We know what you’re thinking: WTF.
The theatrics. The emotions. The snap judgments. The nonsense. The name-calling. The bickering. The baby-kissing and back-slapping. Politics and stoicism seem to have nothing in common, especially in our overheated era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
And some of that might be true. But it’s worth pausing to consider whether there’s virtue in participating in even a broken system—and whether or not stoics or stoics-in-training might be the exact kinds of people that politics needs.
Here are four reasons why stoics ought to think twice before abandoning politics altogether:
1) A long line of Stoics have gone into politics before you.
You would be far from the first stoic in politics. Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor. Cato was a Senator. Publius Rufus was a statesman who achieved Rome’s highest office. And they weren’t the only ones. Even people who only dabbled in stoicism but didn’t self-identify as stoics, like Cicero, chose politics as a profession. And a lot of the lessons of their writing and thinking come from being in the middle of tough political issues–the rise and fall of nations, the deal-making involved in keeping the peace, the practice of warfare.
Now, just because many people did something before you doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing—but part of embracing some of Stoic thinking and practice is, in Seneca’s words, to “Associate with people who are likely to improve you.” You might think of participating in politics as a way of strengthening your ties with the long line of stoic sages who came before you.
2) Stoicism is exactly the right operating system for everything that makes politics awful.
Yes, politics is messy. Yes, it’s filled with passions of the worst kind. People get all worked up about inconsequential slights and ridiculous arguments. But that’s exactly why you, a trained or training stoic, can participate in it: All the things that get to other people won’t bother you one bit.
One stoic maxim that will prove valuable: Zeno’s advice about knowing when to speak and when to shut up. “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue,” he said. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if politicians knew when to keep their thoughts to themselves?
Sure, politics can be a full contact sport. But that’s what stoicism was built for. It was Marcus Aurelius who said, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.” Get called out in the media? Attacked unfairly? As a stoic, you know that such things say more about the person doing the attacking than they do about you–and you can keep exactly the kind of level head about it that you’ve been trained to do.
3) More stoicism in politics is precisely what the system needs.
Yes, you’re well-primed to deal with politics. But what about the system itself? What if stoicism and its ideas started to inject into the political process? What if more politicians began reading Meditations or digesting the Discourses?
It might be a pipe dream, but imagine what Stoicism—a system designed to curb our emotional appetites, get to things as they really are, and keep us from unnecessary conflict—would do for a political system that seems consumed by its own worst excesses.
At a minimum, part of stoicism does is challenge its user to improve their character. Marcus Aurelius asks himself in his Meditations: “What is your vocation?” His answer? “To be a good person.” Politics needs many things–but a dose of people at least thinking about political issues in terms of character is certainly one of them.
Imagine a politician who embraces the stoic practice of curbing appetites–personal, state, national. How much easier would it be to achieve fiscal discipline if, in the back of the mind of a Governor or a President, rang Epictetus’s advice: “Don’t set your heart on so many things.”
Or take the simple act of achieving power in the first place. It was Seneca who taught: “He is most powerful who has power over himself.” What if the beginning of a campaign wasn’t a rah-rah political rally, but a would-be candidate asking himself the hard questions of why he wants the office and whether he has mastered himself enough for it?
Self-mastery doesn’t make for a sexy political platform. It’s not “hope and change” and it’s not “make America great again.” But a school of thought that argues in favor of self-mastery even as it trains people for the use of power might be exactly what the political system needs.
4) Stoicism isn’t about passivity. It’s about action, even when things seem hopeless.
Part of stoicism’s appeal is that it’s not made for people who want to sit cross-legged in a Zen garden, meditating on the good life. It’s designed for people who are in the arena; people whose work has real stakes and challenges. “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it,” Epictetus reminded us.
What’s buried in Epictetus’s message, and the messages of other stoics, is that their philosophy wasn’t designed for perfect conditions. It was designed for imperfect ones. Many of the most moving stories we associate with stoicism come out of the worst elements of humanity: slavery, warfare, torture, imprisonment. In all of these cases, the environments proved the ideal testing ground for a philosophy that is, in part, about being tested.
Maybe that isn’t enough to convince you that politics should be your calling. But it is an argument to at least not write it off out of hand—if only because the exact things that turn you off to politics might be the things you need to test and harden your character.
This is a guest post by Jimmy Soni, author of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar. We have previously interviewed Jimmy about Stoicism, Cato and much more. His latest book is A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
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