A Feast of Silence: Listening as Stoic Practice

Zeno of Citium, the  Hellenistic philosopher who founded the Stoic school at the turn of the third century BCE, once had this advice to give to a garrulous young man: “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so that we might listen more and talk less.” The more we speak, Zeno was saying, the more self-absorbed and foolish we become; in learning to listen, we temper our own egos and attune ourselves to the truths of the world around us.

This piece of wisdom from a 2,300-year-old philosophy was a part of the marketer and best-selling author Ryan Holiday’s reflection on stillness and silence on the October 4 edition of his Daily Stoic podcast, a daily affirmational that brings listeners “a meditation inspired by the ancient Stoics illustrated with stories from history, current events, and literature to help you be better at what you do.” In citing Zeno, Holiday’s point was that while our highly mediated culture often rewards loudness, extroversion, and “hot takes,” we might do better to listen, and learn from others, rather than simply talk over them. 

Over the past decade, Stoicism, which teaches that self-discipline, moderation, and emotional equanimity are key to overcoming hardship and living a good life, has had something of a revival as a self-help paradigm – and Holiday has been one of its most energetic evangelists. Articles in Vice, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the GuardianForbesWired, and Sports Illustrated have all taken note of his influence among Silicon Valley tech workers, corporate executives, professional athletes, military personnel, and celebrities to whom he markets the philosophy as a “life-hack”; his six best-selling books on the subject, meanwhile, have positioned him as perhaps the most commercially successful author in a mushrooming genre of Stoic literature; and The Daily Stoic’s A-level guest list, which has included Malcom Gladwell, Camilla Cabello, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlamagne Tha God, has established Stoicism’s cultural cachet as a practical guide for living, and positioned Holiday as its authoritative interpreter. 

Among the lessons Holiday draws from Stoicism, the practice of stillness (as his 2019 book puts it) is key: a way of quieting the mind, of “hear[ing] only what needs to be heard,” and really listening to the truth of the world in order to achieve the kind of tranquility (what the Greeks called apatheia) that will help us “think well, work well, and be well.” 

Stoicism was named for the Stoa, or painted porch of the Agora where members of the school met. Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

With this emphasis on stillness, silence, and listening, it would seem quite appropriate that Holiday would turn to the aural medium of podcasting to proclaim the ancient wisdoms of ZenoCleanthesSenecaEpictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, for the Stoics, listening was a foundational skill through which one cultivated the habits of discipline, self-control, and self-reflection that are the heart of the Stoic way of life (askesis); for it is in quieting ourselves and listening that we begin to open ourselves to the teachings of the masters and think about their application in our own lives.

And Holiday is hardly the only Stoic podcaster. As I write this, a simple search on Stitcher yields over 30 podcasts with “Stoicism” in their titles or descriptions, many of which have been updated in the past month (December, 2021), including the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s Stoic MeditationsStoicism DiscoveryStoicism on FireThe Sunday StoicThe Stoic HandbookThe Walled GardenStoic Coffee Break, and Stoic Solutions.

Elsewhere, Stoicism has been promoted by self-improvement podcasters like the tech investor and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss,and retired Navy SEAL and leadership coach Jocko Willink; and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the ancient Stoics were white men who emphasized values like rationality and self-mastery, which are typically coded as male – it has been advocated as a tactic for modern living by masculinity podcasters like Brett McKay and Ryan Michler.

Navigating this space can often feel like a small world (or, perhaps a promotional circuit): Holiday has been a guest on The Tim Ferriss ShowThe Art of Manliness, and Order of Man, and has hosted WillinkMcKay, and Ferriss on The Daily Stoic.

A full exploration of this network is outside my scope here. For now, I will consider the ways in which podcasting is particularly well-suited to Stoic askesis; and specifically, how the very act of listening – on our commutes, on long drives, at the gym, on hikes, and in moments of quiet meditation – constitutes what Michel Foucault (who himself drew upon Stoic texts in his later work on ethics) called a technology of the self: those techniques, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”

Part of a larger project investigating the historical emergence of discourses of sex and sexuality in Western culture, Foucault in his later writings and lectures turned his attention away from the normative and disciplinary systems of subjectivation that had previously concerned him, and toward the study of ethical modalities by which individuals actively fashioned their own subjectivity. Focusing particularly on the ethical practices of the ancient world, he discovered a more autonomous framework for individual conduct, one that centered on self-imposed standards and daily habits rather than a prescribed moral code. 

This precept of the “care of the self” (epimeleia heatou), Foucault maintained, could be traced from Alcibiades to the Imperial period, and had impelled individual Greeks and Romans (the free white men, at least) to embark upon their own stylized projects of self-transformation.

Among the practices that interested Foucault – and indeed, the one he understood to be essential to the “subjectivation of true discourse” – was the act of listening. In the first hour of his March 3, 1982 lecture at the Collège de France (published in English in The Hermeneutics of the Subject), for example, Foucault explained that listening is

the first move in as[k]esis … since listening, in a culture which you know was fundamentally oral, is what enables us to take in the logos, to take in what is said that is true. However, if conducted properly, listening also makes it possible for the individual to be convinced of the truth spoken to him, of the truth he encounters in the logos. And, finally, listening is the first moment of the process by which the truth which has been heard, listened to, and properly taken in, sinks into the subject so to speak, becomes embedded in him and begins to become suus (to become his own) and thus forms the matrix for ethos (p. 332).

This emphasis on listening, Foucault noted, is evident as far back as the Pythagoreans, who required initiates to spend five years in silence so as to be able to learn the community’s exercises, practices, and philosophical precepts. The themes of silence and listening were further developed in the culture dominated by Stoicism, Foucault noted, and emerged as a “new pedagogical game” that contrasted with the earlier dialogic model. Now, the master spoke, and the student listened.  

But the nature of audition could be somewhat ambiguous for the ancients, Foucault explained, in that it was a passive (pathetikos) activity, yet it is the primary sense through which we receive the logos, the rational substance that the Stoics believed to govern the universe. In his treatise On Listening, for instance, Plutarch (46 CE – c. 116CE) wrote that it was imperative for young men cultivate the art of listening because they must learn to listen to the logos throughout adulthood, and so must learn to distinguish truth from the artifices of flattery or rhetoric. One must listen to the words of the master attentively, so that the logos might penetrate the soul. “The man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect,” Plutarch wrote, “takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation” (On Listening, IV). 

Stock image of a person listening stoically. Photocredit: Audio-Technica @Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Perhaps the most striking of the texts Foucault discussed, however (see The Hermeneutics of the Subject, pp. 343-344), is Philo of Alexandria’s (20 BCE – c. 50 CE) description of the practices of the Therapeutae, a closed community of ascetics who renounced their earthly possessions in order to pursue “perfect happiness,” and the salvation of their soul (De Vita Contemplativa, §12). In his text, Philo takes specific note of the group’s elaborate banquet rituals, during which an elder comes to the fore and gives a discourse on philosophical doctrine or on sacred scripture (“teaching very slowly, lingering and emphasizing with repetitions, engraving the thoughts on the souls” [§76]). During these talks, the audience remained silent and motionless, adopting a precisely prescribed posture intended to fix their attention on the speaker, so that the discourse “does not stay on the tips of the ears, but comes through the hearing to the soul and there remains securely (§31).” In these feasts of silence, mastery of the body is the foundation of the care of the soul.

Though modern Stoic podcasting does not demand nearly this level of physical discipline of its listeners, we are nevertheless encouraged to incorporate podcasting into a daily ritual of silence and reflection – a new, digital feast of silence. As we listen through our headphones, in our cars, or in some other quiet personal space, we are joined in intimate connection with our hosts, who guide us in our contemplation of timeless Stoic wisdoms, engraving these thoughts in our minds so that we might have them ready at hand in order, as Holiday often says, to make them the principle of our actions.

It is this possibility of principled living that is perhaps at the heart of Stoicism’s twenty-first century appeal. As Elizabeth J. Peterson has written, in our age of seemingly perpetual crisis, Stoicism’s resurgence is undoubtedly due to its reputation as a practical guide for surviving difficult times. “Between President Trump, Brexit, the Middle East and the domestic issues in virtually every country,” she writes, “it’s not difficult to see why many people, across the world, need a source of clarity, calm, and fortitude.” (And that was before the pandemic, which occasioned a spate of articles explaining how Stoicism might help us endure a moment of profound uncertainty).

But the headlines aren’t the only source of our anxieties; we have plenty of it in our own lives. At a time of deepening economic precarity, in which we are routinely urged to become self-reliant, self-enterprising subjects in order to maximize our value in the marketplace, Stoicism offers a ready-made coping mechanism with a pedigree of centuries: at once a framework for cultivating emotional resilience, and a self-help paradigm for transforming ourselves into more disciplined, effective, and successful individuals. 

Some examples of self-help books. Photocredit: Angie @Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

When co-opted by late capitalist culture, when marketed as a “life-hack” and configured as an ethics of personal success, then, Stoic principles quite easily align with neoliberal imperatives that we endlessly labor on ourselves in order to better compete in an agonistic struggle for personal fulfillment and economic security. From this perspective, even the advice that we embrace stillness becomes a way of momentarily refreshing ourselves, only to return to work to “persevere” and “succeed.”

One of the most trenchant critiques of Stoicism is that by advising us not to concern ourselves with that which we cannot control (see Epictetus, The Discourses, 2.5.4-5), it is fundamentally a philosophy for living in the world as it exists, and not for challenging it (indeed, Stoicism’s popularity among the Roman elite indicates something of its congeniality with the established order). And while, as Sara Ahmed has written, “neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neoliberalism,” it is nevertheless worth considering how an ostensibly self-directed ascetic practice is complicit in more hegemonic (neoliberal, patriarchal, and misogynistic) templates of subjectivity.

Featured Image: “Marcus Aurelius Headphone Stand!” by JM3is3D @Etsy. Image used for purposes of critique.

Andrew J. Salvati is an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications program at Drew University, where he teaches courses on podcasting and television studies. His research interests include media and cultural memory, television history, and mediated masculinity. He is the co-founder and occasional co-host of Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast, and Drew Archives in 10.

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About Andrew J. Salvati

Doctoral Candidate in Journalism and Media Studies, School of Communication and Information, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

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