What Would a Stoic Do? On terrorism

Paris attacksLast Friday I was in Pittsburgh, PA, to deliver a talk on science and pseudoscience for the local annual “Sagan Fest,” named after the astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, one of my intellectual role models. It was an engaging, constructive moment of critical reflection, and even fun over drinks and dinners with the students and faculty of Carnegie Mellon University that organized the event.

Then, when I got back to my hotel room, I was greeted by a text message from my companion, which simply said “Did you see what happened in Paris?” I hadn’t, but I knew instantly that whatever it was, it wasn’t good news. I also knew that it had to do with a terrorist attack.

I loaded the front page of the New York Times on my browser, and I was greeted to the images and descriptions of events that we are all familiar with. At current count, the ISIS orchestrated attack has resulted in 129 dead and 352 hospitalized, many in critical condition. I’m sure the death toll will eventually be higher.

I have not read much in the way of commentaries and analyses as of yet. First, because I don’t believe they will tell me much that is going to be new or insightful about the event or their context — these things are becoming part of “normal” life, unfortunately. Second, because I wanted to think things over on my own, and see if my recently adopted Stoic perspective would be at all useful under this sort of circumstances.

Perhaps the most obvious difficulty for a Stoic when faced with horrors such as the Paris attacks (and let’s not forget the ones in Beirut, or Kenya), is the idea that people don’t do evil on purpose, but out of ignorance. Here is how Marcus famously puts it:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations, II.1)

Right, go tell the friends and relatives of the victims that they should not hate the perpetrators, or not be angry at what happened.

Of course, Stoicism is not alone in this. Both Christianity and Buddhism have similar sentiments, and so do a number of other religious and philosophical traditions. But maybe they are just all mistaken.

Then again, perhaps it is precisely the occurrence of events like the Paris attacks that can be used to seriously probe our most fundamental assumptions and test our most cherished beliefs. So let’s consider for a moment what it would mean, from a Stoic perspective, to try not to get angry or hateful, and to really entertain the thought that ISIS fighters do what they do out of ignorance. What would that mean in terms of our response to acts of terror and their perpetrators?

Shock, anger and even hate are natural human responses to tragedies like this one. We cannot avoid them, they originate from the depths of human psychology and nature. But shock is paralyzing, and anger and hate are negative, destructive emotions. If we simply yield to them, as Seneca remarked, they will lead us to act under the spell of a temporary insanity. What a Stoic should do, then, is to turn the initial destructive emotion into a constructive one, which will take the deployment of at the least three of the four cardinal virtues.

To begin with, we need to summon courage, specifically the moral courage to stand up and be counted among those who oppose all that ISIS stands for. I don’t mean just adding yet another hashtag to your social media stream, or temporarily changing your Facebook profile photo. I mean something a bit more substantial, like standing with the majority of Muslim in your country who themselves reject ISIS, or opposing politicians who are already using the attacks for cynical purposes, like blocking asylum for refugees of the conflicts in Syria and surrounding areas — apparently oblivious to the fact that those refugees are abandoning their homes and countries precisely because they don’t want to live under ISIS or other oppressive regimes.

Next, we should channel our anger and outrage into a renewed exercise of the virtue of justice, demanding of our elected representatives that they truly do whatever is in their power to help react in the proper way to the threat of Islamist terrorism, to keep in mind that the goal is to bring about a safe and flourishing human community, not to use external threats for political gain, or to push agendas that result in the demonization of minorities and immigrants and in the restriction at home of those very liberties that we are allegedly trying to protect from the assault of ISIS.

Which brings me to the most difficult of all virtues to practice and deploy: wisdom, particularly the practical wisdom of knowing what the best thing to do is under difficult and complex circumstances. This requires critical reflection as well as what I would call principled pragmatism — seeking what works in practice, even if not ideal, while at the same time keeping in mind the fundamental principles we cherish and wish to defend. What the exercise of wisdom certainly does not mean is what we we will surely see plenty of in the next days and weeks: demagoguery, fear mongering, and simplistic slogans that fit on a bumper sticker but do not advance serious discourse. We ought to resist all of this, and that is possible only if we work to overcome our natural anger at what happened and hatred of those who made it happen.

Finally, let me go back to this entirely counterintuitive, superficially even outrageous idea that people — even terrorists — don’t do what they do out of evil, but because of ignorance. Setting aside the philosophical point that to talk of “evil” as a metaphysical category is highly problematic in itself, I think this attitude — with practice, since it certainly doesn’t come spontaneously — will allow us to see more clearly what is going on and what to do about it.

If we simply label something or someone as evil we give ourselves an automatic pass for not thinking about complexities, root causes, and responsibilities. ISIS exists for a number of reasons, some of which have to do with still widespread perniciously regressive cultures of fundamentalism in the Middle East, but others that have to do with both recent and not so recent Western intervention in that area of the world, often for anything but altruistic reasons.

This does nothing to justify the Paris attacks, but it does a lot for us to understand why they happened and, ideally, what to do to prevent future ones. I am reminded of a controversial  editorial written for the Italian magazine L’Espresso by Umberto Eco in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. The title of the piece was “Understanding Bin Laden.” Eco’s point was precisely the one I’m making here: understanding is an altogether different thing from excusing. There is no condoning either 9/11 or Paris, nor an increasingly large number of similar episodes. But if we do not make a genuine attempt at understanding why so many people think that they are doing the right thing by massacring others in what they see as a necessary defense of their own lands and way of life then we will keep acting unthinkingly, giving in to a simplistic us-vs-them mentality, and simply perpetuate the cycle of violence. As Stoics, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and indeed as members of the man cosmopolis, we ought to have the moral courage and the wisdom to do better.

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Categories: What Would a Stoic Do?

37 replies

  1. If my i to add, i wonder according to your statistics, how many European Muslims are redy to condemn the Caliphate as an imperialistic aggressive idea, that if successful will bring end to human civilization. ( viz my comment below.)
    https://rodeneugen.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/islam-and-the-monotheism/

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  2. Dear Massimo:
    Trying to understand ideas without their genealogies is impossible. Trying to understand regional moods, without their genealogies, is also impossible.

    The history of morals, and the reality of morals, is dominated by the reality of regional, or religious moods.

    Ideas, moods, morals are complicated, because so is history. There is no royal road to either mathematics, nor history. (Nor physics or sociology.)

    When eager admirers of Nietzsche sat in front of him in a restaurant in Nice or Turin, they found he was not eager to talk to them. The philosopher’s preoccupations were too far removed for whom he viewed as children to condescend to address them.

    Italy, say in Mussolini’s sense, did not exist before Mussolini, indeed. The dictator spent enormous amounts of energy to “Italianize” parts of “Italy” where Italian was not even spoken (I have good friends from there).

    Until the bloody, self-entranced Corsican “noble” who became dictator of Europe cancelled it, the Roman empire was, nominally, ruling Europe. For more than a millennium. France was the one and only exception, as the Paris area declared the king of the Franks “emperor in its own kingdom”. Said kingdom was long tiny.

    This is why considering that nation-states did not exist in Europe is not a pertinent notion. Although all nominally part of the Roman empire, regions such as Bavaria, Savoy, Piedmont, Catalonia, Burgundy, Aquitania, Venice, Firenze, Genoa, Provence, Artois, Palatinate, Bohemia, Brittany, etc… were all rather independent entities submitted to the theoretical authority of either the (elected) Roman Emperor or the king-emperor of France.

    Hundreds of these states shared a common currency, the Thaler (“Tollar”, dollar).

    Those states fought very hard with each other. For example Savoy and Dauphine’, both quasi republics, both speaking some sort of “French” had an active war for centuries, with a sort of Chinese wall separating them across the Alps (still standing, but not advertised much)..

    So there were nation-states of sorts throughout Europe for centuries, and they created regional moods still in evidence today.

    To come back to the subject at hand, the mood created by the 80,000 words Qur’an has been extremely favorable to war. Thus Islam created the world’s largest empire in less than 80 years, by using enormous violence which baffled and surprised both Persians and Romans. The reason? Hundreds of verses in the Qur’an are calls to mayhem, if not outright murder, of most categories of people.

    As ISIS was saying, 200 million Shiites are “apostates”. Penalty according to Qur’an and Hadith? Death. Just staying stoic will not help. Prepare to die, or prepare to fight.

    Although military men have to know how to be stoic, they do not limit their emotional arsenal to that. No baboon ever could, and to ask less of man is to no little of that creature.

    Sorry for all the history, but, as you said, nobody has to read it.

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  3. Patrice,

    of course one cannot understand current events if one does not understand their genealogy, though one hardly has to go all the way back to the Pleistocene. But your continued lessons in history are both unnecessary (at the least for me, I’m well aware of all the factoids you mentioned), and indeed misleading, since you keep inferring incorrect notions from them.

    For instance, your insistence that just because words like “Italia” or “Europa” have been in use for millennia they actually referred to anything like the same entities that we label with those terms today. Not to mention that Italy was a country with a cultural identity before Mussolini took over, thank you very much.

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  4. Massimo, I am glad to see that you are speaking out against the horrors of ISIS and recognize the need to strenuously combat such evils. However, I feel that you undermine the most important element for a confident and concerted moral response, when you deny evil motivations:

    • “People don’t do evil on purpose, but out of ignorance.”

    • “If we simply label something or someone as evil we give ourselves an automatic pass for not thinking about complexities, root causes, and responsibilities.”

    Here are several problems with your analysis:

    1. You haven’t provided any argumentation to rule out evil motives.
    2. If ISIS is merely acting out of ignorance, then the prescription should merely be education.
    3. Punishment is not the appropriate way to address ignorance.
    4. To use punishment/warfare to address ignorance is unjust, unless it is purposeful ignorance.
    5. Instead, punishment is appropriate to address evil.
    6. It will be hard to motivate a concerted response against ISIS if their problems consist only of ignorance, poor cultural conditioning, or poverty.
    7. Such an analysis will ultimately give ISIS a relatively free-pass.

    While you state that our analysis of the causes of ISIS “does nothing to justify the Paris attacks,” it seems that this evil-less analysis will defuse the necessary moral outrage:

    • So let’s consider for a moment what it would mean, from a Stoic perspective, to try not to get angry or hateful, and to really entertain the thought that ISIS fighters do what they do out of ignorance.

    Sadly, this analysis will doom our efforts. However, I do agree that we need to genuinely understand ISIS:

    • “But if we do not make a genuine attempt at understanding why so many people think that they are doing the right thing by massacring others… [We] simply perpetuate the cycle of violence.”

    However, the West is in denial about the very thing that all of the Islamic terrorists claim to be their motivation – Islam itself. It is an unassailable fact of history that we live out what we believe.

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  5. Daniel,

    I think we are using words like “ignorance” and “evil” in somewhat different ways. I don’t mean to say that ISIS doesn’t know what they are doing, I mean that it does it out of a failure to know the chief good for humanity, which — according to Stoics — is the application of reason to peaceful and flourishing societal living.

    At any rate, on your specific points:

    “You haven’t provided any argumentation to rule out evil motives”

    I don’t believe in “evil” as a metaphysical category. If you have any good arguments to establish that ontological claim I’d be happy to entertain it.

    “If ISIS is merely acting out of ignorance, then the prescription should merely be education.”

    No, some people are beyond education passed a very early stage of their life, so this doesn’t follow.

    “Punishment is not the appropriate way to address ignorance”

    That’s right, punishment is *never* appropriate in my view. That doesn’t mean one cannot do anything to stop bad things from happening, up to and including the use of violence, when absolutely necessary, which looks like is indeed the case with ISIS.

    “To use punishment/warfare to address ignorance is unjust, unless it is purposeful ignorance”

    It should be clear from my two answers above why this is not the case, from a Stoic perspective.

    “Instead, punishment is appropriate to address evil”

    Since evil doesn’t exist, metaphysically, punishment is never appropriate.

    “It will be hard to motivate a concerted response against ISIS if their problems consist only of ignorance, poor cultural conditioning, or poverty”

    Not at all. The immediate response will very likely have to include violence to stop them and revert their gains. But the long term problems that made ISIS possible to begin with will simply not go away unless we do address ignorance, cultural conditioning and poverty.

    “Such an analysis will ultimately give ISIS a relatively free-pass”

    It should be clear from my answers above that this is not the case.

    “the West is in denial about the very thing that all of the Islamic terrorists claim to be their motivation – Islam itself”

    You could say the same thing of Judaism itself, and of Christianity itself. And yet, by and large, those two religions have gotten over their worst phase. There is nothing intrinsically bad about Islam, and indeed there have been periods of history when Islam was far less violent and more tolerant than Christianity. So we just need to figure out how to help the world’s Muslim community get out of their current rut. To accuse them all of being evil is, obviously, a non-starter.

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  6. Massimo, For evidence of objective moral absolutes, you might start by reading that essay:

    http://mannsword.blogspot.com/2009/08/moral-absolutes.html

    You wrote: “I don’t mean to say that ISIS doesn’t know what they are doing, I mean that it does it out of a failure to know the chief good for humanity, which — according to Stoics — is the application of reason to peaceful and flourishing societal living.”

    You appeal to the concept of “peaceful and flourishing societal living.” However, if peace and human flourishing have no objective truth value, you are wasting your time with ISIS. They claim to have a truth that transcends your concern for a peaceful society. Admittedly, they too believe in a peaceful society, but one that will result when the entire world is under Islam. Your pragmatic reasoning about peace will have absolutely NO effect upon those who believe that their truth comes from above.

    Instead, we have to demonstrate that their truth does NOT come from above. Without this, you will have no leverage in this culture war.

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  7. Daniel,

    “For evidence of objective moral absolutes, you might start by reading that essay”

    As you know, I don’t believe morality is “out there.” It is a human construct, and as such there are no absolutes to be had, sorry.

    “if peace and human flourishing have no objective truth value, you are wasting your time with ISIS”

    Forgive me but that’s a non sequitur. Even if they did have objective value there would be people who would reject them. The theory of evolution is, as far as we can tell, true, yet millions of people reject it. Contrariwise, plenty of non-objective conclusions are accepted by many people, for instance that to live a life of comfort is “better” than to live one of misery.

    Besides, Stoicism does hold that there are objective truths about the human condition, but these truths are derived from a study of human nature and the nature of the cosmos (Stoic “Physics”), not from any belief in the transcendental.

    “Your pragmatic reasoning about peace will have absolutely NO effect upon those who believe that their truth comes from above”

    Indeed, which is why ISIS needs to be defeated by force. But that would be futile if we also do not address the underlying causes of ISIS and like movements, which have to do with marginalization, poverty and ignorance.

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