What Would a Stoic Do? Presidential candidates

democrats and republicansThe United States is in the midst of its recurring (indeed, now almost continuously running) political circus known as the Presidential elections. At the moment of this writing, the Republican party is characterized by a field counting a whopping 15 initial candidates, while the Democrats have 4. Who would a Stoic vote for?

In a sense, this is a tough question, since whatever the ancient Stoics wrote about the affairs of the polis was obviously written in a very different time from our own, and referred to a very different culture. There was no equivalent of the modern political party in either Athens or Rome — though there were “parties” organized around charismatic figures, like Julius Caesar, or Pompeii. And even though both Athens and Rome did have (limited) elections, it was nothing like our (alleged, self-professed) “best democracy in the world.”

But I am interested in the broad Stoic approach as a guide to life, and no philosophy would come even close to fulfill that purpose if it didn’t provide tools to make political choices, at the least at a very general level. So, let me give it a try and see where it goes.

One might be tempted to decide first whether a Stoic outlook is generally more “conservative” or “progressive,” by today’s standards. But I think that would be a mistake. To begin with, the conservative-progressive dichotomy is a bit simplistic (there is in reality a spectrum of positions, along a number of dimensions, for instance social issues vs economic ones), and very much specific of our time and culture.

Moreover, it is easy to find examples among the ancient Stoics of philosophers defending notions that might fit into either camp. For instance, I recently finished reading the few Ethical Fragments available from Hierocles, and it is full of what even in his time must have sounded as pretty conservative ideas (fuller treatment in an upcoming post). Here he is on how we should regard the laws of our country:

“Contempt of the existing laws, and preferring new to ancient laws, are things by no means beneficial to a city. Hence it is requisite that those should be restrained from giving their votes, and from precipitate innovation, which are pertinaciously disposed to act in this manner.”

And this about the relationship between husband and wife:

“Besides the procreation of children, the association with a wife is advantageous. For, in the first place, when we are wearied with labours out of the house, she receives us with officious kindness, and recreates us by every possible attention.”

I mean, not even Mike Huckabee would go that far (well, actually may he would, at the least in private).

Then again, the very same Hierocles is the one that articulated the idea of the concentric circles of concern that should include all of humanity, constructing a beautiful metaphor for the implementation of the crucial Stoic concept of oikeiôsisThat was surely a radically progressive idea for his time. It still is.

The same exercise could be done with other Stoics, citing a number of conservative notions by Musonius Rufus (sex only within marriage, and only for procreation?) vs a radical ones by, say, Zeno, who in his Republic advocated equal clothing for men and women as well as the validity of consensual relationships without need for the state imprimatur that accompanies the label of “marriage.”

So, mining quotes from individual Stoics concerning specific doctrines won’t do. Although I suspect that a conservative might have an easier time than a progressive while indulging in that sort of exercise, it is too easy to find counterexamples, and the cultural specifics are too different from our own to sensibly get anywhere.

But, again, if Stoicism is to be useful for contemporary living, albeit in an updated form, it ought to be giving us some general guidance about politics. This guidance, I submit, is best found in the general principles of the philosophy, which can then be applied with caution and within reason to our particular predicament.

The most obvious way to proceed, then, is to go back to the fundamental Stoic ideas of the unity and overarching importance of virtue and ask ourselves which of the current candidates for the Presidency of the US best approximates the Stoic desiderata.

Of course, I’m sure I don’t have to convince anyone that not only Sages don’t exist (they are an idealized abstraction), but that few if any politicians even approximate the ideal of the Sage. After all, we are looking at a profession where expediency and a good deal of what can only be described as lying are both the best and the most common tools of the trade. Hardly the stuff of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

Moreover, we don’t really know these people, do we? We only know their image as projected by their campaigns and by the media. Nonetheless, it seems to me that some progress can be made by examining the available public records.

Consider for instance the two Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In terms of wisdom, these are both people who have repeatedly shown that they can make tough decisions in difficult situations throughout their lives, especially Clinton. While some of the outcomes were far from ideal, they were also outside of their control. Both of them can be rightly criticized for a number of those decisions, of course, but by and large they seem — from the outside  at the least — to try to do what they think is best not only for themselves but for their polity (as opposed to just their constituency).

In terms of courage, both have shown a willingness to expose themselves to criticism and to take chances in order to pursue their goals and what they deem to be good policies, again Clinton even more so, having had repeatedly to face the built-in degree of discrimination and distrust (if not outright hostility) that is still reserved for women (and minorities) in this country.

It’s harder to speak to their temperance because of insufficient information, though there doesn’t seem to be any reason — again based on public records — to think that they are particularly intemperate.

Finally, when it comes to justice, they both — from different perspectives and in different fashions — appear to be genuinely interested in pursuing it as much as possible, and here perhaps it is Sanders, with his outspoken so-called “socialist” views, that edges out his rival.

So, all things considered I would feel comfortable — as a practicing Stoic — to vote for either Clinton or Sanders, though my actual expressed preference at the ballot might come down to a number of additional criteria, such as electability, or position on specific issues.

What about the Republicans? The current GOP field is much broader, but let me again focus on the two frontrunners, Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Their public record in terms of wisdom is very different: Carson doesn’t really have one, as he is new to politics, and I do not know much about his personal or previous professional life as a neurosurgeon to make a judgment. Trump is a different beast altogether, with a very public record (though, again, mostly outside of politics), and one that doesn’t seem to me to justify the label of “wise” in the least (I’m thinking both about a number of his financial deals and of his choices in terms of personal relationships).

Courage: Carson is displaying a good amount of it by entering the Presidential elections not just as a black person (which, despite Obama, is still not exactly uncontroversial), but in doing so within a party that has displayed a clear history of racism over the past several decades. In the case of Trump, the man seems to be more brash than courageous, though some may find his public statements about immigrants and women “refreshingly blunt” (if entirely ill informed, to say the least).

In terms of temperance, again I do not have enough knowledge of Carson, but I doubt even the most loyal Trump supporter would ever label “The Donald” a temperate individual. Indeed, it seems that the man has made the pursuit of excess for excess’ sake one of the major guiding principles of his existence — not at all what a Stoic would do.

Finally, justice. Here the record is clear: Trump is not even remotely interested in anything that looks like what I understand of as justice, though to be fair some of his remarks have irked a number of Republicans for being uncomfortably too far “left” on the political spectrum. Likewise, Carson has made a number of statements that make it very clear to my mind that his administration, should he win the election, would make the country a far less, definitely not more, just place where to live. Neither candidate seems to have any inkling toward oikeiôsis.

All in all, then, I would not feel comfortable voting for either Carson or Trump, on the basis of my Stoic analysis.

Yes, I realize that the above may easily look simply like an exercise in rationalization: I am a self-professed progressive liberal, and surprise surprise, I concluded that the two progressives we have examined would get my vote, while the two conservatives don’t have a shot at it. But that analysis would truly be a cynical (with the small-c) one. I have honestly tried to look at both Democrats and Republicans with fresh eyes, as much as my own limitations and cognitive biases allow me to do.

I can say, however, that this approach has changed one major thing in my thinking about politics: I used to be a big believer in the idea of parties, and I am now beginning to question that assumption.

The advantage of having parties is that one can use them as shortcuts representing a number of things one would like to be pursued and implemented once a candidate is elected. The problem with that approach seems to be twofold:

i) It doesn’t actually work, on pragmatic grounds. Once elected, good politicians have to broker a number of compromises to get things done, and some of these compromises will be in tension with the very goals of their party’s electoral platform.

ii) Real life is just too darn complicated for the relatively simple (simplistic?) ideologies that usually identify parties to begin with. Big ideas matter, but politicians aren’t philosophers (unfortunately, Plato might have added). Politicians face a real world full of actual problems, they can count on limited resources, and they have a short period of time to make a difference in the here and now.

Both points strongly suggest that what we want in a politician isn’t strict allegiance to an inflexible ideology, but rather, you guessed it: practical wisdom (accompanied by temperance in her dealings, the courage to do what is right, and the sense of justice to figure out what that is in the first place).

So my study of Stoicism is slowly convincing me that the focus ought to be on individuals, not parties, and on their character more than the specifics of what they say they will do once elected. Don’t get me wrong, those specifics matter, but if a person is truly wise, courageous, temperate, and just, she will navigate her way to the best and the most that can be accomplished in her time in office. There are perils lurking in a move to de-emphasize the role of parties, to be sure, but one of the advantages is that we might be able to take a look at candidates individually, based on what they stand for and who they are, getting past a simplistically dichotomous (in the US at the least) labeling system that has not served us so well over the past several decades.

24 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? Presidential candidates

  1. I think the distinction between the eulogy virtues and the resume virtues is relevant here. Although character will be essential especially in crisis situations, experience in handling common national and international political problems will also be an important factor.

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  2. Indeed. Though other things being equal I’d prefer an inexperienced candidate with a good character to an experienced one with a deeply flawed character.

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  3. Massimo,

    This might fall under your “additional criteria”, but I wonder if you agree with Paul Krugman that “Policy proposals tell us a lot about character.” source

    On a related note regarding parties: I agree that party affiliation does not tell us much about an individual’s virtues or vices, but insofar as some policies are more just than others, and one party platform champions this or that policy, party affiliation does seem like a useful heuristic, particularly when lacking more specific information about the candidate.

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  4. “…Clinton even more so, having had repeatedly to face the built-in degree of discrimination and distrust (if not outright hostility) that is still reserved for women (and minorities) in this country.”

    I disagree. One hundred percent. Clinton is not a member of a minority. Your sentence actually reads that majorities (women) and minorities (presumably racially or ethnically derived) are distrusted. That does not convey a point. I have yet to perceive even a modicum of hostility toward women in politics based on their gender. Their individual personalities and ideologies, yes; but simply their gender? Need some citations for that.

    Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is a (probably atheist) Jew, who is over 70 years old. Oh, and did I mention he is a self-described socialist? Now, there (antisemitism, distrust of atheists, and ageism) are three areas of discrimination that are non-controversial. Are you sure about your application of your underlying rationale here?

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  5. 3dbloke,

    yes, an undetected (by me) autocorrect. Fixed it, thanks!

    Jeff,

    the word “progressive” is relative. Compared to anyone in the Republican camp, yup.

    jason,

    “I wonder if you agree with Paul Krugman that “Policy proposals tell us a lot about character.””

    Indeed, I think they do, which means that policies and character are not orthogonal to each other, though one cannot simply be derived from the other.

    “insofar as some policies are more just than others, and one party platform champions this or that policy, party affiliation does seem like a useful heuristic”

    Agreed. I didn’t mean to suggest that party affiliation is not suggestive, but only that it shouldn’t be the only criterion. I know a number of people who wouldn’t even think about looking seriously at a candidate from another party.

    lreadl,

    “I have yet to perceive even a modicum of hostility toward women in politics based on their gender. Their individual personalities and ideologies, yes; but simply their gender?”

    I will look up references, though anyone quipped with Google (who isn’t, these days) can easily do so himself. But I think you are seriously mistaken on this. For one thing, we still haven’t had a woman President, while a number of even less advanced countries have. Second, if you look at the number of elected politicians, especially leaders, worldwide, there is a proportional dearth of women. Yes, there are a number of reasons why this is the case, but don’t tell me that built-in misogyny isn’t one of them.

    “Bernie Sanders is a (probably atheist) Jew, who is over 70 years old. Oh, and did I mention he is a self-described socialist? Now, there (antisemitism, distrust of atheists, and ageism) are three areas of discrimination that are non-controversial. Are you sure about your application of your underlying rationale here?”

    First, I stated that I will actually vote for Sanders. Second, he may or may not be an atheist, but he hasn’t stated so. The other two (Jew and socialist) are, I think, less of a problem than being a woman or an ethnic minority, in my opinion. But of course that’s an empirical question which does not really affect my underlying argument, as far as I can tell.

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  6. Then, Massimo, perhaps Barry Goldwater would now be considered a progressive. By the way, she worked for his campaign when beginning her career in politics. I would submit that anyone who sits on the lap of Henry Kissinger is hardly a progressive unless the term is so relative as to be meaningless.

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  7. Hierocles: “Contempt of the existing laws, and preferring new to ancient laws, are things by no means beneficial to a city. Hence it is requisite that those should be restrained from giving their votes, and from precipitate innovation, which are pertinaciously disposed to act in this manner.”

    This is akin to saying that Athenian Direct Democracy was a “by no means beneficial to” Athens. Indeed, Athenian Direct Democracy was established first when Solon humanized the draconian laws of Draco. So Solon changed the laws and that was surely beneficial to most, as Draco boasted that he punished by death any infraction. Then there was a dictatorship or two, which were rolled back by revolution and, finally a foreign intervention, as, paradoxically, the Spartan army invaded, and re-established democracy.

    I could go over the history of the Roman political system, which was full of positive changes in the laws, until plutocracy started to take over in 146 BCE (when democratic Carthage was destroyed by the Roman Senate, precisely because Carthage, an ancient oligarchic plutocracy, had become democratic).

    What to do now?

    Press for positive changes in constitution(s), as Roma did for centuries.

    The present system is elective oligarchic in appearance, but, in truth, this is a veneer for exponentiating plutocracy. Could we go back to Athenian style Direct Democracy? Yes. That is what Switzerland has been doing (with the consequence of enormous, nearly fabulous economic success).

    So I have reached the conclusion that one should not participate in presidential elections (aside from helping Sanders, who, nevertheless is happy with the F35, one of the world’s most obvious corruption scandal). I helped massively, and personally know Obama, so I got scorched before.
    Direct Democracy is feasible, thanks to the Internet. We have to elect Direct Democracy. But we won’t get it, if we do not ask for it. And what we ask for won’t be noticed, as long as we play the old game we are asked to play, that of calling oligarchy “democracy”.

    It is not because the king is elected that he is not a king. The Franks, and their descendant regimes, officially elected kings and, or, emperors, for eight centuries (France) or 14 centuries (rest of the “Renovated” Roman Empire). Still, overall, this was all dictatorship…

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  8. Thanks, Massimo.

    Re: Sanders vs. Clinton, I’ve been deliberating on this question for weeks and have arrived at the provisional conclusion that Clinton is better prepared to take on the difficult role as president, despite her many flaws. Sanders may be more passionate about social justice than Clinton, but I don’t perceive him to be wiser or more self-disciplined, whereas she is all that and a policy wonk to boot.

    From a less virtue-ethics standpoint, Sanders strikes me as the more purely progressive candidate, but Clinton strikes me as the pragmatist who will be more effective in the position.

    I could be wrong about all of this, of course. Either one could turn out to be a disaster if elected, but so long as other commenters are sharing their prior opinions, you now have mine, as well.

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  9. One more that seems consistent with Gallup: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/29/americans-are-somewhat-more-open-to-the-idea-of-an-atheist-president/

    I still maintain that your perceived bias against women candidates is illusory. It existed, but years and years ago. The fact that the US has not elected a woman president yet is not particularly relevant to whether or not a misogynistic bias is what is preventing it from occurring now.

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  10. Oikeiôsis is indeed a paradigm-shifting perspective. However, we must necessarily ask whether the obligations of oikeiôsis provide a mandate to use the coercive power of the state to fulfill our personal, social obligations; regardless of the stripe of politician.

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  11. Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue, has this coincidental quip regarding Trump:

    “Virtues are dispositions which are not only admirable but which we find inspiring and take as ideals to aspire to, precisely because of the commitment to goodness which they embody. I take it that this is a point which can be appreciated at an everyday level. We encourage children in schools, by means of posters, lessons, and books, to admire and aspire to be like some people and not others, and these are people whose characters are admirable and inspiring because of their commitment to goodness, regardless of whether in worldly terms they succeeded or failed, or were useful and/or agreeable to themselves or to other people. That is why it would be grotesque to have posters in elementary schools depicting Donald Trump as a hero for the young, rather than people like King, Gandhi, and Mandela.” (p. 109)

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  12. Jeff,

    “her foreign policy is certainly in the tradition of Kissinger. I assume you have seen the picture of her sitting on his lap”

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree on your first point. As for the second one, I’m sure that lots of kids sat on Hitler’s lap, that didn’t make them nazis…

    Jason,

    I tend to agree with your analysis of Clinton vs Sanders.

    lreadl,

    “I still maintain that your perceived bias against women candidates is illusory. It existed, but years and years ago. The fact that the US has not elected a woman president yet is not particularly relevant”

    It’s not conclusive, but it is relevant, especially when you widen the scope to the number of elected women in Congress. Right now the numbers are 19% in the House and 20% in the Senate…

    K.L.,

    “we must necessarily ask whether the obligations of oikeiôsis provide a mandate to use the coercive power of the state to fulfill our personal, social obligations”

    That’s a complicated discussion. But the Stoics were generally in favor of state intervention and upholding the law, so I’m pretty sure they would have no problem with “coercion” to insure justice according to a virtuous view of society.

    Kele,

    “That is why it would be grotesque to have posters in elementary schools depicting Donald Trump as a hero for the young, rather than people like King, Gandhi, and Mandela”

    Indeed.

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  13. Oh, Massimo! I’m disappointed. She wasn’t a kid when she sat on his lap; she was a grown woman who was kowtowing to a mass murderer and war criminal whose policies she wanted to endorse. That’s what passes for a hard-headed diplomat in the USA. )-;

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  14. So many entertaining comments.
    Anyone who quotes Julia Annas is a Good Person!

    Is there any candidate who will

    1. halt military, economic and political interference in the affairs of foreign countries?
    2. respect the rights of foreign countries to find their own path to redemption?
    3. halt rampant spying?
    4. stop the murderous drone campaign?
    5. really respect religious freedom?
    6. renew US education to its former high standards?
    7. end corrupt corporate influence in Congress?
    8. seriously tackle income inequality?
    9. take seriously the plight of the suffering poor in the US?
    10. maintain equal access to the Internet?
    11. respect the rights of the Arab countries to resolve their own problems?
    12. stop provoking Russia and China?
    13. introduce strong gun controls?
    14. stop appointing judges as a means of enabling his political agenda?
    15. halt the consolidation of power in the hands of mega-corporations?

    No, I didn’t think so. God help us.
    What is needed is a leader with clear, strong moral principles with the stature to rally cross party support for a bold moral vision.

    What I see instead are relativistic politicians carefully calibrating vote catching issues with polling results while huddling in cosy corners with corporate sponsors. God help us, there are no good choices.

    But I don’t vote and my opinion does not count. Consider this a foreigner’s take on the ugly American.

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  15. jmyers8888,

    well, obviously I haven’t seen that picture. Now you prompted me to google it, and the only thing I could find was photos of Clinton shaking hands with Kissinger. While vaguely disturbing, it’s not like there are no precedents of politicians shaking hands with awful characters. And it still doesn’t make her guilty by association. And even less so I’m convinced that her policies as Secretary of State were anywhere near Kissinger’s ballpark. But of course I could be wrong on all those assessments.

    labnut,

    “Consider this a foreigner’s take on the ugly American.”

    Well, my problem is that I do vote, so I need to make a decision. And of course the issues you are referring to aren’t limited to the US. Just look at what’s happening in Turkey right now, for instance. And it’s not like the quality of character of Italian politicians is that good, of late…

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  16. Massimo,
    And of course the issues you are referring to aren’t limited to the US.

    Agreed, especially since I live in the blackest of pots. But we should expect far better from the US since
    1. the country is blessed with great advantages,
    2. it possesses great power,
    3. and they claim ‘American exceptionalism’.

    With great claims, great power and great advantages come great responsibilities, great potential and great expectations. We expect Americans to live up to their potential.

    This potential(to bring it back to Stoicism) is primarily the potential for justice. This means both internal justice and external justice. The most egregious American failing is in the realm of external justice.

    I will continue to watch with great interest and hope that a miracle takes place. I wish more people would bring your principled approach to their voting choices.

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  17. Trying to find an Official Stoic Answer to every question seems like a fool’s errand. Stoicism should be considered more of a general framework for living and choosing rather than a definitive and exhaustive set of prescriptions. Maybe the living philosophy of Stoicism was like that in antiquity, but only a few scraps of Stoic though survived until modern times. If we try to fit it to every controversial issue, we’ll just end up coming up with Stoic-sounding justifications for our existing views.

    But I really dislike this post because it might be the first case of a high-profile promoter of Stoicism openly mixing it up with personal political opinions. A certain unpleasant line has been crossed.

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  18. anomalurus,

    well, sorry to disappoint you. However, I am certainly not using Stoicism as a source of specific answers to endless questions, that would not be in its spirit, or in the spirit of virtue ethics. That said, I think it is perfectly reasonable to try to apply Stoic principles to general issues, such as political elections. Otherwise, the whole thing would be close to useless.

    You may disagree with the specifics of my analysis, in which case I welcome alternate opinions supported by arguments, but I honestly don’t think I have crossed any “unpleasant line.”

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