Stoicism and how politics should be to ethics like biology is to physics

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.

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Stoicism, Brexit, Cosmopolitanism, and Possibly Dissolving the United States for the Public Good

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!

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Stoicism, Temperance, and the Role of the Paternalistic State

Libertarians often complain about the role of a paternalistic state, whether it’s seatbelt laws, limits on the size of soft drinks, higher taxes on beer and cigarettes, gun control, and many other laws the state will enforce to protect us.  Libertarians do have some reason to fear a protective state because some free choices will have to go.  But are free choices inviolable?

I can’t help wonder what the ancient Stoics might think.  Perhaps they would agree strongly with some protections and regulations on our behavior.  After all, they valued temperance for individuals, so why not temperance on a societal level?  This is all speculation but the ancient Greeks often liked to think of the self as a microcosm that reflected the larger macrocosm.  So maybe our own self-regulated behavior should reflect a self-regulating society.

In the name of the virtue of temperance we shouldn’t out-right ban everything.  We shouldn’t outright ban externals because that would be treating externals as bad.  Instead, maybe we should be lawfully limiting the extreme behavior with regard to externals.  For example,  we can drive cars fast but there has to be a speed limit that keeps vehicles from driving too fast.  We can drink caffeine but our drinks will have an upper limit of caffeine in them.  Heck, maybe all drugs could be legalized since drugs aren’t evil in themselves but they can be regulated and taxed more than other things that are preferred for our health and safety.

In the name of temperance, the amount of greed on Wallstreet would certainly need to be regulated.  Too much greed and concentration of wealth can’t be good for the health of the state.  We saw what Wallstreet speculation did to the economy during the housing and lending crisis of 2008.  Perhaps, this idea of a paternalistic state is beginning to sound more like Plato’s Republic than Zeno’s Republic.  But one must remember, Zeno’s Republic might’ve only been limited to the role of an anarchy for well-seasoned Stoics.  If people in your society are all Stoics, then there wouldn’t need to be courts, currency, and temples.  But in the case of a civilization made up of only an insignificant amount of Stoics, perhaps Stoic principles would need to be more lawfully enforced.  Also, Plato’s Republic was far far more authoritarian than what’s being proposed so far.

What’s more, laws are just a mean to keeping society self-regulated but individuals need to educated to be self-regulated as well.  After all, laws aren’t always there to keep ourselves in check.  So, we’d have a national curriculum applied to all our schools and universities to teach Stoic temperance from kindergarten to secondary school and beyond.  The schools would not only teach self-discipline but practical wisdom, justice, and courage.

In the Stoic state, there would be no outright prohibition on goods and services but there would be limits on excess.

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The Stoics and Their Utopian Vision

The Stoics were realists.  They stressed the importance of living in the here and now and judging our impressions as objectively as we can.  Judging impressions objectively means that anything we perceive, we should perceive neither as bad nor good but indifferent.  Despite their realism, they did dream and hope for things to be a certain way.  The Stoics just knew better than to be attached to their wishes and hopes.  Zeno of Citium had an ideal Stoic Republic in mind.  Diogenes Laertius described Zeno’s Republic:

Some, indeed, among whom is Cassius the Skeptic, attack Zeno on many accounts, saying first of all that he denounced the general system of education in vogue at the time, as useless, which he did in the beginning of his Republic. And in the second place, that he used to call all who were not virtuous, adversaries, and enemies, and slaves, and unfriendly to one another, parents to their children, brethren to brethren. and kinsmen to kinsmen; and again, that in his Republic, he speaks of the virtuous as the only citizens, and friends, and relations, and free men, so that in the doctrine of the Stoic, even parents and their children are enemies; for they are not wise. Also, that he lays down the principle of the community of women in his Republic, and … teaches that neither temples nor courts of law, nor gymnasia, ought to be erected in a city; moreover, that he writes thus about money: that he does not think that people ought to coin money either for purposes of trade, or of travelling. Besides all this, he enjoins men and women to wear the same dress, and to leave no part of their person completely covered.

 

Zeno’s Republic seems to be a place full of virtuous people (which includes women) and there are no courts or currency.  Everyone lives in harmony in complete anarchy.  There are no religious places of worship erected in the Republic.

It’s not clear whether Zeno ever thought this would ever really happen but he did have an ideal in mind about how a society of virtuous people would be organized.  And it seemed that he had in mind some kind of virtuous anarchic commune of everyone who proved themselves good Stoics.

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