So begins Stoicon-X Bay Area, a gathering of local Stoics who wish to reflect on 2019 and goals for 2020. For those who slept in history class, Stoicism is an approximately 2,300-year-old Greco-Roman philosophy that stresses living virtuously, accepting bad things will happen and constantly meditating on death. It’s fun.
Stoicism has enjoyed a revival of late partly thanks to Modern Stoicism, a group of U.K.-based psychologists and academics that has held Stoic-themed events since 2012. October’s annual Stoicon drew hundreds to Athens. Throughout the year, smaller gatherings — dubbed Stoicon-Xs, a la TEDx Talks — also take place in cities such as Toronto, Moscow and New York.
The Stoic Fellowship, an international group loosely affiliated with Modern Stoicism, helped put on today’s philo-bash. It turns out there’s plenty to be Stoic about in the Bay. “There’s huge wealth in this area. People have fancy cars, fancy homes, fancy jobs,” says Gerry Castellino, a 53-year-old software engineer. “Among our circle of friends we have some who are really, really rich, but that was something that didn’t appeal to me in terms of deriving happiness.”
Silicon Valley is notorious for attracting Stoicism devotees, including Digg founder Kevin Rose and Theranos’ ex-chief Elizabeth Holmes. It has a whiff of a self-help movement, but adherents say it works. “I want to make sure I do it consistently going into 2020, because it’s something that has been really good for me as a person,” says Jordan Edmunds, a 24-year-old Berkeley resident who handles his stressful PhD bid by keeping a daily mental list of things he does and does not control. “The trick is just doing it consistently rather than calling on it as needed. It’s sort of like training for combat, because when that training is really needed it’s usually too late.”
The crowd may be modest, but Bay Area Stoics have made gains since 2013, when three people formed one of the country’s first 21st-century Stoic chapters in Berkeley. Today, about 150 folks are signed up for area meetings, which often take place in libraries or coffee shops and feature discussions of primary texts like Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.”
Worldwide, there’s now a Stoic presence on seven continents, thanks to the Stoic Fellowship’s tactical donation in 2018 of the letters of Seneca and “The Discourses of Epictetus” to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. The station has yet to host a Stoicon, but its denizens clearly appreciate the philosophy. “When I first came down here in 1999 and for some years afterward, there was a phrase widely in vogue that came into play when anything negative or undesirable happened that was beyond one’s control — weather, flights, you name it,” Peter West, a National Science Foundation spokesman said in an email. “[That phrase] was, ‘It’s a harsh continent.’ Stoicism in practice, it seems to me.”
Some critics say the Stoic revival has a nefarious side, too. In 2018, scholar Donna Zuckerberg published “Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age,” a book revealing the philosophy’s Internet popularity among pick-up artists and men’s-rights activists. “What I was surprised to find,” she told the Guardian, “was the extent to which they are using ancient Greek and Roman figures and texts to prop up an ideal of white masculinity.” In this room in the East Bay, however, the closest thing to retro gender roles on display is a couple of men sharing how Stoicism helped them accept that they, too, must wash the dishes.
James Kostecka, a 48-year-old organizer of today’s event, takes the lectern to run over the accomplishments of Bay Area Stoics in 2019. Stoics cleaned litter from parkland and a county fair, perhaps enjoying it more than most. “That is actually my favorite job,” Kostecka tells me after the meeting. “You get a bucket and a gripper and you go around and pick up trash for four hours.”
Local Stoics also staged a Yahtzee tournament, where the winner of the most points was not necessarily the champion of the night. Kostecka says they defined success as enhanced fellowship and philosophical exercise. “If a participant did this, they won,” he says. “If they scored the technical victory in regards to the game, but at the same time alienated those around them or failed to make practice of the theory, they would certainly have lost at Stoic game night no matter how many points they scored in the game.”
Activity time! The crowd breaks into group discussions, where Jerrod Zertuche, a 34-year-old behavior analyst in Palo Alto, shares that he came across Stoicism via a phone app during a low point in life. He’s struggled with impulse control — as a kid, he broke two Game Gears (like Game Boys but with color and way cooler). Since growing older and embracing Stoicism, he has found temperance and has even improved his golf prowess. “It’s led me to not be so hard on myself when I make a bad swing,” he says. “That just comes from, ‘Well, you just need to practice more.’... It’s not a big deal.”
David Dulany, a 47-year-old tech chief executive from Daly City, believes there’s a misconception about the word “Stoic.” “People just use it for somebody who has no emotions and is just standing in a rainstorm with a grim expression on their face, and they’re not feeling anything,” he says. Dulany believes a Stoic is one who embraces the challenges of life, as he did this year in organizing a successful tech conference. “It was one of those things where it was like, ‘Hey, one way or the other — maybe it’ll go sideways or you’ll lose a lot of money — it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day,’ ” he says. “You’re going to learn and develop, and you’re going to end up in the same place, anyway.” (Meaning the grave.)
There’s an announcement that we’re going to have a demonstration of theory transformed into action. Castellino has been preparing for this by gulping fish oil and rubbing rosemary sprigs on his skin to improve memory. He goes to a whiteboard and, as the room falls silent, writes out 140 digits of pi.
“What I did was I created 14 images of 10 digits each with a story,” he explains, to applause. For the sequence 26433, “26 is one day short of my birthday, so it’s like a bad thing. And I’m unhappy. And then I’m seeing the four horsemen there. To me, that’s something bad that’s going to happen. There are two people standing in front of the four horsemen with handcuffs on their hands, so 33.”
A guy in the audience volunteers that he’s also studied visual systems to construct a “memory palace.” The resulting pictorial stories can be weird, he says. “One of them was Hitler juggling some dogs.”
The meeting wraps up with a raffle of Stoic-themed books. Afterward, Castellino says he hopes to improve on his Stoic-fueled brain flex at 2020’s Stoicon-X, perhaps writing out 200 digits of pi with the invisible guidance of his long-dead mentors. “When I came across ‘Meditations,’ I read it in a span of about two days, and there were many, many lightbulb moments that happened,” he says. “Marcus Aurelius, through the curtains of time and space, I felt his hand on my shoulder and saying to me, ‘We got this.’ ”
John Metcalfe is a reporter in the San Francisco Bay area.