There are a lot of tensions in Stoicism, as we have talked about before. How do you balance acquiescing to fate and embracing your own agency? How do you balance being aware of the dangers of the future without worrying about or fearing it? How do you think regularly of your own death without losing your taste for life?
But perhaps the most relevant (and difficult) tension today is the one about balancing a philosophical detachment from external events and our obligations to contribute to society and democracy. As the statesman Pericles said, “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.” If you decide not to vote because voting seems so statistically insignificant, or you ignore the injustice happening in the world because it doesn’t affect you, it make might your life a little more peaceful, but the result is an incremental increase in the suffering of others—whether that is the additional burden placed on others to carry your part of the load or an elongation of the injustice they are trying to ameliorate.
Every famine, every plague, every genocide, every repressive regime that has terrorized a part of the globe since the end of World War II and the reorganization of the world order, one could argue owes the length of its reign to just the kind of disengagement Pericles was talking about. Five years, ten years, thirty years—those numbers could have been halved, if they weren’t happening so far away that it didn’t affect us. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
Clearly, the Stoics believed that turning off noise and chatter was not in conflict with actively participating in civic life. How could Marcus have been emperor or Cato and Seneca senators if it were otherwise? In fact, what they would argue is that by choosing to ignore the trivial we free up energy to engage with and care about the essential. Yes, there is a lot going on in the world. Too much for any one person to care about it all. Yes, a lot of it is outside of our control—or in the big scheme of things is very inconsequential. But this is not an excuse for apathy or for retreating exclusively into your private affairs.
We are all in this thing together. We are obligated to contribute to the common good. Because if we don’t…the whole thing falls apart. Not caring is privilege. Complete detachment is criminal self-indulgence. It is a rejection of our duty and our potential.
Speaking of which, there is a profound humanitarian crisis happening in the United States that,. no matter your views on immigration reform, we can all agree needs to be addressed—innocent children do not deserve to suffer. Currently, we have thousands of children being housed on American soil in abhorrent conditions — they have little access to adequate food, hygienic products, medical care, and safe places to sleep. Children are sick, traumatized, even dying. Click here to donate to any one of a number of charities and organizations that are doing work on the border to help those in need.
It’s our duty to help.