Stoic advice: my friend is a jerk, what do I do?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My friend has been an avid member of the Red Pill community for the past year and it has inflated his ego to completely disproportionate levels, reaching heights of selfishness and arrogance I hadn’t seen before. We were walking down the street and an old lady walking with a frame was coming in our direction. I immediately moved aside in order to give her room. I looked at my friend and he wasn’t moving. He made the old lady stop and walk around him, after which he looked at me, a grin on his face, and said “I move for nobody.”

I didn’t say anything at the moment and haven’t brought it up since. I haven’t seen much of him since then, given that I wouldn’t reply to his messages out of sheer astonishment and a feeling of resentment into seeing what my friend has become. Seeing how unjust and disrespectful this was really got to me. This has been turning in my head ever since I witnessed his behavior, trying to figure out what the best mode of action is. I know his behavior is something external to me and it doesn’t affect me directly but it’s the idea of being associated with someone who acts this way that gets to me. I know that he has quite a lot of unresolved issues which may fuel this behavior of his, but as much as this may explain his actions, it doesn’t justify them.

So here I am, accepting that my friend is acting like a jerk but I know I can do something about it and not just accept it. I just need some advice as to what the more just way of reacting would be.

First off, thanks for educating me on Red Pill, whose existence I was unaware of until I read your letter, and about which I had to do some research (see this article, for instance). My reaction to this and similar kinds of communities (like the “Men Going Their Own Way” group) is one of sadness. On the one hand, it is clear that they are populated by a lot of lonely and angry men, with serious problems. On the other hand, their attitude is clearly toxic, sexist, and often downright misogynist. These are the same kind of people who tend to be influenced by the likes of Jordan Peterson, about whom I have written — not in a positive fashion — from a Stoic perspective.

There are two questions here, Stoically speaking: how should we think of people like your friend? How should we behave, as friends and more broadly fellow human beings, toward them?

I hope I do not have to make much of an argument that Red Pill, MGTOW, and such are not in line with Stoic values. Stoicism is inclusive and treats everyone equally (because of its cosmopolitanism), and the virtue of justice (which has to do with how to properly treat other people) seems to me to be in direct opposition to your friend’s rude behavior to the old lady.

That said, one of the most important, and at the same time really hard to internalize, concepts of Stoic-Socratic philosophy is the idea that people don’t do bad things on purpose (meaning because they want to be bad), but due to their lack of wisdom, or amathia. This is evident from your friend’s own justification for his action: “I move for nobody,” meaning that he has somehow convinced himself that it is not right for him to yield to anyone, presumably because he wants respect and is under the (misguided) impression that one way to get it is to be rude to old ladies.

I think the proper Stoic attitude toward these people is pity, not contempt. So that is what you should work toward. Here is what Epictetus says about this:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” (Discourses I, 18.3)

Also, remember that we ourselves may have erred in similar or equally inexcusable ways, and should therefore be a bit humble when we regard the mistakes made by others:

“When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like.” (Meditations, X.30)

Now, how should we treat people who lack wisdom and consequently make mistakes? The standard Stoic approach is beautifully expressed in this quote by Marcus:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

However, I do think there is a limit to the idea of teaching or simply putting up with people like your friend. For one thing, most people don’t want to be taught, and they will not be receptive to you until they themselves figure out that there is something amiss and ask spontaneously for your advice. Part of the calculation here concerns just how close of a friend the person in question is, and therefore how much friendship capital, so to speak, you are in a position to spend in your attempt to help him out of his situation.

At some point, however, there is a danger that instead of you helping him, he will be the one to drag you away from virtue, perhaps insinuating in your mind that something like Red Pill is a good idea after all. That’s the point when you may need to follow Epictetus and simply look for better company:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers [i.e., people who don’t try to improve themselves]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

This is tricky, as it sounds impossibly snobbish, even though it is hardly different from the very sensible advice your mother probably gave you when you were a kid, to be careful about which company you keep. The upshot is: do your best, don’t judge your friend harshly, and try genuinely to be helpful to him. But if he is not ready, you are under no obligation of sticking around until your own soul becomes dyed with the same dark thoughts.

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Categories: Stoic advice

12 replies

  1. I had never heard of the Red Pill movement. It sounds like a pretty shallow backlash response to feminism. But I can remember my father, over 60 years ago, being very impressed with writer/social critic Philip Wylie’s assertion (in “Generation of Vipers”) that Americans were living in a matriarchy (although to my teenage mind, it seemed that the men were pretty obviously running everything). This, in its turn, was a shallow backlash to Freudian psychology, that tended to blame neurosis on insidious influences by mothers on their growing boys.

    My metaphor in this comparison suggests transient waves of opinion, forever recycling the opinions of the generation before last, confusing efforts to plot a consistent path to any philosophical goal.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Massimo,

    You’ve given great advice to the person asking the question, but I couldn’t help but feeling from the old lady’s perspective : how should she deal with a jerk like that? I know Marcus Aurelius ‘ famous morning reminder on ignorant people, so maybe the old lady would just accept the unjust done to her? However, if she keeps doing so, and the young man’s friend doesn’t say anything, wouldn’t this young man just keep doing what he does and stay a big bully?

    I know this is drifting away from the original topic so I’m happy if you’d like to leave the discuss to another time. 😊

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  3. These are the same kind of people who tend to be influenced by the likes of Jordan Peterson

    Given how much I’ve heard him talk poorly about these communities, I think you’re highly mistaken. If they are finding influence from Dr. Peterson, it’s likely moving them AWAY from these toxic groups. I’ve been there. I was long plagued with the poor thoughts that are welcome among red pillers. I was a proud member of r/the_donald and other harmful MGTOW type subreddits. The misogyny, bigotry, and general hatred of everything I didn’t personally identify with was taking over my life. The teachings of Peterson that I’ve consumed over the past couple years have contributed greatly towards realizing how ignorant and hateful those views are.

    I understand his views aren’t necessarily compatible with Stoicism in all areas. And I realize I’m certainly biased considering how much he’s helped me personally and how much I’ve seen him help others improve themselves, but to associate him with groups he has clearly spoken against is unfair at best. I’ve never seen so much hostility towards a person that wants to help people be happy.

    I highly appreciate the thoughts in the rest of this post. I just felt that the Peterson criticism served no purpose in resolving the issue.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. On a second thought, I guess the behaviour of the young man is outside the old lady’s control, but she can at least ensure that she’s not angered by it and gets on with her life.

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  5. About hanging out with bad company, see also
    Seneca Letter CIV, 20.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Victoria,

    However, if she keeps doing so, and the young man’s friend doesn’t say anything, wouldn’t this young man just keep doing what he does and stay a big bully?

    If the old woman were a Stoic then yes, I would suggest to her to simply ignore the rude fellow. That said, as Stoics we also have a duty to intervene when we say injustice, so the friend should have said something on the spot, and helped the old lady, if she needed assistance.

    In terms of bullism, then, there is no contradiction in just ignoring the bully (which goes a long way toward deflating him) and actively intervene on behalf of someone we see being bullied.

    Clay,

    I will grant you that Peterson is not as bad as the communities we are talking about. But he is pretty toxic himself, and his disawoval of those communities, while welcome, does not contradict the fact that he appeals to that sort of people. I have explained in detail my thinking about Peterson in a separate post, linked from the OP. But it’s fine if we just agree to disagree on this, since the post is not really about Peterson.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Being an old man who sometimes walks with a cane, I’m taking the victim’s perspective here. I would probably give him a firm and fast swat with the cane and go on my way as unperturbed as possible. I find no foul in swift retaliation, but if you have to think twice about it, don’t do it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Massimo, as much as I ‘feel’ like agreeing with Quine that philosophy of science is philosophy enough, your Stoicism has convinced me otherwise. Your work in philosophy of science is much more appreciated (personally) but your work on virtue ethics is not negligible (to say the least). Thanks, helped me a lot.

    Just a thought. On the Red Pill article this was stated: “It’s more than a perspective, in fact: It’s a philosophy.” (of “females get away with things by virtue of being female”). I have read your works on the borderlands of science and philosophy, the quasi-continuity of science and ethics, etc. (thanks for making them available). In some “congruence” with that, would you consider that this Red Pill ‘ideology’ as philosophy? I’m wondering what’s your take on that. It’s pretty much nonsense of stilts.

    From where I am standing this pretty much counts as pseudo-philosophy considering Nicholas Rescher’s account of it. Can you share your take or point me to works concerning this “demarcation problem” between philosophy, non-philosophy, and pseudo-philosophy? Thanks.

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  9. If you are not familiar with TRP (The Red Pill), you are in for a very deep rabbit hole when you start digging. It’s interesting that Stoicism seems to be popular in the red pill group, as the average “Red Piller” has no clue what virtue is. This article on the Modern Stoicism blog has a great analysis/criticism: http://modernstoicism.com/the-red-band-a-stoic-criticism-of-the-red-pill-by-vadim-korkhov/

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Will,

    thanks for the kind words, they are appreciated.

    would you consider that this Red Pill ‘ideology’ as philosophy?

    No, I would consider it a pseudo-philosophy, the philosophical analog of pseudo-science. Conceptualized as a system of belief that pretends to be philosophy, but is actually poorly articulated garbage.

    In general, I think of the fuzzy boundary between philosophy / bad philosophy / pseudo-philosophy in the same way as I describe the analogous boundary between science / bad science / pseudo-science in Nonsense on Stilts. New edition of that book coming out in a few months, by the way!

    Liked by 4 people

  11. TRiPe. Social Darwinism rears its ugly head for the nth time. These people are like the inhabitants of an elevator whose cable has broken on the 100th floor, who decide to spend their remaining moments restoring male dominance (as if it had ever left).

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Just send this article to OP’s friend, and like a Jedi Mind Trick, he will follow it and eventually forget he was ever into RP. Red Pillers believe they’re following Stoicism anyway so he’ll think this is within the scope of his practice.

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