Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.
The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.
But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.
It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.
Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.
Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.
College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.
College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?
In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks. The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.
I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.
When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.
The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped. This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”
In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.
Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.
And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]
We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.
It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.
William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t. For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.