The connection between politics and Stoicism is as old as the philosophy itself. Stoics were senators, soldiers and power brokers two thousand years ago just as they are today. Then, as is now, Stoics on all sides of the aisle tried to make the world a better place. And this is why we were excited to speak to a modern politician who has been a devoted student of the Stoics for more than a decade, one who openly identifies as a Stoic on both his blog and his Twitter account. Nicholas Sarwark is the chairman of the Libertarian National Committee, and he has been a member of the party for nearly 20 years. He previously served as a deputy public defender in Colorado, trying more than 30 cases before a jury and arguing in front of the Colorado Supreme Court. In his role in the Libertarian Party, he has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and many more. Nicholas agreed to an interview, and he gave us one of the best definitions of Stoicism out there, talked to us about his journey of discovering Stoicism, his daily routine, and the connections between Stoicism and libertarianism. Enjoy our interview below with Nicholas Sarwark!
You self-identify as a Stoic in your blog’s description. We are always looking for great definitions of Stoicism, so we are curious what is your go-to reply when someone asks you what you mean by that?
There is nothing good or bad other than how we react to life, how we make those decisions that are in our control. Accepting that most of what will happen in life is outside my control lets me focus on being honest and kind and trying to fulfill the duties I have as well as possible. Time or effort spent focusing on things that have happened and can’t be changed distracts from the work of changing those things I have some influence over. Focusing on the actions of others takes focus away from the one person I can change.
Speaking of your blog, one of the earliest mentions of Stoicism goes back to 2005. When did you originally discover Stoicism? Tell us the story. Do you remember your first thoughts about it?
My discovery came after I read Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full. His fictional account of a character discovering the works of Epictetus brought me back to philosophers that I had only learned about in passing in college. There was a nobility to honor and virtue and all good things being within oneself and a stability to living a life focused on those good things and undisturbed by all of the passing things that I saw so many of my friends and colleagues spend their lives chasing. Wolfe’s association of Stoicism with manliness was what opened the door for me to dig deeper into the philosophy and read as much as possible by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and any other Stoics I could find. I joined an Internet Stoic group and made it part of my routine to discuss and learn the finer points of the philosophy and figure out how to apply it to my life.
How have your views changed over what now looks is at least a decade of study, about the philosophy itself?
The early Stoics justified much of their worldview with the concept of a purposefully created world, with some greater scheme from Zeus that we were placed here to fulfill by carrying out our duties within a larger society. That justification doesn’t hold under a more modern evolutionary cosmology where things have come to pass due to physical laws rather than conscious creation. How can you have virtue ethics like Stoicism without gods like Zeus?
My understanding shifted to focus on the inherent dignity and underlying goodness of other people as the article of faith for the rest of Stoicism to rest on. If you really believe that the man who stole Epictetus’ lamp is a good person with inherent worth who has traded his honor for a lamp because he’s confused about what is really good in life, there is a duty to help others that flows from that. We are all imperfect, but our best work comes from focusing on helping others grow instead of wallowing in our own failings.
After law school, I spent five years as a public defender in Colorado, fighting for the rights of the indigent accused. There is no better crucible for Stoicism than advocating for the powerless and disenfranchised against the overwhelming resources of the prosecution and law enforcement, with judges and juries who often acted unfairly and irrationally. My clients were literal prisoners who had almost no control over their fate and while I had more ability to fight on their behalf, I had very little control over the actions of everyone else in the system. It was there that I learned to focus on my work, my advocacy, and how I would defend others and accept that the decisions and the verdict were not in my power.
That Stoic acceptance made me fight harder to be the best lawyer money couldn’t buy, instead of slipping into a fatalism that some colleagues and clients had that there was nothing that could be done against such overwhelming odds so just keep your head down and quietly accept what came down on you. It seems a minor difference and many people misunderstand Stoicism as merely the acceptance, without remembering the struggle and the fight for virtue.
One common criticism of Stoicism is that it promotes resignation, even politically. Why try to change things if they don’t matter in the big scheme of things…what can one person do, etc. What is your response to that characterization?
It may not matter on a philosophical level whether we live in the United States or North Korea, since both create the opportunity for people to exercise their virtue and live with honor, but there’s much more space and generally more lifespan to do it in here in the United States. Viktor Frankl learned much from his experience during the Holocaust, but that created a duty for him (and for all of us) to work to prevent future Holocausts from happening.
One of my most important duties in life is as a father to my three children. I work to teach them good values, to provide food and shelter, to love and care for them, as all parents should. But I also work to have what influence I can in what kind of city, state, and country they grow up in. As a Stoic, I know that I am not guaranteed success in creating political change, but I also know that the possibility of failure doesn’t absolve me of the duty to work toward the goal.
Some of the greatest political change we’ve seen in this country has come from individuals without institutional power or authority. Look at marriage equality, for example. There were organizations and activists and a very few brave politicians working on the issue, but what really turned the tide was ordinary people sharing their stories of injustice with friends and families and neighbors. Your conversation with your uncle about the challenges of visiting the person you love in the hospital doesn’t change a law, but it changes a heart and a mind and when enough of those change, the world does too.
Any thoughts on the connection between Libertarianism and Stoicism? Obviously a good number of the famous Stoics were authoritarians (Seneca and Marcus). Cato clearly was a Republican. Walker Percy would have been a modern conservative I guess.
One of the problems with classical Stoicism is that it supported the existence of the prevailing social order with very little question or concern for justice. Epictetus lived as a slave with honor, but there was little examination of whether chattel slavery was just. Slave was seen as just another role in society.
If one believes in the goodness and potential of all people, a society that maximizes the individual’s liberty to make virtuous choices and develop themselves seems best. The paradox of virtue and human growth is that cultivating an ability to make good moral choices requires the
freedom to make bad ones as well. Rigid societies that take the choices from individuals and give them to the government are not only often abused by people who gain power and control, they also stun the moral growth of the broader citizenry.
There are a lot of parallels between the libertarian ethos that people should be free to pursue happiness any way they choose, as long as they don’t hurt other people or take their stuff and the Stoic ethos that the moral choices of the individual are the only true goods in
life. When things outside the individual are seen as preferred or dispreferred, rather than good or evil, it becomes easier to let go of a false sense of control of others through laws and regulations.
The historical Stoics did the best they could in the time and places they lived with the understanding they had. There is no need to diminish their greatness, but there is also no need to lock ourselves into a controlling political system that we have the capacity to grow
beyond, moving from war and power to a system based on peace and voluntary interactions.
Over the years, which Stoic exercises do you find yourself returning to most often? Do you have a set daily routine? If not, in what circumstances in your day-to-day life do you think of the Stoics? Can you give us an example?
While I’ve attempted it at times, I’ve not been successful yet in making a habit of keeping a journal or daily meditations or reviews. It’s something I could improve on.
What I have been able to do is use the negative visualizations of worst case scenarios to maintain focus without worry. In the last Presidential election, the Libertarian Party broke all of our previous records for votes and contributions, but we did not get Gary Johnson elected President. Visualizing the outcome of either the Democratic or Republican nominee winning and knowing that the American people are resilient enough to handle either gave us the freedom to engage in creative and bold strategies that we would not have been able to do if we were too attached to fear of loss. It is arguable that the fear of loss in the Democratic campaign created the seeds of the loss; grasping too hard at something outside one’s control can make it less likely one achieves the goal.
Politics and business are full of people with, shall we say, a different set of ethics from what is suggested by the Stoics. When faced with shady dealings on a daily basis, I remind myself that I can’t control how other people choose to act, only my choices. If a customer or a constituent is harsh with me, I try to reflect back on what I may have done to earn that criticism and how I can improve, rather than wasting the time required to be angry about it.
Choosing to be kind to others as often as possible is the best habit I’ve adopted and has yielded the greatest dividends.