Practical advice: how to be a Stoic when facing modern politics

[Quaestor Reading the Death Sentence to Senator Thrasea Paetus, by Fyodor Bronnikov, Radischev Art Museum, Wiki source]

You might be aware of the fact that arguably the most important US Presidential election in recent memory is coming up, in a few days. Despite one of the two candidates clearly leading in the polls, the outcome is uncertain, in part because of blatant attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the election, voter suppression, and a newly rebalanced (some would say unbalanced) Supreme Court that could hand in the Presidency to the incumbent regardless of what a majority of the American people want. It is not, unfortunately, an exaggeration to say that the experiment that began in 1789 — the year the American Constitution went into effect — may be at an end. Or not. Only the (very near) future will tell.

Regardless of this particular situation, all citizens of democratic or quasi-democratic countries in the world regularly face the prospect of things going the “wrong” way (from their perspective) at the ballot. If we care about whatever society we happen to live in, we all argue with others, get frustrated by what we perceive as lack of progress, and upset when the political tide turns the other way. 

Can Stoicism help with all this? Yes, in five different respects, which I will discuss below. Use the sections of this article as a vademecum (carry it with you) for any future situation in which you wonder about how to react to a political discussion or setback.

(Incidentally, I presented these ideas in the form of a talk at a recent “Classical Wisdom” conference. The slides accompanying my presentation are available for download here.)

I. The Stoic attitude toward elections

Elections are team sports, though unlike sports, the outcome actually matters to the lives of people. This means that for every election winner there is an election loser. And for every person rejoicing at the results there will be another one who will get upset. That’s because relatively few people take seriously one of the cardinal tenets of Stoic philosophy, the dichotomy of control:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Up to us are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)

Epictetus is saying that the only things we truly control are our judgments, which take the form of endorsed values (our “desires” and “aversions”), decisions to act or not to act (“motivation”), and our “opinions” on whatever matter is under consideration. Everything else, including our own body, we may be able to influence to an extent, but do not ultimately control.

This is about our agency, and the very commonsensical notion that we would be well served by understanding its limits and focusing where it is maximized. What does this mean, in practice, when it comes to political elections?

As an exercise, sit down in front of a piece of paper or your electronic device and create a simple table with two columns. Label the left column “up to me” and label the right column “not up to me.” Then reflect on what falls under either column. For example:

Up to me: whether to vote; who to vote for; which candidate to send money to; which candidate to support when talking to others.

Not up to me: how many other people vote; who wins; how much difference my financial contributions will make; who others vote for.

If we mindfully proceed in this fashion we will be rewarded with the fulfillment of Epictetus’ promise:

“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (Enchiridion 1.3)

II. The Stoic attitude about political (or any other) discussions

It may seem like political polarization is an artifact of the 24-hr news cycle and social media, but it is actually a real phenomenon, at least in the United States. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows this data in hand. This means that our public discussions concerning politics more and more resemble a Monty Python sketch. And that’s not a good thing, outside of comedy.

How, then, does a Stoic approach a discussion, whether it is about political matters or, really, anything else? In the way Marcus Aurelius advised:

“People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)

Notice the two step process. First, your civic duty as a member of the human cosmopolis is to engage others in conversation (“teach them” about your position). However, if that fails — and it often does, when it comes to politics — you resort to the second option: “bear with them.” There is no shouting option on the Stoic table, nor an option to leave in a huff and a puff either.

But how could we work toward such a degree of equanimity toward others? By reflecting frequently on, and eventually internalizing, these words:

“Consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a human being like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults.” (Meditations, XI.18)

That is, we make mistakes just like other people do, and just as we appreciate it when others act charitably toward us when we err, so we should apply the same standard to them. Besides, as the latter part of the quote says, we are probably not as good and moral individuals as we like to pretend even to ourselves. So a bit more humility is in order, and goes a long way toward diffusing conflict.

III. “They are just evil”

One of the effects of the above mentioned polarization of political discourse is that more and more people think of the other side not just as misguided or wrong, but downright evil. The demonization of the other is a well documented trope of intolerant individuals, and plays very well in the hands of populist politicians with authoritarian tendencies.

The Stoics, however, do not recognize “evil” as a metaphysical category, or even as a useful label. People don’t do bad things knowingly, they do them, as Plato put it, out of ignorance. I’m not talking about the sort of ignorance that we associate with lack of education, or of a college degree. The word really should be unwisdom. Marcus explains:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

Note again the “teach them” refrain, and I will get back to the issue of anger below. But the basic idea is that we all do what we do because we think we are in the right. Liberals who advocate for abortion rights don’t do it so they can murder fetuses, they do it because they truly believe that a woman’s right to control her own body is the most important criterion pertinent to that particular discussion. Conservatives who want to close the borders don’t do it because they are inhumane beasts, but because they are genuinely convinced that immigration is problematic both from the point of view of the economy and from that of law and order.

I have, of course, my opinions on both these questions, as well as facts and arguments to back them up. But I realize that so does the other side. And they think that they are in the right just as much as I do. This is most definitely not an argument for epistemic relativism. It is a simple recognition of good faith on all sides.

Marcus then invites us to reflect on the big picture:

“With what are you discontented? With the badness of human beings? Recall to your mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that people do wrong involuntarily.” (Meditations IV.3)

We are animals capable of reason, and we do exist for one another, meaning that — as modern science confirms — we are evolved to be naturally cooperative. Prosocial and intelligent behavior is what has kept Homo sapiens alive and well for the past several hundred thousand years, since we don’t have claws, we are not particularly strong, and we can’t outrun most predators.

Endurance (of others), says Marcus, is part of justice. That term here refers not to some kind of universal theory of how things should be, but rather to the virtue that goes by that name. Justice is the behavioral propensity to treat others as we would like to be treated, with dignity, respect, and fairness. Always keeping in mind, again, that people don’t do wrong on purpose, but only because they don’t know better.

Allow me two necessary clarifications here, to avoid easy misunderstandings: first, yes, some people know that sometimes they do things that others consider wrong, or that are illegal; but that isn’t the same as knowingly doing what the agent himself regards as wrong. For instance, if you steal because your family goes hungry, you are certainly doing something illegal, and that some will see as immoral. But is it? Second, yes, there are some individuals, say psychopaths, who truly do bad things on purpose. But from the Stoic perspective these literally are defective human beings, with something seriously wrong in the brain. They need to be stopped from doing harm to others, but also pitied and helped, if possible.

Epictetus directly addresses this second point by way of an interesting analogy:

“‘This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad — should someone like this be put to death?’ If you put the question in that way, you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, ‘Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?’” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 18.3)

Imagine the practical consequences of truly seeing people who do bad things as blind, having lost the capacity to morally “see” what is right and what is wrong. We would then refrain from retaliation and punishment, while focusing on prevention and rehabilitation. Our prison system would look very different as well.

IV. Anger is temporary madness

People get worked up when discussing pretty much anything, including entirely inconsequential things. But politics is not inconsequential, and many of us get really mad when engaging in political discussions. For the Stoics anger is an unhealthy emotion, and we train to distance ourselves as much as possible from it:

“Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance.” (Seneca, On Anger, I.1)

Unhealthy emotions in Stoicism are defined as those that take over reason and are, therefore “not in accordance with nature,” meaning our nature of rational and prosocial animals. Healthy emotions, such as love and joy are, by contrast, “in accordance with nature,” because they are prosocial and supported by reason.

But, you say, isn’t anger also sometimes a motivating force to fight against injustice? It may be, but Seneca asks us to consider why we need to go mad with anger before we recognize and are willing to do something about injustice. In a response to Aristotle, who argued that a bit of alcohol before a battle makes soldiers more brave, he says that a general should want soldiers who are brave because they know they are fighting for the right cause and for the lives of their families — not because they are slightly drunk.

If you are still in doubt about the perniciousness of anger, consider the following:

“No plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame.” (On Anger, I.2)

Even when anger is the result of an injustice, acting on the basis of anger carries us too far, often causing us to indulge in actions that are just as wrong or irrational as the ones we are reacting against. Anger is ugly on the face of a human being, and its consequences are uglier still.

The general Stoic theory of emotions as (healthy or unhealthy) cognitive judgments is, incidentally, compatible with the modern scientific understanding of things. Broadly speaking, the human brain is characterized by five distinct, though highly interconnected, anatomical areas.

The brain stem is associated with automatic reflexes, memory, and learning. The amygdala processes the initial emotional response to situations, particularly the fight-or-fly reaction. The thalamus is in charge of sensorial input from the eyes, ears, etc.. The neocortex is associated with complex, logical thinking. And the prefrontal lobes are the brain’s executive center, integrating information from the other four areas and arriving at decisions to act.

The brain stem, amygdala, and thalamus cooperate to generate what Stoics call “impressions,” that is, our first, automatic judgments about things, people, and events (Daniel Kahneman’s “system 1”). As in: “she is very attractive, it would be nice to have sex with her.” The neocortex helps us formulate a more complex assessment of the situation, if we have sufficient time to reflect (Kahneman’s “system 2”). As in: “Remember that you are in a stable and loving relationship, and that it is not right to betray your partner’s trust.” Finally, the prefrontal lobes act as the ultimate judge, what Marcus calls the hegemonikon, or ruling faculty. As in: “Swipe away your lust and move on.”

V. Stoicism and political activism

Stoicism is often accused by its detractors of being a quietist philosophy, inwardly directed, with its practitioners resigned to whatever happens to them, to their loves ones, or to society at large. It is hard to believe that someone would take such a picture seriously if that someone had also looked at the Stoic texts and, especially, Stoic history.

One well documented example of Stoic political activism is the so-called Stoic opposition to the tyranny of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. The opposition was not a formal organization, of course, but rather a group of senators and philosophers who dared to speak truth to power. And paid the consequences. Several of them were killed, like the senator Thrasea Paetus, while others were sent in exile, as was the case for both Epictetus and his teacher, Musonius Rufus. 

Epictetus tells us about several of these people in the Discourses, using one particular episode as emblematic of the Stoic attitude:

“So what was it that Agrippinus used to say? ‘I won’t become an obstacle to myself.’ The news was brought to him that ‘your case is being tried in the Senate.’ ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ — this was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath — ‘so let’s go off and take some exercise.’ When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, ‘You’ve been convicted.’ ‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’ — ‘To exile.’ — ‘What about property?’ ‘It hasn’t been confiscated.’ — ‘Then let’s go away to Ariccia and eat our meal there.’” (Discourses I.1.28-30)

Paconius Agrippinus had done what he could have done to oppose the emperor (in his case, Nero). Only at that point he resigned himself to face the consequences of his actions. And once those consequences became known, he chose the attitude of taking advantage of what he had, rather than regret what he lost.

Marcus is thankful of having learned about people like Thrasea, because their examples showed him the right path for a ruler and a decent human being:

“Through [my brother Severus] I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject. (Meditations, I.14)

Brutus is none other than Marcus Junius Brutus, the chief conspirator against Julius Caesar who Brutus saw (rightly) as a tyrant bent on becoming king. Cato was Marcus Porcius Cato, known as Uticensis (from the location where he committed suicide), or the Younger, to distinguish him from Cato the Elder, of whom he was the great-grandson. Cato also saw Caesar’s actions as leading to the destruction of the Roman Republic (which they did), and first opposed him in the Senate and later by taking up arms against him. Of Cato, Seneca wrote:

“Cato will bear with an equally stout heart anything that thwarts him of his victory, as he bore that which thwarted him of his praetorship. The day whereon he failed of election, he spent in play; the night wherein he intended to die, he spent in reading.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXI.11)

One of the least known of the politically active Stoics was Gaius Blossius (2nd century BCE), who instigated the famous tribune Tiberius Gracchus to pursue land reform on behalf of the plebeians. The failure to enact meaningful land reform was precisely the issue that eventually led to the rise of Caesar and the fall of the Republic. Despite initial successes, Tiberius was assassinated by his conservative political opponents. Gaius then left Rome and moved to the province of Asia (mostly, modern day western Turkey), where he took part in the ill fated revolt against Rome attempted by Aristonicus (also known as Eumenes II). When the upraising failed, Gaius killed himself.

The bottom line

Considering all of the above, let me summarize the Stoic counsel when it comes to politics and elections:

1) In everything you do, apply the dichotomy of control

2) With regard to other people: teach them or endure them

3) Remember that people do bad things out of lack of wisdom

4) Whatever you do, don’t get angry!

5) Always cultivate your ruling faculty

6) As a Stoic, and a human being, you have a duty to engage politically

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