The 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 oikeiôsis. That 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.