Stoic advice: when is it time to speak up?

Don Quijote fighting windmills[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

[Note: this post is part of a special one-week marathon of Stoic advice, which is made necessary by the sheer volume of requests I keep receiving. If you have written and I haven’t gotten to your letter yet, please be patient. If you are interested in the other features of this blog, we’ll resume regular programming next week…]

L. writes: At this time of public scrutiny of those (generally) men who have engaged in conduct which placed (generally) women in situations ranging from unpleasant to heart-breaking to career-killing to self-respect shattering, I have asked myself how, if at all, I have contributed to this widespread phenomenon in my personal and professional life. 

My question is now, to the extent I can clearly see times at which I should have addressed situations with a person of authority — and/or should have taken up for my co-worker — or simply shouldn’t have looked the other way, are there any good parameters to assist with determining if it is appropriate to make statements regarding these issues? Several years ago, I helped multiple individuals who were, basically, victimized by the structure I work in, but I never addressed the foundational issues within the structure with anyone of authority. To be clear, no one under the worst that this structure can cause is subject to physical harm, but I have witnessed completely unnecessary abuses of power and I feel as though I have done nothing to address the problems with the structure as a whole.  

Where does Stoicism end and Quixotism begin?

Let me begin with the final question, about fighting windmills. The best answer from within a Stoic framework comes, I think, from modern Stoic Larry Becker (see my series on his A New Stoicism). He calls it the axiom of futility, and it is one of four axioms he uses to build his version of Stoic normative logic:

“Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” (A New Stoicism, pp. 44-45)

Now, very few things are actually logically impossible (i.e., they entail some sort of logical contradiction, or other violation of the laws of logic). Comparatively few things are even theoretically impossible (only those that violate the laws of physics, really). So the question is one of practical possibility. That one, however, is not sharply defined, as what is practically possible depends on the specific circumstances, the players involved, and even the degree of personal retribution the agent is willing to accept as a result of having acted virtuously (see the famous case of the two slaves and the chamber pot discussed by Epictetus).

Indeed, if you think about it, the Stoics recognize as one of the four cardinal virtues that of practical wisdom (phronesis in Greek, or prudence), which is precisely the ability to figure out the best way to navigate complex moral situations. Like the other virtues, it is a skill that is developed by living life in a mindful way, but that means nobody can tell you where precisely the line should be drawn in any particular instance. Just remember, whenever — by practical necessity — you compromise, these words of Epictetus:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

Let me now go back to the beginning of your letter. First off, at least you are actually asking yourself the question, and moreover you have acted in a positive fashion in the past, however much in a limited context. That puts you way ahead of many people, and there is nothing in Stoicism that precludes a good pat on the back, once in a while. Just keep doing it whenever possible: do address delicate situations with someone of authority; do stand up for your co-workers; and no, do not look the other way.

Next, however, comes the really hard question for a Stoic: it is fine to recognize, and act to ameliorate, local situations. But what about structural issues? Another way to put it is: acting locally is what any decent person would do (though it may turn out that there are fewer decent persons than we might hope); but addressing the structure itself takes a revolutionary, and we know those are rare people indeed.

But they exist, and Stoics history counts a good number of them. Cato the Younger, of course, took arms against what he saw as the tyranny of Julius Caesar (see my series on the Cato Chronicles); several Stoic senators opposed Nero and other emperors to the death (the so-called Stoic opposition); and Nelson Mandela (not a Stoic, but inspired by Marcus) took on the entire Apartheid system in South Africa.

Part of the reason to look up to these and other lofty role models is to realize that if some people can take on that sort of windmill, at times even winning, surely we could do a bit better with our place of employment, or even our political system. But, again, it comes down to your own judgment in terms of practical wisdom: to fight windmills for the sake of fighting windmills is something that would fall afoul of Becker’s axiom of futility. That said, Epictetus reminds us that sometimes even a hopeless fight is worth it because it sets an example:

“What good, you ask, did Priscus achieve, then, being just a single individual? And what does the purple achieve for the tunic? What else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest?” (Discourses I.2.22)

Priscus, in the quote above, is Helvidius Priscus, a Stoic philosopher and Senator who famously opposed the emperor Vespasian, and lost his life as a result. I really don’t think you need to go that far, and perhaps there is nothing practical you can do to change things systematically, in which case be content to act locally and help in any way you can. But do give some consideration to the example of Priscus, and the role played by the purple for the tunic.

3 thoughts on “Stoic advice: when is it time to speak up?

  1. Massimo Post author


    He is acting virtuously, but his targets are illusory. Of course, any good Stoic would do his best to stay away from illusions, which Don Quijote, by contrast, seems to actively seek.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.