A Stoic Perspective on News by Leah Goldrick

News is pretty much ubiquitous in this digital age. We are barraged with information constantly through many sources – our smart phones, social media, TV, websites, papers, and magazines.

Unless we are very careful, news consumption can easily cause us to lose equanimity. Negative thoughts trigger a stress response by the body’s limbic system. According to a study published in The British Journal Of Psychology [1], people who consume negative news stories tend to feel more anxiety, and to sensationalize unrelated events in their own lives afterwards.

What is the proper Stoic position regarding consumption of news, especially negative news? Should we choose to avoid the news altogether knowing that current events are not in our control? What’s a Stoic to do?

News and the Discipline of Assent

We can either master our response to news, or allow our response to take control of us via our emotions. The process by which this happens is largely unconscious, but needs to be made explicitly conscious for a prokopton (one making progress). What usually happens is something like this; we hear an inflammatory story about Donald Trump, or our political party (if we have one), or a humanitarian disaster, and we just react. We become upset, angry, sad, or maybe even all three at once.

If we get upset or angry over the news, we have essentially assented to an irrational (contrary to our nature as social animals) judgement. It takes intellect to actually break down information piece by piece, what is commonly called critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t easy to do when we are emotional, because emotionalism overrides proper intellectual process.

The Stoics called such proper intellectual process the discipline of assent, which involves making accurate decisions about the external world. The discipline of assent involves protecting ourselves from incorrect and hasty judgments which lead to irrational emotions. If we form incorrect judgements about a situation, it can lead to anger, worry, and so on which damage our equanimity.

The unconscious process of reacting emotionally to news stories actually represents a failure of this discipline. A prokopton (a person devoted to making progress) should always stop and ask whether assent to a news story should actually be given in the first place, rather than unconsciously reacting. Consciously engaging with news using the discipline of assent can stop the process of becoming irrational in its tracks.

Our judgements about something form our emotions. We perceive an external thing or event, known as an impression. The impression combines with an unconscious value judgment to form a proposition in our mind. “Event Y is reported to be happening, which is bad.” If we agree to the proposition that we form in our mind, the Stoics called this assent. When we assent to something, we experience confirmation in the form of an emotion. We can also choose to not give assent, or to withhold judgement.

In the Discourses, Epictetus notes:

Impressions come to us in four ways. Things are, and appear so to us; or they are not, and do not appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Thus it is the task of the educated man to form a right judgment in all these cases; whatever the difficulty that afflicts us, we must bring forward the appropriate aid against it.[2]

A prokopton’s response to news impressions should be to stop, think, and question our involuntary value judgements. Rather than assenting to what is being presented, we might ask ourselves if a story is particularly partisan or biased. We might go to the source to see if the facts are accurately reported. We might wonder if the seeming negativity or emotionalism of the story isn’t being played up to increase ratings or to sell ads. Often we might find the wisest thing to do is to withhold assent in response to the unverifiable.

News is About Things Beyond Our Control

News essentially causes us to focus on outside events which are beyond our control. We chat with coworkers about the latest disturbing headlines, or grouse about politicians that we don’t like, as though we actually have some control over what is going on. But we don’t. Not unless we somehow are in a position to influence the situation directly through our actions, and even then, the outcome of situation is not within our control.

In the Enchiridion, Epictetus explains his famous dichotomy of control. All things in life essentially fall into two distinct categories, those things which are up to us and those that are not up to us:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. [3]

Clearly news falls into the not up to us category. All external events do not depend on us, and therefore have no moral value. However most of us regularly behave as though things outside of our control, like events in the news, are somehow up to us. If we perceive events in the news as within our power, we may start to worry about them unnecessarily. According to Epictetus, it’s irrational and pointless to do so:

“If you regard that…which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings…” [4]

The Stoics believed that we should show courage in the face of actual danger, but that does not include worry about exaggerated or removed threats that we hear about in mass media. The solution, according to Epictetus, is to not worry about anything that is beyond our control:

“There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” [5]

Prosoche and News Consumption

 Because the process of reacting emotionally to news is so unconscious, it takes a lot of discipline in order to overcome this habit. Knowing that news is beyond our control, and and using the discipline of assent are the first and second steps in a Stoic response to news. Exercising prosoche is the third. Prosoche is essentially discretion and attention to our affairs, ensuring that we continue to make progress.

News consumption can be a double-edged, even for a Stoic. On one hand, assuming that we avoid rushing to judgment, becoming angry, worried, or imagining that we somehow have any control over the situation, news can be helpful for identifying areas in the larger community where our help might be needed. News can also be a valuable training tool for learning how to maintain equanimity in the face of potentially upsetting events. We as prokoptons should not worry about the things that most people do as a result of their consumption of news media. According to Musonius Rufus:

“How could we acquire courage if we had merely learned that the things which seem dreadful to the average person are not to be feared, but had no experience in showing courage in the face of such things?” [6]

On the other hand, we probably all have plenty of opportunities each day to practice Stoic principles without having to force ourselves to stay equanimous in the face of a never-ending news cycle. There are some challenges that we can’t escape, but we don’t have to subject our self to every potentially upsetting report.

Using prosoche, we may decide to strictly limit news consumption; the rational for this decision is a matter of doing what is necessary for us to maintain eudaimonia. We only have a limited amount of time and energy; we need to ask whether it is best spent consuming news. Seneca warns:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.[7]

Strictly limiting news consumption is a perfectly acceptable decision. It’s up to us to find a balance for ourselves. Marcus Auelius recommends that we look inside ourselves for the source of our strength and meaning in life:

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” [8]

In the end, news consumption is a personal choice involving prosoche on the part of the individual Stoic. If we choose to consume a lot of news, we have to remain hyper rational and vigilant – don’t slip back into annoyance, worry, unconscious consent and senseless time wasting digesting the latest headlines.

Sources:

  1. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x/abstract
  2. Epictetus, Discourses, Bk. I, Ch. 27
  3. Epictetus, Enchiridion 1
  4. ibid.
  5. Epictetus, Golden Sayings and Fragments.
  6. Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Fragments, 16
  7. Seneca. On the Shortness of Life
  8. Marcus Aurelius, Mediations.

Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

9 thoughts on “A Stoic Perspective on News by Leah Goldrick”

  1. Hi, Ms. Goldrick, and thanks for the helpful article. I certainly agree with the advice of “…protecting ourselves from incorrect and hasty judgments which lead to irrational emotions” and that, “If we form incorrect judgements about a situation,
    it can lead to anger, worry, and so on which damage our equanimity.” On the other hand–and here I part company a bit with some Stoic views–I am not so sure that “…If we get upset or angry over the news, we have essentially assented to an irrational (contrary to our nature as social animals) judgement.”

    Here I think the classic Stoic position can be a limiting factor in our formulating a morally responsible reaction to what we read in “the news.” As Prof. Pigliucci nicely explains in his essay on Seneca and anger, “… for the Stoics there is no such thing as a good degree of anger, but it doesn’t mean that one has to be passive in the face of injustice.” [1]. Indeed, it is a profound misconception of Stoicism, as we know, to suppose that the Stoic view of injustice is simply to “put up” with it.

    But does the morally appropriate response to “news” of barbarity, murder, genocide, rape, and slavery require the complete and total absence of anger? I think not. Indeed, I think one would have to be deadened to a certain kind of humanity to feel no anger at all in response to such atrocities. And here, I am closer to the Aristotelian position that Prof. Pigliucci outlines. Aristotle himself puts it best, in my view:

    “Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.” [ Nicomachean Ethics; Book II, 1109.a27]

    According to Diogenes Laertius, the Stoics define anger (orgê )as the desire for retribution against one who seems to have done one an undeserved injustice [2]. But we can conceive of types and degrees of anger that do not entail such a desire for retribution. We can imagine, for example, a response to genocide or mass murder that evokes anger grounded in a sense that the natural order itself has been violated; that this is profoundly wrong; and that some degree of anger is both the “natural” and the morally appropriate response–so long as it does not unhinge us; cause us to act rashly or violently; create enduring distress for us, etc. This, of course, requires immense self-control and self-discipline.

    Indeed, I think the right degree and duration of what I would call “righteous indignation” can be a useful motivating force in taking appropriate action against injustice. On the other hand, I think most Stoically-informed readers would agree that flying into a dish-throwing rage is irrational; “unnatural” in a fundamental sense; and virtually never useful in addressing injustice.

    Although I have written on the commonalities between Stoicism and rabbinic Judaism [3], on the matter of anger, I think Talmudic Judaism is closer to the Aristotelian than to the Stoic tradition. The Talmud does not admonish us, “Never get angry!”. Rather, it urges us to be slow to anger (erekh apayim) and not to anger easily [Pirke Avot 2:15].

    I’ll be interested to hear yours and other views on this morally complex and psychologically interesting issue! Thanks for raising it.

    Best regards,
    Ron Pies
    .

    1. https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/02/09/seneca-on-anger-part-i/
    2. https://katjavogt.com/pdf/katja_vogt_anger.pdf
    3. Pies R: The Three-Petalled Rose. iUniverse, 2013.

    1. Dear Ron,

      Thank you for your thought provoking response to my post. First, let me say that there a lot of people more qualified to comment on this subject than I am, but I’ll try my best. I agree with you that it is perhaps more second-nature for us to become angry in the face of injustice, but as you know, the Stoics felt that anger is irrational – their view of anger is stricter than the Aristotelian view. Perhaps what might be considered appropriate anger from an Aristotelian perspective could be a motivator to take action against injustice. But anger certainly isn’t necessary to take action against injustice either. The Stoics would probably argue that one should take action because it is the right thing to do, not because one is angry.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Leah. Indeed, I agree–as would the rabbis of the Talmud–that anger isn’t necessary to take action against injustice, nor is anger per se a reason to do so. But in one respect, I think the rabbis were wiser than the Stoics. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts it: “Who would want to live in a city whose police department was composed of officers who felt little or no anger toward the murderers, rapists, and pederasts they were trying to catch?” [1].

        Sometimes, a brief flicker of anger is necessary to light the lamp of justice.

        Best regards,
        Ron

        1. Telushkin J. A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1. p. 258

  2. Thanks, this is good! I agree that the important step, when confronted with an injustice, is to apply your practical wisdom to reach a reasoned judgement as to whether action is likely to be useful. Then you can either conclude that no action will be useful or take action while invoking the reserve clause. The most personally harmful thing to do – the route so many take nowadays – is to read the news, get very angry, then do nothing at all except stay angry.

    1. Thanks Ron. I agree with that getting angry and doing nothing is a poor course of action. Certainly there are many injustices in the world, but my perspective is that the emotionalism of various news stories is often played up to sell papers or to increase ratings. Corporate news is a business. They exists to sell information first and foremost, unless you are reading something that has absolutely no connection to advertising. Even then that doesn’t mean it’s not biased in a number of other ways. People are often misquoted, or things taken out of context. In my mind, the first step is to determine if we should even assent to something/if we verify the facts before we think about whether action would be useful.

  3. Thank you for this careful and thoughtful article about a subject which is the source of frequent debate at home. I strongly believe that a withdrawal from media is very positive for a student of stoicism. Particularly tv, radio and social media are better to be completely avoided.reading newspapers and magazines can be interesting every few weeks to get a flavour of what is going on. So little time and so many things to learn and do! News is a complete waste of time.

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