Imagine you see a young relative who doesn’t typically read, and his attention is riveted to a book. He explains it’s a guide to virtuous living, exercising courage, and cultivating temperance, justice, and wisdom. It’s a primer on overcoming obstacles, forgiving wrongs, taking responsibility, and finding meaning in light of his inevitable death.
Most of us would assume this is a religious book, or perhaps the work of a pastor or Christian counselor. We might be surprised to learn his book never mentions Christ or the Bible and is actually a modern self-help guide based on ancient Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
A growing number of men are finding these resources fill a moral and spiritual void in their lives. But why self-help books instead of the church? Why Stoicism instead of the Savior?
Spiritual Formation via Stoics and SEALs
One possible answer is that we don’t have a monopoly on moral insight or common sense and that although Jesus is the only way of salvation, loving him is no shortcut to learning how to be a man.
Secular self-help authors like Ryan Holiday and Navy SEAL Jocko Willink have won large followings of men by translating the principles of ancient Stoicism into modern advice. Both overlap with the popular work of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. If we had to distill the message common to all three, it might be this twofold teaching: (1) the good life (eudaimonia) is a virtuous one, based on lasting moral principles that forge meaning in the crucible of suffering, and (2) each individual is called out of nihilism and hedonism to take responsibility and live such a life.
Although Jesus is the only way of salvation, loving him is no shortcut to learning how to be a man.
To the psychologists, SEALs, and Stoics we might add names like Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, and Brett McKay—all podcasters at the intersection of self-improvement, physical fitness, and hustle culture; all disproportionately popular with men, both religious and secular. These podcasters tap into a deep sense that manliness is a lost art in the modern world and that those who’d reclaim it must do hard work. Masculinity isn’t a birthright but a prize claimed by those willing to heft the barbell and the mantle of responsibility and become masters of their trades, their time, and their passions. For men who seem to be in a crisis of identity and meaning, this message has magnetic appeal.
Lost Men in the Modern World
We’ve heard about “lost boys” since the 2000s, but now it’s more accurate to speak of lost men.
About a quarter of males now grow up without fathers and a similar percentage are suffering historic levels of depression and suicide. Most men’s wages are below what they were 40 years ago, while most women’s wages have increased. The much-talked-about decline in sex among Gen Z is largely driven by young men who either can’t find and commit to a real partner or no longer care about doing so. Less than half of men report being satisfied with their friendships, and just one in five says he’s received emotional support from a friend in the last week (more than twice as many women have received such support). Men are more overweight than women, more likely than women to live with their parents into their 30s, and vastly more likely than women to die of drug overdoses. As one Brookings Institution scholar and author on the subject memorably put it, men are “failing at school, work, and life.”
Part of this has to do with technology. The physical strength of men has never mattered less than it does today. Industrialization and automation mean women can now do jobs that once required male muscle. The rise of the white-collar workplace and outsourcing means service and knowledge work have replaced much of traditional physical labor and manufacturing.
There’s also a radical disconnect in our hyperconnected world between the work we do and its fruits. Almost no one builds anything from start to finish, and almost no one sees the benefit his toil brings another human being, except in the form of a paycheck. For men, whose drive to reshape the external world is as old as the pyramids and as universal as farming, this can be particularly discouraging. And with social media and a global news cycle giving the impression that the only events that matter are those too distant and vast for any of us to affect with our two hands, apathy seems inevitable. The hard-to-articulate sense that all the important things happen “out there” or on a screen can leave modern men sadly uncompelled by the quiet, noble task of leading in churches, families, or small towns.
Yet there’s a deeper undercurrent in modern society that breaks men’s spirits. The sexes are equal, we’re told, but a growing disparity that favors women is becoming impossible to ignore. Education is the most obvious arena where this plays out. Boys consistently underperform in K–12 compared with their female classmates. And the much-talked-about gap between men and women enrolled in and graduating college has reached a record high. It’s been “slowly widening for 40 years” with no end in sight, so that “in the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man.”
Statistics like these have led at least one essayist to propose that because “the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men,” men are becoming obsolete. Roman Catholic writer Anthony Esolen takes a different tack in his book No Apologies, suggesting if modern schools are failing boys and men, it’s the schools’ fault: “Intellectually and practically, boys are like pale and spindly plants that have been kept indoors all the days of their lives” (46). They’re not finding what they need in modern schools, and Esolen thinks they need an “arrow”: a driving purpose, a conquest or mission, a single-minded call that their “restless masculinity” answers by changing the face of the earth (31).
Why Stoicism Appeals to Today’s Man
Men want their moral choices and actions to matter. And if there’s one thing Stoic philosophy offers, it’s this assurance. Ryan Holiday, founder of The Daily Stoic, owes his success to this idea. He treats Stoicism not as a dusty subject of academic curiosity but as a relevant ethic ripe for personal application. His buoyant reflection on Stoic principles, The Obstacle Is the Way, invites readers to follow in the footsteps of history’s great leaders by applying Stoic virtues and maxims to their own lives. The most obvious principle—seeing obstacles as opportunities—inspired the title. Holiday quotes Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote in Meditations, “Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. . . . The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Men want their moral choices and actions to matter. And if there’s one thing Stoic philosophy offers, it’s this assurance.
Because every challenge life throws at us is an opportunity to exercise virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom, the Stoic always sees despair and self-conceit as irrational. This is also why the Stoic holds everything else—including time, possessions, reputation, and life itself—with a loose grip. Holiday frequently returns to a theme familiar to anyone who’s read Dale Carnegie’s classic of the self-help genre: stop worrying about our lack of omnipotence and concentrate instead on what we can change. “If we can focus on making clear what parts of our day are within our control and what parts are not,” he writes, “we will not only be happier, we will have a distinct advantage over other people who fail to realize they are fighting an unwinnable battle.”
Other contemporary authors championing Stoicism include the previously mentioned Willink, whose Extreme Ownership (coauthored with fellow SEAL Leif Babin) imparts Stoic wisdom from the lessons learned fighting the Mujahideen in Iraq. He and Holiday have compared notes, and the resonance between their messages is clear, particularly when it comes to bridling emotions and shouldering responsibility.
In one memorable section of his book, Willink recounts a near-disastrous instance of friendly fire that resulted in a military investigation. Although failures at every level were involved, Willink was the commanding officer, and so he resolved to take full responsibility for the episode. In another chapter, he describes how tough it was to convince his unit that poorly trained and poorly equipped allied Iraqi soldiers were brothers-in-arms whose presence on every mission was critical and whose wellbeing would be the SEALs’ responsibility.
This “extreme ownership” parallels concepts in Jordan Peterson’s popular works, which urge readers to take charge of their lives (starting with their posture and bedrooms) and to seek responsibility where others have abdicated. All three authors expect the virtues, battlefield lessons, and rules for life they espouse to have broad applications in psychology, health, business, and relationships. Even the connection many men have made between these ideas and fitness culture feels seamless. Willink is a mountain of a man, Peterson dispenses carnivorous dietary advice, and every guy I know who has taken to their brand of self-improvement has an unmistakable “do you even lift, bro?” attitude.
Contrast to Church
The contrast between Stoicism and the attitude common in churches is hard to miss. I think of a friend who started a Friday morning book study with other Christian men who felt they needed more than they were getting in church in terms of understanding specific ways Christ’s manhood could inform theirs. He observed the goal of men’s Bible studies often feels suspiciously like replicating women’s Bible studies, complete with frequent expressions of vulnerability and emotional intimacy.
Even in churches where traditionally masculine traits aren’t disparaged as toxic holdovers of the American West, they’re often ignored or pitted against softer and more passive traits breezily labeled “Christlikeness.” For my friend, the problem was simple: the call to be like Jesus often sounded like a call to be less like a man. As he explained this at the inaugural Friday study, heads around the table nodded.
The goal of men’s Bible studies often feels suspiciously like replicating women’s Bible studies, complete with frequent expressions of vulnerability and emotional intimacy.
The difficulty is summed up by the once-popular “Real Men Love Jesus” bumper sticker. Christian authors, pastors, and leaders imply with such language that becoming devout is a shortcut to being masculine or that anyone who isn’t devout can’t be truly masculine. But if converting to Christianity and learning to obey its commands is all it means to be a good man, how is that different from being a good woman? The church is right to call both sexes to Christlikeness, but does that call preclude the possibility the Christian life might look somewhat different for men and women because of how God designed male and female (Gen. 1:27)? Are there general, naturally discernible, God-designed traits we can call “masculine” that men should distinctly exhibit? And if there are, where do we learn them?
Emotion Isn’t Piety
Neo-Stoic self-help authors seem to think such traits exist and that religion isn’t the only place we can learn them. Perhaps this is why they consciously apply virtues in a masculine way, using masculine examples, and addressing masculine problems. Unsurprisingly, men are feeling seen.
Men strongly resonate with a philosophy in which individual choices and actions really matter—a mercurial arrow of purpose that pierces late modern apathy and says, “Do what’s right, regardless of how you feel.” Here pagan wisdom has something to offer both the male population and church cultures where emotion gets confused for piety. And here we should pay special attention to that trait for which Stoicism is often caricatured: its stoicism. Control over emotions isn’t high on the list of values in an expressive individualist culture. Those who exercise such restraint are often accused of repressing their psychology in service of toxic masculine ideals. But stoicism—not the denial of emotions but simply the orderly control of them—is traditionally one of the areas where men excel and which greatly benefits the women and children they protect. As Esolen writes,
In a time of danger or trouble, it is quite valuable to have someone near who can think with perfect coldness, as if nothing mattered to him but the thing to be done. . . . The man who does not weep in a crisis is not saying to himself, “Behold how strong I am.” He is compelling himself to separate one feeling from another, the feeling that here, right now, will hurt our chances or will impose a burden on other people, from the feeling that almost has no name, that fierce desire to have the right thing done against all odds and in the teeth of disaster.
If men are learning such values from pagan authors, it may be an indictment of Christian moral discipleship, but it’s no threat to the Christian gospel. And this is the crucial point: real men may love Jesus, but baptism doesn’t automatically impart real manhood any more than it imparts an electrical engineering degree.
Don’t Fear Common Grace Truth
The best self-help authors have always promulgated natural truths that complement, rather than compete with, supernatural redemption found in Christ. These common grace truths often sound very similar to the Bible’s wisdom literature and the Sermon on the Mount. Consider key Stoic insights celebrated by Holiday and others: moral integrity is better than riches (Prov. 22:1); don’t worry about tomorrow, but act morally today (Matt. 6:34); don’t stress over what you can’t control (Luke 12:25–26); don’t return wrong for wrong (Matt. 5:38–48); live as if each day could be your last (Eccl. 3:19).
Christians are, of course, right to worry that men who outsource their moral formation to pagan philosophers could be formed into pagans. The apostle Paul certainly didn’t think the Stoics had the last word on theology (Acts 17:22–34), and neither should we. If men in your church can more readily quote Marcus Aurelius than the Gospel of Mark or can recite Peterson’s 12 rules for life but not Paul’s Romans 12, it’s a problem. But Paul himself was influenced by Stoicism and served a Savior who taught many of the same virtues. No truth or moral insight in creation is opposed to redemption—the same God is behind both, and he has showered common grace liberally on the just and the unjust, ancient and modern.
If men in your church can more readily quote Marcus Aurelius than the Gospel of Mark, it’s a problem.
As more men recognize the devastation modern life has inflicted on their humanity, self-help authors mining past ages for wisdom will continue to sell books designed to teach readers to be human. That shouldn’t surprise or bother us. Christians can join the best ancient philosophers in reminding our confused culture that men have a nature, that they aren’t women, and that, far from obsolete, men as men are integral (just as women as women are) and are a big part of what’s right with the world.
If reading the neo-Stoics leads men to prize virtue and take new responsibility for their lives, God is pleased and their neighbors are blessed. Still more, it gives the church an opportunity to consider anew what Paul meant when he urged his brothers at Corinth to “act like men” (1 Cor. 16:13) and to pursue ways of doing ministry that edify men.
Stoicism and self-help won’t save anybody. The good life isn’t synonymous with eternal life. But neither are these philosophies obstacles we should fear. If Christians are humble enough to learn from such books, we may feel differently about obstacles anyway.