In Meditations, Marcus speaks passionately about escaping the “indelible stain” of power, of being changed by the purple cloak that the emperor traditionally wore. It is a timeless warning for anyone in a position of authority or acclaim: Be careful lest you be changed by your newfound bounty.
But let’s talk about a different indelible stain that is spoiling and ruining many people today: radicalization rather than imperialization. In the the early 2000s, after the heinous attacks of September 11th, the radicalization of young men (and women) by their exposure to extremist Islamic views, became a major topic of discussion at Senate subcommittee hearings and on cable news roundtables. It’s both sad and ironic that for all this focus, the same officials and pundits missed the rising threat of homegrown right wing radicals—young men (also women, but mostly men) who were being turned into extremists by their exposure to misleading and inflammatory materials online. Indeed, these numbers have been rising to the point that “of 263 incidents of domestic terrorism between 2010 and the end of 2017, a third — 92 — were committed by right-wing attackers,” according to the Washington Post.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is about taking the longview and seeing the big picture, so the purpose of this email is not to make you anxious about the danger of terrorism at home. Thankfully, America and Europe are still very safe places. Nor is the purpose of this email designed to advocate a particular political viewpoint or solution to this problem. No, the message today is the same theme inherent in all of Stoicism: To look internally, to look at your own habits, and to see where you stand.
If ordinary people living on the same block as you can be radicalized by falling down internet rabbit holes, if the toxic media (and social media) culture we’re in can nurture and feed unfathomably dark and awful views, then what do you think it’s doing to you? Do you think you yourself might be getting radicalized by your own filter bubble? Are you doing a good enough job holding up every impression and opinion to be tested? Or are you, too, in a less dangerous way, being swept up in the passions of the crowd, however fringe or alt or mainstream that crowd may be?
Radicalization is the scourge of our time. Ordinary people who share enormous amounts in common are being turned against each other. People who are polite and friendly and would help a stranger change a tire on a rainy night on the side of the road are being turned into weapons in a war that helps no one but advertisers and trolls and power-hungry populists.
Stoicism is a philosophy that holds up reason and virtue above all things. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor who believed in compromise and forgiveness and mercy. Epictetus was a victim of terrible injustices (first as a slave and later as a banished philosopher). Seneca too was exiled and stripped of much of what he held dear at various points in his life. Yet none of these men gave into bitterness or anger. All resisted the indelible stain of radicalization and instead worked to be kind, to compromise, and to ignore the mentality of the mob.
Each of us needs to do the same…and reach out to anyone we see being pulled in the opposite direction. Or worse, down a rabbit hole of radicalization.