Stoic advice: do I have to be political?

V. writes: I am new to Stoicism and I feel it is something I want to know more about. However, can I take just what I need from it, or is it a practice where one has to go full steam? The Daily Stoic kind of confused me with its political bent on how we can't remain silent during the current strife. I have no intention of protesting or fighting with anyone on Facebook, so I am not getting too involved. Also I am a Catholic, can I still practice my religion? I ask because I assume Stoics have neither a political nor religious view.

Complex and delicate questions. Let's start with the last one, about whether you can practice both Christianity and Stoicism. It depends. I have argued in How to Be a Stoic that Stoicism is a broad (though not infinitely broad!) tent, both in political and religious terms. However, C. Kavin Rowe in his One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, argues that Stoicism is incompatible with Christianity. If you are interested, I wrote a four-part commentary on his book.

Also, during the Renaissance there was a movement aiming at a Christian revival of Stoicism, known as Neo-Stoicism. Some of the most prominent people involved in it include Justus Lipsius (the founder of the movement), Michel de Montaigne, Peter Paul Rubens (the painter), Montesquieu, and Francis Bacon. So at least those people thought it was possible to reconcile Christianity and Stoicism (they were, however, predictably branded as heretics).

My own take is that it depends on how strict you want to be in your interpretation of either Stoicism or Christianity, and particularly if you find Stoic ethics useful and are willing to compromise on the metaphysics. A Christian can, for instance, reasonably interpret the Stoic Logos -- the rational principle that pervades the cosmos -- as God, as in the opening phrase of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." What is rendered in English translation as "the Word" is "Logos" in Greek.

Take my own example: the ancient Stoics were pantheists and believed the universe to be a living organism capable of reason. I am an atheist biologist, thus rejecting both notions. And yet, I am practicing Stoic.

In terms of ethics, it may be good to remember that four of the seven Christian virtues as defined by Thomas Aquinas are the Stoic ones: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. (The other three, of course, are faith, hope, and charity.)

Now let's turn to the more difficult question: while exploring Stoicism, do you have to go "full steam"? The short answer is no. You should go at whatever pace feels right for you. You should also make a distinction between Stoic philosophy and Stoic techniques. Some may find benefit in using techniques like philosophical journaling, premeditation of adversity, or view from above, without necessarily espousing any of the tenets of Stoic philosophy. Think of this analogy: lots of people meditate without for that reason being Buddhists. And in fact, lots of Buddhists don't engage in regular meditation.

However, if you are interested in Stoicism as a philosophy of life, then I'm afraid you really do need to take it as a package, albeit not a rigid one. That was the intention of the early Stoics, to come up with a complete and coherent approach to the art of living. This still doesn't mean that there is such a thing as the Stoic position on any particular political or social issue, but there certainly is a Stoic framework to be deployed in order to arrive at your assessment of political or social issues.

For instance, recently I had a lovely conversation with my colleague and Stoic scholar Chris Gill. Chris argued -- correctly in my opinion -- that a Stoic ought to take seriously the issue of global warming, and ought to act on it. How exactly one goes about doing that is up to the individual moral agent. But that one should do something is hard to deny. Why? Because a fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy is cosmopolitanism, which is the notion that we are all on this planet together, and ought to give a damn about each other, as well as be good stewards of the place.

In terms of social issues, one of the four cardinal virtue is that of justice, which should give any Stoic practitioner a rather strong hint. Moreover, we have plenty of examples of ancient Stoics literally fighting -- often at the cost for their lives -- for a political cause they thought to be just (typically, against the tyranny of one emperor or another).

Epictetus says we should do this even when there is no hope of immediate victory. Referring to the failure of the Senator Helvidius Priscus to oppose the emperor Vespasian, Epictetus says:

"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?" (Discourses I, 2.22)

So, you don't feel like joining a march. That's okay, it's not for everyone. You don't want to argue on Facebook. I hear you, it's largely useless and emotionally taxing. But there are plenty of other things one could do instead (volunteering, sending money, lobbying your local representatives, writing, talking to neighbors and relatives, etc.). "Not getting involved" is, of course, always an option. But I wonder how you justify that from either a Stoic or a Christian standpoint.

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