Stoicism and Bullying by Matthew Sharpe

Many people on this list may have in the past, or may be at present, experiencing what people today call “bullying”.  Many others of us may have real hesitations about the term, for it can be thrown around too loosely, like many other emotive words.  It can also be politicized in different ways.

But most of us have a sense of what the term “bullying” means.  Bullying describes the intentional act of intimidating, harassing, ostracizing, or belittling another person(s), often with the particular aim of inflicting intentional damage to their standing in front of others.  (These last bits also go by the names of ‘slandering’ and ‘back-stabbing’).

Bullying under these descriptions is certainly one of those human things that Marcus Aurelius would remind us that we can always see, if we stop for a moment to meditate on what life was like in the courts of Hadrian or Augustus, or in any historical society.

Most of us will remember that big kid at school who needed to be the center of attention, and who would throw his weight around to intimidate smarter or better-behaved kids.  Many of us, as parents, will have grave worries about the potential for online bullying that our kid’s growing up into a world of social media presents.  Too often, the news in Australia airs stories of young people who have taken their own lives, in response to the distress that they have experienced in response to online bullying and belittling.

There is a large literature on the realities of bullying in the workplace, both between equals, and by managers who feel threatened by particular staff members, but are unable to directly dismiss them.  Instead, various practices of exclusion, nonrecognition, what is called “mobbing” (basically, sanctioned group-ostracizing), and even “gaslighting” (actions which make the person feel uncomfortable, like tampering with door locks) are initiated in the hope that the person will feel so unsafe in their workplace that they will basically jump ship.

It should be clear that Stoics themselves will have no truck with such actions, by whatever name we call them.  Here, Socrates’ principle, so dear to Stoicism, that it is better to suffer than to do injustice applies.  (And Socrates knew alot what it was like to have people slandering him unjustly, after all.  It was just such slander, in 399 BCE, which would take his life).

Undertaking bullying actions not only reflects badly on the people who undertake or sanction them.  As Seneca reminds us in On Anger, such actions bespeak cowardice and weakness, not any real strength.  The virtuous person has no need to bring others down, in order to feel happy and secure within themselves. And Stoicism, we know, holds virtue, strength of character, to be the only good.  

Of course, those of us who are not sages will from time to time feel impulses towards envy, resentment, anger, disgust, contempt, or outrage towards our fellows.  But Stoics practice reminding themselves that human beings are both literally born of sociability and love, and that we thrive as social beings, like the hands connected to the body, or the branches of a single tree.

Bullying actions like those I have described, however we choose to label them, tear at the bonds that tie people together.  To again evoke Seneca, they are like the acid that corrodes the sides of the vessel that holds it.  By monitoring our representations, and honestly addressing our motivations, the Stoic strives to resist any impulses towards meanly bringing down others, malicious gossip behind people’s backs, or damaging abuse to their faces. 

When the Stoic sees such low actions being prepared or perpetrated against others, s/he should always do all that s/he can to stop them, consistent with the other virtues.

But here is the thing: what if it is you who are on the receiving end of such intimidation, ostracism, and slander?   What, if anything, can Stoicism tell us about how you should respond, if it is your reputation that is being dragged through the mud, or drowned in it?  Or what advice can Stoic philosophy give to parents who can see, for instance, that their child is wrestling online or at school with bullying?

Everyone knows that the popular image of Stoicism suggests that people should just ‘grin and bear it’, with a ‘stiff upper lip’, and so on.  But readers on this list will know that this is a deeply partial, misleading understanding of Stoicism.

First of all, as in any situation where another human being is experiencing distress, the Stoic should treat them with concern and respect.  If the person is in the immediate grips of the emotions of distress, despair, or anger-all possible and real responses people who experience these things feel-there is no point in denying or suppressing these emotions. 

When the wave of the emotion has subsided, however, Stoic therapeutic and philosophical arguments can offer real help.  Stoicism doesn’t, impossibly, promise that we can change what the others are thinking or doing.  It does however prompt people to refocus on what they can do, even in situations of great adversity.  And this can be immensely liberating.

One response people who have suffered intimidation in the workplace or elsewhere tend to feel, for instance, is outrage at the (often very real) injustice of what has happened to them.  In many cases, nothing they have done will justify how they are being treated.  In others, what their bullies claim about them, as a supposed justification for the bullying, is self-serving and misleading.

The Stoic question about this is: can we change this?  Can we change what others are choosing and thinking?  Can we prevent them from thinking unjust or hateful things about us, or trying to convince third parties that we are in some ways disreputable, bad, ugly, stupid … whatever it is?

The answer is of course: no, we cannot.  It is very understandable to wish that we could.  But that wish is not rational.  What we can control are our thoughts, desires, and actions: how we respond to others’ vices.  Everything else, nature or Zeus has, in its higher wisdom, distributed to others.

Another thing people understandably feel and express in such situations is “but it is different when it happens to you”.  For the Stoic, the answer to this claim is “yes and no”.  That it is happening to you is (hopefully) new, and won’t happen many times to you in your life.  But that it is happening at all is not unusual for human beings.  When we think about it, we have all been told, read, or watched stories in which envious, scheming Iago-like characters take aim at people who are more virtuous and worthy than they are. 

It helps then to cultivate a view which enables us an inner distance from our impulse to feel hurt and singled out by a cruel fate.  The philosopher Francis Bacon, for instance, when he was brought down from high office in circumstances which people continue to debate, took comfort in comparing his fall from public grace with that of other good people and philosophers, like Socrates and Seneca. 

It helps to remember that better people than us have suffered worse than we are suffering.  And in many cases, they have endured it with fortitude and dignity that can inspire us.  Grief shared is grief halved, Bacon also said.  Just so, remembering that we are not alone in experiencing difficulties is a great consolation. 

If someone reports to you that others have been slandering you, Marcus reminds himself, they have not reported that you are hurt by it.  The same applies today to social media.  If someone abusively attacks you, or unlikes or unfriends you, that alone is what has happened in the world-not that you and your state of mind is directly affected by their choices.

Stoicism bids us remember also that even the worst people will each have been doing what they thought was good.  If they have lied or become abusive, then the fault and the shame lies with them.  If they have acted out of envy and resentment, that also is ‘their bad’, not ours.  Leave that fault and burden with them, rather than letting their meanness become an inner burden for you to carry.

But doesn’t Stoicism, with all this focus on what we can do, prevent us from seeking justice against cowards and schemers?  And doesn’t sometimes turning the other cheek merely encourage bullies, since they can take your nonresponse as license to keep behaving in the same ways?

No.  We can and should try to change the world, to the extent that we can, and justice is a virtue.  But pursuing justice is not the same as pursuing vengeance, the desire for which the Stoics tells us literally defines the emotion of anger.  Outrage, even if it is righteous outrage, tends to blind us.

Moreover, the bullies’ best defense against possible censure for their actions involves pointing to their victim and saying: ‘look how angry this person is?  Did I not say that they were unstable, stupid, ugly, unprofessional …’

Such blaming of the victim clears any pangs of conscience the bully or bullies may have.  It also provides an ex post facto justification, in case anyone protests, for their ill treatment of you.  You ‘had it coming’, and this anger or distress that you are showing is ‘all the proof anyone needs,’ etc.

It can seem sometimes, when we study the way that bullying works–and much more serious forms of persecution in human history–that it involves not one, but two actions.  First, a person or group is targeted for vilification, verbally or through other actions.  Then, second, when the targets react to this vilification, this is retrospectively pointed to as ‘proof’ that the first form of mistreatment was justified.  Today, we call this kind of mindset and acting in the online space ‘trolling’.

All of the psychological studies on how to respond to bullying therefore recommend what Stoicism also, I believe, counsels.  As hard as it may be, to show your emotion to bullies tends only to make things worse.  Not only do some of them take pleasure in seeing their targets showing distress, since this is what they wished all along.  Showing such emotion also enables them, in the way described, to feel justified in their actions.

The best revenge is not to become like the wrongdoer, Marcus Aurelius tells us, in one of the most beautiful sentences of the Meditations (VI, 5).  To meet aggression with aggression, especially when it is workplace or managerial bullying that is at stake, is unwise, both at a philosophical but also at a practical level.  

The best thing one can do is rather to “let go of the rope,” using the metaphor of a tug of war.  The unwise person who wishes to bring another person down draws fuel by seeing that their words or actions have got under their target’s skin-or, as we Stoics might say, that their target has assented to the idea that they have been harmed. 

So, if we withhold this assent, if we effectively say to the representations of that person in our heads “you are not welcome here, you cannot harm me”, then this in itself is not simply empowering for our peace of mind, but disempowering for our ill-meaning, unwise friends.  Like the vampire of popular mythology, who can only enter our homes if we invite them, refusing to give the bully power over our thoughts also robs them of any possible sense of vindication for the meanness. 

None of this is easy.  Like dealing with loss, disappointment, and other shocks, it is very hard.  Stoics know that attaining to true virtue is hard.  Sages are as rare as a phoenix in Egypt, after all.  Seneca teaches clemency to the young Emperor Nero (unsuccessfully) on these grounds. 

It is vital if you are experiencing bullying that you seek out good counsel, with people you can rely upon and support you, including in any attempts to achieve just restitution against the wrongdoer.

But with practice, reading and discussing Stoic ideas, this extraordinary philosophy can give consolation, direction, and strength to people who are facing that particular kind of adversity that involves malicious behavior by others.  We cannot directly change them, but we can address and change how we react to them.  And by doing so, we can use even the bullying of others as the opportunity to strengthen and better ourselves, and teach others.  

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020).

3 thoughts on Stoicism and Bullying by Matthew Sharpe

  1. Cynthia Truhan says:

    I think that this piece offers such a strong, practical insight to how the pratice of Stocism can serve as a person’s mighty shield against not only the potential harm done by bullies, but from the everyday indignitites of life itself. Again, it’s all how we react to what is coming at us—take a moment, take a breath, step back, believe what you see and hear and then rationally decide your options. That moment of assessment is so powerful. A bully looks for a quick reaction inorder to continue his game of power—do not give him any of your precious time. Recently someone attempted to bully me and I simply said, “I’m sorry you are having a bad day” and then just calmly walked away. The bully looked highly confused.

  2. Thais Munk says:

    I want to like the above, but I couldn’t help but notice that it doesn’t say anything about contacting HR, talking to your boss, etc. I think that it’s good not to “answer in revenge” and similar things, but surely there are rules on workplaces for stuff like that?
    That and I can’t also help but notice that there wasn’t a passage about leaving a job? Because I think that counts as a relevant response as well.

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