Stoicism after the elections

The US Presidential elections are over, and Donal J. Trump is the unlikely winner. Moreover, the Republican party now has control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving it pretty much absolute power to pursue its agendas. Add to this the recent “Brexit” vote in the UK, and this hasn’t exactly been a good political season for socially progressive cosmopolitans such as myself. So be it, reality is what it is, and there is no sense in wishing it away.

I don’t like to write about politics or religion on this blog, because I find Stoicism to be an attractive philosophy in part for the reason that it has the potential to unify conservatives and progressives, religious people and atheists, in the name of living a better and more virtuous life. Even so, it struck me as interesting that very conservative commentator Glenn Beck said on NBC News during election night, that if this is what conservatism looks like, he doesn’t want any part in it. Indeed, I think that a very good case can be made that Trump and the most extreme Republicans suffer from amathia, a profound lack of wisdom that doomed the great Athenian and politician (and Socrates’ student, friend, and lover) Alcibiades.

But no worries, this post isn’t about Trump, or Clinton, or Brexit, or the European Community. It is about how both winners and losers in those contexts should cope with the outcome, from a Stoic perspective.

Let’s start with the losers, that is, with myself. Ahead of the election the polls had consistently predicted a Clinton victory, in some cases even a landslide. And that includes the (probably soon to be former) wizard of modern polling, Bayesian statistician Nate Silver of the New York Times. So much for scientific polling, then.

Even though those polls actually made me optimistic going into election night, I fully prepared myself mentally for the worst possible result. From my perspective, there could be four broad classes of outcomes, in decreasing order of agreement with my political views: i) a Clinton victory (preferably a landslide) and the Democrats regaining control of the Senate; ii) a Clinton victory but with the Republicans holding on to the Senate; iii) a Clinton loss, balanced somewhat by a Republican loss of the Senate; and iv) what actually happened, a Clinton loss and the holding of Republicans to the Senate. (They were going to hold to the House of Representatives anyway.)

So for several days before the election I picked the worst possible scenario and used it for my negative visualization exercises. That helped me calm down and prepare mentally for what indeed eventually took place. I was watching the returns with several friends, and while their mood visibly soured with the knowledge that Trump was winning many of the crucial swing states, I felt something akin to apatheia throughout the evening, went back home, and promptly fell asleep. (And the following day I got up to get to my gym and engage in some Stoic kickboxing.)

Of course, throughout election day I kept going back to Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: “Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”

What was in my power? To get my ass off the chair, walk to the polling place and vote. Which I did. What else? To engage in Stoic meditation to prepare myself to whatever might happen. Which I did. To be present with my friends during the crucial hours of vote counting. Which I did.

What was not in my power? To pick the outcome of the election. To convince Trump supporters (especially on social media) that they were about to make an unwise choice. So I abstained from wishful thinking and useless political discussions.

How am I going to cope with the next four years (possibly two, if the Democrats will manage to win back one of the houses of Congress during the midterm elections)? Again, by making use of the dichotomy of control.

I can: continue to live the most virtuous life I am capable of, hopefully offering it as an example and encouragement to others; give money and time to progressive politicians and causes that I can support in good conscience and who may make a difference the next time around; be of support to my family and friends, encouraging them to work for better times ahead. This isn’t the apocalypse, after all, it is just a set back.

I cannot: make Trump disappear (besides, if he did, his vice president is arguably a worse character than he is); change the hearts and minds of so many angry Americans who voted in good conscience for change, any change (just like the Brits that triggered Brexit).

So that’s my plan. And now a few words of advice to Trump supporters, Republicans of all stripes, and Brexit voters. What Fortuna gives, Fortuna takes. Don’t think that somehow you have permanently changed the world. Just like the rest of us, your impact on large-scale events is minimal, and your gains have historically not lasted. Take advantage of the current moment, push forward the political and social agenda that I do think you truly believe in, but remember the words of Seneca, who knew a thing or two about politics and strong men:

“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (Letters to Lucilius, IV. On the Terrors of Death, 7)

62 thoughts on “Stoicism after the elections

  1. dsferrara

    I think one of the most important lessons we can take from ancient philosophy is that we cannot judge people based on their political views. Character is another matter.

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