This article originally appeared on the Epoché Magazine in July 2019.
Stoicism is becoming popular. Previously an obscure ancient philosophy that few people paid attention to in the late 20th century, now not a week goes by without a journalist or philosopher praising Stoicism for making them a better person or slamming it for supporting a self-serving individual or a group of Silicon Valley hotshots.
We have seen examples of both positions in Epoché in recent months. In April, Carl O’Brien promoted the individual benefits of a Stoic practice in his article Stoic Practical Philosophy: A Guide for Life? In it, he focuses on the power of Stoicism, as a cognitive tool, to help us deal with anger, sadness or grief when faced with both the positive and negative aspects of the human experience. This includes how we interpret and react to death, illness, desire, wealth and social status. In June, Dannica Fleuss in her Stand Up, Don’t Be a Stoic! raised concerns about Stoicism and what she sees as an inappropriate and unhelpful philosophical school outside of its application in “a very narrow subset of our moral choices”. In her article, she underlines her reasons why the Stoic approach excludes it from providing a reasonable roadmap for leading a “good life”. As an expert on applying Stoicism to environmental issues and sustainability, I found one of her particular claims both interesting and ill-informed, especially when applied to the need for social action and change:
“As long as you’re a person who actually cares about the world she lives in, Epictetus wouldn’t provide you with much helpful advice for making such decisions” (Fleuss, 2019)
In this present article, I have three aims. Firstly, I would like to unpack the reasons why I think Fleuss came to her premature conclusion. I discuss where she is right to be concerned and where (in my opinion) her reading of the Stoics led her to form impressions that are in fact contradictory to the Stoic worldview. Secondly, I would like to demonstrate how my reading and research into collective issues, including socio-environmental justice, has led me to come to a vastly different conclusion to Fleuss’ view that Epictetus would do nothing to address climate breakdown. Thirdly, I highlight where critical theories, such as Freirean pedagogy, can support contemporary Stoics in having a more nuanced view of the modern world than the ancient Stoics (unsurprisingly) could have hoped to offer. I then go on to highlight my reasons for using Stoicism as a conceptual frame to address systemic issues and challenges.
Given that ancient Stoics unyieldingly advocated for the propagation of thoughts and actions that recognize and respond to the world for what it is, it is of no accident that “stoicism” in its un-capitalised form implies an absence of feelings or indifference. This is perhaps one reason for Fleuss’ misunderstanding of Stoic philosophy, which she is sceptical towards outside of psycho-social interventions, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that encourage a patient to re-configure their attitudes, beliefs and thoughts away from anxious or depressive states and into more conducive ones for emotional regulation and problem solving (see Robertson, 2010 for more details).
I, however, fail to see how the personal emphasis found in a typical Stoic practice automatically excludes it from being used to advance the state of societal affairs or contribute to sustainable development. Certainly, the aforementioned qualities brought out in CBT sessions for personal improvement can, and should, be used to rein in polarised debates and populist policies that feed off and respond to heightened emotions rather than fact checks and solutions grounded in reality. For this reason, it was not difficult, for me, to use Stoic philosophy to create a road map that tackles complex and highly emotive social issues such as the gender pay gap:
For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time… One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not. (Whiting and Konstantakos, 2018)
The above statement is based on the core tenets of the Stoic philosophy, namely that the “good life” is causally tied to the four virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom, and that it is the pursuit of virtue, rather than externals such as health, material goods, pleasure, power, reputation and societal position, that provides the only guarantee of human fulfillment (Gill, 2015).
To clarify, in a dangerous or difficult situation, virtue is called courage. When presiding over what is deserved or fair, virtue is called justice. When keeping in check appetites for food, drink, money, and sexual pleasures, virtue is called self-control. When judging what is good, bad, or neutral, virtue is called wisdom. With this understanding of the Stoic virtues, it follows that the manner in which you navigate the world reflects your progress toward virtue and governs your happiness or misery. Furthermore, the four Stoic virtues must always and necessarily benefit humanity, not one particular individual at the cost to all others, as by definition such a thought or action will not result in justice, self-control or wisdom but rather injustice, greed or ignorance (in the sense that a person who believes that what is good for them is to gain at someone else’s expense is gravely misled). This is in effect what Cicero states:
For one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions. (Cicero, De officiis 3:21)
Under a Stoic framework, virtue is a form of knowledge that shapes your whole personality. It does not exist in a vacuum. In other words, your propensity to engage in “good” or “bad” behavior can only be revealed in your interactions and relationships with other living beings and the environment. The problem as I see it is that both O’Brien and Fleuss, in their respective articles, fail to take into account the four Stoic virtues and how they underpin Epictetus’ worldview. Their absence makes it such that both authors, despite their best intentions, end up not evaluating Stoicism or the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers per se, but rather the “wisdom” of the Silicon Valley crowd, who have uprooted the virtue ethics that Stoicism is built upon and replaced them with “Stoic” life hacks. The latter promote resilience and cold showers, as a means to gain personal wealth and status, rather than for the fulfillment of a Stoic-based obligation to themselves and others to ensure that the world progresses towards virtue.
I have spoken at length on the dangers of mistaking the trivialities of “Silicon Valley Stoicism” (including here, and here) for the ancient school of Stoicism, but I think it is important to underline them briefly here for the sake of clarity. “Silicon Valley Stoicism” is the form of “Stoicism” that most people come across outside of the classroom or scholarly articles, normally in the form of mainstream and social media soundbites. This is unsurprising given the connections, power and general public interest that disruptive tech start-ups enjoy. It is also just as unsurprising that this form of “Stoicism” is described as a trendy adaptation of ancient self-help that can help young entrepreneurial types “get ahead” because that is in effect what this version promotes. The problem is that with the weight of an entire ancient philosophy behind them, the adherents of the Silicon Valley form gain credibility and bolster their image as affluent and hip — characteristics they also see, if they gloss over the virtue ethics, in the Roman Stoics, especially Seneca the Younger and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In this respect, Fleuss’ claim that Stoicism does not and cannot adequately address systemic injustices is no different to various mainstream journalists who have started out with the false premise that Silicon Valley’s philosophy is Stoicism, and in doing so were able to craft a polemic piece that dismisses Stoic ideas and the underlying philosophy as an inappropriately elitist, “white”, egotistical and macho framework that does little for people who do not benefit from the status quo.
However, in order to hold such a view, you have to overlook the whole virtue ethics framework of Stoicism. Take the Silicon Valley personal development guru Tim Ferriss (who authored the bestselling “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich”). Whilst it is true that Ferriss promotes characteristics that the ancient Stoic themselves prized, including resilience and mental fortitude, his reasons for doing so are for the egotistical, materialistic and hedonistic ends. Such an approach is hardly synonymous with Stoicism. For one thing, nothing about being a star start-up, millionaire or billionaire (which most of us will never be) implies that you will be happy or better in the things that Zeno called for i.e. four virtues of courage, justice, temperance and wisdom, delivered in the context of the social and political advocacy for the good of the Whole, as both natural and obligatory for a good human life. The essence of Zeno’s perspective is captured by Epictetus’ teacher:
Evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbour’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbour. (Rufus Musonius, Lecture 14:9)
In this respect, if Fleuss’ had entitled her piece “Stand Up! Don’t be a Silicon Valley Stoic” I would have fully agreed with her, as the concerns about self-help “mindfulness” and the lack of collective social action that this form of “Stoicism” supports would have been warranted. I also believe that the resulting nuanced piece would have led to a very much needed discussion on the problem of using philosophy to support dubious claims – something that Donna Zuckerberg has written on (Zuckerberg, 2018).
Now, that I have distinguished between Stoic philosophy and the Silicon Valley interpretation, I would now like to spend some time on my second aim of demonstrating what my research suggests that the ancient and contemporary Stoics would have done, or should do, when it comes to collective and complex challenges like the environmental deterioration and climate breakdown being highlighted by Extinction Rebellion, amongst others. This will hopefully show those who agreed with Fleuss’ article that Stoicism does in fact provide a framework for large scale political movements against climate change.
Zeno called his followers to “live according to Nature”. This maxim was based on the Stoic understanding that the universe is literally the physical mind and body of god. The fact that the Stoic god is envisioned in the pantheistical sense means that Epictetus’ worldview shares many aspects with modern-day movements and belief systems that emphasize the importance of leading an environmentally sensitive way of life. This means that a Stoic is called to rationally revere Nature, as the giver and sustainer of life, which for that reason alone is worthy of the utmost care and consideration. Consequently, Fleuss’ critique that “as long as you’re a person who actually cares about the world she lives in, Epictetus wouldn’t provide you with much helpful advice for making such decisions” (Fleuss, 2019) is entirely unreasonable. Once you understand that Epictetus’ god is Nature and that the Stoic maxim is “live according to Nature” the whole ground of her critique falls away, and you can see how its omission sets Epictetus up to fail! Incidentally, this is why there is a considerable amount of ancient Stoic text to support an argument I have made elsewhere:
Stoicism is not a call to faith, not even a call to faith in science. Rather, it is a commitment to the observations and empirical evidence we require to seek harmony with the universe and within our inner self. In mindfully undertaking such a process, we become primed to understand that we are all part of Nature and should take care in our daily decisions (e.g., what we choose to eat, drive, and throw away) to reduce environmental harms that have caused climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the build-up of the plastic waste choking our oceans. (Whiting, 2019).
Fleuss, by removing the Stoic god, facilitates an acrobatic workaround of the Stoic moral ideal and the human embodiment of justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom. In this respect, it becomes untenable for her to argue that Epictetus’ reverence of Nature would lead him to do nothing when irrational (and thus vicious i.e. not virtuous) human behavior is destroying the natural processes that are conducive to life.
In this respect, the Stoic call to “live according to Nature”, far from being outdated or archaic, as many claim, even within the modern Stoic movement, is actually refreshingly contemporary. In fact, and as I demonstrated in the open access scholarly paper Stoic Theology: Revealing or Redundant?:
The Stoic theological position provides the tools, scope and urgency with which to deliver a far more considerate and dynamic ethical framework for the 21st century. It is exactly what we need to (re)consider and (re)contextualise the preferences, practices, policies, historical events, cultural norms, social conventions and human values that have caused the West to disregard planetary well being, cause carbon emissions to climb and led to socio-environmental inequality. (Whiting and Konstantakos, 2019)
Even without the Stoic god, adherence to the four virtues does in no way support indifference to environmental destruction or social injustice. On the contrary, a life built on the progression towards the four Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom lends itself to striving for a more harmonious workplace, educational system and society generally. This becomes more apparent when one considers a society where the Stoic vices of injustice, cowardice, ignorance and greed run amok and where truth is valued less than the perceived significance of the person uttering an empty counter claim. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius offers particularly relevant words of wisdom in a world where self-interest is the order of the day:
A branch cut from its neighbouring branch is necessarily cut away from the whole tree. In the same way a human being severed from just one other human has dropped from the whole community. Now the branch is cut off by someone else, but a man separates himself from his neighbour by his own hatred or rejection, not realising that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens. Only there is this gift we have from Zeus who brought together the human community: we can grow back again to our neighbour and resume our place in the complement of the whole. (Meditations, 11.8)
If we place the spirit of Aurelius’ words in the modern context, it then becomes obvious that when you decide to progress towards the Stoic virtue of justice, questioning the underlying assumption that it is automatically in your best interest to add x and y to your possession becomes a moral obligation. This is because, from a Stoic perspective, at best, x and y, if things (and not virtues), are “preferred indifferents”, which means that, under normal circumstances, you would prefer to have them as long as having them does not become an obstacle to your progress towards virtue and (perhaps) improves your life. At worse, x and y undermine your path towards virtue because in purchasing them you buy into the processes that created them: questionable labor practices in Asian sweatshops and electronics factories, South American rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in London and New York. And, thus, this being the case, it becomes obvious that joining a protest that aims to prevent the destruction of the rainforest becomes a very Stoic action, not least because it is a manifestation of the courage and wisdom required to stand against the greed and injustice (two Stoic vices) that puts corporate profit ahead of healthy planetary processes.
Stoics are necessarily political, just not aligned with either the left or right, regardless of their respective arguments. Consequently, standing up against the wrongs of the world is a profoundly Stoic thing to do. In fact, although beyond the scope of this article, there are countless examples of progressive Stoics that stood up against nepotism and sacrificed their lives in pursuit for virtue rather than fame. Thrasea Paetus is one such example who Epictetus himself admires. Thrasea was a senator in the Roman Empire who put his personal principles above that of his concern for even his own life. When the insane Emperor Nero murdered his own mother for personal gain, the other senators were required to condone and even praise the vile act. Instead, Thrasea walked out of the Senate in contempt. When Nero attempted to have the Senate unjustly execute someone who displeased him, Thrasea spoke out against it, and managed to have the execution blocked. When Nero coerced the senators to attend his vainglorious singing performances, Thrasea refused. When Nero held a meeting to have his wife deified, again Thrasea stood up for his personal principles, further agitating the most powerful man in the world and effectively drawing a bull’s eye on his own back. This does not sound like a Stoic who would shirk his responsibility and withdraw from social action to preserve his sense of peace. And, if Epictetus holds him up as an excellent example for his students to follow, then it is likewise nonsensical to suggest that he would not stand up against those elements of the modern economic structure that are leaving this planet, its people, animals and plants in such a perilous position.
This bring me on to the third and final part of my article. At the international annual Stoicism conference (Stoicon) last year, I made an unusual claim that the four virtues were in fact sustainable development. This is because without courage, justice, self-control and wisdom there can be no sustainable development. It was unusual not just because I was linking Stoicism to environmentalism but because I was opening up the contemporary Stoic practice to concerns that went beyond what most people consider to be the domain of personal development. Since that talk, I have seen a paradigm shift in the modern Stoicism movement, with more people concerned about the wider issues that Fleuss’ is herself concerned with. The line-up for Stoicon in 2019 has reflected the need to think more deeply about how Stoics should get involved in social action for the benefit of others and the environment.
This does not mean that Stoicism has all the answers to the intricate challenges of the 21st century. For this reason, I teamed-up with Freirean pedagogues and championed aspects of their philosophy. This means that Stoicism can now be more meaningfully applied when societal structures, political ideologies or physical characteristics may influence a person’s ability to progress towards virtue and, by way of extension, live the “good life” (see Whiting et al, 2018). Based on a Hegelian/Marxist persuasion, Freirean pedagogy is a utopian-based framework founded on the deconstruction of oppressive systems and thus fits with Fleuss’ assertion that we must address structural inequalities. A key finding of our work together is that whilst it is true that under a Stoic framework a Stoic can be neither an oppressor nor a victim, this understanding should not lead a Stoic to ignore, or refuse to acknowledge, those injustices that have been shown by Freireans and other academics to spring from historical events and their present-day narrative.
Instead, Stoics, should carefully consider how their personal experiences and social role determine what they perceive to be worth progressing towards. They would, likewise, be following Stoic principles by acting in ways which, for example, make best use of their privileges to promote the four virtues.
A more nuanced argument of Fleuss’ and one that requires more unpacking is whether Stoicism, even with the adoption of some Freirean elements, can, given its emphasis on personal attitudes and behavior lead to meaningful change, if that change is being hindered by the “system” rather than individual apathy or misunderstandings as to what a particular virtuous individual would do. To clarify, if an individual wanted to stand up against climate breakdown, which is predominately caused by just 100 companies, would Stoicism offer a viable solution?
To answer this question, one has to remember that under the Stoic paradigm, every neurotypical adult human being is the master of her own beliefs, desires, intentions and actions. This means that under a Stoic framework systemic oppression is considered impossible (at least in the robust sense) because by accepting oppression you are admitting that your ability to progress towards virtue, and thus experience the “good life”, is beyond your control. This is untenable for a Stoic because it breaks with the philosophy’s premise that a person’s virtue is determined only by her own thoughts and actions. This is a position that Seneca the Younger makes clear:
We Stoics are not subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to his own freedom. (Seneca, Letter 33.3)
Thus, Stoics believe that the only way to be oppressed is to oppress oneself. Now, I understand that this is at odds to much of Marxist thought and re-interpretations (Franzt Fanon and Paulo Freire come to mind) that presuppose the existence of the oppressor and oppressed relationship. However, I fail to see how assuming the oppressed narrative or identity is any more helpful than simply acknowledging the systemic injustices and acting on the Stoic call to address them.
In order to address societal level issues, a Stoic is called to do two interconnected things. Firstly, they must take the time to bring themselves in line with Nature, as a whole, and their own particular nature as an idiosyncratic human being. This remains true even if they choose to dismiss the Stoic theological framework, as the contemporary (and atheist) Stoic philosopher Lawrence Becker explained:
[We should] get the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it — our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavours — before we deliberate about normative matters. (Becker, 2017, p. 46)
Secondly, once they understands themselves and their role, they must do all they can to acquire wisdom, that is the knowledge that will inform them on what to do, how to do it, when to do it and with whom. No Stoic is an island and given that our virtue is made manifest in our interactions with others and the environment, it is both natural and desirable for Stoics to work together to bring about change as Marcus Aurelius himself states:
Just as you yourself are a complimentary part of a social system, so too your every action should complement a life of social principle. If any action of yours, then, does not have direct or indirect relation to the social end, it pulls your life apart and destroys its unity. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.23)
A very poignant modern-day example of the power of the individual to bring about social change by inspiring millions to join say the Extinction Rebellion, is Greta Thunberg. Armed with a simple message and a warm hat and coat she protested in the only way she could, and for a while she did it alone. For her, and she is right, climate breakdown is a black or white problem. Inaction for those who care about the planet upon which we live is not an option. Consequently, at least my mind, her example, illustrates how a personal Stoic practice could likewise invoke changes in the wider system from the grassroots level upwards, once you understand that your voice matters and that it is your turn to speak.
A sincere Stoic will in their journey towards virtue come to the same conclusion. They will understand that obstacles are not impossible to surmount and that even though they cannot do everything by themselves, they are not called to. Instead, they will focus on what they can control and will look to join with others who hold other pieces of the same puzzle.