Stoicism and politics: between the Scylla of the New Left and the Charybdis of the alt-right

When I came to the United States from Italy, back in 1990, I was warned that Americans don’t like to talk about politics, religion, or sex. To which I obviously replied: what on earth do you talk about, then?? Since this post is about one of those taboo topics, it’s going to be a really tricky one, so please bear with me until the end, then go for a walk, take a few deep breadths, and only then, if you still feel like it, come back and comment on it.

To tackle politics, especially within the context of a blog devoted to the fundamentally non-partisan (as I see it, more below) practice of Stoicism is a very delicate matter. But if one’s philosophy of life has nothing to say about the polis and how to run it, then it has a gigantic lacuna that should make you question the very use of it. Besides, the Stoics were very clearly pro-socially oriented: the concept of oikieios is about bringing other people closer to your sphere of concern; the idea of cosmopolitanism, which they developed, is that we are all in the same boat together, and we therefore need to agree on how to steer it; the discipline of action is about how to interact socially in a constructive way; and the virtue of justice concerns how to ethically treat others. All of this has to do with politics, defined in the Aristotelian fashion: the Greek politika means “affairs of the cities,” which the Romans later expanded to the res publica, “the public thing.”

I have argued in the past that Stoicism is compatible, at least to some extent, with a broad range of metaphysical views, and therefore religions. (Though not all of them, and not everyone agrees.) Similarly, it seems to me that Stoicism is compatible with a similarly broad range of political positions and social policies. Just looking at the ancient Stoics, Cato the Younger and Hierocles were pretty “conservative” by modern standards, while Zeno and Musonius Rufus were fairly “liberal” (yes, I’m aware that those labels are both anachronistic and imprecise, but I think you know what I’m getting at). And I don’t see why one couldn’t be a mainstream libertarian and a Stoic (indeed, an interesting little know fact is that the libertarian Cato Institute is named after Cato the Younger, though by way of a circuitous route).

At a personal level, one of the main reasons I’m into Stoicism is because I regard it as a big tent. I’m a progressive liberal atheist myself, but I don’t wish to create a club that excludes virtuous Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists and so forth, or conservatives, centrists, libertarians, anarchists, etc. either.

All of the above said, I do think that there are some political ideologies that are not compatible with Stoicism, or at least are difficult to reconcile with it. I can’t imagine a Nazi or fascist Stoic, for instance, and I’ve argued that Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” ain’t Stoic either. Here I will suggest that two additional contemporary political positions in are at odds with Stoic principles: some versions of the New Left that focus almost exclusively on identity politics (which I associate in the title with the Scylla monster faced by the Stoic role model Odysseus), and the so-called alt-right and its close kin, the men’s rights movement (which I link above to the other monster faced by Odysseus, Charybdis — bonus points if you can figure out why this particular coupling, rather than the reverse, see here for a clue).

Let me take on Charybdis first, since it ought to be easier. The alt-right is, among other things, a white supremacist and anti-immigration movement, while the men’s rights stuff is inherently sexist. If you disagree with either of these characterizations, I can’t help you, they seem to me both crystal clear and undeniable, and I will not argue for them, I will simply treat them as given.

What’s the problem? Beginning with the alt-right, it goes against the Stoic ideals of cosmopolitanism and of the equality of all humans, as in the following, for instance:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 9.1)

“Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (Seneca, Letter XLVII. On Master and Slave, 10)

The men’s rights stuff, instead, implicitly or explicitly denies the equality of men and women (and other genders, one should obviously add), which is instead affirmed by plenty of Stoic sources:

“Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men — the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures 3.1)

“I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honorable and generous action.” (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia XVI)

The bit that worries me in particular, as far as the Fifth Stoa (as I shall call modern Stoicism from now on) is concerned is that I have seen increasing attempts by people who are into alt-right and/or men’s rights to appropriate Stoicism for their own purposes. Here is a nice article by Jules Evans that provides a good analysis of the problem.

Jules says: “Some of them are drawn to classical virtue ethics like Stoicism because it offers a way to feel strong in a chaotic world. Clearly, they misinterpret ancient philosophy. … Some alt-righters in the manosphere are drawn to ideas from classical philosophy and modern therapy, which help people take control of their emotions.”

Julian believes, perhaps optimistically, that one can actually use alt-right’ and men’s rights’ interest in virtue ethics as a wedge and a teaching tool, explaining to these people that Stoicism didn’t just talk about courage (and even then, it was moral courage, not just the physical variety), but also about justice, for instance. He aptly quotes Epictetus on this: “A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path — he does not mock and jeer at him and then take himself off. You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock, but rather feel your own incapacity” (Discourses II, 12.3-4).

I think that is the proper Stoic attitude, but Jules’ piece also validates both my analysis of and my worry about these movements.

So much for Charybdis. Let’s turn now to Scylla. There has been much talk about rampant “political correctness” on university campuses, the creation of “safe zones,” the “deplatforming” of invited speakers, and the “cultural appropriation” of this or that ethnic food, dress, or whatever. Here is what pointed critic Jonathan Haidt has to say about it, and here is my more moderate (though substantially similar) take. (And if you want yet another one, here is what seven professors teaching in relevant fields in the humanities think about trigger warnings in particular.)

Concerning the more limited issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces, I must say that as a Stoic I do not seek any such thing. (Then again, I’m obviously “privileged,” in the relevant lingo.) I abstain from judging others about it, but Epictetus is pretty clear on what the Stoic response is to insults:

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Easier said than done, you say. Right, but that’s the point. Stoic practice (or the serious practice of any philosophy of life or religion) is demanding. But it is rewarding. Moreover, it is not at all clear to me why practicing endurance is somehow equivalent to engaging in a quietist philosophy, as some of our critics have misguidedly maintained.

The broader issue of identity politics is far more complex. The idea has a long and convoluted history, and it is actively debated in moral and political philosophy. My take on it is that there is nothing wrong with identity politics if it is understood as a temporary focus on groups (women, blacks, gays, transgender, and so forth) who have been historically, and currently still are, discriminated against. If there is a problem, one concentrates one’s resources and attention on the problem, not on whatever else may be going well, or at least not as badly.

But if identity politics is used as a way to shield anyone, belonging to any group, from reasoned criticism, then that’s when I get off the boat. Moreover, my goal as a Stoic is that of achieving a truly cosmopolitan society, one that is color-, gender-, etc. blind. A society where we are truly each other’s brothers and sisters, regardless of our cultural and/or biological identity.

Let me be clear about what I mean here. By color blind I do NOT mean a society where everyone conforms to the norm and cultural differences are squashed. Cultural differences are the lifeblood of human creativity, they need to be nurtured and protected, not eliminated or neutered. I DO mean, however, a society where nobody has special privileges or protections, because everyone has the same rights and opportunities. The first model (the one I reject) may be summarized by the American phrase “melting pot,” which conjures up the image of a place where diverse people all get assimilated into the same featureless soup. A Borg version of the American dream, if you will. The second model (the one I support) is best thought of — to stay with food analogies — as a tossed salad. What makes a great tossed salad is precisely the fact that there are varied and contrasting ingredients, each retaining its own identity, and yet all contributing to the delicious flavor of the full ensemble.

Of course, none of the above ought to be interpreted as “the” Stoic take on these issues. There is no such thing. Stoicism is an evolving philosophy, and just as Posidonius disagreed with Chrysippus, I expect plenty of prokoptontes of the Fifth Stoa to disagree with me on any or all of what I wrote here (or elsewhere, for that matter). But so long as this disagreement is civil and constructive, we will all be better off for it:

“Associate with those who will make a better person of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for people learn while they teach.” (Seneca, Letter VII. On Crowds, 8)

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Categories: Modern Stoicism, Social living

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41 replies

  1. Tito,

    Far from me to defend Yiannopolous, who by all accounts is a crappy human being. But I find several problems with that example.

    First off, it is legitimate, within our system of laws, to disagree with the concept of sanctuary cities. He’s not doing anything criminal.

    Second, it’s hard to believe that he needs a university appearance to put up people’s phone numbers. He can do that anytime via social networks, or call the authorities himself.

    Third, denouncing an illegal immigrant may be immoral (depending on circumstances), but it seems like the proper thing to do there is to focus on actions to change the law, not to play into the hands of people like Yiannopolous, simply giving them more ammunitions to play victim to political correctdness. That truly is the sort of thing that helped elect Trump in the first place. (Not the only factor, but a factor.)

    Fourth, if he is invited by a legitimate, recognized, campus organization then it is a severe infringement on the freedom of speech of that organization to deplatform him, especially by violent action (and yes, I count shouting down a speaker, cutting lights to the autorium where he speaks, or threatening the use of force, as violence).

    Now, to bring it back to Stoicism — since that’s what the context really is here — I would say that a Stoic practitioner would oppose deportation laws, would speak out against people like Yiannopolous, and would try to directly or indirectly help immigrants. But he would not resort to threats or violence except in extreme cases. The ones you describe do not seem to me to fall into the latter category.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo,

    Re safe spaces specifically, do you see room for differentiating between acceptable and unacceptable versions of the idea, much like you have done with “identity politics” in this post?

    It’s popular now to equate safe spaces with “heckler’s veto” tactics like you and Tito are debating or with banning white people from certain groups or rallies. These new tactics go a lot further than traditional disruptive activism, and while power differentials need to be combatted somehow, it sure does seem that these new methods take that game too far in an illiberal direction.

    But the idea of safe spaces originally encompassed many other ideas that had nothing to do with silencing opposition—like making it so LGBT (or even fundamentalist Christian) students feel comfortable coming to faculty offices for advice, and encouraging a style of classroom dialogue that encourages (rather than forces) people to treat minority views respectfully and to think critically about how privilege may affect our opinions, and how our privileged statements might do damage in ways we might often be unaware of.

    These are skills people can take with them everywhere to transform society, and they are perfectly in line with liberalism.

    Can I keep these ideas? Or now that safe spaces are a politically soiled term, do I have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and find a brand new movement to attach myself to (“dialogue spaces?”)?

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  3. E.O.,

    Absolutely, I hope I didn’t give you the impression that the sort of safe spaces you are referring to are not acceptable. Not only they are, they are necessary.

    But since, as you note, the current version has become attached to rather illiberal practices, perhaps we just need a different vocabulary to distinguish the two ways of doing safe spaces.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The first part is true, but I disagree on the second. Its persuaseviness depends on the accuracy with which it is thrown around. In the case of the alt-right, it applies.

    And yet the only person who expressed affection for the alt right on this comment thread argued that it wasn’t a racist movement but that it was a movement to restore traditional cultural mores to the U.S. state and society because the current mores encouraged lawless and unjust behavior, that the current political climate rewards bad behavior and punishes virtuous behavior. And having debated a number of people that are alt-right-curious in my social circle, including a very disgruntled law-and-order supporting african american descendant of slaves/share-croppers, I find that’s actually a pretty typical attitude. So they don’t think they are racist; they have experiences of reading stuff that they don’t think is racist; they hear arguments that they believe aren’t racist. Their goals are – to them – completely non-racist, and any racially disparate fallout of implementing their political ideas would be an unintended consequence.

    How convincing do you think your argument would be to them?

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  5. Yilmaz,

    There is very good evidence that the alt-right suffers from a pronounced component of racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

    Of course the people involved probably don’t think of themselves that way. We all suffer from amathia (http://tinyurl.com/zjy29qg) to a degree of another. But the profile of the movement done by Julian, linked to in my OP, is both convincing and pretty typical.

    That is not at all to deny that people attracted to the alt-right come from varied backgrounds, and that their attitudes and beliefs vary accordingly. It is also not to say that they don’t have legitimate political and economic grievances, they most certainly do.

    As for convincing them, that was not at all my purpose in writing this piece. I’m concerning abut what I see as unvirtuous segments of the alt-right highjacking Stoicism in a misguided fashion. That’s what I wrote about.

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  6. I may be stupid, but I just don’t see the mechanism by which a political movement can “hijack” a philosophy.

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  7. “denouncing an illegal immigrant may be immoral (depending on circumstances), but it seems like the proper thing to do there is to focus on actions to change the law”

    I highly doubt any Stoic with undocumented family and friends would find any comfort in that. Especially when Milo uses his platform to call on others to “purge [their] local illegals”, it sounds like a pretty extreme case to me. (I’m sure you’ve seen the XKCD comic on freedom from consequences: https://xkcd.com/1357/)

    I hope no Stoic or non-Stoic has to ever languish in immigration prisons; I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody, even Milo.

    I suppose my biggest gripe with this entire post is that the metaphor on its face assumes something called “the Left” is comprised entirely of these tactics, and that it should somehow be on the same plane as a group that actively promotes racism, misogyny and neo-Nazism. (Yes I get that Charybdis is worse than Scylla, but that they should be put together and equally reproached is misleading bordering on dishonest)

    Journalist Eoin Higgins last month wrote a good piece on alarmist coverage on “free speech” on college campuses, and the one-sided coverage that results from only certain cases being highlighted over others. http://bit.ly/2uLKSK3

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tito,

    I certainly don’t wish anyone to go to immigration prison, but I find it interesting that you pitch the worst of the alt-right (Yiannopolous) against the best of the NL, ignoring all sorts of misguided but regular folks who are attracted to alt-right ideas. And you do this while complaining that I don’t distinguish within the NL itself. That strikes me as both uncharitable and a bit of a straw man.

    That said, no, I did not treat the two as equal, as implied pretty obviously by the association of the NL to Scylla, the “monster” that Odysseus eventually decided to steer closer to, because he would suffer fewer losses.

    But illiberalism is a loss for civil society, no matter how justified it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yilmaz,

    “I just don’t see the mechanism by which a political movement can “hijack” a philosophy.”

    Easy. If people begin to associate Stoicism with the alt-right then they come away with a distorted view of the philosophy, and we have fewer opportunities to help people by way of a negative association.

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  10. “I find it interesting that you pitch the worst of the alt-right (Yiannopolous) against the best of the NL, ignoring all sorts of misguided but regular folks who are attracted to alt-right ideas”

    I’ll accept this as an acknowledgement that it’s unfair to use extreme cases to generalize a phenomenon. To be fair it is not just you who does this, but the entire mainstream media apparatus that maintains the Overton window (and often shifting it rightwards with a misguided sense of “balance” to powerful voices)

    I still reject the theory that the “boogeyman Left” somehow caused Trump to win by doing things like pointing out racism and talking about transgender folks – as if white people are like the Hulk, and can’t be upset or provoked and instead have to be coddled and glad handled lest we face their wrath. It’s a convenient narrative that places the blame on Trump squarely on the victims of Trump.

    It is another question entirely whether its useful to have discussions of complicated concepts like liberalism free from a discussion on the distribution of power and the given social relations in a society. Not that liberalism can’t be a good political philosophy, but if the principles can be applied without considering the reasoning behind their construction, or the changing circumstances of modern society with entirely different power relationships (than when the first liberal principles were first formulated), those can end up being superficial at best and authoritarian at worst (because it uncritically accepts those power relations). Chomsky put it well in 1977: https://youtu.be/SFDt_yv5a64

    Thanks for the patient discussion. I know you tend to share Existential Comics a lot, and I think you would appreciate this Facebook page that features many satirical and funny comics on just this very subject: Fully Automated Luxury Liberalism (https://www.facebook.com/luxuryliberal/)

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  11. Tito,

    Indeed, it has been a good conversation, thank you.

    “I’ll accept this as an acknowledgement that it’s unfair to use extreme cases to generalize a phenomenon.”

    Yes, except that I see a certain attitude of the NL as pervasive, not exceptional.

    “It’s a convenient narrative that places the blame on Trump squarely on the victims of Trump.”

    Victims? Isn’t that a bit condescending toward those people?

    “It is another question entirely whether its useful to have discussions of complicated concepts like liberalism free from a discussion on the distribution of power and the given social relations in a society”

    Discussions do indeed need to be nuanced and take context into account. But what bothers me about the behavior of some on the NL is that they simply do not seem to understand that engaging in illiberal attitudes in response to a perceived (real) threat is precisely what people on the alt-right do. That’s why both behaviors need to be rejected from a Stoic perspective.

    But, again, I do think the political positions of the alt-right are more dangerous than those on the NL, hence my respective association of them with Charybdis (the monster to avoid at all costs) and Scylla (the monster causing acceptable casualties).

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