Online Symposium – Stoicism and Passivity (part 3)

We finish our series of posts in our online symposium on the topic of Stoicism and Passivity with two excellent pieces by Matt Sharpe and Kevin Vost. Here’s the prompt from the original call for contributions:

Many people wrongly associate Stoicism with a passive, even fatalistic attitude towards matters. It’s a pretty prevalent view – and criticism – of Stoicism from the outside.  And yet, if we look at representative classic and contemporary Stoics, we find that they’re quite active within their world, their neighborhoods, their jobs and workplaces, their circles of friendship and family, just to name a few domains.

You can read the previous two sets of contributions here:

With no further ado, the final entries contributed to our online symposium!

Matt Sharpe

Statistics from around the world suggest that workplace bulling is an epidemic, at any time affecting between 10% and (on some estimations) up to 30% of workers.  It costs many people’s careers and affects their wellbeing.  It damages workplace cultures, and costs economies vast sums in lost work hours due to sick leave and medical insurance payouts.  

If some popular images of Stoicism as a philosophy of passively “grinning and bearing it” were true, the ancient philosophy would seem like the last resource bullying targets would want to look to.  When fellow employees choose to blacken a target’s name or make false allegations or to impugn their integrity and capacities, or to deny them access to information they need to do their job, etc. (and there are many such strategies in bullies’ arsenals) surely this is the time to actively fight back, not quietly accept adversity with a “stiff upper lip”.

But the image of Stoicism as a philosophy of passivity, almost a rationalization of impotence in the world, is arguably profoundly misleading.  For a start, justice is a virtue for Stoics.  And this means opposing injustice, actively, wherever possible.  This includes if that injustice is directed against yourself, your family or friends, or indeed, your country.

Then there is the fact that Stoicism is all about actively examining and taking ownership of our thoughts and feelings.  We cannot control what others do or say, and many other things besides.  But we can actively control how we respond to what happens to us.  

In many cases, this will mean directly, actively responding to threats – as for example, in the case of the brave Ukrainian people whose homeland has been invaded by a foreign power. In other situations, however, this may best mean biting one’s tongue and biding one’s time.  As well as justice, practical wisdom (phronêsis) is also a cardinal Stoic virtue.  

If, for example, someone wishes to bait you to produce an adverse emotional reaction that they can “use”, then the worst thing you might do is “fly off the handle” in a rage.  And if you are in a workplace wherein one or more of your colleagues are (per the International Labor Organization’s definition of bullying) directing towards you repeated “vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating” actions, then again, great care is needed before responding, if the best outcomes are to be achieved.  

In the large percentage of workplace bullying cases which involve what Swedish sociologist Heinz Leymann calls “mobbing”that is, wherein the bullies have convinced one or more managers that the target “deserves” their ill treatment, and tacitly or openly support it – appealing to managers or HR for support can backfire in targets’ faces.  Instead, they find their attempts to raise complaints presented as “accusatory”, further evidence that they “are difficult … don’t get along with others …”

The bulling target therefore not only needs, in the course of time, to change things in the world – either by leaving their workplace, or by staying and fighting.  They need firstly to take care of themselves, by managing their emotional responses.  Secondly, they need to carefully deliberate about what courses of action are available to them, when, how, and with what obstacles and prospects.  

In different places, for a start, there will be different legal instruments governing workplace relations to which targets can appeal for a fair hearing or redress.  In many industries in most places, there will be unions whose task it is, ideally, to protect employees and promote their interests.  Targets may also have rights to representation or support in any meetings which they may not have been informed about by their employers. 

So, actively applying the Stoic virtue of practical wisdom, targets need to get informed.  Knowledge is power.  But this means they need to take care of themselves, so they have the peace of mind required to seek out the best sources of information and get the best advice. As hard as it sounds, and as hard as it genuinely is for many targets in the heat of a situation unlike any they’ve experienced before, the worst thing to do in many cases of workplace bullying is to actively take up the fight against a bully or bullies.  For, in what might be called a “one-two punch”, one key bullying move is to present such defensive actions by targets as unbalanced.  Seeking defensive redress, the target is instead condemned by the bullies as the aggressor.

So, how can Stoicism help targets keep their head, when others have lost theirs and blame them?  The stress Stoicism as a practical philosophy places on what we actively can do, starting with examining our own impressions and impulses, makes it an almost essential tool for anyone being targeted by workplace bullies.  Targets typically experience what some describe as a toxic “cocktail” of negative emotions, as it becomes clear to them that they are indeed being subject to a repeated pattern, over time, of acts of overt and covert aggression in their workplaces.  

They typically feel unwelcome, unvalued, and fearful about their situation and what might come next.  If attempts so far to resolve the matter within the workplace have failed (or made the situation worse, through the one-two punch), targets often feel deeply powerless, angry, and disoriented.

The active application of the Stoic dichotomy of control hence becomes for targets decisively important if the bullying experience is not to become overwhelming – as statistics suggest that it does become in too many cases. 

Targets need to accept that what others do is beyond their control.  Bullies’ actions may indeed be intended to be harmful and insulting.  That is their bad.  We also can’t prevent third parties, even people in positions of responsibility, believing slanders without hearing both sides of the story. It is disappointing that one is not always liked and people act unjustly.  But that is not something we can ever control.

 But this does not mean that the bullying target is passive, without any agency, as many report feeling.  This side of the dichotomy of the control, the side concerning what we can control, Stoicism tells us that bullying targets can still do a lot.  They can still:

  • note all incidents, with names, dates, times, places, and store this information in writing, for future possible reference.
  •  in cases where bullies may have acted “behind closed doors”, for instance by sending anonymous or pseudonymous online messages, or interfering with a person’s workspace, they can note these incidents, alongside the level of certainty (and uncertainty) that these were acts by the bullies for future reference.
  • inform themselves about the frequency and forms of workplace bullying and “mobbing”, as well as of how other people have survived and thrived in situations like theirs.  They are not alone, nor is what they’re experiencing unprecedented.
  • seek out sources of union support and legal advice and inform themselves about their workplace rights.
  • seek out good independent counseling or psychological advice, including from one of the many practitioners who have worked with similar cases in the past.
  • actively cultivate other interests and social connections outside of the toxic workplace, underlining the extent to which they are not who and what their bullies allege.

So, does Stoicism suggest we respond to workplace bulling by passive, fatalistic acceptance, if we experience it ourselves, or witness someone we know struggling with it?  Not at all.  Stoicism is a way for targets to take back control of a situation which otherwise renders too many people passive and powerless. 


Kevin Vost

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish,  but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen,  and your life will be serene.” Epictetus

Within the Christian world, commentators have expressed concern that some people seem to promote a “Just Jesus and me” attitude. They focus on their “personal relationship with Jesus,” perhaps at the detriment of their relationships with the people around them (though Jesus himself said we should love our neighbors as ourselves.)  Some critics of Stoicism argue that Stoicism too can produce an excessive concern with oneself at the expense of care for others. Though I’ve never heard this phrase actually used, we might call it an attitude of “Me and my Prohairesis,” borrowing Epictetus’ term for our will or moral purpose. 

Is it true that modern proponents of Stoicism may become so concerned only with things within their own control that they care little about whatever (or whomever) lies outside of it?  Does Stoicism encourage an attitude of passivity or indifference to what happens to other people?  Further, does Stoicism, with its indifference to insults and injuries encourage what we might call “doormat behavior,” allowing others to walk right over us – or even our loved ones?  Good questions these are, but questions with good answers within the works of the ancient Stoics themselves.  

I’ve recently written a book that applies ancient Greco-Roman methods of memorization to help us remember the timeless ethical and psychological lessons of the Greek and Roman Stoics.  In summarizing and commenting on all fifty-three chapters of Epictetus’s Handbook, the first fifty of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, and seven key principles from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, themes of what could be (mis)interpreted as excessive passivity and themes of our proactive duties to our fellow man and woman come up many times. I’ll zoom in on just a couple of them. 

The first comes from my commentary on Epictetus’s eighth very brief Handbook chapter, which is reproduced in its entirety in our opening quotation. Here is the commentary (my mention of the birthday cake referencing a visual image employed earlier in the memorize exercise for this chapter):

Hopefully it is clear now that we imagined in the mirror a birthday cake brimming with candles, because in the one sentence of chapter 8, Epictetus, like some kind of genie on steroids, has shown us how all of our wishes can be granted!  Of course, harking back to our lesson on the discipline of desire (Handbook chapter 2), we must wish for the right things. In essence, we must wish that everything that happens, happens! 

Note well that Epictetus is not encouraging or condoning any kind of physical or moral laziness or complacency, failing to strive to make the world a better place. As we will see in our very next chapter, we are to strive mightily with great moral purpose (i.e., “prohairesis”) to achieve things virtuous and good for us and for those around us. Our lesson here is that even when our strivings do not yield the results we had expected, or when arduous external circumstances come our way, no external event should be able to shatter our internal peace.  Perhaps we find a concordant lesson in the letter of St. James: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…” (James 1:2).

When bad things happen to us or others, Epictetus is not encouraging a devil-may-care, “So what, Big deal!” attitude, but an attitude that does not allow us to become crushed or immobilized, so that we can keep striving to do the right things, contribute to the common good, and make the world a more loving place, even in the face of repeated failures. 

As often as Epictetus tells us how to be serene and undisturbed by things outside our control, he teaches us to love and serve our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our communities through virtuous pursuit of duties befitting human beings. For example, let’s look next at my summary of and commentary upon Handbook chapter 17:

Remember that you are an actor in a play that is determined by the Playwright. He determines if it’s short or long. Whether he wants you to play a beggar, a lame man, a ruler or a private citizen, what is up to you is to play your assigned part well.

In a sense, Epictetus anticipated Shakespeare by fifteen hundred years in declaring “All the world’s a stage.” Now, in addition to our banquet metaphor for life (Handbook chapter 15) he gives us that of the stage. The Playwright, of course, refers to God. We didn’t get to write the play, determine our part, or where it will end, but it is up to us to play our assigned role as well as we possibly can. This should not suggest a complete passivity or predetermination however. While none of us chooses our parents, our race, our inherited traits, or the time, social class, or location into which we are born, the most important things still remain up to us.  

To borrow from my doctoral school’s namesake: “The important thing is not what one is born with, but what one makes of that equipment.”  We can indeed “ad lib” to some extent, since the Playwright has given us the capacity to control our thoughts, tongues, and actions.  

Modern Handbook commentator Keith Seddon makes an interesting point here about the parts of scripts of our lives that do remain outside of our control, perhaps one that we’ve all considered a time or two in our lives, about how chance events can have such profound consequences throughout the course of our lives. 

Hmm, if I hadn’t spent that quarter on a memory book in 1978 would I be writing this book right now?  If my workout buddy and mentor or my future wife hadn’t walked into the gym where I worked in the early 1980s, how different would my career and my family life have been? Indeed, it is the Playwright who provides us with all kinds of scenery, props, and co-stars, and yet it is largely up to us the kind of life story we play out with them.

Ancient Handbook commentator Simplicius provides some beautiful insights of his own. The Playwright or Director will assign each actor his or her role, but it is the function of each actor to play their assigned role to the best of their ability. Indeed, “for this reason a slave or a madman in a play is often well-received, and a wealthy man or general or king poorly received, when the former act their given roles well, and the latter badly.” (I don’t know about you, but for me, Levar Burton as the slave Kunta Kinte in Roots, and Jack Nicholson as madman Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are modern proofs in Simplicius’ ancient pudding!)

Simplicius says it works just this way in real life too. Indeed, how many wealthy men, generals, or even kings of Epictetus’s day are as known as revered in our day as that self-same  poor, lame, ex-slave who played so well the roles that the Playwright assigned him?

I’ll conclude that a thorough reading of the ancient Stoics themselves will reveal time and again their calls to duty, to love, to citizenship, and their emphasis that through our reason and will we are empowered to take vigorous positive actions every day in every duty of our daily lives. Indeed, even that self-proclaimed “lame old man,” Epictetus himself, had a very positive, active, and powerful effect on those who heard him in his day, those who read him decades later (most notably Emperor Marcus Aurelius), and every one of us who reads him or his fellow Stoics in our day. 

If we are to heed the Stoics’ call, after we sit passively in our recliners absorbing their words of wisdom, we’ll retract the foot rest, stand up tall, and get busy (to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius), rising to do the work of a human being.  

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is the author of How to Keep Your Head When Others Lose Theirs and Blame You: Stoicism, Workplace Bullying, and Beyond (in press).

Kevin Vost is a contributor to Stoicism Today: Selected Writings, Volume 3, and the author of The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living and Memorize the Stoics! The Ancient Art of Memory Meets the Timeless Art of Living.    


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