Whenever any disturbing news is brought to you, you should have this thought ready at hand: that news never relates to anything that lies within the sphere of choice.
—Epictetus, Discourses, 3.18.1.
“The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency,” writes David Remnick in today’s New Yorker cover article, “is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.” Remnick is, of course, far from alone in his frustration and fear. “I think mostly it’s a heart-breaking identity crisis,” a close family member confided to me from overseas this morning: “this vote tells us ‘You don’t belong here.’ The emotion is like someone close to us has died, it’s that strong. It’s the feeling of our whole country rejecting us.”
Just a few decades ago, these strong emotions would be seen as a bit silly and not a little immature: you lost; big deal. That’s democracy—you win some, you lose some, but we’re all united as one family in the end. Between the extreme level of partisan polarization we see today, however, and Trump’s unprecedented, ahem, “personal qualities,” this election is different. An unusually huge proportion of people who voted for the loser are abjectly terrified—especially women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTs. How could the rest of the country, they ask themselves—our friends, family, coworkers—condone or even overlook the contempt that our new president-elect has shown for the concerns of such important and vulnerable demographics?
After a change of government, there is always a large group of voters who go from feeling powerful to, quite suddenly, gasping for air—trying to figure out what it now means to be part of the opposition, the minority: the party that the country has rejected and that has been told “you don’t represent America’s values anymore.” The ascendancy of Trump is more frightening than usual: nobody knows what his presidency is going to be like (not even his supporters), and it’s all too easy to imagine that we are, somehow—despite our constitution’s array of checks and balances—about to watch the last gasp of the Republic unfold in real time. Or, if we don’t fear that hyperbolic extreme, we at least fear a regression: a loss of progress, a resurgence of racism, an end to the efforts to end mass incarceration, and so forth. And, whatever happens, underneath it all will be the alienating democratic realization: “my countrymen chose this. This is what people wanted. This is what the people I thought were my friends—who I thought were like me—believe in.”
So, at the very least, even if Trump is not abjectly “evil,” those of us who are mourning today’s election results are coming face to face with feeling “powerless” and “alienated.” But the real question is: now what? In emotionally challenging times like this, many people are turning to their religious or philosophical traditions for comfort and advice, and I am no exception:
Whenever you are shocked by anyone’s wrong behavior, ask yourself at once, ‘Is it then possible that there should be no bad people in this world?’ It is quite impossible. So you should not demand the impossible.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.42.
Stoicism is often painted as a philosophy created by and for the powerless: when you lose control over your world, so the story goes, you’re more likely to “turn inward” and emphasize individual, inner peace as the true source of happiness. In this view, it is no accident that Laozi and Confucius, the Buddha, Epictetus, and even Aristotle developed their theories of virtue ethics in politically tumultuous times. They are all instances of what Nietzsche would call “slave morality“—ideas cultivated by people who have been soundly defeated by the world.
Normally I have a lot to say against this view. “There is no cliché more firmly anchored, and more difficult to uproot,” writes Pierre Hadot, “than the idea according to which ancient philosophy was an escape mechanism, and act of falling back upon oneself” (Philosophy as a Way of Life, 1995, p. 274). I came to Stoicism specifically because it teaches action and the tireless pursuit of external goals that benefit humankind. And, as I’ve written before, if it taught complacency toward political tyranny, then I would immediately reject Stoicism as worthless and immoral. Stoicism to me is about heroism, and about not being satisfied with moral mediocrity. The Stoic texts I like best are the passages in Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus that call us to continual excellence and to a tireless pursuit of duty, no matter how hostile or alien an environment we find ourselves in. This is a tradition that always demands more of me: more resilience, more action, more kindness, more advocacy for Justice.
Today, however, I admit that I’m holding Epictetus close—with his never-ending stream of sermons on personal peace and resilience. “Some things are within our power, while others are not” (Enchiridion, 1). I find comfort in being reminded that, specifically because virtue is my telos as a human being, even a truly evil government that causes widespread suffering—while certainly not something I would wish for—is an opportunity to rise to the occasion: to be resilient, to maintain integrity, and to work against injustice vigorously by whatever means I am able.
My neighbor is a bad man? Bad to himself, but good to me. This is the magic wand of Hermes: ‘Touch what you want’, so the saying goes, ‘and it will turn to gold.’ No, but bring me whatever you wish, and I’ll turn it into something good. Bring illness, bring death, bring destitution, bring abuse or a trial for one’s life, and under the touch of the magic wand of Hermes, all of that will become a source of benefit.
—Epictetus, Discourses, 3.20.11–12.
A Stoic response to an election gone wrong toes a delicate line: in one sense—though admittedly a technical one—an evil government is not a “bad” thing. Even the most corrupt and decrepit government lies outside the sphere of choice, and it is my virtue, resilience, and choices as a social actor going forward, not my country or my government, that really matter to my flourishing. In another sense, however, the potential outcomes of a poor government are terrible—especially for vulnerable populations, such as immigrants or the poor. No properly functioning philosophy is blind to this.
A good Stoic progressor knows how to hold both of these truths in her mind at once. She knows that we do not need to be deeply disturbed by political news, because everything the universe brings is just another opportunity for us to individually exercise Temperance, Courage, Prudence, and Justice—which is our highest purpose as human beings. But she also will not minimize or downplay the vital importance of working to prevent injustice and human suffering. Instead, the two things—inner peace and outward concern—go hand in hand: she is like a brave soldier going to war, aware of the horrors and risks she may face, but exhilarated at the chance to do her duty by opposing the world’s harms in whatever small, incremental way that she can:
You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.29.
So, this shift of power and ideology in the United States is indeed a big change. And it does indeed knock a lot of us off of our high horses—gasping to figure out what it means for our identities and civil roles to now be part of l’opposition. It is a change. But the Stoic’s source of flourishing still stands: setbacks are part of the human game, but “happiness, the life that flows smoothly,” is “completely under its own control” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 120.11).
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