The Hellenistic period proves itself to be amongst the most intellectually rich time periods throughout the entirety of recorded history for a plethora of reasons, however once this period concluded, the philosophies of thought popularized during this time did not cease to progress. Despite being a dominant thought process throughout ancient times, the ideologies presented throughout Stoic philosophy run rampant throughout society contemporarily, not only through classical studies, but within popular culture on a more broad spectrum.
Director David Fincher’s critically acclaimed 1999 film Fight Club, based upon author Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name, reflects these ruminations subtly, incorporating fundamental notions of Stoicism throughout the work, and more significantly within the development of the work’s antagonist: Tyler Durden. In attempting to draw a parallel between archaic perceptions of Stoicism and their application to Fight Club, it becomes apparent that these concepts continue to infiltrate our society not only academically, but also culturally, centuries after their conception.
Upon Stoicism’s creation, Zeno of Citium indulged in the discovery of this philosophy due to the tremendous emphasis this school of thought places upon living “a good life” through the practice of virtue and existing harmoniously through nature. As Stoicism evolved, figures like Epictetus continued to advance and refine the intricacies of this philosophy; in Epictetus’ Enchiridion, we observe him practicing this through his discussions of mediocrity, forbearance, and the willingness to accept things that we cannot control.
Epictetus also provides a particularly compelling and unique perspective upon this school of thought, given that he was a slave. He proclaims that “A man should live so that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” This notion emphasizes the importance of self-discipline that is fundamental in understanding Stoicism; if the world around us is constantly changing and evolving, we mustn’t rely on some grandiose idea of fixed fate, or depend on fleeting external circumstances to maintain our convoluted idea of happiness. This quote informs us of the ideology that the less we desire for ourselves, the less power these causes have to ultimately control us.
Epictetus’ proclamation draws a striking parallel alongside perhaps one of Tyler Durden’s most celebrated statements throughout the entirety of Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” Tyler says this after hearing about the films Narrator’s apartment burning down, with all of his furniture and clothing inside of it, fairly early on in the film; we later of course realize the irony of this, once it is revealed that the Narrator and Tyler are the same person, meaning that he is the one to have set flames to the apartment in the first place. This position taken by Tyler intensifies throughout the film, however, with him later proclaiming:
You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f*cking khakis. You are all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
Tyler Durden and Epictetus both ultimately seem to warn readers and viewers against a consumerist lifestyle, emphasizing the idea that when our happiness depends upon these external factors, we will never acquire an authentically “good” life, but rather our actions will be dictated by our reliance upon materialism. To improve oneself through the eyes of society is oftentimes different from genuine self-improvement, and when we deny this, we run the risk of developing an inauthentic second self.
Epictetus and Tyler’s similarities do not cease there, however. Both of them find significant meaning in existing in a simple state. Epictetus denies trivial pleasures entirely, and Tyler seems to share this mentality with regard to his tendency to detach himself from property and possessions. Tyler’s house in the film is depicted as a basically abandoned, barely functioning, complete disaster. He does not seem to have an issue with this, because the things that would make this home more “acceptable” by society’s standards are merely trivial products of a consumeristic, materialistic culture.
Both Epictetus and Tyler seemingly have a shared contempt for artificiality, however Fight Club may take this notion a step too far from Stoicism. When we reject societal conformity, rather than remaining indifferent to it, we have the potential to conform to something else, that could arguably be more detrimental. Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations stands out from the other texts we have analyzed for numerous reasons, however one of the most enticing factors of this particular work is the fact that it was never meant to be published at all. Throughout the fifth book of Meditations, Aurelius echoes the claims of Epictetus regarding materialism. He makes this abundantly clear, proclaiming:
Be it so: yet there be many other good things, for the want of which thou canst not plead the want or natural ability. Let them be seen in thee, which depend wholly from thee: sincerity, gravity, laboriousness, contempt of pleasures; be not querulous, be content with little, be kind, be free; avoid all superfluity, all vain prattling; be magnanimous.5.5
Perhaps the most glaring similarity in the approaches of the Stoic philosophers and the character of Tyler Durden is the insistence upon the toxicity of materialism, and the detrimental effects this can have upon us societally. Aurelius warns us against becoming dependent on our pleasures, believing that liberation is impossible when concerned with possessions and status. Tyler Durden continues to highlight this opinion somewhat excessively throughout the film, Tyler at one point exclaiming “F*ck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns. I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say lets evolve— let the chips fall where they may.”
This idea of “letting the chips fall where they may” complies alongside Stoic philosophy exceptionally- why internalize the things we cannot control? Later in the film, the Narrator begins to understand this perspective, rationalizing Tyler’s actions by stating that “It started to make sense in a Tyler sort of way- no fear, no distractions, the ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.” Yet again, Tyler instills Stoic principles upon himself and those around him. We must practice indifference toward contempt, while actively avoiding falling victim to mercenary, materialistic systems. There is merit to be found in the notion of “letting go,” and liberating ourselves completely from what we do not have the power to dictate- “the ability to let that which does not matter truly slide,” if you will.
One of the most defining characteristics that embodies the practice of Stoicism is courage, and the ideas proposed by Seneca the Younger regarding this concept seem to be most adamantly in accordance with the philosophies practiced by Tyler Durden throughout Fight Club. Seneca is accredited with uttering the quotation “If you have passed through life without an opponent, no one can know what you are truly capable of, not even you.” Of course upon making this claim, Seneca was not encouraging people to literally, physically challenge an opponent, but rather to accept opposition willingly, and utilize it as a means to bring awareness to our own potential.
Tyler Durden seems to shed light upon the necessity of courage as well, interpreting Seneca’s words literally by asking the Narrator to hit him during the first fight scene of many that occur within the film. The Narrator expresses reluctance, and questions Tyler’s desire to be harmed; Tyler responds to him simply, posing the question of “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” Tyler’s attitude seems to be explicitly reminiscent of Seneca’s findings, both of the men being of the belief that it is nearly impossible to understand everything about oneself without facing opposition.
Later in the film, Tyler challenges all members of Fight Club to instigate a fight with a stranger, but intentionally lose. The club members attempt to practice this, but ultimately find that most random people are not willing to partake in a physical altercation arbitrarily. Tyler knows this when he poses the challenge, however he deems it necessary that everyone participate, nonetheless. In assigning members with this task, Tyler is unintentionally emphasizing Seneca’s belief that without facing our adversaries, we are incapable of holistically understanding our potential, and the potential of those around us- it is not only our comrades whom we must be aware of.
One of Seneca’s most relevant proclamations to analyze human existence, and our collective existential dread regarding death, comes once he recounts a story in which an Emperor states that “You want to live—but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying—and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?” This is a common notion present throughout Stoicism- the understanding that one must accept death in order to live an authentically virtuous life. Seneca calls the reader to question their own routine, arguing that a life of banality is synonymous with no life at all, operating similarly to death.
Our character of Tyler Durden seems to share this sentiment with Seneca, and this prospect is apparent within one of the most disturbing moments of the film. During this scene, both Tyler and the Narrator walk into a store at night and hold the cashier at gunpoint. Tyler takes his wallet, stealing the man’s ID, reading his name and yelling at him “What did you want to be, Raymond K. Hessel?” over and over again, until the victim eventually tells him his former dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but ultimately giving up because it was “too much school.” Tyler steals his license in order to “check-up” on Raymond weeks later, to ensure that he is re-enrolled in school, and on his way to fulfilling a better life. In these instances, we can observe the conspicuous similarities between the approaches of Tyler Durden and Seneca; where Seneca encourages readers to examine their way of living, and question if it’s truly any better than simply being dead, Tyler actively practices this mentality, instilling it not only in himself, but in others around him, albeit sometimes involuntarily.
Marcus Aurelius’ work was written by himself, for himself, and was only published after his death, without any intention from Aurelius of this ever being released to the public. Despite all this, it’s findings are rather applicable to society collectively, and are prominently relevant to the philosophies that are subconsciously present throughout Fight Club. Although their philosophies share several similarities, this particular instance of Tyler holding the cashier at gunpoint in attempts to motivate him to live a more fulfilling life actually seems to contradict some of the wisdom Emperor Marcus Aurelius sheds light upon throughout his Meditations. Aurelius states:
And do not think, just because you have given up hope of becoming a philosopher or a scientist, you should therefore despair of a free spirit, integrity, social conscience, obedience to god. It is wholly possible to become a ‘divine man’ without anybody’s recognition.7.67
The fundamental disconnect between the approaches of Marcus Aurelius and Tyler Durden is found within their responses to mediocrity, and their personal understandings of empathy. Aurelius believes, in truly Stoic fashion, that we should not be surprised or taken aback by being faced with mediocrity, but instead we should expect it, and only put our energy towards our own thoughts and actions that we are in control of- it is imperative to indulge in indifference.
Due to the fact that Tyler Durden seems to walk a thin line between practicing Stoicism and Nihilism, his understanding of this concept is undeniably convoluted. Aurelius argues that one can accomplish divinity and integrity without external social recognition, while Tyler’s approach seems to contradict this principle entirely, going as far as stealing his victims belongings in order to guarantee that he has knowledge of their whereabouts and can find them at any time. Tyler does not rely on society, necessarily, to judge its members, but still relies upon himself to deem what is permissible. Aurelius finds merit in failure; just because we fail at accomplishing impressive professions does not mean our lives are not worth living. In spite of all their shared ideologies, Tyler Durden just cannot seem to act in accordance with this particular notion, explained by Aurelius.
In comparison, Tyler Durden and Marcus Aurelius actually do seem to share more similarities in character than one may initially anticipate. This can be most evidently seen in the dichotomies created in each of their own psyche’s regarding their complicated senses of self. Aurelius’ internal schism manifests itself much more subtly than the literal schism of Tyler/the Narrator in Fight Club, however we still see him struggling to confidently present himself. On the one hand, he is an Emperor, possessing much power and being counted on to lead. On the other hand, he is simultaneously compelled to dedicate his life to his studies, constantly on the hunt to satiate his intellectual hunger. Tyler and the Narrator’s dichotomy is explicit, once the climax of the film is reached. It is revealed that the Narrator has suffered from extreme insomnia, causing him to project the delusion of the existence of Tyler Durden, despite him not actually being real- Tyler explains to him:
All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I f*ck like you wanna f*ck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.
In a journal article titled “Fight Club and the Embedding of Delirium in Narrative” (Style 43, no. 3, 2009), scholar Lars Bernaerts analyzes the film and novel, more specifically emphasizing this scene, stating that
Even when the protagonist finally realizes he has been splitting up his personality into two separately acting subjects, the delusional figure is still pulling the strings.p. 373
In a way, this renders true for Marcus Aurelius as well; while Aurelius was not existing in a state of delusion like the Narrator, the intellectually motivated side of his psyche seems to prevail when compared to his other obligations and interests, ultimately “pulling the strings” as well.
One of the most defining hallmarks of Stoicism is the endurance of pain, and being able to successfully do this with indifference. We often hear the expression “you’re a stoic” when describing seemingly emotionless, apathetic individuals, who respond impressively yet concerningly to adversity. Tyler Durden wants the same for the Narrator, and this becomes apparent to the audience during the scene in which Tyler covers the Narrator’s hand with lye, igniting a chemical burn. The Narrator attempts to escape this pain, utilizing skills he picked up upon in various support groups to disassociate from the situation. Tyler realizes this, and retaliates against him, proclaiming “Stop it. This is your pain – your burning hand. It’s right here. Look at it… Don’t deal with this the way those dead people do. Deal with it the way a living person does.”
Tyler unintentionally reinforces Stoic principles in this moment, particularly the notion that suffering is optional, and attempting to escape pain is a futile process, due to its inevitability. Marcus Aurelius makes this evident in the seventh book of Meditations, stating: “Check thyself with these words: Now hath pain given thee the foil; thy courage hath failed thee.” (7.35). In both Tyler Durden and Marcus Aurelius’ opinions, courage is of the utmost importance. Stoicism is reliant upon courage as a critical aspect in successfully practicing this philosophy, and in attempting to disassociate from the physically painful situation occurring, the Narrator fails to be authentically courageous- a process that Aurelius advises us against. When we give pain the power to control us, it proves itself to be triumphant, however if we operate in accordance with Stoic principles, we have the ability to train ourselves to be apathetic in the face of adversity.
One of Tyler Durden’s most Stoic monologues refers to the unfortunate reality that many of us grow up believing we are special or unique, but are later disillusioned from this facade- a sort of Platonic out of the cave epiphany. Tyler proclaims:
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
This idea that life is oftentimes abundant with misfortune and sorrow is depressing, however it regrettably frequently renders true. Tyler knows this, and attempts to bring the other members of Fight Club out of the cave as well- we are not special, we are not remarkable, we are not uncommon. Tyler emphasizes the concept that “our Great Depression is our lives,” to put things simply. Seneca seems to have shared this understanding with Tyler during his time, which can be most evidently supported by his most famous declaration: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”
Once again, we can observe the ways in which statements like this could be initially confused with Nihilism, however Stoic philosophy urges us to implore the possibility that life being full of sorrow and misery is not something we should complain or cavil about, but rather something we must learn to accept. In observing solely the instances that occur around us, both within our own personal communities and on a global scale, it is hard to argue against Seneca’s belief that the entirety of life does, in fact, call for tears- even when we are at our happiest, there is still great misfortune taking place around us, ubiquitously. Tyler Durden and Seneca want to bring us out of this ideological cave, once again.
We must see the light of mediocrity and misfortune in order to be successfully disillusioned from our preconceived, erroneous understandings of life. In further exploring the texts and statements of prominent Stoic philosophers, such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, it becomes apparent that the primary findings of Stoicism hold tremendous validity, and can aid us in obtaining more profound understandings of ourselves and the societies in which we exist in. From a slave to an Emperor to a downright anarchist, the fundamental philosophies of Stoicism can be applicable to numerous situations and individuals, and offer us a unique perspective on the world around us, when practiced precisely.
Tyler Durden as a character could never be described as a comprehensively, altruistically genuine Stoic, due to the fact that he lacks virtue and logical reasoning, ultimately practicing Nihilist philosophy more so than Stoicism. This notion does not mean, however, that Stoic principles do not apply to him whatsoever. Through contemplations regarding courage, apathy, death, and pain, Tyler Durden demonstrates accordance with Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius, but unfortunately surpasses Stoic ideology in his anarchist tendencies. This being said, the comparison still holds validity; in analyzing the subtle Stoicism implemented throughout Fight Club, the audience can observe that Stoic principles continue to infiltrate contemporary culture at a discernible level today, and it is likely that this process will continue societally throughout the future.
Nicole Eyraud is currently an undergraduate student at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is in her fourth year, studying English and Philosophy, with plans to continue writing professionally post graduation. She is originally from Manhattan, but lived in Charleston, South Carolina for the majority of her life, and has plans of moving back to Manhattan to further pursue English and Film.