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. I’ ve never understood what people mean by ‘meaning of life.’

    From the non-theist perspective the only value of life is the value we place on it. We are pretty much the only creatures that do that.

    I suspect David Duke finds his life ‘meaningful’ even though I would give him negative ‘value’.. As I vaguely recall some existentialist (Sartre?) seem to advocate taking up a ’cause’ to make your life ‘meaningful’ and it does seem the people are ‘happiest’ when engaged in something beyond themselves, their ‘self-realization.’

    I just don’t know.

    https://smile.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl-ebook/dp/B009U9S6FI/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1478975095&sr=8-1

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  2. Massimo,
    yes. To understand the meaning of life one has to look at life, as you did. Synred, with his Monty Python Song of the Galaxy, looked instead at the galaxy. That is the wrong place to find meaning for our life.

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  3. I love Viktor Frankl’s book. He makes it quite clear that we find meaning in purpose. If you have clear purpose in your life that you think valuable then you have meaning in your life.

    I parse meaning of life as:

    purpose …. (Massimo: improve social living)
    through the means of … (Massimo: through reason and virtuous living)
    because … (Massimo: it is the highest good)

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  4. Synred,
    another way to look at it is this: meaning in life means that we have a set of beliefs about our lives that justify our lives, making them important and worthwhile. In some way we feel we have made a difference and that we are, in some way, important. More than that, this set of beliefs imbues our lives with a sense of innate value. They matter.

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  5. Synred, with his Monty Python Song of the Galaxy, looked instead at the galaxy. That is the wrong place to find meaning for our life.

    I think you miss the point of python song which is pretty much the opposite of what you’re saying it is. I do not look to the Galaxy or ‘meaning’.

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  6. Synred,

    Yes, I’m sure David Duke thinks his life is meaningful. That, according to the Stoics, is because he suffers from amathia (see my essay on that concept here: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/one-crucial-word/

    Stoicism is definitely prescriptive, one doesn’t just to get whatever one wants as a meanigful existence. You are right, meaning is indeed constructed and chosen, but for the Stoics some choices are better than others, and some are entirely unacceptable.

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  7. amathia

    I would tend to ascribe something more than amathia to David Duke. This might apply to followers and the apparatchiks (like Eichmann), but the leadership is guilty of more than that.

    I don’t know about Trump himself. He appears to ‘willfully ignorant.’

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  8. Good post, Massimo, and helpful to my frayed nerves, even being up in Canada and slightly apart from the fallout.

    I hope you’ll consider another positive act, which I think could be helpful, especially in your position as a university instructor. As you may know, follow-on violence is definitely happening (I’ve heard of a few particularly nasty gay-bashings that mention Trump by name), and Trump fails to repudiate it still, remarkably. Several professors and others in positions of power have taken this time to re-iterate support for those most adversely affected by the bigotry that has gotten so much oxygen during this campaign. A friend of mine has simply put a note on her office door letting know she is there for gay, Muslim, Middle Eastern-origin, etc. students. In other words, letting them know she has their back.

    It seems a small thing but I think it’s meaningful in a situation where many are feeling justifiably afraid for their safety and futures.

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  9. Oh gosh, I quickly browsed through Plato’s Footnotes, together with many other articles. There was so much collective hysteria on display and so little understanding. Shudder. Not for me.

    Some of my most important formative experiences were on the rugby playing field. It is a hard, punishing game of physical aggression where you give no quarter and ask no quarter. And I loved it. I learnt that you both win and you lose. Suck it up when you lose and train harder. When you win, shake the loser’s hand and wish him better luck next time. There are rules. They are there for a good reason so stick by them. You are part of a team so put the team’s needs first. When you let down the team, eat humble crow. When you score the try, give credit to the others who passed the ball to you and gave up their own chance for glory. You walk off the playing field, battered, bruised, aching all over and exhausted. Your injuries might sideline you for a couple of weeks.

    But was it worth it? Absolutely. Every moment of that glorious mayhem would later be celebrated as those moments were recalled. Every loss became a triumph.

    We learned to play the game of life with guts and with spirit. We learned to absorb startling amounts of punishment. We learned to be resilient and hardy. We learned that there was always a next time if we trained harder and more intelligently. We learned that it was OK to lose and we learned to be generous in victory. The whingers and the whiners were left behind, sidelined on the margins of life and doomed to irrelevance. They deserve our sympathy. They have not learnt to play the game of life. Perhaps they should have been taught to play rugby🙂

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  10. As I said, in my earlier comments, understanding is an important goal for a Stoic, since understanding is essential for wisdom, the first Stoic virtue.

    The commentary has focused on Trump but I think this largely misses the point. Why? Because Trump was merely evidence of a much deeper and more widespread trend that he was canny enough to exploit. From Frank Bruni’s article in the NY Times.

    Since the start of Obama’s presidency until now the Democrats have registered the following losses:

    Senate -11 seats
    House -60 seats
    Governorships -14 positions
    State legislatures -900 seats

    This is a staggering turnabout and it has little to do with Trump. It was a gift to Trump which he seized. This is not about one person. It is about a large part of the population re-asserting its needs and values. Why did this happen? Was it:

    — A damning repudiation of Obama and a hollow promise ‘Change we can believe in’?
    —. A rejection of ‘nasty’ liberalism?
    — A rejection of ‘prescriptive’ liberalism?
    — An expression of inherent conservatism in the US?
    — A rejection of the prevailing economic order?
    — A rejection of the Establishment?
    — A rejection of the socio-cultural changes taking place in the US?
    — A protest against the speed of cultural changes?
    and…and..and

    Honest answers are needed, not excuse making.

    Massimo said
    this post isn’t about Trump … It is about how both winners and losers in those contexts should cope with the outcome

    My reply:
    — The whingeing, whining and excuse making has to stop. Instead that energy should be turned into an honest stocktaking that depends on real understanding.
    — Support the democratic process instead of trying to sabotage it. The results are the legitimate expression of the needs/expectations/values of a large proportion of the electorate. Respect it.
    — Respond intelligently without rancour.
    — Engage constructively, not obstructively. Democracy depends on this.
    — Do not plot your retribution for the time when the pendulum swings your way, as it surely will.
    — Re-claim the decency and tolerance of old-style liberalism and redeem the image of the Democrats.

    His presidency will end with Democrats in possession of 11 fewer Senate seats (depending on how you count), more than 60 fewer House seats, at least 14 fewer governorships and more than 900 fewer seats in state legislatures than when it began. That’s a staggering toll.

    While the 2016 race for governor in North Carolina remains undecided, the settled contests guarantee the G.O.P. the governor’s office in 33 states: its most bountiful harvest since 1922.

    —Frank Bruni

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  11. 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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