What Would Stoics Say about the U.S. 2016 Election? by Temma Ehrenfeld

On the morning after the United States election this year, like many people I know, I was afraid to get out of bed.

But I had had good fortune. At “Stoicon” in New York in October, I’d picked up The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and had begun reading a quote each morning.  So, still in bed, I read the day’s entry: “All is fluid.” “The universe is change. Life is opinion.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b)

It could hardly have been more apt. Over the coming months, I came to believe that the decisive issues in this election are also the most important issues in Stoicism.

“Life is opinion” is a vague phrase, but it had an obvious painful meaning now. The morning before, people had been visibly elated on the streets around my local polling place on the Upper West Side. I overheard a conversation in which someone said, “I can’t wait until I can ignore Donald Trump.”

For decades we New Yorkers knew him as a shady tycoon with bad taste. On my morning bike ride, I pass a row of mammoth apartment buildings he owns. When people from out of town asked me about Trump, I’d report a visit to a friend who had just moved into one of those buildings. As the elevator stopped on her floor, she was saying, “Wait until you see the view,” when we all walked out and saw a large turd in the hallway.

In my circle of opinion, Trump couldn’t win. How could so many Americans hold opinions we thought unthinkable? Because “life is opinion.” My brief life, and their brief lives.  Nothing I thought certain was certain. What could I count on? “The universe is change.”

The pundits say that Americans elected Trump because he promised “change,” desirable unto itself, startling the entire world with their choice.  Human beings both crave and fear change. Donald Trump has become the epitome of that ambivalence.

The Stoics teach that change in itself is neither good nor bad—yet inevitable. It isn’t wise to choose a candidate who has never held political office for the mere sake of change, but wise to make your peace with change when it comes.

If you are excited at the prospect of a Trump administration, now is not the time to gloat for the same reason “Blue State liberals” shouldn’t despise you. The wheel will turn, and turn again.

I continue to read a Meditation every day, and the habit has served me well. On November 17, Seneca: “Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” (Moral Letters, 103, 4b-5a) No, I wasn’t allowed to rail about idiots who had elected a protofascist. November 27, Marcus Aurelius: “How satisfying it is to dismiss and block out any upsetting or foreign impression, and immediately to have peace in all things.” (Meditations, 5.2). I stopped reading news about the transition that day.

Two days later came more permission to hide from the news, if only for a time: Marcus Aurelius: “Don’t lament this and don’t get agitated.” (Meditations, 7.43.) Ryan and Stephen spoke to me like dear friends: “There’s that feeling we get when something happens: It’s all over now. All is lost. What follows are complaints and pity and misery—the impotent struggle against something that’s already occurred….[what’s coming next] could be the darkness before the dawn. If we’re Stoic, there is one thing we can be sure of: whatever happens, we’re going to be OK.”

It’s as if they knew that November 2016 would be rough for much of the country. But of course, any month can be rough, as the Stoics knew especially well.

“To read or not to read” the news became a question much discussed on Facebook and elsewhere. As some of my friends were saying (and the Stoics agree), we have a duty to be engaged citizens, to love our country. I received urgent messages from people I respect asking me to make phone calls or sign petitions demanding a recount or urge electors to change their votes.

The Stoics also teach us to avoid distractions. I chose to stay out of those protests; they seemed clearly to be ways of coping. To me, the real question was “What did the voters who chose Trump mean to tell us?”

Stoicism has much to tell us on that point. Donald Trump does not do well on Stoic measures, except for one: he scorned the approval of official approval-givers. As the song goes, he did it “My Way.” We all should note the power of that stance. (To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable. I myself believe in approval from respected sources and crave it—Stoicism is an antidote).

The public discussion focused on character, a choice the Stoics would applaud. People disliked both candidates for perceived greed and dishonesty, serious faults to Stoics. However, the outcome didn’t turn on the character of the candidates. It turned, I argue, on our sources of self-respect.

As a celebrity, our President-Elect benefited from a special kind of familiarity: people trusted him because they’d seen him for years in their homes on their television screens. Hillary Clinton was also familiar, but from the despised world of politics and policy-wonks, the “insiders.”

If the pundits are correct, voters who felt that they had been treated as “losers” and “outsiders” saw a man of fame and fortune, a “winner,” who was also paradoxically an “outsider” like themselves, declaring himself on their side.

The Stoics teach resoundingly that this logic is wrong. Fame and wealth, they say, are fleeting and worthless, victories in a war not worth winning. In any case, you can’t get respect, or self-respect, by association.

In the present moment, we hear, too many Americans and British feel like “losers” because of declining income and respect for their traditional work. So they blame immigrants. The Stoics are right here, too: they insist on the value of meaningful work. If your industry is in decline, and you can’t earn a good living or you don’t have a job, life is harder. But if you are doing what you can you are not a “loser.” You are also not an “outsider.” You are inside the circle of your own judgment and bonds to your community and loved ones.

How I wish we all felt this in our bones.  Stoics don’t cuddle up to celebrities. They also don’t bathe in self-pity within bubbles.

Soon after the election, I attended a party full of people lamenting Trump’s victory. I wandered into a back room, where I found the hostess—call her Nancy–sitting alone. I’d met her only once before. She invited me to sit beside her. I asked her if she was having a good time. With a strange look on her face, she said, “Do you really want to know?”

I nodded. “I voted for Trump,” she said. “You’re the first person I’ve told.” I nodded.

“I’m so hopeful,” she said. “I think he’ll really make a difference.” She glowed like a woman in love.

The Stoics teach us to spread wisdom rather than seethe inside when we disagree. But they also teach us to be kind.  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6: “All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way”

I knew what to do. As a journalist, I’m trained to listen to people with whom I don’t agree. I was genuinely grateful for the opportunity to do what I do well. I was also grateful to be at her party, which was warm and fun. My judgement: to listen, which would build good in the present moment and express my gratitude. I kept my face welcoming and listened to her reasons for deeply admiring Donald Trump.

I did make one, indirect, attempt to teach my wisdom: I told her that my monthly health insurance cost had dropped by $100 a month when the Affordable Care Act passed, and I was scared it would go up again. She said, “Don’t worry; he’s going to make health insurance better.”

The Stoics teach us to be careful to whom we extend our friendship. I choose to keep up friendships with people despite disagreements about politics. Should you drop those friends? Should you avoid family members whose politics offend you? If the disagreement is profound, one can find quotes in the Stoic literature to make either case. But the message is clear: first, tend your own garden.

You might think, “My Dad always thought my brothers deserved more freedom and respect than I did, so he’s proud to have as his President a man who thinks it’s OK to boast about assaulting women.” Or, “My sister can’t handle debt and she blames Mexicans for our financial troubles.”

Remember Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1-2: “Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinions, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control…everything not of our own doing.”

As I read Epictetus, he would advise you to monitor your own attitudes about women and men and to let your Dad keep his. You might take more responsibility for your own finances, knowing that you may soon have to help out your sister. While we school ourselves not to fret over things we can’t control, we must also anticipate the worst. Know that calamity can come to you and act accordingly.

Taking a role in public life is also a Stoic value. I recently chose to write an op-ed that ran on the opinion page at the Wall Street Journal. I write for other conservative publications. I say what I think, and if my audience disagrees with me on other matters, that’s okay. Perhaps my words will get through. We all can choose how to best use our abilities to be useful during this political season.

The Stoics often suffered exile. That—and other influences, as well as all the talk of fleeing to Canada—inspired me to begin applying for my Canadian citizenship card (my mother was Canadian and my brother holds dual citizenship). I got only half-way through the process, during the election and then afterwards, began to worry that Canada would tighten up the rules. Next time, I will be more diligent. Stoic lesson learned.

I’ve pursued the application, which is taking some effort. Is this a good use of my time or a distraction? One could argue either case. I want to be prepared for a calamity when leaving my home becomes the best option. The Stoics embraced exile, a time to pursue philosophy. The truth is that I’m lucky; I can write anywhere. Writing is what I do best, though sometimes I am sick of it and want to be a dancer, a photographer—anything else. Love your fate, the Stoics say. Joy comes from practicing your virtues.

Our Stoic teachers insist that we can be happy in a world that feels unsafe. But I believe that a Trump administration will cause many other people to suffer more than they might have. It’s true I don’t know whether the total amount of suffering is bound to increase over the long run as a result of the recent turn of events, though it strongly seems that it will.

I asked Gregory Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, what he thought about the question of others’ suffering. In an email, he responded that Stoics recognize that intentionally harming others or simply taking actions that make harm foreseeable is “morally wrong.” Indeed, people who act unjustly are also damaging themselves. Many people I know intuitively agree; they think that as our President, Trump will bring about his own undoing.

“Wait and see” say my most serene confidantes, my 87-year-old father and my mother’s best friend, a 70-something economist.

What will happen? No one knows.

“If the breaking day sees someone proud,
The ending day sees them brought low.
No one should put too much trust in triumph,
No one should give up hope of trials improving.
Clotho mixes one with the other and stops
Fortune from resting, spinning every fate around.”
– Seneca, Thyestes, 613

Temma Ehrenfeld is a ghostwriter and journalist in New York drawn to psychology and philosophy. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters, and Fortune and her literary work in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Chicago Literary Quarterly, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Prism International. She blogs at Psychology Today and is shopping her first novel, The Wizard of Kew Gardens.  See more of her work and reach her through her website. 

The Triteness and Hypocrisy of Marcus Aurelius: Thoughts on Mary Beard, SPQR and Stoicism by Kevin Kennedy

Like many other members of the new Stoicism movement, I have a great interest in ancient Roman history. The Roman Empire is not only a fascinating subject in its own right, but knowledge of it also can help us gain a more profound understanding of Stoic philosophy. One of the world’s foremost experts on Roman history today is Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge university. In her books and her BBC documentaries, Beard presents the complexities of ancient Roman society in a way that is not only educational but also entertaining. So it was with tremendous joy that I recently found myself able to sit down with her latest work, a general history of Rome titled SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus:  “The Senate and the People of Rome”).

To be sure, I began reading SPQR  with a few caveats in mind. I knew that this was going to be a book that focused more on the politics, society, economy and everyday life in Rome than on its schools of philosophy, Moreover, I was aware that Beard was no fan of Stoicism. Whenever I see her name, I still have to think about a review she wrote several years ago of three biographies of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca: “How Stoical was Seneca?” The reviewed authors all viewed Seneca as a hypocrite and Beard agreed with them. For her, Seneca only affected a virtuous life to divert attention from his involvement with the tyrant Nero and from his amassment of enormous wealth by dubious means.

Beard even mocked Seneca’s suicide. (Nero believed Seneca was part of a conspiracy against him and commanded that he kill himself.) After failing to draw enough blood by slashing his veins (“he was so old and emaciated the blood hardly escaped”), Seneca took hemlock, offering a libation to Jupiter. This was, so Beard, an obvious attempt to emulate Socrates’ legendary death. But the poison also failed to achieve the desired effect, so Seneca ordered his servants to bring him into a hot bath, where he suffocated in the steam. Beard saw something comical in all this. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death, she writes, he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. Seneca was for Beard a poor exemplar of Stoic philosophy, which she seemed to dislike as much as she disliked him:

Hard-line Stoicism was a deterministic, fatalist doctrine that valued a virtuous life (and death) beyond almost everything else, with very little room for human frailty indeed.

And yet, with all this in mind, I was still not prepared for what I discovered in SPQR:

There are occasional examples of outstanding imperial virtue too. The philosophical Thoughts of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, cliché as much of it is (‘Do not act as if you were going to live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you’) still finds many admirers, buyers and advocates today, from self-help gurus to former US president Bill Clinton.

In truth, it is not necessary for a scholar to sympathize with Stoicism in order to write a first-rate history of ancient Rome (which is what SPQR is). What a reader can expect, however, is that a historian has some understanding of Stoicism before comparing it to contemporary self-help literature or former American presidents with obvious self-control issues. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contain trite observations which are repeated over and over?  Well duh! The repetition of philosophical principles was necessary, the Stoics taught, because we tend to keep forgetting them.

As those of you reading this now know, my  initial response to Beard’s comment was a decidedly non-Stoic one. I felt a twinge of anger and responded in a mocking tone. Had I remembered my Stoic principles, however, I would have realized that it was my own self who had decided that Mary Beard had somehow offended me and all modern-day Stoics. I also would have considered how to respond in a more mature manner. Now that I have taken a moment to regain my composure (cognitive distancing: another trite Stoic principle), I will attempt  to do just that.

When Marcus Aurelius was writing what came to be known as his Meditations or “Thoughts”, he was not composing a philosophical treatise intended for academic discussion; instead he was keeping a private journal intended to help him live a more virtuous life. This was (and remains) common Stoic practice. Epictetus, one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, stressed the importance of this exercise to his students: Let these things be ready at hand, night and day. These things write, these things read: of these things talk both to yourself and to others. (Discourses, 3:24). The purpose of this practice is described well by the writer Jules Evans. As he put is, Stoics keep journals full practiced a form of “autosuggestion”:

The student memorises these sayings, writes them down in their journal, repeats them to themselves, and carries them around – that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand”. We repeat the maxims until “through daily meditation [we] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord”, as Seneca put it. We assimilate them into our inner dialogue, and make them a “part of oneself”. The teachings become merged with our “tissue and blood”, part of our “body”. We become the Logos made flesh.

Another passage of SPQR which might irritate modern-day Stoic readers comes when Beard discusses Marcus Aurelius’ military exploits:

And some of the modern admirers of the gentle philosopher-emperor Marcus would be less admiring if they reflected on the the brutality of the suppression of the Germans, proudly illustrated in the scenes of battle that circle their way up the commemorative column that still stands in the centre of Rome; though less famous, it was clearly intended to rival Trajan’s and was carefully built just a little taller.

First, as a scholar of German history, I wince every time other historians use the term “the Germans” in this anachronistic way. “The Germans,” as a distinct ethnic-cultural nation, did not emerge until the Middle Ages, at the earliest.  “Germanic” would be more accurate for the ancient world. But I digress. More important is Beard’s suggestion that, since Marcus Aurelius engaged in brutal warfare, he violated his Stoic principles and was therefore, like Seneca, some kind of a hypocrite.

Marcus Aurelius was not always a mild-mannered philosopher, but an emperor and a general who also committed acts of violence that would make us blanch today? If I may be allowed one more un-stoical response: Another shocker! Anyone who has devoted any amount of serious study to the history ancient Rome knows this. Marcus Aurelius was responsible for things that today would get him sent to the International Court of Criminal Justice at the Hague. But Marcus Aurelius did not reign in the twenty-first century. He was a man of his time, and the ancient world was a very violent place.

In contrast to many other Roman emperors, however, Marcus never prosecuted wars of conquest. His wars were purely defensive — and necessary. Several times in the course of his reign, Germanic tribes invaded the Roman empire, pillaging and murdering local populaces, and setting off a wave of panic that reached the city of Rome itself. As a Stoic, he knew that the gods or the fates have entrusted each one of us with certain duties and responsibilities which we must carry out as best we can. As emperor, it was Marcus’ chief duty to protect the empire. He  discharged his duty, trying to maintain his humanity as far as possible.

While it is true that  his armies repelled the invaders with great brutality, the ancient accounts report that Marcus was also magnanimous to the Germanic tribes once they had been subdued. It is also important to remember that, despite certain similarities, Stoics are not Christians. Being a Stoic does not mean that one has to be a pacifist as well. (Christians themselves, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have also historically honored Christ’s pleas for love, peace and forgiveness more in the breach than in the observance.) Perhaps this is why Stoicism has traditionally found a receptive audience within the military. In any case, by guiding his troops into battle, Marcus was honoring his Stoic principles, not betraying them.

If I may conclude on another digression: While Mary Beard herself may be no admirer of Stoicism and the Stoics, she has, in the past few years, exhibited some public behavior which Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius would have found commendable. In 2013 Internet trolls reacted to some of Beard’s television appearances with vile, obscene, misogynist comments on Twitter. Beard responded by publicly naming and shaming them. Most remarkably, however, she later forgave her trolls and even befriended some of them. As she said, people shouldn’t be punished forever for solitary acts of stupidity: In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment’. Mary Beard’s dignified and generous response to her tormentors is worthy of a philosopher. Perhaps, somewhere along the way of her decades spent studying ancient Rome, she acquired some Stoic habits of mind after all.

And I would highly recommend all fellow modern Stoics to buy a copy of SPQR. Not to learn about the ancient Roman Stoics, but to discover the fascinating world in which they lived.

Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He lives with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at kevin.alterfritz@gmail.com.

Stoicism Today Is Relocating by Gregory Sadler

As the editor of Stoicism Today, I’m very pleased to announce that, after considerable planning and preparation, the Stoicism Today blog is officially moving to this new virtual location.  This decision wasn’t taken lightly – after all, it is quite a bit of work to move an established blog! – but there are some compelling reasons for making this shift, which I’ll discuss below.

First though, I’d like to stress that, although the aesthetics of the blog are somewhat different on this new site where it is hosted, Stoicism Today remains the same blog.  All of the previous entries over the last four years have been migrated over to this new location.  In fact, for most of them, all of the discussions carried out in the comments have been imported as well.  The continuity extends to the staff as well – it’s still myself as editor, and Tom McConnell as editorial assistant – and the input we get from the editorial committee.

Why change anything then?  Why move to another location?  It is really a matter of exercising prudence, when it comes down to it.  The Stoic community has been growing in numbers and in  the complexity of its interconnections worldwide over the last decade, especially in the last five years.  “Stoicism Today” – both as the blog itself, and as the loose organization that originated and supports Stoic Week, Stoicon, and a number of other initiatives – has also been developing in the process.

The project group is assuming a more formal and official structure as an organization, Modern Stoicism, a charitable incorporated organization based in the UK, with an associated core group (the “steering committee”) worldwide who work out decisions by consensus – the people who you’ll see listed on the “Modern Stoicism Group” page on this new hosting site.

There are a number of main activities this group is routinely involved in.  The Stoicism Today blog is one key part of that.  You see members of the group occasionally contributing pieces to the blog, but they actually do considerably more than that behind the scenes, advising me as the editor, sending good prospects for entries my way, and collaborating to publicize events and classes.  The annual Stoicon conference itself is one prime example of that, but we also strive to promote other events where people can learn about, discuss, and practice Stoicism.  The two flagship online classes – the Stoic Week class, and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) – are another main area, involving a lot of work and collaboration (the lion’s share of which falls upon Donald Robertson).

As the community of people interested in Stoicism has built up online (with a lot of healthy connections to face-to-face meetings, events, and groups), it hasn’t just grown in sheer numbers of people involved, or even the number of different venues – it’s also a matter of the complexity of the overlaps, interconnections, shares, and so forth between people, organizations, and forums where interactions take place.  Members of the “Stoicism Today” (or “Modern Stoicism” – whichever you like) project group are quite often, if not at the center of things, certainly playing significant roles.  You’ll also notice quite a few of the guest contributors to Stoicism Today similarly involved in the contemporary Stoicism community.

One main goal is for Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism to remain just as centrally involved in the ongoing – and very exciting – activities, conversations, and developments of the larger contemporary Stoic community.  So, it was decided by a good deal of conversation, thought, and eventually consensus, that now would be a particularly propitious time to reorganize and restructure matters.

In some cases, this also involves consolidating matters that were originally based on different online platforms.  And that’s precisely what we’re doing in this case.  You’ll now be able to read the Stoicism Today blog itself on the same site that you’ll use to participate in the Stoic Week or SMRT courses, or to check for events, or look for resources – or even (hint, hint) to donate and support the ongoing work of the organization.

To bring this last entry here to a close, on behalf of Stoicism Today, I’d like to express a bit of gratitude. Thanks to the University of Exeter for hosting this excellent and needed online publication from its inception to now!  Thanks to the previous editor, Patrick Ussher, and to Tom McConnell, for all of their hard work building up this important forum for contemporary Stoicism!  Thanks to the members of the Stoicism Today project team for thought-provoking articles, organizing events and classes, and for invaluable advice!  Thanks to all of the guest contributors who labored over their own posts, enriching the ongoing conversation of this forum!

A last set of thanks must go to all of you readers of this blog.  We’re happy that Stoicism Today has drawn such a faithful and engaged audience over these last four years!  Now, as we cross the threshold into a new year, we invite you to follow us over to the new site where Stoicism Today will continue to publish weekly posts for the modern Stoic community.