We’re always told to be mindful of the people around us. Don’t hurt other’s feelings, or offend, we’re told. Well, there’s truth to this. As members of society, we’ve been taught that people are responsible for how they act based on their feelings or how they manage those feelings. But we’re also taught to not stir up people’s feelings. We kind of have it both ways. People can choose to act or not act based on their feelings but at the same time, we shouldn’t push people’s buttons because people are only human.
That’s really not too far away from Stoicism. Stoics were radical in the belief that we could individually learn to manage our emotions far better but they were also mindful of the fact that we’re only human. It’s just not nice to try to injure someone even if they’re the best Stoic you ever crossed paths with.
So are we, for better or worse, at the mercy of our emotions? We are somewhat at their mercy but, with practice, we can lessen their hold on us and their efficacy. The Stoics realized long ago that by judging externals to be morally neutral, we can deescalate our passions such as hate, jealousy, and lust. By deliberately and mindfully discarding the moral importance of all things external, we can free up a lot of our mind from emotions reacting to external events. Also, we can refocus our mind by turning it inward, toward our virtuous character. By working on our character and perfecting it, we can be more relaxed, chill, and logical.
Society almost has it right in the way we should hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior despite having strong passions. And society definitely has it right that we really shouldn’t try to push people’s buttons, at least, if it’s not for the betterment or for some more important effort than mere pushing people’s buttons for buttons’ sake. One thing that all societies throughout time have gotten wrong though is the obsession over externals. Externals are valuable but they’re not the most important thing ever. Also, society is right to say that we should take responsibility for our emotions and not act out on them every time we become angry. But the Stoics offered a better solution to this problem, and that was to pretty much kill off any kind of negative passion. That way you’d be insured to not easily cave to whatever passion you might have. Neutering a passion really goes a long way, it gives someone a freedom they didn’t once have. They don’t have to feel like the dam holding back all that water. The Stoics said to just reduce the level of the water in the first place so that no possible instances of leaking or rupture is even possible.
Stoicism is the best philosophy ever designed by the natural world. It’s our little blue print to doing what we should be doing. Are you angry? Stoicism says, it’s ok to be initially angry as a result of a stimulus but after a few seconds of thinking about it, cut that shit out. Relax man. Turn down your angry passion. It’s silly to be that way. Same thing with fear. It’s ok to be startled, to even shake a little bit when delivering a speech in front of a crowd, but on the inside, get things right, be calm. Stoicism also throws in helpful tips on how to make that happen.
I’m kind of a hot mess. My desires are pulling me in millions of directions. My mind won’t shut up about anything. Just won’t turn off. Keeps calculating, speculating, creating, feeling, absorbing, entertaining, and laterally thinking. This is where Stoicism comes in handy. It tells me, focus on virtue. Take all the energy of these desires and focus it into a laser beam aimed at virtue. Harness all the energy in my brain to focus on one important thing in life: virtue. A brain with goals is awesome. It’s what makes humans fundamentally human. Having a goal keeps you from being pulled into every single direction by millions of desires just trying to get what they want. Having a goal is one thing though. We usually focus on one goal at a time. But virtue is the ultimate goal. Everyone should have some ultimate goal in life. And it should be a good goal. So what’s gooder than good itself? That’s what Stoicism says it is. Stoicism says virtue is the only good.
Life is often easier than we make it. I mean, life can be hard sometimes but do we really want to compound that by thinking of it as a terrible thing that it’s hard? Wouldn’t it be a better way of thinking about hardships as things to learn from and to even overcome? What’s life without learning some kind of lesson? When Darwin dreamed of his evolutionary theory, he imagined that life adapts. Isn’t that the thing that we should be doing in our own minds? Adapt! Follow evolution, try a new idea, test it, see if it works and if it survives the test of logic, go with it. That’s Stoicism. Stoicism has been shaped by a long tradition of philosophers that go back to Heraclitus, tinkering with ideas, trying to figure out the ones that survive critical thinking.
I get momentarily sad sometimes. Because I think about my mind and it’s too fast. Too fast. It’s also very impulsive and very unfocused. But then I remember the ultimate goal. The real objective goal: Live simply in agreement with Nature. Be virtuous. If I can just follow that narrow dirt path, I can get through the day. From thinking about doing what’s virtuous, I can also derive all my preferred indifferents that I need to focus on to get me there. I know I have to do physics homework because at some point I have to be a physics teacher so I can enjoy my career and make money at it so I can support my wife and daughter.
It brings peace to me when I can just forget all the desires, thoughts, and feelings that all run way too fast and think about virtue. I wouldn’t wish the tragedy of my own mind on anyone. But I can definitely learn to deal with my mind. My warped brain doesn’t totally own me, I get some say too. I got that ability to detach myself from the situation and rationally evaluate and make my own decision after I’ve stepped back and breathed a little. I have to remember, remember, remember that I can be rational. That I can think critically. I can assert my own final say about my own thoughts and ideas. I can judge things as good or bad. I can judge things as preferred or dispreferred. I can judge things and even prescribe what I should be doing. And finally, I can follow my own prescription. I can do this. I just have to do it. I have to stop, slow down, pause, reflect, think about the important things, the real important things, and just subsume all of my being to accomplishing those real important things.
I admit I’m little frustrated. Not with politics. But mostly with how people treat it. People can’t just talk about it with each other without attacking the person either indirectly or directly. More frustrating is that Stoics can’t seem to be above the personal attacks. The Stoic Facebook Groups are just filled with people hiding their political prejudices that they then project on others who are questioning them. They have agendas but when someone talks about anything political, no, it’s not them who have the agenda, it’s the other person talking about the political situation that has the agenda. I’m just going to go ahead and call out the elephant in the room: if you think you’re not actually political you’re just rationalizing your comfort with the political status quo.
Let me make it really easy for people who don’t understand how politics relates to Stoicism. Think of physics. Physics is the bedrock of science. You can then build chemistry on top of physics. Further still you can build biology on top of chemistry. And you can build up higher and higher until you get to sociology. So this analogy works the same way with ethics. Ethics is kind of the foundation of all ought claims. All prescriptive claims. You can go a little lower into the basement and give a meta-ethical description if you want. But ethics is basically the bedrock. What can you put on top of ethics? Public ethics. Otherwise known as politics.
So did the Stoics end at just furnishing an ethical theory? No, in fact, we have evidence of Zeno’s Republic. Most importantly though, we have an excerpt from Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics were proponents of a Republic with a combination of a Democracy, Aristocracy, and Kingship. It’s a very small fragment but it’s very telling. Basically in the contemporary world, we have hundreds of governments throughout it that the Stoics would’ve approved of. The United States, the UK, Canada, the rest of Western Europe, there are Republics all with a balance of Democracy, Kingship, and Aristocracy. Exactly what the Stoics would’ve wanted.
So that’s what we want as Stoics, ancient and modern. We want a society that is Democratic vs Aristocratic vs Monarchical. We want there to be that kind of balance. Whether it’s Parliamentary with a Prime Minister or American with a President. Is there anything else that can be added to this? Well, we probably want leaders that are cosmopolitan. We don’t want to elect leaders that are against liberal and tolerant values. If you don’t agree with any of this then you might just find yourself siding against Stoicism.
I don’t know how else to make this any clearer. If you’re interested in living a life of Stoic virtue, then you’re going to have to be political. Don’t act so naive or mean spirited about it. Just embrace the political nature that we all have. Aristotle was not a Stoic but he was definitely right when he said, “man is a political animal.”
All I ask is stop with the whole, “ugh, politics” mentality when anyone in the group mentions their political beliefs and is attempting to justify it using Stoicism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Where people might be going wrong is when they try to change Stoic principles to meet their politics. And even then, just correct them where they’re going wrong and explain to them where they’re bending the principles. Don’t say, “don’t bend Stoicism for your politics!” Think past that and just explain to them where they’re wrong. Use reason. Stop with the cynicism. Stop it and learn.
I was thinking about what the Stoics were going on about when they said to live in agreement with nature or follow nature. Many people sum it up as, “live rationally and virtuously.” I mean that’s pretty good. But there’s something else going on. The foundation of Stoic morality isn’t just reason but it’s a particular kind of sentiment called love.
Basically, Stoics were moral sentimentalists in some respects and moral rationalists in other respects. Let me explain, when you go back to the Stoic Hierocles, he made the observation that in the course of our development, if everything goes right, we start from self-love, learn to love family, then learn to love our tribes, then our community of tribes, then ultimately all of humanity. Humans start with moral sentiment when they’re young and then develop philanthropy, a form of rational love and respect for all rational beings. So we kind of have a rationally guided system of moral development.
But why follow nature if this is just how nature goes? Shouldn’t we just go with the flow? We’re going to become philanthropists in the end right? Unfortunately, nature isn’t that simple. To follow nature in the Stoic sense, you have to combat some external forces that halt this natural development.
This is where Newtonian physics enters the picture. Newton was able to describe falling bodies and the dynamics of forces by removing complicated features of nature like air resistance. In a vacuum, everything will fall to Earth, despite varying masses at exactly 9.8 meters per second per second. When a cannon ball is shot from a cannon, you can pretty much ignore air resistance and predict where it will fall based on angle of trajectory. Only if you drop a feather is it difficult to ignore air resistance.
I think this is what the Stoics meant by following nature. They meant to imagine how humans would develop if you assume things just go well. So conceptually removing things like abuse from parents or society, removing things like terminal cancer, removing things like being born mentally handicapped, removing certain resistances, you create a situation where humans can easily grow from self love to love of family to love of community to ultimately love of humanity. The problem is though that you can’t remove a lot of these resistances, so the Stoics had to create all kinds of mental strategies to get humans back on track. Let’s face it, someone will try to abuse us, we might get cancer, and some of us might not have a good brain.
Epicureanism is a philosophy first started by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. It believes that ultimately pleasure is the highest good and that all life should be geared to pleasure. It mainly focuses on creating a mindset that gets rid of all pain which will free the mind to experience the ultimate pleasure called Ataraxia, a form of superb tranquility. The Epicureans did believe virtue was important but only as a means to securing one from the pains of guilt.
1. Epicureans usually had a few friends, didn’t intend to have kids because losing a child would be terrible, and lived in small communes. Stoicism believed having kids was fine and that if you ever did lose them, Stoic exercises would prepare you for the day. Stoicism also did not isolate its people into small communes. Stoicism believed that practicing a life geared towards virtue would free one of negative passions and allow them to deal with just about any obstacle and so Stoics weren’t afraid to participate in the greater society.
2. Epicureanism believed that virtue was a means to happiness. Stoicism believed that virtue was the end/goal and if you pursued it like it was the end goal, then you’d find happiness. Seems like splitting hairs doesn’t it? Well, not really. The Epicureans were only using virtue as a vehicle to not feel guilty so that they could be happy. Stoics didn’t care about guilt or feeling good. They cared about practicing virtue for virtue’s sake. And only then can you reap virtue’s rewards.
3. Epicureanism saying to practice virtue just so its practitioners can sleep at night is hardly a good philosophy. What if someone came along and did a few bad things, felt guilty at first, but then didn’t care after a while and got the pleasure they wanted? Stoicism doesn’t use virtue that way. It’s not about feeling guilty or happy or remorseful. In fact, Stoicism would rather you cut out the remorse in your life and do what’s good regardless of how you feel about it. Epicureanism is too bogged down in how you feel about doing virtue and not just getting the virtue done.
4. Epicureanism doesn’t even really prepare you for a life of happiness. Think about it. Epicureanism wants you to hide in a commune somewhere with a few friends and care less about the world around you. Your life is actually very fragile because if you don’t participate in the world, the world can go crazy and destroy your precious commune. Stoics were all the time trying to prevent the world from going crazy.
5. Finally, Stoics already allow for pleasure as a preferred indifferent. That means in Stoicism you’re allowed to pursue pleasure so long as it doesn’t come into conflict with virtue. The Epicureans were smart in that they didn’t just pursue pleasure but avoided pain. But the problem is their philosophy still didn’t prepare them sufficiently for the pain that will always come creeping in no matter how many ways they try to prepare themselves for it. Stoicism knows you’ll feel pain and sometimes it’s best to just let it happen and then let it pass. Virtue is its own reward. Don’t let the pain be the problem. Let it be part of the solution.
As the popularity of Stoicism has grown it’s begun to reveal its truths slowly to the public. Unfortunately, misconceptions of Stoicism since the time of its founding to now are beginning to grow as well. Some people have this misconception that Stoicism is about being tough and having a stiff upper lip (this is now being rightly characterized as “stoicism-lowercase-s” among experts in the Stoic community). I thought I’d write why Stoicism is better than stoicism-lower-case-s.
1. Stoicism is a robust philosophy that emphasizes getting to know one’s passions and learning to heal the negative passions that can cause us to be irrational. Lowercase stoicism is not a philosophy but just an attitude people express when they’re doing unhealthy things like repressing their emotions.
2. Stoicism involves having courage, which means doing the right thing despite having fear. Lowercase stoicism involves an unhealthy form of courage, usually bravado, which involves denying that one has fear.
3. Stoicism involves developing compassion and conquering one’s anger/hatred. Lowercase stoicism involves a stunted development of compassion and concealing one’s anger/hatred.
4. Stoicism is about being your brother’s keeper and loving everyone and seeing everyone regardless of race, creed, and gender as a brother and a sister. Lowercase stoics usually complain about people being too compassionate and how they should just be indifferent to the daily injustices in the world.
5. Stoicism is about achieving eudiamonia through virtue which means a state of apatheia, which means freedom from negative passion. Lowercase stoicism misunderstands this point and thinks that individuals should be apathetic to the concerns of others and remain unengaged in society and politics.
Why did Brexit happen? God only knows all the reasons but a lot of it had to do with fear of open immigration and fear of the EU as an anti-democratic nightmare issuing bureaucratic decrees on its member nations. I honestly don’t know a whole lot about the European Union and its politics but I definitely know the UK politician Nigel Farage liked to yell about the EU being an anti-democratic nightmare. Also, I know German Chancellor Angela Merkel is very controversial for letting so many refugees into Germany.
Brexit is a nightmare for liberal cosmopolitans everywhere because it means dream of cosmopolitanism, unity, and social justice is being dismantled forcefully by reactionary forces built on distrust, xenophobia, and tribalism. Despite this, I believe everything has a grain of truth to it so what if the reactionaries have some important thoughts?
What if the dream of cosmopolitanism that is the European Union is an artificial, naive, and unrealistic form of cosmopolitanism that modern Stoics might not agree to? What if dividing states rather than unifying them is actually paradoxically the best way to get to cosmopolitanism?
Before I go into detail about why this might be let’s focus on the United States for a bit. In the United States political cynicism has grown exponentially since Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” speech. If you look into the growing trend, partisan divides keep growing and growing and they’re expected to keep growing. This is problematic because if Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything, then the US Congress won’t be able to accomplish anything useful for anyone. This will lead to gridlock and it has led to gridlock. As a result, anti-democratic agents like the President (put into office by electors in a college) and anti-democratic institutions like the US Federal Courts will become agents of fiat. Issuing their executive decrees on all of us. The Courts will make new laws and the President will either enforce or not enforce laws arbitrarily.
Honestly, the whole system looks hopeless. The system is nothing more than two gears grinding against each other with absolutely excruciating pressure but neither gear will move. It’s a stopped clock of doom. Doom doom doom.
So how might a modern Stoic approach this? What if the Stoic sees the failed cosmopolitanism of Europe and begins to wonder if the United States is also a kind of failed cosmopolitanism. What if “one out of many” is the wrong way to go about things at this point in history? What if “the many out of one” is the right way to go?
What if true cosmopolitanism has nothing to do at all with nation states, how they arrange themselves, and how they unify or divide? What if true cosmopolitanism is about viewing each other as brothers and sisters and has less to do with trying to create an artificial one world government. After all, aren’t the liberal cosmopolitans of today just trying to take Plato’s Republic and apply it to the world? What if we took Zeno’s Republic and applied it to the world? Plato’s Republic was top-down authoritarian. Zeno’s Republic was bottom-up anarchy.
Perhaps, as Stoic cosmopolitans, we shouldn’t be trying to unify states but continue to dissolve them into atoms. Keep dissolving them until they’re closer and closer to city states. And if we possibly can dissolve them into 7 billion individual states, that would be super! What if that’s the right way to be cosmopolitan? What if the right way to be a cosmopolitan is to try to approximate Zeno’s form of anarchism as close as we possibly can. Sure, we’ll probably always need a little bit of top-down control over our lives but the more control we have over ourselves, the better we shall be.
So, as a student of Stoicism, I propose that we should dissolve the United States into red states and blue states. This will immediately end the gridlock. Red states will get to create their political agendas and blue states will get to create their political agendas. If any future problems begin to assert themselves in the form of gridlock, then the states could dissolve even further.
Without unified states, how will people unify? They’ll unify much more on a voluntary basis like they do on Facebook. Perhaps the Internet is now the true cosmopolis. As physical political geographies begin to dissolve down into tribes, the Internet may be where we can find unity or an attempt at real unity. Let’s face it, large republics made up of 300+ million people don’t look sustainable. I don’t exactly know why but it’s looking pretty bleak.
Sorry globalists but your cosmopolitanism is all style and no substance!
As feminism has gone more mainstream, and has become more popular, a counterculture of young white men has arisen expressing their concern that men’s rights are being overshadowed. Angry that they no longer feel represented they have banded together to create what is called Men’s Rights Activism. The counterculture has unfortunately tried infiltrating Stoicism, hijacking it, and pretending Stoicism is all about being a man and manning up. I like to call their form of Stoicism, “Broicism.”
Stoicism was a philosophy progressive for its time because it saw all humans the same, capable of using reason and being capable of living a virtuous life. Zeno’s Republic actually mentions women as being members of his society of virtuous Stoics. The Stoics believed women were equal to men in their ability to use reason. Broicism tends to try to undo this history or has no interest in this history of Stoicism. Broicism tends to use quotes from Stoics selectively and ignores the cosmopolitan elements of Stoicism.
Stoicism is about trying to eliminate negative passions such as anger and sorrow and replace them with positive passions of joy and compassion. Unfortunately, Broicism tries to replace this with toxic masculinity, the belief that all emotions in men should be suppressed except for violent expressions of anger/outrage.
Stoicism emphasizes Hierocles’s Concentric Circles that there is self-love and out of self-love comes love for family, then love for community, then love for humanity. Broicism emphasizes self-love only and thinks that virtue means doing what’s in one’s best self
interest. The attitude is usually, “I got my virtue now screw you!”
On Facebook, when a question is asked why there are so few women in the Stoic Group, the first people to pop up and say, “it’s because Stoicism emphasizes rationality but women aren’t very rational and are more emotional” are Broics. They tend to think of Stoicism as a men’s only club and so subconsciously de-legitimize women from also being capable of being Stoics and using reason. Real Stoics understand that women have had a history of dealing with such stereotypes and it may take a while for the culture to
change its view of women in the Stoic group and outside.
Broics tend to be alt right or “cultural libertarians”. They tend to see any kind of liberalism as feminism run amok. Liberal values such as cosmopolitanism, diversity, open dialogue, even free expression that Stoics should embrace are a threat to their worldview. Stoicism is fine with feminism. It may not agree with all feminists on all issues but it’s perfectly fine with liberalism and feminism. In fact, Stoicism tolerates conservative views as well. It’s a very tolerant philosophy, whereas Broicism is not. Broicism usually expresses its intolerance through cheap jokes, trolling, and derailing charitable discussion.
Stoicism has really grown in popularity over the years. The Facebook group Stoicism Group (Stoic Philosophy), hosted by Donald Robertson, has grown to 40k members and is still growing. Stoicism is pretty much the largest growing philosophical school on the Internet. But as Stoicism grows so does making money off of Stoicism. Also Stoicism is being branded as a lifehack that will help you succeed in the business world. I call this kind of Stoicism, “$toicism”.
Stoicism is a philosophy that helps you be resilient in tough situations. $toicism uses this feature to try to sell you success. In fact, $toicism tells you if you try living by the wisdom of the Stoa, you’ll likely be very successful in the business world and you can have the Stoic insights to build your business from the ground up into a mega corporation. Stoicism doesn’t get your hopes up like this. Stoicism tells you that it’s ok to be poor and you’re not a loser for being poor, sometimes shit happens. Stoicism just teaches you how to deal with your circumstances and make the best of them.
$toicism tends to try to sell you Stoic merchandise with notable Stoic quotes. Real Stoicism only tries to sell you wisdom with the only price being that you try. If you try at achieving the virtues, you will have a more just, wise, and benevolent character.
$toics only seem to care about the preferred indifferent wealth. The $toics think that this means greed is a good passion to have in such circumstances. But greed is just another negative passion that grows from the wrong judgment that wealth is good. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus clearly tell us that very little is required for happiness in this life and wealth doesn’t make you good, it just makes you wealthy.
Since $toics only seem to care about Stoicism in terms of a successful life, only for themselves and nobody else, they tend to downplay the virtue justice. Stoicism emphasizes the role of justice, in fact, Marcus Aurelius believed that justice was the chief virtue among the four virtues. It’s important to cooperate with others and not merely compete with others in the greater society.
$toics can’t seem to figure out why Ayn Rand is a bad guy. They think her philosophy of Objectivism is completely compatible with the philosophy of the Stoa. But little do they realize that Objectivism is a selfish philosophy. I’ve pointed this out to supposed $toics but they’re in denial. Finally, I pointed out that Ayn Rand specifically wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and they were still in denial. That’s not particularly a very Stoic attitude for those people to have.
One of the contentious issues, whether you’re on the left or the right politically, is whether healthcare should be a right given to citizens by their government. The Stoics believed that everyone had a preference for health. Also, with this in mind, they had the idea that everyone had the right to be treated fairly and equitably. We all have a duty to treat each other fairly and equitably.
Since health is a preferred indifferent and we should all treat each other fairly and equitably, we should be ensuring that everyone has their fair share of health preferences met. Everyone deserves a right to healthcare. The Stoics couldn’t have imagined such a national healthcare system in place in their day because they didn’t have the technology, science, and knowledge of civil engineering we now possess. But now that such a system can be run via public taxation, it makes sense that, as a course of justice, we should be supplying everyone with healthcare.
One could argue that a free market system for healthcare would be better but so far it is subpar. People spend tremendous amounts of money if they don’t have the insurance or they spend tremendous amounts of money just to meet their astronomically-sized deductible. Some people live paycheck to paycheck and can barely meet their premiums. Healthcare is just tremendously expensive and unfortunately hospitals do have to make money even if they’re non-profit. If the money funding the hospital isn’t efficiently and equitably being taxed from everyone throughout the population, whether healthy or sick, the sick are the ones who have to pay the bill in a free market system.
The only alternative from a Stoic point of view is some kind of public system that covers the poor and wealthy, the young and the old by money that is collected evenly and efficiently through taxation of both the sick and healthy alike. This is how our preference for health is met in a just and fair Stoic society.
I use the following argument to support my conclusion. It’s kind of rough right now but I’ll work to make it better later.
1.Justice has a connection to a fair distribution of preferred indifferents.
2. One of these preferred indifferents is health.
3. Therefore in the name of justice health as a preference should be met for everyone throughout the society if it can be met.
4. It can met through efficient and fair taxation.
5. Therefore a public healthcare system should be established.
One of the basic tenets of Stoicism is cosmopolitanism, the idea that all humans belong to a single community, based on shared morality. So it only seem natural that Stoics would be the most compassionate towards the issue of immigration.
I’d imagine that if the United States was populated with a significant Stoic citizenry, we’d be a lot more relaxed on our borders. Does that mean we’d let other nations take us over? No, I don’t think that follows. But we’d certainly be more willing to grant citizenship to people that were willing to embrace our culture by working for a living or who joined our military, police, firefighters, or other important civil careers.
We’d also be more willing to grant citizenship to refugees regardless of whether they were Christians, Jews, or Muslims.