Stoic advice: what about politics?

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We are global citizens, and yet it’s so hard to talk to others about politics

[If you’d like to submit a question for this series, send it to epictetus64 at yahoo dot com.]

C. writes: As a Catalan/Spanish/European citizen, my political views and hopes are increasingly becoming tinged with a dark skepticism that operates at two levels. Level one, people. I think that our politicians are quite mediocre at best, when not corrupt. Level two, ideas. I’ve always been leaning to the left, and I’ve strongly supported the independence of Catalonia from Spain. However, at the same time, I’m becoming uncomfortable with populism and nationalism. I think Stoicism cannot by itself be a political ideology or party, in the same way in which you could be Christian and not vote for “Democrazia Cristiana” in 1970’s Italy. Could you offer me some advice from a Roman/Italian/American Stoic?

This is a crucial question, and the short answer is that you are correct, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a political ideology, and should not therefore be used to support a political party. That said, I do believe that there are a number of political positions and ideologies that are not compatible with Stoicism, so the full answer isn’t going to be that short…

In a sense, I see the relationship between Stoicism and politics in a way similar to that between Stoicism and metaphysics: I have argued that Stoic ethics is compatible with a number of metaphysical views. One can be, of course, a pantheist, as the original Stoics were. But one can also consistently be an atheist, agnostic, deist, or even theist and still call oneself a Stoic. But not all sorts of theism, and certainly not all metaphysical positions, can be squared with Stoicism. Suppose, for instance, you believe that the universe works according to the infamous “law of attraction,” as spelled out in the best selling book, The Secret. Then you think that the universe will bend to your will, if you want something (health, fame, money) badly enough. But that goes squarely against the dichotomy of control, which is itself based on the metaphysical position that the universe just doesn’t work that way. So you cannot consistently be a Stoic and follow The Secret.

Similarly with Stoicism and politics. I see no reason why someone couldn’t be a progressive, a conservative, or a libertarian — or anywhere in between — and not coherently be a Stoic as well. But certain general ideologies, and even certain particular policies, are clearly un-Stoic, in my opinion.

You mention one of them: nationalism. The Stoics are cosmopolitans:

So, no, one cannot be a Stoic and lend support to populist-nationalist parties or policies. Cosmopolitanism is not a minor aspect of Stoic philosophy, but a central one. We are cosmopolitan because we believe that all human beings share in the Logos, i.e., we are all capable of reason. As such, there is no principled rational defense of national barriers. They are an accident of history, and ideally they will eventually be eliminated. One planet, one people, so to speak.

This doesn’t mean that a Stoic should demand the immediate abolition of nation-states. There are pragmatic issues to be considered. But that should be the long term goal, and supporting parties or politicians that are squarely opposed to it is, I think, inconsistent with Stoic virtue.

Speaking of Stoic virtues, one of the cardinal four is justice, which is strongly coupled with courage. Consider the partial definitions of these two virtues given in Plato’s philosophical dictionary (as reported by Diogenes Laertius), where I selected the bits that are particularly relevant to Stoicism:

Justice (dikaiosynê): the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; social equality.

Courage (andreia): self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; force of fortitude in respect of virtue.

Notice that courage, in the Stoic sense, is a moral virtue. It doesn’t have much to do with rushing headlong into danger, which can actually be foolish. It refers, rather, to the courage to stand up for the right thing to do. And notice also the explicit mention of social justice as part of the definition of justice.

That said, no, one doesn’t have to be a “social justice warrior,” or even a leftist, in the modern sense of the word in order to be a good Stoic. Conservatives and libertarians can also courageously fight for what is just. But Stoicism does pose limits to the range of acceptable political views. I hardly think, for instance, that Ayn Rand-style views are compatible with Stoic virtue.

As usual in virtue ethics, the answer to complex questions is: it depends, and that’s a feature, not a bug! Life is too complicated for the sort of simplistic slogans used in politics, especially (but not only) by populists and nationalists, to be of much use. The Stoic approach is to steer away from emotional responses and camly reflect on the basis of the available empirical evidence, to use reason to improve social living. As Marcus aptly put it:

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