I practice philosophy—and more specifically virtue ethics—as a way of life. That means that I try and let moral excellence guide every aspect of my life, not just bits and pieces of it. I don’t do it very well. I fail frequently, and I might be a hypocrite sometimes. But I don’t pretend that ethics is a hobby or a side-project: ethics is life, and it has to permeate every moment. No topic or activity is outside its scope. Certainly not politics.
A few days ago, philosopher Sandy Grant wrote a piece for Quartz that lambasts Stoicism for being at best politically ineffective, and at worst “an evasion that aims to keep both master and slave in their places.” Stoicism, to her, is a philosophy of inaction and of suppressing the complaints of the marginalized.
I believe the opposite, of course: Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes action above all else, that takes injustice very seriously, and that is (or ought to be) sensitive to the complaints of the oppressed.
The good and evil of a rational, social animal consist in action and not in feeling, so it is not what they feel but what they do, which makes mankind either happy or miserable.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.16.
Like many critics of Stoicism, Grant is concerned that the philosophy’s focus on managing our emotions “can lead us to accept things that we shouldn’t.” Instead of “stifling” our emotional instincts, she argues, we should “look to emotions as a means of engagement.” Emotions are vital to motivate us toward appropriate political action.
Now, I actually agree with that. In fact, as I see it, that’s what Stoicism teaches: a Stoic practitioner cultivates healthy approach-oriented and avoidance-oriented emotions as a means of directing herself toward good and bad actions. Stoicism is an action-focused philosophy, so much so that it claims that acting well is the most important goal any human being can ever have!
It’s just that Stoicism distinguishes between three qualitatively different categories of emotion (viz. the unhealthy passions, the proto-passions, and the healthy passions) whereas most people use just use one set of words for all three, and, oh, it’s all just very technical and it’s been causing unending confusion for thousands of years! Suffice to say that there is a whole tradition, dating to Carneades in the 2nd century B.C.E. and furthered by Cicero and Augustine centuries later, of saying that the Stoics didn’t actually disagree very much with other philosophies on emotion—they just used slightly different terminology.
The number of errors that Grant commits in her interpretation of Stoicism are difficult to count, and Massimo Pigliucci has already written a long post documenting many of the mistakes and contortions found in her previous anti-Stoic articles.
I just want to point out one fact that, for me, leaves Grant’s assault on Stoic political action dead in the water. Grant uses today’s Womens’ March in Washington, D.C. as her primary example of what a non-Stoic response to Donald Trump’s presidency looks like. “This is a mass movement of affective dissent,” she writes. “It is ardently life-affirming and mobilizing: passionate, angry, and bold.”
I attended the Womens’ March in Washington today—not despite my Stoicism, but because of it. Sure, technically, Stoic teachings strongly discourage complaining and anger as unhealthy. But Stoicism encourages healthy passions that take their place: what we might call advocacy and urgency. That’s how Epictetus can say so very much about controlling the passions, but then turn around and advise his students on how they should go about lobbying their local politicians on behalf of their families and communities. “If reason demands that for the sake of your country, of your family, of humanity,” he says, “why shouldn’t you go?” (Discourses, 3.24.44).
Stoics won’t agree on exactly what the right course of action, political cause, or style of advocacy is—no more than Christians, Aristoteleans, Utilitarians, or anybody else will. Heck, on any given day, I can barely figure out what I believe myself about political action—there are always so many competing narratives, and sometimes it seems hard to find a way to advocate for anything without feeding into the pernicious engine of polarization.
Attending a march for intersectional values and social justice isn’t the path for everyone. We all have to decide what course of action the four cardinal virtues require us to take in our own lives, based on our understanding of the world and the social roles we find ourselves embedded in. My view of the world happens to have been heavily shaped by certain progressive ideas—namely by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Michelle Alexander—and so that gives me a particular understanding of my own social duties as an American, and as a white male.
No matter what your political beliefs are, however, Stoicism does teach that duty is its own reward, and that acting well is what matters above all else. For me today, that meant joining half a million people on the National Mall in a show of support for the values that we believe ought to guide our country’s future.