It could be said that the history of Stoicism is the history of brave men and women fighting and conspiring against tyrants. Brutus led the conspiracy against Julius Caesar. His wife’s father, Cato, fought bravely in the Roman Civil War against Caesar. Thrasea, Rubellius Plautus, Barea Soranus and Musonius Rufus conspired against Nero and were executed when they were caught. Seneca was similarly implicated and forced to commit suicide. Even the founding fathers of America, many of them proud students of the Stoics, could be said to have conspired against the King of England to create a new nation and risked their lives to do it (“We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”)
So while the word “conspiracy” has an unpleasant, even evil, connotation, in truth the word is neutral. When it comes to conspiracies, there are good ones and terrible ones and complicated ones. The word is neutral, the usage is not.
For nearly ten years, the billionaire Peter Thiel—who while not a Stoic, is described by friends as “the world’s richest applied philosopher”—conspired against Gawker Media, a website that had outed him as gay, but more importantly, had come to represent to him a kind of evil cultural force of meanness and homogeneity. Many people will disagree with his assessment and others will say that whatever Gawker was, their writing was protected speech, but it is indisputable that Thiel viewed them as evil and set out to do something about it. (You can get all the details of the nearly unbelievable story from this new book).
Unlike most of the Stoic conspiracies, which were noble but failed, Thiel’s conspiracy actually succeeded. Instead of reacting emotionally, Thiel patiently waited for Gawker to make a mistake, he recruited a team of co-conspirators to support him, he observed a set of internally imposed ethical restraints and when opportunity appeared in the form of Gawkerpublishing an illegally recorded sextape of the wrestler Hulk Hogan, Thiel pounced. Secretly backing a lawsuit over Hogan’s right to privacy, Thiel’s lawyers waged battle in the courts from 2012 to 2016 where after more than $10 million in legal expense, they won a $140 million verdict against Gawker. The site declared bankruptcy and two months later, ceased publication.
There is much to learn from Thiel’s conspiracy for the aspiring Stoic, both strategically and philosophically. Although Gawker had wronged him personally, he seems not to have been motivated by pure personal anger—it’s hard to stay angry that long. He would say later that he felt challenged as a Christian to simply forgive the site and its owner, that he wanted to let it go. But there was the larger issue of justice at play, he said, and that this situation lamented by many needed to be solved. Where others simply hoped Gawker would become nicer on its own, or that the problem would magically disappear, he decided to actually do something. This wasn’t easy and it challenged him ethically, and personally, and cost him millions of dollars. “I came to think of it like a prosecutor would,” he would say, “at the end of the day it’s not just between me and Nick Denton.” It had become to him, an issue of justice.
“The best revenge is to not be like that,” is how Marcus Aurelius put it. Critics can and do say that Thiel crossed a line in his conspiracy and did something worse than Gawker ever did. That may be so. Yet it should be said that history-makers always have their critics. The Stoics were also men who were courageous enough to reject the status quo and fight for change they believed in. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong. Sometimes they succeeded, and just as often they paid with their lives when they didn’t. But they viewed themselves as honor-bound by the tradition of their school to try.
They knew that some situations present no option but conspiracy, that one must be willing to try and fail, to risk and hope. And in that—and in this way Thiel is too—they were an inspiring example for all of us today and forever.
Please check out Ryan Holiday’s newest book, Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue. It is out today and available anywhere books are sold.