Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self: The Power To Change Society

Distilled into one empowering message – take control and responsibility for your own thoughts and actions – Stoicism will set you on a course for personal fulfilment, regardless of the wealth, health or skillset you have at your disposal. No wonder it has all the hallmarks of a highly successful entrepreneurial programme or bestselling personal development book. One thing you might not know, however, is that Stoic philosophy has the power to change society and goes far beyond its self-help uses, which in fact constitute only a small part of its potential.

The beauty of Stoicism is its simplicity. Despite its call for indifference towards material goods, social status and the harsh words of others, it does not leave you indifferent towards it. Indeed, even the most superficial study of Marcus Aurelius’ words is enough to transform your priorities, expectations and position in the world. Death, anxiety, suffering and pain lose their grip over you, whilst professional accolades and social media attention cease to feed your ego. The effect is liberating: when one ceases to focus on the self, the mind’s resources are freed up to pursue virtue.

For Stoics, life is built on the progression towards virtue with virtue alone, expressed as wisdom, justice, self-control and courage, being the one true good. Simply put, health, wealth, status and the accumulation of material goods are not Stoic pursuits. Does that mean that people practicing Stoicism should think that we would all be better off as uneducated fools or poor and sick? Absolutely not! It simply means that somebody could be wealthy but miserable. Equally, education, by itself, is not a virtue, precisely because a bad one (where vice is propagated, not simply where the quality is dubious) will, inevitability, create inequality and environmental injustice. Therefore, a proper Stoic practice, as Massimo Pigliucci neatly sums up, is the balance of inner detachment and outward empathy, and as we state in our open access paper, the expression of selfishness through selflessness.

Clearly, adherence to the Stoic virtues lends itself to a more harmonious workplace, educational system and society generally. Personal improvement or decline then feeds off the collective decision to strive for justice, self-control, wisdom and courage. This becomes more apparent when you consider a society where the Stoic vices of injustice, cowardice, ignorance and greed run amok and truth is valued less than the perceived significance of the person uttering an empty counter claim. Marcus Aurelius, as the last of the five good Roman emperors, offers particularly relevant words of wisdom in a world where “me”, “myself” and “I” have become the only three people that matter:

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.

That said, we should not assume that a Stoic is expected, or required, to treat everyone in the same way. In fact, ancient Stoics such as Cicero (in On Duties 1.50–3) and Hierocles discussed the concept of ‘circles’ of concern to express the idea that we naturally feel a more direct connection with family and friends than we do with others. However, we must recognise that an important feature of Stoic philosophy is the conviction that we all belong and participate in a cosmopolitan society of a shared universal citizenship. Hierocles, in particular, stressed the idea that we should bring the circles of concern inward to reflect the healthy aspects of humanity that constitute the self and the self’s role in humanity. In doing, this Stoicism provides the foundation for a society built on harmony instead of populism.

In this respect, Stoicism is as much a personal message of “obstacle is the way” as it is a collective call to surmount the obstacle together. Now, before you point out that societal issues are beyond your control, take a moment to reflect on the power you do have to drive change through your purchases, including the food in your fridge, the car on your drive and the clothes on your back. All of these things say something about you; where you place your dollar or peso ultimately is an expression of your values.

When you decide to progress towards the Stoic virtue of justice, you realise that it is your moral obligation to question the underlying assumption that it is automatically in your best interest to add x and y to your possession. At best, x and y, if things (and not virtues), are preferred indifferents, 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 labour practices in Asian sweatshops and electronics factories, South American rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in London and New York. That does not mean that Stoicism calls for an abandonment of capitalism. In fact, for Stoics, any dogmatic adherence to Marxism or capitalism, or an unwavering commitment to a left or right wing ideology, regardless of the nature of the opinion expressed, is irrational. This is because reason, or rational thought, has no political wing and facts belong to everyone.

A Stoic is called to advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, that is to say one which is grounded in measurable facts and not mere conjecture. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. It follows that as a modern Stoic you are called, with reference to the work and life of Seneca, to identify and champion just acts. You should also strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This understanding is linked to Marcus Aurelius’ words in Meditations 4.12:

Do only what the reasons inherent in kingly and judicial powers prescribe for the benefit of mankind… change your ground, if in fact there is someone to correct and guide you away from some notion. But this transference must always spring from a conviction of justice or the common good: and your preferred course must be likewise, not simply for apparent pleasure or popularity.

We get it: what Stoicism calls you to do is hard, very hard. It is no coincidence that Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle of the Way was so successful amongst high flying Silicon Valley stars, hard tackling American football players and highly motivated graduate students. He gave them the words to express what they already knew to be true: to get somewhere in life, all of us, at least at some point, must struggle with and overcome our physical limitations, our inner most doubts, and our fair share of naysayers:

Obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph (Obstacle is the Way, p10).

Yet, these words don’t just apply to the personal. They are just as pertinent for the collective. It takes courage and self-control not to turn the other way when you see gender-based discrimination at work, especially when your promotion depends on appeasing a bully. It takes a great deal of wisdom to bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour at home or at the office. It takes further courage to question how much such views might contribute to a gender pay gap, amongst peers who dismiss race or gender wage disparities as linked to behavioral traits. But it is only by questioning our premises and confronting what holds us back that we can begin to work through societal challenges together.

Stoicism offers all of us the tools to promote progressive values in our daily lives by inviting us to see our decision to take control and responsibility for our own thoughts and actions as a virtuous intention to live out our Stoic journey beyond our sense of self and onto the common good. We are called to do this not because we are heroes but because as Stoics we recognize that it is the right thing to do.

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Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable materials and Stoicism. He will be speaking at Stoicon 2018. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting.

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.