[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.