How often have you thought yourself superior in intellect, in physique, or in moral rectitude than some “poor wretch”? This is a compound perversity. Are these attitudes not, at root, directed at self-aggrandizement? Every time you contemplate your “superiority,” you verify your inadequacy. A genius does not need to make a show of…an obvious intellectual superiority, any more than a giant needs to convince others, or himself, of his vastly loftier height.
Posturing is something we’ve all done many times, and I think Ferraiolo cuts to the core of what this is about.
I’ve done my share of showing off a bit of knowledge—or more accurately, trivia—because I was worried that the people around me might not think I’m as smart as they are.
Of course, that’s based on my projections about their thoughts. How can I really know what they’re thinking? And so what if they think I’m not as smart as them? Maybe they’re right. Even if they’re not I still have no control over their thoughts.
But posturing, it seems to me, is most often about jockeying for a higher spot in the social hierarchy because we feel like our status is lower than it should be.
Status, if we’re honest, is important to all of us. But from a Stoic perspective status is indifferent. Status might be something I prefer, but it won’t make me a better person. Status can be used for the good of others or it can be used to exploit others. Low status also is indifferent because it neither helps nor hinders an ethical lifestyle.
A baker can refuse explicit expression of a certain viewpoint but not alleged implicit expression of a viewpoint.
The so-called “gay wedding cake” lawsuit raises some interesting questions.
If a baker can refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple then can a baker refuse to bake a cake for an interracial couple if the baker’s religion says miscegenation is wrong?
It would be hard to support a baker’s religious rights in one case but not the other. But a widespread religious exemption—especially if it applies to corporations as well—would rip a huge hole in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On the other hand,
If a baker cannot refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple then must a baker also bake a cake for an anti-gay evangelical?
Again, consistency would seem to imply that discrimination against evangelicals is also wrong.
In the end I think this calls for a legislative solution. Courts can interpret the law or strike down unconstitutional legislation, but creating new laws is tricky. Federal civil rights legislation does not include sexual orientation or gender identity, so it would be plausible for a Supreme Court justice to say they personally support civil rights for LGBTQ individuals while also saying that the baker isn’t violating federal law. Of course, the state of Colorado does have a civil rights law covering sexual orientation, so adding a large exemption to state law in favor of the baker would be judicial activism—which conservatives claim to oppose.
I’ve previously written in favor of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights legislation. But the issue of compelled speech can’t be ignored. For the government to force you to say something you disagree with does violate your free speech rights, and in some cases your religious freedom.
Here’s the distinction I draw: In most circumstances baking a cake as a business endeavor does not involve the baker’s personal expression. A wedding cake used in a same-sex wedding is usually indistinguishable from a wedding cake for a heterosexual wedding (except for the bride-and-bride or bride-and-groom on top of the cake, which the baker doesn’t usually manufacture anyway).
However, baking a cake that includes a meaningful symbol or words that convey a particular viewpoint could violate the baker’s religious or freedom of expression rights. If the same-sex couple requests the equality symbol on the cake then I think the baker should be permitted to refuse inclusion of the symbol. But the baker cannot refuse to provide a generic wedding cake. Likewise, a baker could not refuse to bake a generic cake for an anti-gay preacher, but a baker could refuse to put Romans 1:26-27 on it.
Only we are responsible for our actions. That’s where sexual assault prevention starts.
What started with the downfall of one Hollywood mogul has become an avalanche of revelations of what we’ve known all along but have avoided acknowledging—sexual assault is rampant, especially by powerful men. Sexual harassment is even more widespread.
Epictetus opens his handbook (Enchiridion) by stating that nothing external is under our control. Only our chosen values and deliberate thoughts and actions are up to us. This can easily be misconstrued as an endorsement of passivity, but that’s not what he meant. Epictetus was a former slave who gained his freedom.
He gives an Olympian as an example. It is within the athlete’s control to train as hard as possible, make every sacrifice, and to seek every advantage. But there’s no guarantee the athlete will bring home the gold—circumstances could intervene, or the competitors could be more talented.
This does not mean the athlete shouldn’t try. In fact, the athlete should try as hard as possible. But the athlete must curb any sense of entitlement that the gold is theirs.
One interpretation of this is that pursuing something or someone is fine so long as we respect the boundaries. Another interpretation is that we can and should do everything in our power to change the current culture. And that’s up to every individual.
What we control
A Stoic perspective starts with the perpetrator. This is because sexual assault is within the perpetrator’s control, not the victim’s control. Related to this is the distinction between what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. We must protect what is ours while keeping our hands off of things that are not ours.
Stoicism is first and foremost about cultivating wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Domesticating (not suppressing) our emotions is a means to this end. And it is obvious to any rational person that sexual assault is ignorant, unjust, cowardly, and shameless.
Refusing to assent
An important Stoic focus is nipping our baser desires in the bud. Learning to recognize when a desire first arises and refusing to assent to it is a skill gained only from practice.
Sexual assault is usually motivated by a desire for power, and lust. Were it only about men gaining power over women then Kevin Spacey would have targeted women rather than men. Were lust not a factor then younger women and men would not be targeted more frequently.
Further, while all the news stories are about powerful men, we mustn’t forget the unpublicized stories of ordinary men and women who also commit sexual assault. People don’t need to have power in order to desire power.
The study found that those who are insecure in their power (regardless of how much power they actually have) are more likely to harass or assault people with less power. The study also found “that the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women.”
The issue always circles back to the problem of power. Stoicism recognizes that power over people and externals things is a delusion. And power, sex, money, and so on are indifferent not because people don’t desire these things but because these things add nothing to positive values. Instead, it’s about how we conduct ourselves with regard to these things.
But perhaps the most important Stoic observation is that who we are is defined by our actions, not our beliefs or our stated values. This includes our actions even when no one is looking. A key question I, like you, must ask myself is what kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to be?
Stoics say the goal of being a good person will help you achieve your other goals.
What would Stoicism be like today if it had continued without interruption as an applied philosophy? It’s a challenge modern Stoics are addressing.
I haven’t read Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism. It’s a technical and abstruse work of formal rather than popular philosophy, so I rely on Massimo Pigliucci’s unpacking of Becker’s arguments.
Two (of many) questions modern Stoics face are:
On what basis do you claim that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia (i.e. human flourishing, or happiness)? Personally, I find this difficult in practice because I feel I also need certain basics—food, shelter, and safety—to flourish.
And if, as Stoics claim, you’re either virtuous or you’re not (hint: you’re not) then how does it make sense to say we can make progress toward virtue?
Pigliucci addresses the latter question by stating that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent. It offers us a continual challenge. He compares virtue to a perfect circle. Almost no one can draw a perfect circle by hand, but with practice our circles can improve even if there’s always more room for improvement.
But the first question about why virtue is sufficient, not just necessary for human flourishing, is more difficult.
Again, an almost impossible ideal helps us avoid complacency and the arrogance of thinking we’re somehow more virtuous than the average person. Becker developed a more elaborate explanation, however—one intended to make Stoicism a serious philosophy by twenty-first century standards.
My interpretation of Pigliucci’s interpretation of Becker should be looked at critically. It’s likely that on some points I’ve misunderstood them both.
Becker asserts that virtue is the perfection of agency—that is, acting consciously and deliberately. But he points out that this assumes that being a good person is of primary importance to you.
Who among us doesn’t care about injustice? Well, psychopaths don’t. So Becker’s argument doesn’t apply to psychos. Who among us thinks pleasure is the greatest good, even to the point of sidestepping courage and justice to avoid pain? Epicureans are unlikely to agree with the Stoic perspective.
Becker breaks his argument down step by step:
Goals require certain steps for completion. We all have multiple goals, and sometimes the steps in different goals conflict with each other. I might want to go hiking and attend a blues festival. But if they’re scheduled at the same time then I can’t do both.
Becker says we must look at the big picture. I can optimize my goals by going hiking later. That’s thinking globally (all my goals considered together) rather than locally (looking only at one goal without considering the rest).
Beck then claims that the goal of agency perfection—being the best person I can be—will optimize all other goals. Again, this only applies to people who value ethics above all. Ted Bundy just wanted to kill—ethics wasn’t a consideration. Or valuing pleasure above all puts ethics in a secondary position.
Being the best we can be includes positive values. Stoics prize wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Further, because these virtues are necessary for being the best we can be, virtue should be a Stoic’s number goal.
Virtue, therefore, optimizes all of our other goals because these goals are secondary to virtue.
If something neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue then it’s indifferent (though we may prefer or disprefer certain things). For example, money is indifferent because it’s neither inherently good nor bad. What you do with it makes the difference.
Becker makes a solid argument. But I still can’t say that virtue is all I need to flourish. And I certainly can’t say I’m a living example of virtue. But even if practicing Stoicism doesn’t help me become a Sage—and it won’t—at the very least it might prevent me from becoming a scoundrel.
Being civil doesn’t mean you have to hide your contempt for someone.
The latest addition to the growing body of modern Stoic literature is William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure. A series of personal reflections, it’s a book in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.
I’ve just begun reading it, so in this and future posts I’ll highlight passages that catch my eye. In book one part six Ferraiolo writes,
Do not pretend to respect other persons either more or less than you actually do respect them. You owe no one a pretense of deference… You should have nothing to do with sham collegiality or faux civility. Some persons are worthy of your contempt… Do not allow yourself to be pressed, bullied, or cajoled into relations that strike you as unhealthy or pointless.
Ferraiolo isn’t advocating uncivil behavior. He’s against faux civility. It’s a call to sincerity. No one likes phonies. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “Well, he doesn’t like me but at least I know where I stand.”
Other people may create unhealthy dynamics, but that’s beyond your control. Whether you choose to allow yourself to be pressured into such relationships is within your control.
Reading this passage though, it occurred to me that respect can mean different things. “I respect you” could mean I hold you in high esteem. “Treat others with respect,” however, isn’t necessarily a demand to think highly of someone. It could simply be a more polite way of telling someone not to be rude—that is, to be civil.
Put differently, there’s respect in the active sense (conferring high regard on someone) and respect in the passive sense (refraining from uncivil behavior). Ferraiolo’s passage seems to refer to respect in the active sense.
It’s insincere to pretend to hold someone in high regard if you don’t. While contempt is the opposite of respect in the active, high esteem sense, contempt is not necessarily in conflict with respect in the passive sense of refraining from incivility.
Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.
After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:
When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”
At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.
Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.
This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.
By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.
Marcus says we should
See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.
Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.
Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.
Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?
Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.
Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.
Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.
Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.
Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,
Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.
He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”
As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.
But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.