How Stoicism Helped a Genius

There’s value in learning not just from Stoic philosophers, but from “natural Stoics”—people who have lived with the kind of wisdom we want to cultivate in ourselves, even if they never called themselves Stoics. That kind of model doesn’t have to be a Cato, a Seneca, a Marcus Aurelius, or some distant historical figure. We can find natural Stoics in any walk of life, in ordinary people and great minds.

One of those people is Claude Shannon, and he is the founder of the information age. He isn’t a household name, but in 1948, decades before anything resembling a “digital” world would come into existence, Shannon wrote a seminal paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

Few pathbreaking scientists lived out Stoic values as consistently as Shannon. He made a lifelong principle of the kind of indifference that the Stoics try to achieve. It was central to a career in which he chased his curiosity, often at the expense of more prestigious or lucrative options. As he put it, “I don’t think I was ever motivated by the notion of winning prizes, although I have a couple of dozen of them in the other room. I was more motivated by curiosity. Never by the desire for financial gain. I just wondered how things were put together. Or what laws or rules govern a situation, or if there are theorems about what one can’t or can do. Mainly because I wanted to know myself.”

For Shannon, those weren’t just words. At the height of his brief fame, when his information theory had become the buzz-phrase to explain everything from geology to politics to music, Shannon published a four-paragraph article kindly urging the rest of the world to vacate his “bandwagon.” Being a scientific celebrity didn’t matter to him. What mattered was the truth, and the curious, serious research that uncovered it.

Only Seneca—who knew what it was like to be famous and controversial—could have put it better: “The heart is great which shows moderation in the midst of prosperity.”

PS: Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, authors of the wonderful biography of Cato, the towering Stoic, Rome’s Last Citizen have recently published A Mind At Play, an acclaimed biography of Claude Shannon. You should check it out.