Epictetus Online: Taking a Stoic Approach to Social Media
Recent news stories have brought the psychological consequences associated with social media use to the forefront of discussions about young adults’ mental health. The death of Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania student who killed herself in 2014, highlighted to many the disconnect between users’ online and actual identities, and ESPN journalist Kate Fagan’s exposé on Holleran’s death notes that she “seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living.” Fagan identifies Madison’s inability to “apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others” as a key contributor to her fatal depression, and she describes Holleran as “someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.”
As the cultivation of such ‘projected lives’ has become commonplace to members of younger generations, researchers, too, have begun to take note of its psychological toll. A 2011 article published by the American Psychological Association points to specific ways in which social media can influence users’ perceptions of themselves; according to the article, social media can be a crutch that allows users to retreat from potentially awkward situations, a medium that erodes the straightforward social commitments that characterize real human interactions, and a source of “constant connection” that makes participants “dependent on the presence of others for validation in the most basic ways.” These negative repercussions of social media use also stem from both the ease with which social media facilitates connection and personal sharing and social media’s performative function as a tool that allows users to decide how they present themselves to the world.
Long before the social media of today existed, Stoic philosopher Epictetus addressed the problems of perception and performativity inherent to all social connections. Epictetus centers these problems in his Enchiridion, and for this reason, I will argue that we can extend his lessons about happily interacting with others in life to our interactions in online spaces. In this short piece, I’ll discuss two of Epictetus’s teachings that I think we ought to embrace online. Adopting Stoic attitudes towards the importance of seeking internal validation and realizing the true natures of things in our social media commitments, I propose, could help us protect ourselves from the psychological pitfalls of social media use.
First, we should listen to Epictetus’s advice to “set up…a certain character and pattern for yourself which you will preserve when you are by yourself and when you are with other people,” as this might shield us from the psychological anguish that selective social media sharing can cause. Stoic philosophy rejects such selective sharing as antithetical to happiness since it aims to control others' impressions. “If you think that things…not your own are your own,” Epictetus says of externalities like one’s reputation, “you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset.” When we mediate online content, selectively sharing only the moments in our lives that we deem tailored to the specific online identities that we seek to cultivate, we are allowing ourselves to be similarly swayed by a desire to control the fundamentally uncontrollable impressions of others. However, if we were to take a Stoic approach to social media, we would realize how misguided such selective cultivation of online personae actually is. If we weren’t trying to control things that lie beyond our control, we would adhere to a single pattern of self-representation both on and offline. Doing so would decenter the desire to control others’ thoughts and impressions in our decisions, which would, according to Stoic doctrine, make us happier.
Second, Epictetus’s recommendation, “In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, [you should] remember to say just what sort of thing it is,” instructs us against the psychologically detrimental, face value acceptance of misleading information. Epictetus’s definition of philosophers as those “not misled by externals” informs this teaching, and the Handbook emphasizes the role that recognizing a thing’s true nature plays in one’s attainment of happiness. Epictetus asserts that such recognition of a thing’s true nature leads to the alignment of one’s expectations with reality, which results in the guaranteed fulfillment of one’s expectations. Since fulfillment of one’s expectations ultimately leads to happiness, we ought to heed Epictetus’s suggestion when we view others’ profiles and say to each appearance, as Epictetus does, “You are an appearance and not at all the thing that has the appearance.” Doing so would remind us that social media profiles are, by nature, superficial and inaccurate gauges of others’ offline lives. Epictetus would likely advise us against becoming preoccupied with others’ lives in the first place, but if we were to compare ourselves to others anyway, an awareness of the superficiality of others’ social media pages would at least prevent us from making faulty assumptions about the true natures of their lives based on those pages.
In these ways, Epictetus’s Handbook contains concrete steps that we can take to both minimize the effects of our judgements of others’ online profiles on our mental well-being and lessen our own anxieties about the impressions that others gather from our profiles. Epictetus’s philosophy retains such relevance today because social media amplifies the construction and projection of identity that has occurred via offline platforms throughout history; social media is simply another medium through which we can perform and spectate identity. In other words, if we conceive of social media, at its core, as an exhibitive project, we can render its potential implications as controllable as the beliefs and desires of the performers and spectators involved. Consequently, as I’ve argued, we might benefit from seriously considering a philosophy that dictates how we can arbitrate our perceptions and discern appearances from reality in our online lives, and Stoicism thus presents itself as a compelling model for life in the digital age.