed deeper with your understanding and application of Stoicism.

A Problem in Practice?

A sceptical reader might grant Stoic Materialism could a be problem in principle. Does this mean it is such in practice?

I don’t know. We should conduct some research to find out for sure. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa warns his students of such a diversion in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:

“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
— Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Introduction

His teachings actually served as the basis for an indicative paper into links between spiritual training and narcissism. [I say merely ‘indicative’ because psychology is notoriously plagued with unrepeatable results. Famous examples, such as the marshmallow test, will-power depletion, power-posing, smiling to feel better, have not been replicated.] In it, they measured many aspects of the situation:

The participants were chosen from three categories: those with ‘energetic’ training, those with mindfulness training, and those with no spiritual training. For the rest of this discussion, I shall ignore ‘energetic’ training. Results from the first two of three studies show that spiritual training correlates with spiritual superiority, spiritual guidance and supernatural overconfidence (see below graph). The third found that spiritual superiority is correlated with communal narcissism.

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