No learning without humility.
No growth without pain.
No reward without risk.
No change without loss.
— The Stoic Emperor (@TheStoicEmperor) April 7, 2018
There is a new Stoic Emperor in our midst. He’s not a supreme leader, but he is a superbly good writer of Stoic-inspired epigrams. As a result, The Stoic Emperor has become one of the must-follow accounts on Twitter with its perceptive Stoic meditations. It started exactly a year ago in April 2017, and at this point has sent over 700 tweets. The short meditations are now followed by nearly 30,000 people, including several prominent billionaires, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, media moguls, professors, crypto gurus and others—some names you’ll probably recognize. We reached out to learn more. How did the account start? Why the anonymous approach? Favorite meditations? This and much more in our interview with The Stoic Emperor below. Don’t forget to follow the account on Twitter, and for more Stoic wisdom in your feed, you are welcome to follow us on Twitter as well.
Tell us about your introduction to Stoicism. How did you first encounter it? Why do you think it resonated with you?
Like many a love affair, it began with an unplanned encounter. I found a dusty old copy of Meditations in the back of a library. I had never read something so ancient that felt so contemporary and vital. Marcus Aurelius speaks truths that feel eternal. I think that in some core sense, Stoicism is in fact, true. True in the sense that it describes a way of being that is particularly well suited to the kind of life that human beings are privileged and condemned to live out. I think Stoicism represents a maturing of the moral imagination.
Studying religions and modern psychology has only reinforced this opinion. Every mature system of behavior seems to arrive at something akin to Stoicism. Life is to be endured. Life is to be accepted. We are limited and limitless; we must embrace that duality. We must find eternity in the finite, fearlessness through fear, and generosity through knowledge of our own covetousness. We must know ourselves, truly know ourselves, in order to be good. We must not delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are, and we must not let ourselves off the hook for being less than we can be.
I think Stoicism offers up a remarkably accurate view of human nature, and it tells us how to live in a way that is appropriate for that nature.
And what is the backstory of the account? Why did you start it? Why did you decide to do it anonymously? Why not do it with your real name?
You can argue with someone’s viewpoint, or you can argue against their identity. We draw all sorts of conclusions about what their biases are, their intentions and their affiliations. We argue with their right to have an opinion, rather than with the specifics of their opinion. That does not interest me. For the purposes of this account, I have no identity. I am a blank.
I hope this lack of context allows the words to stand on their own. Celebrities tweet banalities all the time that do quite well. Is it because their writing is more interesting than that of other people? No, their identity is interesting.
If I am a prominent person that might artificially inflate the impact of my words. If I am an obscure person that might artificially deflate the impact of my words. Because really, who is this person to have an opinion?
These all seem reasonable reasons to remain anonymous. I feel that remaining a blank allows me to be more honest.
In Japan, during the Edo period, actors had to live in the red light district. It was considered scandalous for respectable people to interact with them. They were thought to be frivolous and contaminating. Do I think that kind of moral panic was justified? Not entirely, but actors are people that trade in illusion. They have a theatrical identity that is very powerful, though it may be built on nothing. Actors and other celebrities tend to be among the most powerful people on social media. They often have confident opinions that are based on very little information. They spend more time looking in the mirror than looking at the facts. They have direct access to millions of people. This is very interesting, and very dangerous.
I try to invert that. I have no identity because identity is the source of both ego and our very rational (and often unconscious) fear of social shunning.
Being interesting in public is nearly illegal in 2018. In some societies, it is illegal.
So why am I anonymous, really? Is it cowardice? Is it pragmatism? Is it principle?
The reader can decide for themselves.
In an age of identity, I seek its opposite.
No identity. Only words. Only a voice in your head.
The meditations that you post on your account are original and new thoughts, not simply quotes from the Stoics. What’s your writing process like?
I walk. I think. I write down what I think. I throw it out. I write it again. I read it aloud. I rewrite it three times. I write it in the Twitter text box, and find it is far too long. I cut half of it out, which usually makes it better. That is my typical process. Sometimes I am trying to sleep and I cannot, so I write something impulsively.
I think Twitter is developing into something fascinating. This is quite by accident. All the social networks are best used by people that are putting them to use in ways their creators never imagined.
Twitter is thought of as a place for vapid celebrities, tweets about lunch, self-promotion, and political demagoguery. It is all of those things, but it is also something else. It is a canvas. The format reminds me of East Asian hangings scrolls. I like the verticality of it, the purity of its limitations.
The aesthetics of something like a Twitter feed are underappreciated. For many people, it is an aesthetic and intellectual experience that is framed by the edges of the IPhone screen. It is very intimate. The creative possibilities there are under-examined. I am interested in trying to make the most of a format that gets very little respect.
The move to 280 characters made Twitter much better. It still forces concision, but it allows one room to both introduce an idea and develop it. It has made Twitter a place more capable of supporting complex concepts. Vicious zingers are no longer the only way to get attention.
If you hate Twitter, unfollow everyone and start fresh. Look for the people who are trying to provide value with what they are doing on Twitter itself, rather than merely trying to direct traffic to their ventures elsewhere. If you don’t know where to start, find a few people you respect that seem smart and sane, and follow who they follow. You can find the most extraordinary thinkers on Twitter, scientists, philosophers, and computer programmers. It is a sort of amorphous symposium.
Politics has made Twitter huge, but I find political Twitter to be very noisy and chaotic. It encourages the most dangerous parts of people. It drums up intense tribalism and messianic delusion.
Rational debate is nearly impossible. People listen for signals of shared tribal affiliation. If they get the right signals, they listen. If they get the wrong signals, they object. Argument without signalling is something they can’t interpret at all.
Each tribe expects you to signal deference to their set of sacred values, and their set of unspeakable taboos. This behavior is continuing to escalate in frequency and intensity. This sort of thing tends to end very badly.
Is it intimidating at all to try to put out these epigrams that compete with or complement ancient wisdom? You’ve accumulated a number of pretty high profile and influential followers, they aren’t going to be content with trivialities or cliches.
I know that at least three billionaires are following me. I am aware that many people of considerable impact and intellect are reading my words. I respect their accomplishments, but I am not intimidated by the thought of writing for them.
We live in an age in which people are elevated and dispensed with on an absolutely stunning timescale. Belle of the ball today, untouchable pariah tomorrow. Reputation is fragile. “High powered people” are surrounded by others that are intimidated by them. Some of them like that, which is a bad idea, though flattering to the ego. Many of them hate it, and long for the company of wise and honest people that they feel they can learn from.
Many of my followers are very smart. Many are good. I try and encourage those who are smart and good to also be brave.
Courage is in shorter supply than IQ points or Ivy League degrees.
We live in an era in which many of the smartest people are intensely risk averse. They have been trained to be like that, and it is not irrational considering the consequences of divergence. Still, it is hard to watch.
Is it a contradiction for an anonymous account to encourage courage in others?
Perhaps, but we live in an age of contradictions.
For my purposes, I value the virtues of anonymity over the complex hypocrisies of identity.
Which would be your favorite meditations that you have written? The one you’ve pinned on top is fantastic (“Almost all Americans own a smartphone or a computer. Each device contains the library of Alexandria. The sum total of all world knowledge. You can learn anything. Why don’t you? Too busy tracking social status. Too enthralled by imagery your evolution can’t resist.”) but we’d love to see others that you are particularly proud of.
That thought you highlighted is of crucial importance. The internet has made all knowledge available to almost everyone. If you have access to the internet, you can learn everything that a Harvard graduate knows. Everything. You can read any book in the public domain, which is everything written before about a hundred years ago. You can find top scientists arguing on Twitter about string theory or evolutionary psychology. It’s all free. It can be yours.
This is easier said than done though. Information is completely free, but how can information compete with stimulation? Evolutionary super stimuli is ever present in your environment. Marketers ruthlessly exploit every available channel to dominate your attention. Can young men really resist the allure of the 24/7 simulated sex goddesses available on every electronic device? The simulacrum of a woman up for anything. No social courage required, no commitment, no divorce court. Irresistible.
Can we resist the temptation to constantly check our social status? Failure to keep up might result in shunning and shaming. Who can focus on learning when you are constantly fearing for your position in the tribe?
In another tweet I wrote that:
Modern humans overdose on information, pushing the limits of our design constraints.
Future humans will adopt filtering mechanisms to avoid drowning in random data. They'll look back on us with pity.
Attention pollution is a huge drain on our collective intellectual resources.
— The Stoic Emperor (@TheStoicEmperor) March 14, 2018
That gets at the core of the problem. This generation is experiencing the dawn of a globally networked society. We are completely unprepared for it, so we are allowing it to derange our thinking in all sorts of ways. We must be vigilant about retaining sovereignty over our attention. Stoicism is highly relevant to this. Self-mastery is necessary to filter out the noise and direct our attention towards our own purposes.
If we fail to do so, we shall find that we are directed by the madness of the crowd in ways we are completely unconscious of.
If you were to name a favorite Stoic, who would it be, and why? Is there a particular quote from them that you think about often?
The three great Stoics that are widely read today are Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Marcus Aurelius has had the greatest impact on me, but all are great thinkers. I would say that Epictetus may provide the best introduction. The Enchiridion can be read very quickly and applied directly.
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the deepest Stoic work. It has been a constant companion for me. It demands to be read and re-read, revealing new depths each time.
Seneca’s writing is the most accessible and modern. People can think of Stoicism as humorless and severe, but Seneca refutes that claim. He is often quite funny, and very ruthless in his documentation of the foibles of the society of his day. I think people will be surprised by the amusing bitchiness of his asides about how much time Romans spend on their hair.
I think about this line from Meditations every day:
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who did the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius
What does your daily Stoic routine look like? Any particular Stoic exercises that you practice regularly, or perhaps other habits and routines the Stoics would have approved of?
Stoicism helps me control my reactions. It helps me to be more forgiving of the failings of others. It inspires me to take ultimate responsibility for my own failings. It compels me to change the changeable, and to embrace the inevitable. It is a torch which can help light the path of the uncharted dark.
Occasionally, someone will reply on Twitter to let me know that something I said did not strike them as “very Stoic.” I find this amusing.
Stoicism is an ideal. I think one could accurately define an ideal as: that which you aspire to and fall short of. Jesus, Buddha, Tony Robbins, these are unreachable ideals. Yet we reach anyway, and in so doing we discover that our capacities exceed our default expectations.
I wrote something short on this topic a while back. I’ll close this interview with that.
We reach for the stones.
To build. To break. To make fire.
We reach for truth and meaning.
For cross, for book, for marble.
We reach for what is above.
For future, flight, and star.
— The Stoic Emperor (@TheStoicEmperor) March 25, 2018