The last time a politician with a philosophical bent stood up before the American people, as Vice Presidential Candidate James Stockdale did, and asked “Who am I? Why am I here?”, the media and the uninformed public snickered. What was a “philosopher” doing on stage at a vice presidential debate? There is no place for that in politics—least of all his brand of “Stoic” philosophy.
It’s a revealing moment in modern culture. The philosophy Admiral Stockdale had studied, as a grad student at Stanford, was an obscure school known as Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of discipline, action, and resistance. He was particularly fond of the work of Epictetus, the former Roman slave whose code of engagement with the struggles of daily life would become a touchstone for the last of the good emperors, Marcus Aurelius. It was Epictetus’s name who Stockdale invoked as he parachuted down from his A-4E Skyhawk into North Vietnam, certain he would be taken prisoner (and was—in the same prison as future Senator John McCain). It was Stoicism that Stockdale used to survive in the camps and what he would write several books about when he was finally released.
Yet even though Stockdale clearly saw philosophy and action—real world application—as inseparable in Stoicism, and even though three of the most famous Stoic philosophers in history (Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) were actively involved in political life at the highest levels, today, we’re still facing the same haughty ignorance that led us to mock a hero and deprive us of a chance to bring wisdom to the political conversation.
Just look to the smug coverage on Quartz in the last month which was responding to the use of philosophy in modern contexts: Silicon Valley Tech Workers Are Using an Ancient Philosophy Designed for Greek Slaves as a Life Hack and Forget Stoicism: A Leading Philosopher Explains Why We Shouldn’t Try To Control Our Emotions. The latter, written by Sandy Grant, a Cambridge professor who should know better, has tried to associate Stoic philosophy with condoning everything wrong in the world, including racism, sexism and fascism.
This is nonsense. In fact, Stoicism is almost perfectly designed to cope with today’s stressful times and contains within it both the seeds for many political solutions and the activism needed to cultivate them. This is not, I promise, some modern, self-help take on old dusty ideas. It has always been the case.
The cliché and elitist (“designed for Greek slaves!” or “denies emotions!”) arguments against Stoicism are that it promotes ‘resignation.’ Stoic critics are not wrong then to pick up on the theme of acceptance in the philosophy—even of intolerable things. Epictetus repeatedly asked his students to ask ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin (“what is up to me, what is not up to me?”) He would go on to say that most things are not up to us and recommends that we learn to practice ‘the art of acquiescence’ in regards to them. What detractors miss when focusing on this single aspect is its purpose as a tool for avoiding destructive emotions that create more trouble and leave the real problems intact.
Yes, Eugène Delacroix, the French Romantic painter, referred to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as his personal “consoling religion of resignation. But we can’t forget that this is the same man who painted an homage to freedom—Liberty Leading the People—so inspiring and dangerous it was banned by the French government for 16 years. Epictetus himself made his way out of slavery and exile, but never ceased his teachings. These were not people who sat at home and said, “Woe is me.” They would not accept the political and social learned helplessness that so many people are feeling right now. They had emotions, but they directed them toward deliberate ends.
It is hard to square the argument that “Stoicism accepts the status quo no matter what” or that “philosophy is for the classroom, what we need today is activism” with the historical fact that two of the greatest and most noble resistance movements against authoritarian governments were led by Stoic philosophers. As Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman outline in their wonderful book Rome’s Last Citizen, one man stood firm against the rise of Julius Caesar. He was a Stoic philosopher named Cato the Younger and after nearly twenty years of courageous political leadership, and civil war, he made the ultimate sacrifice to inspire resistance to tyranny by committing suicide rather than submit to Caesar’s rule. And this brave and yes, emotional, stand did inspire generations of freedom lovers. George Washington had his men re-enact this very scene from Joseph Addison’s famous play about Cato as the troops wintered at Valley Forge in the American revolution. (In fact, many of the most famous lines uttered in the revolution—like “Give me Liberty or give me death!”—were cribbed from that play). Thomas Jefferson died with a copy of Seneca on his nightstand. The American Revolution and Stoic philosophy are inextricably intertwined. We might not have one without the other.
I won’t bore you with an endless list, but Toussaint Louverture studied Epictetus as he rose up against Napoleon’s armies to create the country of Haiti. Later, in the US Civil War, Thomas Wentworth Higginson did his Stoic duty by translating his intellectual hero Epictetus for the general public and by putting his abolitionist efforts to the ultimate test on the battlefield by leading the first black regiment of soldiers to preserve the Union. Beatrice Webb, who invented the concept of collective bargaining, referred to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as her “manual of devotion.” The political actions of these individuals were not in contravention of Stoic philosophy but an essential part of it.
Stoicism has long surged in times of difficulty—the decline and fall of Rome, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Civil War, depressions, and periods of strife because it is a philosophy designed for difficult times. It says, in effect, you don’t control these alarming events going on in the world, but you do control how you respond. And in fact is a framework for responding with courage and virtue, and with the good emotions that accompany and sustain them: joy, caution and well-wishing. None of these inspiring figures were guilty of emotionless acquiescence.
In our own time, the Stoic resources remain to inspire us in practical ways. To make this current, the Stoic response to a Trump Presidency—if they in fact would find it objectionable, as I do and have extensively written about—is not outrage but calm, clear-headedness. It’s not acrimony but action. A Stoic wouldn’t spend a lot of time seeking a reason to blame, or complaining about whether Trump “deserves” to be President, whether it is scary that he is, or all the bad things that might or might not result from it. Instead they’d focus on what’s in their control: their own actions, what causes or candidates they could contribute to, making sure they are prepared in case of an emergency, protecting the vulnerable, meditating on the worst case scenario and so on.
Typically, Stoicism cuts through the Gordian Knot of complex problems by zooming in on them at their smallest level: Not “How do I solve this enormous issue all by myself?” but “What can I do by myself, for myself, in response to what has happened?” For instance, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself—and this is coming from the Emperor of Rome, mind you—that problems are often overwhelming when considered by the whole, but life is assembled and lived “action by action.” In the simplest terms, they believed that change begins at home, and that first we must get ourselves in order if we wished to be of service to anyone else.
Yet the Stoics, pragmatic as they were, were also happy to contradict themselves. While one problem might be solved by considering only a very small part of it, they also admitted that at other times the opposite mindset was required. In times of despair and chaos and even violence, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself to obtain what he called, “Plato’s view.” “It’s best,” he said, “to take a birds-eye view and see everything all at once—of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets—all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.” From an airplane, nothing seems as urgent as it does on the ground. Nothing seems as terrifying or as objectionable. In this exercise of zooming in and out, the Stoics were taking the long view. They were considering the arc of history—the same lesson that Obama imparted to his daughters after the election: that history zigs and zags. Not as an excuse from action, but as a check against overreaction.
There is a certain ego in our obsession with the present and our personal situation. We are often convinced that this moment right now is either the best of all moments or the worst of all moments. Of course, neither is true. Many of the Stoic writings echo the reality expressed in the Gloria Patri, “As it was in the beginning, and now, and always, and to the ages of ages.”
Which is why a true Stoic would not have been surprised by the election nor would they be surprised by any sudden historical change. As Seneca, who found himself bound, inescapably, to Nero’s court as the man descended into madness, reminds us, “Nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations.” The Stoic has a mind that is designed to consider the complexities, hypocrisies and stupidities of their fellow citizens.
This is not an excuse to abandon anyone or to be selfish—the Stoics held strongly to the idea of sympatheia, the interconnection between all species, people and universes. Marcus Aurelius was one of the first writers to articulate the notion of cosmopolitanism—saying that he was a citizen of the world, not just of Rome. He believed in the collective good as an individual good, and there are more than 80 references to the common good in his Meditations. (“That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.”) He believed deeply in working with others, and clearly did so as a leader in politics and war. But he had a long enough understanding of the timeless rhythm of events that he declined to make things worse by losing his head.
There were three Stoic disciplines: Perception, Action and Will. The formula then for Stoic activism in the new millennium is as clear and as relevant as it was two thousand years ago. Think right. Act right. Accept and understand what is beyond your control.
These three simple but hardly easy things, Marcus Aurelius would say in his best summation of Stoicism, “are all we need.” Futile emotions aren’t the right fuel for this or any fight. Stoicism is that rare and supremely practical philosophy that two thousand years ago could make a slave the foremost inspiration of a “good emperor” and that stood on the battle line when in our own history a regiment of slaves helped preserve and redefine a durable political union in the face of monstrous social forces that would have had it go another way.
So it stands for us today.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. Visit the Daily Stoic website for more information and sign up for a free 7 Day Stoic Starter Pack. He is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.