Stand up, be a Stoic!

“Show me someone untroubled with disturbing thoughts about illness, danger, death, exile or loss of reputation. By all the gods, I want to see a Stoic!” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 19.24)

You may have noticed that we are going through what scientists have been predicting for decades now: a worldwide emergency due to climate collapse, in turn the result of human-triggered global warming. If you are still not convinced of this you either live under a rock, or do not understand what is going on. Or you get money from the energy industry, like many of our politicians.

Last June people in London (and elsewhere on the planet) made their voice heard concerning the inaction of their own government about the climate crisis, organizing the so-called Extinction Rebellion protests in front of Westminster Palace. One of those attending was Dannica Fleuss, a postdoc and lecturer in political theory in Hamburg. Watching the happenings, she reflected that a Stoic would simply not be found in that crowd, because — she thinks — Epictetus’ philosophy implies political inaction. She articulated her thoughts on this topic in a lengthy article published in the philosophy monthly Epoché (in response to an article by Carl O'Brien in the same magazine). The article is full of misconceptions about Stoicism, a philosophy that would actually be a naturally ally for Fleuss and anyone else concerned with climate change.

She begins her critique of Stoicism by mentioning Epictetus’ advice on how to deal with emotionally problematic and morally salient situations. We see a sexually desirable stranger and feel lust. Instead of acting on it, we acknowledge our reaction but question the implied judgment that it would be good for us to have sex with the person in question. In fact, it wouldn’t be good, because we are in a committed relationship that could be jeopardized, not to mention that we would betraying the trust of our loved one.

Fleuss compares this example with the climate change protest and comments: “I refer to this episode to illustrate that it is crucial to recognize that our lives and our most significant moral choices are very rarely concerned with broken cups, i.e. with non-scarce and principally replaceable goods.” I’m not sure in which world Fleuss lives, but I beg to differ. As much as protesting governmental inaction about the climate is of paramount importance, most of our day-to-day moral dilemmas very much do take place on a much smaller scale, from broken cups to sexy strangers.

That said, she continues: “What would Epictetus do in such ‘non-broken-cup-situations’? Although answering this question risks over-interpreting his remarks on moral decision-making (and it is impossible to ask for his opinion for very obvious reasons), I stipulate: He wouldn’t do much after all.” That is very odd, for a number of reasons, none of which require us to go back in time and talk to Epictetus directly. First off, when he says, at the beginning of the Enchiridion:

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

he is talking about opinions held and motivations to act. While he does remind us that our judgments are “up to us” while the outcomes of our actions are not up to us, it is perverse to interpret this as a call for inaction. The Discourses are littered with examples of people taking action, occasionally knowing that this will be futile, but doing it nonetheless because it is the right thing to do. For instance:

“What good, you ask, did Priscus achieve, then, being just a single individual? And what does the purple achieve for the tunic? What else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest?” (I, 1.22)

The Priscus mentioned here is Helvidius Priscus, one of the members of the so-called Stoic opposition against emperor Vespasian. Priscus was banished twice, and eventually executed on Vespasian’s order. Hardly a case of broken cups, and even more obviously hardly a case of Stoic inaction.

Fleuss provides an analysis of what she calls two Stoic philosophical premises and their political implications, but unfortunately gets the premises very wrong. The first premise concerns the workings of the human mind: “Epictetus proposes a model of the human mind which conceptualizes cognitions and emotions as ontologically distinct states.” No, he doesn’t. “Emotions,” which the Stoics called pathē — a term that actually refers only to negative emotions like fear and anger — are already, in part, cognitive judgments, a model that is in agreement with modern research in psychology. There are no distinct ontological states, as the Stoics thought of the mind as unitary (unlike, say, Plato, with his famous tripartition of the soul into logical, spirited, and appetitive).

The second premise consists in “a definition of the scope of potentially meaningful human action: leading a happy and virtuous life requires us to restrict our actions to the things that are actually ‘up to us.’” I have already explained why she gets this bit very wrong, which is also why her contention that “Epictetus implies that we should restrict our actions to ‘getting along with our own reactions to the outside world’” is actually unsustainable on the basis of the text and everything we know about Stoic philosophy. What Epictetus and the other Stoics are saying is something far more subtle and powerful, perhaps best summarized by Cicero in De Finibus:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, you yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (III.22)

Cicero is most certainly not saying that the archer should not try to hit the target. That’s the whole point of archery, after all. He is saying that — once the archer has done everything in his power — he ought to accept the fact of life that sometimes you win (hit the target) and sometimes you lose (miss the target). It is this acceptance of outcomes that Epictetus is counseling, not putting the bow and arrow away and sit one’s life out.

Fleuss states that “Stoicism widely disrespects the fact that our emotional reactions are impacted by the structural conditions of our everyday lives.” Again, no, it does not. It just says that our emotional reactions (remember, “emotions” are partly cognitive) are up to us. We can change our reaction to what happens to us. It is a non sequitur to conclude from that advice that we should therefore not attempt to also change the structural conditions.

The author then veers into a diatribe against the misuse of the term “mindfulness,” quoting an article in The Guardian to the effect that “McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the private individual and does not admit to any interest in the social causes of stress.” I agree with her, up to a point. But the whole discussion is irrelevant to Stoicism, since Stoics don’t talk about mindfulness in that sense. The Stoic word, prosochē, is best translated as “paying attention” to what one is doing and why, hardly a nefarious piece of advice.

Contra Fleuss, Stoicism does not support an “accommodist orientation” toward societal problems, which she would have discovered by reading about the above mentioned Stoic opposition, or by perusing Marcus Aurelius:

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Meditations IX.12)

Notice that Marcus is talking about acting in order to improve society, and of not acting when one’s actions would make things worse. Which goes directly counter this next bit from Fleuss: “People carrying banners and engaging in civilly disobedient performances on Westminster’s streets arguably address structural and environmental phenomena that Epictetus would consider to be way beyond human beings’ scope of action.” One more time: no. Epictetus very much thought that political action falls within the scope of human action. He simply reminded his students that they should cultivate an attitude of equanimity toward the outcome, on penalty of blaming themselves and be miserable for something that truly is not under their control.

Fleuss continues: “Marcus Aurelius and Thomas Jefferson are featured as particularly prominent political leaders who claimed to have benefited from Epictetus’s guidelines. As impressive as this line of admirers of Stoic thinking may be, they can hardly serve as a model for the life choices that ordinary citizens have to make in their everyday lives.” First, why not? And second, what about Epictetus himself, who started his life as a slave? It didn’t get any more ordinary than that in ancient Rome. And yet he very much acted throughout his life, and his actions involved political action, in the form of open criticism of the emperor Domitian, who duly sent him into exile in Nicopolis, where Epictetus managed to restart his school (action!), a school that quickly became the most renowned in the Empire.

Fleuss then veers again, this time into a discussion of her favorite political philosophy, critical social theory associated with the Frankfurt school, but manages to get more Stoicism wrong: “The apparently simple Stoic requirement to engage in rational reflection before we consider acting upon our affects and impressions (chresis ton phantasion) does not take into account that such reflections are highly demanding: Firstly, we must be appropriately informed about the objects that cause our affective reactions, about our potential to act upon them (the reasonably defined scope of our actions). … Secondly, for making good and morally sensitive life-choices, we require further social, emotional and financial resources to be able to engage in all these reflections in the first place.”

Of course critical reflection is demanding. That’s why one of the three disciplines taught by Epictetus to his students — the discipline of assent — is all about refining one’s ability to arrive at correct judgments. (Another of the three disciplines, by the way, is that of action, and is entirely devoted to figuring out how best to behave with respect to other people, that is, how to be good citizens of the cosmopolis.) As for the resources Fleuss is referring to, they fall under the Stoic category of preferred indifferents, meaning not things we don’t care about, but things that facilitate our exercise of virtue while at the same time not affecting our moral worth. (I assume that Fleuss will agree that, for instance, being informed about climate change does not automatically make someone a better person; only acting virtuously on that information does.)

There is more: “Without emotional engagement, it would hardly be possible to induce large groups of individuals to persevere day after day on the streets, run in danger of being arrested or to lose their jobs in consequence of ‘standing up.’” Indeed. But the issue, as far as the Stoics are concerned, is to have the right emotional engagement. Contra popular misconceptions, they did not counsel the suppression of emotions, but only a shift away from disruptive ones (anger, fear, hatred) and toward constructive ones (love, joy, a sense of justice). Here of course the Stoic text par excellence is Seneca’s On Anger:

“‘Anger is useful,’ says our adversary, ‘because it makes men more ready to fight.’ According to that mode of reasoning, then, drunkenness also is a good thing, for it makes men insolent and daring, and many use their weapons better when the worse for liquor.” (I.13)


“No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place.” (I.13)

Replace “brave” and “courage” with “just” and “justice” in the second quote and it applies perfectly to the protesters participating in the Extinction Rebellion. So by all means, stand up, be a Stoic! And fight for the environment and for any other cause that furthers justice in the human cosmopolis. And don’t listen to those who want you to fuel your anger, as if there wasn’t enough of that destructive emotion already in the world. Or, for that matter, as if there was too much reason.

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