How to Be a Stoic: A Review

I'm always curious as to how people go about introducing others to the Stoic philosophy and so I was very pleased when How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci finally arrived at my door. I had pre-ordered the book quite a while ago, but as the publication date came and went, my delivery date kept getting pushed back further and further. I was never truly perturbed by the wait, but as more and more tweets and posts of happy readers rolled across my screen, a certain itch to hold the book in my hand did find its way into my mind. In the end I discovered that the book had been lost in transit and I had to have a new copy sent. I mention this only because I found it funny that Massimo's book provided an opportunity for Stoic practice even before I opened to the first page. Now that I've completed my first reading, I can say that How to Be a Stoic is now the first book I would recommend to anyone seeking a basic overview of Stoicism.

Massimo presents an engaging, humane, and practical philosophy that is within the reach of anyone who chooses to practice it. The book is framed by an imagined conversation between the author and the ancient Stoic teacher, Epictetus. This choice makes the potentially dry and often off-putting (initially) ideas of Stoicism quite approachable. I also find a lot of value in presenting Epictetus as a man one could have conversed with. The fact of Stoicism's antiquity can lead to, I think, a fixed approach to the philosophy. It can be easy to say that Stoicism is only what it was and, as a finished product, the task of the practitioner is to conform to what the ancients presented. Massimo's conversations with Epictetus remind us that that the head of the Stoic school was also growing into his philosophy; adapting it to his life and times. The modern practitioner is invited to engage with Stoicism, live it out in practice, and breath new life into the discipline.

I was particularly pleased by the final section of the book, Practical Spiritual Exercises. Instead of listing a set of solidified step-by-step practices, he takes a more open approach. The twelve exercises presented are usable as written but with titles like Remind Yourself of the Impermanence of Things and Speak without Judging the reader is left feeling free to adapt and create a Stoic practice all their own.

If you are looking to learn about Stoicism, How to Be a Stoic is a superb introduction. For myself, I found the book satisfying both as a look into the practice of a fellow Stoic and as a means of reinvigorating my own approach to the discipline. I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Quick thoughts on Racism, Safe Spaces, and Protest

I wrote this post as a comment in a Facebook conversation. However, I can't post it...probably because it's too long. So I'm dropping it here and I'll link to it on Facebook. I think readers of this blog can get the idea of what was being covered through my answer. I want to expand on these ideas later, and more clearly, but I have no problem sharing a raw version right now.

The article in question is here: Human Wall

I want to address some of the topics in this conversation directly, instead of as comments on other people's posts. As a Stoic who supports social justice movements, accepts and promotes the idea of safe space, and often participates in actions considered "rabble rousing," I just want to be on the record as to why a Stoic might partake in such things. This will be long and incomplete. I'll probably write an article on my website later.

 First though, there's a language issue. Racism, Whiteness, White people, people of color, etc...are often words/categories that individuals cross-talk about. We aren't speaking about the same thing even when we're speaking at each other. So the author of the Reason article says the students are being racist against White people. I can be rather certain that the protesting students would say that that is impossible, and I would agree. People of color (POC) can not use racism against White people. This is because racism is not equal to bigotry. Racism is a structure of laws, customs, beliefs, etc... that support a dominant group through the direct material oppression of other groups. Bigotry can be part of racism, but it is not even necessary for racism to have an effect. In the United States, historically and culturally, then and now, Whiteness is the category that is supported by racism. Racism can not be wielded against Whites by definition. People can be bigots towards White people, they can put up obstacles in their way, but this is not racism.

This is the context in which POC and others say that racism is impossible against Whites and that reverse-racism is ridiculous on its face. Also, you may notice I keep capitalizing White and Whiteness. In the discourse of racial studies, racial history, social justice movements, and the like, Whiteness is a social and political construction developed as a means of understanding who gets access to power in a racialized society. Whiteness was developed in direct opposition and for the oppression of "others" (those outside the system). When people are against Whiteness, as I as a White person am, they are not against Scots, Irish, Germans, and so forth. They're against a fiction that treats certain people as the default category of humanity.

Now, many people here may disagree with these definitions. However, these definitions are not new. They have been part of the discourse for decades. Blog posts, papers, and books addressing such things are readily available through simple Google searches. "Social Justice Warriors" (I consider myself a Social Justice Wizard) are speaking from positions similar to the ones I just laid out. If you're going to argue about beliefs or tactics, understand where we are coming from. Don't just say, "but that's not what racism is." It IS in our discourse. Has been for a long time.

So why would a Stoic support actions like the one in the article, or just the ideas behind them if not the particular action itself? First, Stoicism holds that all people are equals in human dignity. Second, Stoicism demands that we live out virtue as we understand it. Possibly a more controversial third point, Stoicism frees us from passions SO THAT we can live out virtue fearlessly.

 As I mentioned in statements about racism, racism causes real material harm to individuals. It displaces people, slashes wages, denies services, incarcerates, and attacks dignity and human worth daily. It is a system designed to oppress and it functions whether or not people are well-meaning or bad apples. When people seek out "safe spaces" they are looking for room to breath. On a college campus, they might be asking for one place, just one place, where their value as a human isn't up for debate. This is not a new idea, is is asking for the same sort of space that has been provided to others since universities began. The university system is a millennia long experiment in the creation of safe space for white men. Not only POC, but all women, people with different gender expressions, all marginalized groups, have been denied access to higher education and had their opinions, work, etc...dismissed out of hand when they have been allowed in. This continues.

I consider it a Stoic duty to use my place in life for the actual benefit of others. First family, then community, then world. I believe the freedom I gain from a Stoic outlook and the freedoms I have as a citizen in my own nation, should be turned towards making better systems. Acceptance of what is, with action towards what should be.

Which brings me to protest actions like the blocking of the movement of White people. It makes quite a point! White people, for a moment, confronted with a real obstacle, symbolic of the ones POC face everywhere. There's another term out there, "respectability politics." I'm going to straight grab an online definition for this one:

"Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference."

Respectability politics, and the tactics of respectability in protest, don't work. In a world where a man taking a knee during a song solicits death threats, simply asking "please, see me as equal and listen to my concerns" is wasted time. Again, racist systems do not require bigotry to fuel them. Marginalized groups do not need to sit down with White people or cisgendered people for a neighborly chat, they need those people to stop supporting systems that kill and oppress them. Disruption protests are what works in the face of blindness to real problems. Disruption can, perhaps, alert an affected person to the issue at hand. If not that it will, always, point out the power that protesters can wield when they choose. In my own city, Black Lives Matter and aligned groups did not receive audience with the mayor by asking at community meetings or through his staff. They got his ear after we shut down a bridge.

Many of us are drawn to Stoicism because it is a practical philosophy. Practical in that it can have a real affect on practitioners. What is that effect for? Do we overcome anxiety simply for tranquility? Do we learn to by unperturbed by rude or dis-humanizing actions just to absorb them as if nothing happened? I suggest we look to Stoic exemplars. Hercules, Socrates, Diogenes, Cato. One myth and three men who are held up in the literature as exemplary humans. Hercules who actively overcame obstacles. Socrates who accepted death over shutting up about wisdom, Diogenes who lived his entire life as a stick in the eye to society, Cato who sought what he saw as the better world until it killed him.

I first put Stoicism into practice to overcome crippling anxiety and depression. The Stoic mindset helped me win many battles, ones that I still fight on occasion. Now, in general, I have solid emotional, mental ground to stand on. Am I done? No. Now I have energy to spare. I use it to work for real change in this world as best I know how. Aurelius once reminded himself to do the right thing even if others can see him doing it. Why would he even need to worry about such a thing? Because the right thing is often not the socially acceptable thing. Still, a Stoic isn't concerned with whether virtue miffs our opponents. We do it anyway.

So should every Stoic be a "Social Justice Warrior?" I wish, but no. We all need to live where we are at and act as our own understanding requires. Should Stoic SJWs stop calling themselves Stoic or do Stoics have to be civil? Well when society is uncivil, the civil action, the social action, will grate against it. One of my favorite Seneca quotes defines the outcome of the Stoic life :

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular. -Seneca, On Clemency 3.3

We should live how we must live to make this outcome true.