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. synred


    I do get it. But some of the catch phrases of Stoicism can be used merely to calm and the action forgotten. It is, of course, good not to go off half-cocked and end up miss-firing, but it’s important not to just sit about blogging in an “I can do nothing stupor” too.

    Having said that I can’t think of anything I can do … I’m not currently up to even ineffective demonstrating like we did at Nixon’s second coming … we did get rid of Nixon, but I don’t imagine our demonstrations had much to do with it.

    The people who voted Trump in may well realize he bamboozled ’em relatively quickly, but a lot of damage will be done in the meanwhile. We need the dem’s to show some backbone and hold the line, but they don’t have a good track record on this, see, e.g., Patriot Act, Bush Tax Cuts, Clarence Thomas (Thanks to ‘beyond a reasonable doubt” Biden), A near miss on chained-cpi (“let them eat cat food”) for Social Security. etc.,

    And those aren’t even the serious threats…


  2. labnut

    I do get it

    Yes, I see that and I was wrong to make that blanket claim. As to the rest, any philosophy can be misused but we lay the misuse at the door of the individual and not the philosophy. Unless of course there is some kind of systemic bias in the philosophy that makes misuse more likely. As Massimo has pointed out, the actions of past notables argues against this conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. maylynno

    Beautiful words and I think that people must acknowledge that democracy is a big game, and it can make the opponent win. So if we love democracy, we have to accept it as it is, with its good and bad results!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Greg Sadler

    Paul – “When one side is driven by appeal to racism and xenophobia, as in the cases of Trump and in te UK Brexit and argably the last two general elections, they will lie to pollsters”.

    True. But definitely not the only reasons a person planning on voting Trump might lie to pollsters.

    I also know quite a few people who voted for Trump for reasons other than racism or xenophobia, but who did so on the downlow, either because they didn’t want to run into trouble in their professional life (e.g. in a workplace where nearly everyone is talking openly about how Clinton was the only good choice, and openly castigating Trump supporters), or because they’d run into some serious conflict in their personal life (and this goes particularly for minority voters who voted Trump).

    I got to hear about this phenomenon from those friends and colleagues precisely because I didn’t back or vote for either major party candidate, and because they knew I’d keep their identities private.

    I suspect there were a whole range of reasons people would lie to pollsters – both in the polls leading up to the election and in the exit polls afterwards.


  5. Paul Braterman

    Agreed. The sky is not falling. It is getting more full of CO2, and climate change will cause more damage than woudl otherwise be the case. And if he delivers on his half-primises to get rid of Roe v Wade, more women will die as a result of illegal abortions. But if I understand soicism at all, it advises us to preserve our eudaemonia, the better to deal wtih all of this to the extent that we can.

    As a matter of prudence, we must also consider that the worst may come to the worst, and should be building bridges with the many moderate Repubicans who might help us resist calls for emergency powers

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Marco Barbieri

    It is kind of a repetition from what labnut wrote above, but it needs to be underlined. We should really, in everyday life, in our intellectual and moral thinking, accept the fact that reality is complex and that every kind of polar vision is, at the very least, an oversimplification.
    When I woke up and logged in facebook the morning of the announcement of Trump’s win (well, it was morning in Italy. After a decent number of years of existence, I can’t quite understand time zones yet, what’s wrong with me?), my wall was overwhelmed by posts written by my friends about how terrible the news were, how wrong America was and how disastrous the results were. Plus, to be honest, some irony such as “Well now they can’t criticize us for choosing Berlusconi anymore”.
    I felt really disappointed by those posts. Most of them were written by people who had not followed American elections at all, but clearly 90% of magazines and newspapers’ titles described Trump as a horrible human being and Hillary Clinton as a a saint, so without having any ideas of what Tramp and Clinton said and proposed during those months they clearly knew it was a disaster.

    Reality is another thing. Reality is that both candidates were deeply flawed, that both their historied showed multiple weak points. Reality is that nobody can be sure that Donald Trump will be a horrible president. Reality is that nobody can be sure that Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice.

    To affirm in authoritative and definiteve terms that the dozens and dozens of millions of voters who chose Trump acted in a stupid, non-sense and irrational way is an act of presumption. Nobody holds a crystal ball to see the future. I think that a wise, and maybe somehow Stoic attitude would be to remain skeptical of Donald Trump (unless you are a supporter of him) and when he becomes president to judge in a critical but open way his deeds and words. In case he does live up to the his bad expectations, then engage in political activity in opposition, always remembering that what we can do is limited in space and time, but meaningful for our lives.


  7. synred

    >meaningful for our lives

    Yeah, this it the part I don’t like. Making our lives ‘meaningful’ is not te point. A rational response that directs ‘anger’ in a rational course is more to the point. This is the way I don’t like to see Stoicism used and I do think it is a miss-use.


  8. labnut

    If you’re not alarmed by the Donald, your alarm threshold needs adjusting. Reagan and the bushies were still ‘democrats’. Donald is not.

    I have lived through real problems and know what they look like. On the other hand what I see in your case looks a bit like the alarmist fantasies of sore losers. Democracy creates losers and we all get a turn to lose. When that happens we accept it as the price of having a democratic system, knowing that in the longer run it tends to be self-balancing and self-correcting. We all benefit greatly from a democracy, even when our favoured party loses and that imposes on us the duty support the system, giving it every chance to succeed. The last thing we need is the inflammatory rhetoric of sore losers that seems designed to create the conditions for an insurgency. It is downright irresponsible. Once you unleash the dogs of war you become consumed by the dogs of war(I am speaking figuratively).

    Conservatives will have their say. They will get their opportunity to shape society, just as liberals did. And then liberals will once again get their opportunity to reshape society in their image. And so it goes on. It is a vast balancing act that finds an effective balance between the needs of the liberal and conservative segments of society. And that is how it should be. A constant re-balancing so that the needs of liberals and conservatives are reconciled in the only way that we know how.

    What we don’t need is one side thinking that they are the sole possessors of the truth and that they therefore have the right to permanently impose their version of of the truth on society, subjugating the other side to their will. That kind of arrogance is the most real danger to democracy because it seeks to preclude the right of a large segment of society to have their needs considered. That soon becomes a dictatorship and what we have seen this week is a backlash against what they fear is the dictatorship of liberalism.


  9. Marco Barbieri


    I think we have different but equally respectable points of view. To me, making my life meaningful is exactly the point. This is the struggle I have to face everyday: to act in a valuable way (said in other terms: to act virtuously). I have abandoned my adolescential dreams of glory and being helpful to all mankind, but I still think that it is credible to affirm that everyone of us can influence in a deep and hopefully good way many other human beings: relatives, friends, collegues. Teachers, as I hope to become one of them, do have a decisive influence on students and their life. This is, in my opinion, a way to give life a meaning.

    Stoicism asks you to focus and work on yourself, first. One actually has to be – in a sense – selfish, because only when you are virtuous (again, multiple interpretations are possible for this word) you can offer your valuable self to the Other.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Stewart Slater

    As a Brexit-supporting Brit, I do not wish to inflame this situation, given the amount of pain on display which rather reminds me of the reaction of most of my friends back in June. Before anyone jumps to conclusions about my motives, let me say that I am an Oxford-educated libertarian who has lived all over the world which (I hope) absolves me of charges of stupidity and racism. Brexit was the first time in my 41 years that I’ve voted for the winner in an election, so I have a lot of experience in dealing with losing and another psychological trick for dealing with it is a form of the “View from Above” – how long with this event (and its effects) last. Marcus Aurelius seems to me the Stoic most focused on the transitory nature of life and human events and is probably a good companion in these times – “All these things will change almost as you look at them…”
    The other point I’d like to make though is that Stoicism makes its claims based on what it believes are facts about the world and those facts are open to change. Much of what I believe to be the “modern Stoicism” project is the idea that our understanding of the world is different to that of the Stoics, but one can still salvage much of their doctrine. If, however, as we learn more, that is no longer tenable, then we will have to junk Stoicism in the light of modern science (although I hope, and expect, that we won’t get to that point). Surely, therefore, those on the losing side should ask themselves whether the election result invalidates their political viewpoint. Does the election show that the claims made by “Hilaryism” are wrong in the sense that they do not actually have the expected effects in the real world? Rather than being a ignorant howl of rage, is the result more along the lines of “You said this would happen if you were in charge, it hasn’t, so you’re wrong”. In that case, surely, “following nature” would entail abandoning “Hilaryism” and searching for a better theory (which, to be clear, I don’t think is Trumpism).
    In any case, humility is always a good thing (for both sides). We are all just flawed human beings striving for Virtue.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. labnut

    but it’s important not to just sit about blogging in an “I can do nothing stupor” too.

    You repeatedly say something along these lines so obviously you have a strong sense that Stoicism encourages passivity. You are not alone in this. It is a fairly widespread impression. I may later comment on the particular circumstances in Roman history that gave rise to this impression. But it is a false impression and I will explain this by appealing to the chief virtues valued by Stoics.

    Massimo referenced the article by Matthew Sharpe – Stoic Virtue Ethics. The article is well worth reading. The article in Table 2.1 gives a nice overview of the virtues as understood by Stoics.

    He lists the virtues under the following headings:
    1. Proper action (practical wisdom)
    Good judgement, how to act to advantage, good practical overview, quick moral sense, find the appropriate action in the moment, shrewdness, resourcefulness.

    Impulses (temperance)
    Temperance, good ordering of when things should be done, propriety, sense of honour, self control
    Endurance (courage)
    Perseverance, confidence, magnanimity, hardiness, industry.
    Distribution (justice)
    Kindness, piety, sociability, companionableness. This has all to do with the quality of our social relationships.

    To paraphrase, these virtues, in total, can be said to mean, act wisely, having brought our impulses under control, with perseverance and hardiness, in a way that is just to our fellows.

    There is nothing about passivity in this. On the contrary, it is an action orientated philosophy that subjects action to the discipline of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice.

    Quite frankly, I think this is a most admirable guideline to conduct and I am flummoxed by your opposition. It really makes no sense to me.

    I do think there are two grounds for criticising Stoicism. First, that it does not advocate the ‘glowing spirit’, so eloquently described by Carlin Barton, in her book, <>Roman Honour. That might make for a good discussion on another occasion. Second, it subordinates love to justice. But then I might be expected to make that criticism 🙂


  12. Massimo Post author


    Making our lives meaningful is very much the point. Indeed, I can’t see what other point there could possibly be. Part of that meaning is the idea that one works constructively for a better society, which was definitely a Stoic value.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. labnut

    By the way, Synred, I love your questioning attitude. It forces us to think more deeply and clarify our thinking. Keep it up.


  14. labnut

    Making our lives meaningful is very much the point. Indeed, I can’t see what other point there could possibly be.
    like Synred, I have been troubled by this very point. If you look closely you can discern some source of meaning, but it is not centre stage in normal discussions of Stoicism. I would understand the Stoic conception of meaning as Stoic cosmopolitanism, that is expanding our circle of compassion to include all people. One might today call it Singerism 🙂 It is not without its critics.

    I would love it if you could expand on the subject of meaning in Stoicism.


  15. Massimo Post author


    For the Stoics the meaning of life is to practice virtue with the aim of applying reason to improve social living. I can’t imagine anything better than that, frankly.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. synred

    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.


  17. labnut

    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.


  18. labnut

    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)

    Liked by 1 person

  19. labnut

    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.


  20. synred

    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’.


  21. Massimo Post author


    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:

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. synred


    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.’


  23. J B Bell

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. labnut

    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 🙂


  25. labnut

    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?

    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

    Liked by 1 person

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