Jess Whitson has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. Jess has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. Jess eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served Jess well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.
Jess Whitson created this blog in April of 2018. He hopes to spread the word of Stoicism to the masses. Hopefully Jess' endeavor bears some fruit.
I just wanted to make sure that people knew that 5 Reasons Stoicism Is Better Than Everything is on Audible, ACX, and iTunes. I think hearing my book read by Carrie Burgess sounds much better than when I sub-vocalize it in book form. It’s a little more than an hour audio.
You can also get 5 Reasons Stoicism Is Better Than Everything in Kindle or paperback.
We’re always told to be mindful of the people around us. Don’t hurt other’s feelings, or offend, we’re told. Well, there’s truth to this. As members of society, we’ve been taught that people are responsible for how they act based on their feelings or how they manage those feelings. But we’re also taught to not stir up people’s feelings. We kind of have it both ways. People can choose to act or not act based on their feelings but at the same time, we shouldn’t push people’s buttons because people are only human.
That’s really not too far away from Stoicism. Stoics were radical in the belief that we could individually learn to manage our emotions far better but they were also mindful of the fact that we’re only human. It’s just not nice to try to injure someone even if they’re the best Stoic you ever crossed paths with.
So are we, for better or worse, at the mercy of our emotions? We are somewhat at their mercy but, with practice, we can lessen their hold on us and their efficacy. The Stoics realized long ago that by judging externals to be morally neutral, we can deescalate our passions such as hate, jealousy, and lust. By deliberately and mindfully discarding the moral importance of all things external, we can free up a lot of our mind from emotions reacting to external events. Also, we can refocus our mind by turning it inward, toward our virtuous character. By working on our character and perfecting it, we can be more relaxed, chill, and logical.
Society almost has it right in the way we should hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior despite having strong passions. And society definitely has it right that we really shouldn’t try to push people’s buttons, at least, if it’s not for the betterment or for some more important effort than mere pushing people’s buttons for buttons’ sake. One thing that all societies throughout time have gotten wrong though is the obsession over externals. Externals are valuable but they’re not the most important thing ever. Also, society is right to say that we should take responsibility for our emotions and not act out on them every time we become angry. But the Stoics offered a better solution to this problem, and that was to pretty much kill off any kind of negative passion. That way you’d be insured to not easily cave to whatever passion you might have. Neutering a passion really goes a long way, it gives someone a freedom they didn’t once have. They don’t have to feel like the dam holding back all that water. The Stoics said to just reduce the level of the water in the first place so that no possible instances of leaking or rupture is even possible.
Stoicism is the best philosophy ever designed by the natural world. It’s our little blue print to doing what we should be doing. Are you angry? Stoicism says, it’s ok to be initially angry as a result of a stimulus but after a few seconds of thinking about it, cut that shit out. Relax man. Turn down your angry passion. It’s silly to be that way. Same thing with fear. It’s ok to be startled, to even shake a little bit when delivering a speech in front of a crowd, but on the inside, get things right, be calm. Stoicism also throws in helpful tips on how to make that happen.
I’m kind of a hot mess. My desires are pulling me in millions of directions. My mind won’t shut up about anything. Just won’t turn off. Keeps calculating, speculating, creating, feeling, absorbing, entertaining, and laterally thinking. This is where Stoicism comes in handy. It tells me, focus on virtue. Take all the energy of these desires and focus it into a laser beam aimed at virtue. Harness all the energy in my brain to focus on one important thing in life: virtue. A brain with goals is awesome. It’s what makes humans fundamentally human. Having a goal keeps you from being pulled into every single direction by millions of desires just trying to get what they want. Having a goal is one thing though. We usually focus on one goal at a time. But virtue is the ultimate goal. Everyone should have some ultimate goal in life. And it should be a good goal. So what’s gooder than good itself? That’s what Stoicism says it is. Stoicism says virtue is the only good.
Life is often easier than we make it. I mean, life can be hard sometimes but do we really want to compound that by thinking of it as a terrible thing that it’s hard? Wouldn’t it be a better way of thinking about hardships as things to learn from and to even overcome? What’s life without learning some kind of lesson? When Darwin dreamed of his evolutionary theory, he imagined that life adapts. Isn’t that the thing that we should be doing in our own minds? Adapt! Follow evolution, try a new idea, test it, see if it works and if it survives the test of logic, go with it. That’s Stoicism. Stoicism has been shaped by a long tradition of philosophers that go back to Heraclitus, tinkering with ideas, trying to figure out the ones that survive critical thinking.
I get momentarily sad sometimes. Because I think about my mind and it’s too fast. Too fast. It’s also very impulsive and very unfocused. But then I remember the ultimate goal. The real objective goal: Live simply in agreement with Nature. Be virtuous. If I can just follow that narrow dirt path, I can get through the day. From thinking about doing what’s virtuous, I can also derive all my preferred indifferents that I need to focus on to get me there. I know I have to do physics homework because at some point I have to be a physics teacher so I can enjoy my career and make money at it so I can support my wife and daughter.
It brings peace to me when I can just forget all the desires, thoughts, and feelings that all run way too fast and think about virtue. I wouldn’t wish the tragedy of my own mind on anyone. But I can definitely learn to deal with my mind. My warped brain doesn’t totally own me, I get some say too. I got that ability to detach myself from the situation and rationally evaluate and make my own decision after I’ve stepped back and breathed a little. I have to remember, remember, remember that I can be rational. That I can think critically. I can assert my own final say about my own thoughts and ideas. I can judge things as good or bad. I can judge things as preferred or dispreferred. I can judge things and even prescribe what I should be doing. And finally, I can follow my own prescription. I can do this. I just have to do it. I have to stop, slow down, pause, reflect, think about the important things, the real important things, and just subsume all of my being to accomplishing those real important things.
I admit I’m little frustrated. Not with politics. But mostly with how people treat it. People can’t just talk about it with each other without attacking the person either indirectly or directly. More frustrating is that Stoics can’t seem to be above the personal attacks. The Stoic Facebook Groups are just filled with people hiding their political prejudices that they then project on others who are questioning them. They have agendas but when someone talks about anything political, no, it’s not them who have the agenda, it’s the other person talking about the political situation that has the agenda. I’m just going to go ahead and call out the elephant in the room: if you think you’re not actually political you’re just rationalizing your comfort with the political status quo.
Let me make it really easy for people who don’t understand how politics relates to Stoicism. Think of physics. Physics is the bedrock of science. You can then build chemistry on top of physics. Further still you can build biology on top of chemistry. And you can build up higher and higher until you get to sociology. So this analogy works the same way with ethics. Ethics is kind of the foundation of all ought claims. All prescriptive claims. You can go a little lower into the basement and give a meta-ethical description if you want. But ethics is basically the bedrock. What can you put on top of ethics? Public ethics. Otherwise known as politics.
So did the Stoics end at just furnishing an ethical theory? No, in fact, we have evidence of Zeno’s Republic. Most importantly though, we have an excerpt from Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics were proponents of a Republic with a combination of a Democracy, Aristocracy, and Kingship. It’s a very small fragment but it’s very telling. Basically in the contemporary world, we have hundreds of governments throughout it that the Stoics would’ve approved of. The United States, the UK, Canada, the rest of Western Europe, there are Republics all with a balance of Democracy, Kingship, and Aristocracy. Exactly what the Stoics would’ve wanted.
So that’s what we want as Stoics, ancient and modern. We want a society that is Democratic vs Aristocratic vs Monarchical. We want there to be that kind of balance. Whether it’s Parliamentary with a Prime Minister or American with a President. Is there anything else that can be added to this? Well, we probably want leaders that are cosmopolitan. We don’t want to elect leaders that are against liberal and tolerant values. If you don’t agree with any of this then you might just find yourself siding against Stoicism.
I don’t know how else to make this any clearer. If you’re interested in living a life of Stoic virtue, then you’re going to have to be political. Don’t act so naive or mean spirited about it. Just embrace the political nature that we all have. Aristotle was not a Stoic but he was definitely right when he said, “man is a political animal.”
All I ask is stop with the whole, “ugh, politics” mentality when anyone in the group mentions their political beliefs and is attempting to justify it using Stoicism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Where people might be going wrong is when they try to change Stoic principles to meet their politics. And even then, just correct them where they’re going wrong and explain to them where they’re bending the principles. Don’t say, “don’t bend Stoicism for your politics!” Think past that and just explain to them where they’re wrong. Use reason. Stop with the cynicism. Stop it and learn.
When Donald Trump launched his campaign, he made it clear that he was the Republican who would build the wall that would keep the Mexicans out of the US for good. The rhetoric he used should’ve been a sign that he wasn’t a serious candidate worth considering. He essentially called the Mexicans coming to the US “rapists” and added to that by saying, “some I’m sure are good people.”
Donald Trump’s rhetoric since he announced his run and to this day is pure pathos that appeals to his base’s prejudices about anyone who is different than them. I’ve stressed many times in the past the importance of Stoicism’s notion of cosmopolitanism, and it appears that Donald Trump is the anti-cosmopolitan President. The President of fear and hatred of the other, the xenophobic President, the anti-Stoic President.
For Republicans who only care about tax cuts and the 2nd Amendment. Well, you’ve gotten what you wanted. You got a Supreme Court Justice that will defend the 2nd Amendment, and you’ve got one of the largest tax cuts you’ve ever wanted from President Trump. I guess, I just have to ask, is there any reason to continue to support this man? Maybe there was a good reason to support him up to the tax cut and up to the Supreme Court pick but what are you left with now?
Not only has Trump appealed to racists and xenophobes, which is as anti-cosmopolitan as you can get, he’s made enemies with Europe and Canada by creating trade wars with them. Europe and Canada have liberal democracies built on the notion of tolerance of others. Liberal democracies that believe in the notions of justice and wisdom. While alienating our allies, he’s been making friends with enemies of justice and wisdom like Russia.
The United States was founded on the liberal concepts of justice, tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and freedom of thought. Trump is not trying to free people’s thinking. He’s just trying to shut down people’s thinking and appeal to our hate and fear.
Consider that as a Stoic. Would Zeno of Citium or even Diogenes of Sinope have ever said anything about other cultures as something to fear, hate, or condemn? Would Zeno of Citium have even believed in building a wall to keep certain people out? Logically, it makes no sense. Consider for example that Mexicans are very similar people to people in the United States. Mexicans are Christians, care about family values, believe in democracy, and love working just like most people in the United States. The only difference between a Mexican and the average American is that Mexicans are darker complected and speak Spanish. That’s about it. And Trump wants to drive a wedge over a small difference like language and melanin in people’s skin. It’s pretty ridiculous, and Zeno of Citium could see how much that bullshit stinks.
Stoics who consider themselves Republicans, you’re just as Stoic as anyone else. You believe in free markets and a right to bear arms and maybe you’re pro-life. But please stop supporting this man. He’s rhetoric is divisive, vicious, and most of all, anti-Stoic.
The Stoic motto is to live in agreement with nature. It’s common to sum up the motto as, “live rationally and virtuously.” That’s basically what it means. But there’s more to it. The foundation of Stoic morality isn’t mere reason but reason and love, a form of rational love. In fact that is what virtue is, a love taken to its logical conclusion, philanthropy (love of man).
One could argue the Stoics were both moral sentimentalists and moral rationalists. Think back to the Stoic Hierocles. Hierocles made the observation that in the course of our development, if everything goes right, we begin with self-love, then we love our family, then we love our community, and finally we love all of humanity. Humans begin with moral sentiment when they’re in infancy and then develop philanthropy later in life. Philanthropy is what virtue basically is. Living in agreement with nature is to love everyone. We have a rationally guided system of moral development.
If this is nature and it progresses in this fashion, shouldn’t we just go with the flow? Doesn’t sound like one needs to put much effort into life if one will become virtuous eventually. Nature just ain’t that simple. To follow nature in the Stoic sense, one must combat some external forces that halt this natural development.
This is where Newtonian physics enters the picture. Sir Isaac Newton was able to describe falling bodies under influence of a net force by removing combative features in nature such as air resistance. In a vacuum, everything will fall to Earth, despite varying masses, at exactly 9.8 meters per second per second. When a cannon ball is shot from a cannon, one can pretty much ignore air resistance and predict where it will fall based on angle of trajectory. Only if one drops a feather is it difficult to ignore air resistance.
I think the whole principle of ignoring external factors is what the ancient Stoics meant by following nature. The Stoics meant to imagine how humans would develop if one were to assume things go well. Similar to how in Newtonian mechanics, one would remove resistance, in Stoicism one conceptually removes abuse from parents, removes influence from a materialistic society, and removes all the resistances of the world that can and will halt development. By conceptually removing these “resistances,” one can focus on the physics (nature) of how humans can grow from self-love to love of humanity. The problem is one has to deal with these resistances, just as physicists have to deal with air resistance, so the ancient Stoics created mental strategies to get humans back on track. NASA deals with many of the complications with space but NASA does have the luck that space is a vacuum. In a vacuum, Newton’s laws work perfectly. In air, not so much. The Stoics knew that to follow nature, meant to create a vacuum in one’s passions. A vacuum in one’s passions meant to be free from the influence of externals. If one could minimize the influence of external events on one’s well-being, then one could truly follow nature. One can truly follow nature just as NASA can easily predict where probes will go in a vacuum.
Hello, I’m Jeff Whitman. I’m a university professor, who teaches Global Studies in Denver, Colorado. My wife Victoria is professor who teaches Gender Studies for an online university. We both have been lifelong liberal progressives and have been involved in several social movements together in our early college days. We actually met at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccoti Park. When Victoria and I decided to have kids we promised each other we’d raise them with a liberal attitude towards life and would give them plenty of resources to learn and remain open minded to new ideas.
Years after Victoria and I had kids, I became interested in Stoicism and became a Stoic. I decided to apply Stoicism to my life and try to live as hard as I could to put virtue first in all of my goals. My wife thinks I’m funny for being so dogmatic. She’s one of those people who like to have a smorgasbord of ethics. She likes utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics but won’t settle for any particular ethical system and just uses what she likes given the situation. That kind of attitude can drive me crazy sometimes but it is what it is and I accept it.
Our youngest child is Vicky. She is in 8th grade and is doing well in school. She is really bright and is actually quite familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. She’s decided she’s a nihilist. In her mind, there are no real values and no morality. She still acts on her moral sentimental instincts and is definitely a good kid but she thinks there’s no way to rationally justify her views. She laughs at anyone who believes in principles and values.
Frank is just starting high school and he’s doing all right. He’s a B student, kind of like me in high school. He spends a lot of time at the library alone and considers himself an Epicurean. I often discuss a lot of different issues with him because he’s always wondering what a Stoic would do and it gives him some ideas on how he can approach the problem from an Epicurean point of view.
Our eldest child is Britney and she’s a senior in high school and she’s already scored high enough in ACTs and SATs to go free-ride to any major American university of her choosing. She’s thinking about Princeton, which is pretty damn cool. She’s into computer programming and tells me all the time about programming languages. I’m often zoning out because programming is so dreadfully boring to me. She considers herself a Skeptic. No, not a scientific skeptic, although she is one of those. But she considers herself an ancient Greek Skeptic. She often laughs at me and considers my ethical viewpoints to be no more real than optical illusions.
With the different viewpoints my children express and even my wife, it makes for interesting discussion around the dinner table. We don’t always have to agree on every single thing but we do agree on the important issues like when it’s time to go to bed and turn off the TV. I’m pretty happy with our family because we are good people despite our different outlooks on life. I never would’ve thought I’d have a nihilist daughter and I would’ve never thought about a nihilist being such a good person.
I think the main reason why we do so well as a family is because my wife is sort of a control freak. Sometimes when she’s laying down the law of the house, I can’t help but to jokingly think of her as a fascist. But I never say it out-loud because she’s only doing what she thinks is good for the well-being of everyone. She’s pretty much the glue that holds the family together. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if anything would get done.
Why don’t I assert myself as the family man and drill Stoicism into everyone’s heads? For one, it’s never that easy. Tyrants always create opposition. For two, I can only do what’s in my own control, I can’t do what’s not in my control, like attempting to control my family’s belief systems and values. The Stoics taught us long ago that we should try to use reason and Socratic dialogue to persuade others to our beliefs.
I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I hope you can too. I’m just one person among many trying to do what I think is best for everyone. I hope my experiences can teach you how to be a truly good person even if your philosophies are disagreeable to mine.
Plato had the conception that the soul was composed of three parts: reason, emotion, and desire/appetite. This is somewhat useful because it explains some of our ideas about how our conception of the self works. The rational area of the soul, which was the pinnacle, loves truth and wisdom. The emotional area of the soul loves honor and victory. Finally, the appetite area of the soul loves pleasure and money. When reason was operating correctly it had the virtue wisdom, emotions operating correctly had the virtue courage, and the appetites working correctly had the virtue temperance. As a result of three parts of the soul working correctly by achieving wisdom, courage, and temperance, the virtue justice would arise. Justice was a result of a healthy soul with each of its three parts working properly.
The Stoic conception of the soul is much more unified. The Stoics believed the soul or pneuma (breath) is an active material that was present throughout your passive material body, present in other organisms, in inanimate objects, and throughout the whole universe itself. The Stoics classified the pneuma as having four different types of tensile strengths. The most rarefied of pneuma was reason itself present only in humans. The least rarefied pneuma was present throughout the whole universe including humans.
The Stoics weren’t exactly panpsychists but they were “panpneumists.” They believe that an active airy/fiery breath was present throughout the cosmos and the most rarefied in the body of humans, specifically in the area of the brain (although they were once mistaken and thought reason was in the heart).
Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, as intuitive as it sounds, isn’t psychologically helpful. Plato had the idea that reason is a charioteer that steers two horses, a white horse which is emotion and a black horse which is desire. Unfortunately reason doesn’t exactly operate that way in my humble opinion. Reason doesn’t command emotions and desires, reason persuades emotions and desires by using therapy. The Stoics invented several techniques we can rationally use to persuade our emotions/desires and not have to compel them like a tyrant. If we try to compel our emotions/desires like a tyrant, they’ll push back.
In fact, the source of our negative emotions has a lot do with our reason itself making false judgments about externals. If we fix this issue by forming the correct judgments about externals our negative desires/sentiments will dissipate. Reason cannot remove negative passions until reason has fixed itself. Once you remove incorrect judgments from your rational faculty, your emotions will calm down and you’ll even feel some joy from this experience.
In this article, I specifically redefine virtue signaling to make a point. I give virtue signaling a positive meaning since in my experience people accused of virtue signaling are likely intending to do the right thing.
Often we hear people complain about others who virtue signal. But what is virtue signaling? Virtue signaling is usually a form of argumentation and rhetoric that defends the dignity or rights of classes of people considered underprivileged, whether they are people of color, women, homosexuals, trans, or non-binary. When individuals signal their virtue they’re educating people about an unjust power imbalance between those who are privileged and those who are underprivileged. After all, virtue isn’t just something that should be important to one person, it should be important to everyone.
I contrast virtue signaling with what I consider to be vice signaling. Vice signaling is a rhetorical strategy that attacks virtue signalers merely on the basis that virtue signalers are virtue signalers. In fact, vice signalers define virtue signaling as an attempt of a person who virtue signals to score social points, pat themselves on the back, or advance their status in their in-group. In fact, painting someone as a virtue signaler is an ad hominem attack that does not address the issue of justice the virtue signaler is concerned about.
Why call it vice signaling? It’s vice signaling because by only attacking virtue signalers as individuals, but not a virtue signaler’s arguments, vice signalers defy the virtues of wisdom and intellectual honesty. Since the strategies of the vice signaler are against virtue, then they are participating in vice. The vice signaling strategy doesn’t add to the dialogue, it subtracts from the dialogue. Vice signalers might have a point that some virtue signalers out there are just pretending to care but whether a virtue signaler pretends to care is besides the point. The vice signaler still needs to address the virtue signaler’s arguments rather than attack the virtue signaler him/herself.
Vice signaling is not merely a problem because the vice signaler is being vicious but also because of immediate negative consequences. Vice signaling derails discussion, it poisons the dialogue, it even harms the underprivileged because it stifles dialogue meant to address unjust power imbalances in society.
Musonious Rufus, Epictetus, Cato the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca were virtue signalers during their time. Musonius Rufus believed that everyone regardless of gender were endowed with reason during a time when women were regarded as nothing more than property. Cato put his virtue on full display when he vowed never to live under Julius Caesar as dictator. We don’t indubitably know all the ancient Stoics’ true intentions. Maybe Epictetus really did virtue signal because he wanted to increase his social approval and increase turnout at his school. But we’ll never know and it is counterproductive to speculate. We should be thinking about what we know about Epictetus, his arguments, and his sound conclusions.
One pernicious quality of a vice signaler is their anger and disgust. Vice signalers attempt to conceal their anger and disgust but it’s easy to spot their hatred spilling over in the form of snide remarks, ad hominems, vitriol, and trolling. One way to respond to vice signalers is to help them see wisdom by discussing the issues with them objectively and without bias all the while without counter-attacking their character. If the attempt is fruitless, then there is no choice but to ignore them.
Jordan Peterson is the psychology professor from the University of Toronto who has become something of a celebrity intellectual. Men’s Rights Activists and Alt Righters everywhere are absolutely happy to flock to this guy. He’s popular because he opposed a Canadian law that will supposedly destroy your career as a professor for not using gendered pronouns that go beyond two. Oddly, even though he’s opposed this law, his career is perfectly safe and he benefits greatly for his opposition to this law. Here are 5 Reasons Stoicism Is Greater than Him.
1. Jordan Peterson famously compared human beings to lobsters. As bizarre as this might sound it’s particularly pernicious. Jordan Peterson is saying that human beings have hierarchies like the lobster and that these hierarchies are not artificially created by global capitalism but just the natural order of things. Jordan Peterson is essentially saying that the terrible ways our system is is because we’re just designed that way and it’s not just that we’re designed that way but it’s good. So you should be happy being at the bottom. Stoicism just observes humans the way they are. There have been hierarchies throughout all time but they’re never exactly the same hierarchies. There used to be master-slave hierarchies, feudal hierarchies, and now we have capitalist hierarchies. Nothing is static. The Stoics knew the universe was change. The Stoics also believed everyone ultimately deserved equal status in the world of things. No one was a Sage, so everyone was in the same boat. No one was really any better than anyone else.
2. Jordan Peterson uses the theory of evolution in a way to justify his Jungian archetypal theory. Unfortunately he engages in evolutionary psychology, which most forms of it are pseudoscientific since we have no idea what were in the heads of our distant ancestors. It’s speculation at best, pseudoscience at worst. And Jordan Peterson should know better than to consider Carl Jung an important psychologist. Stoicism is always updating closely with the current science. Stoicism used techniques back in its ancient days that were a lot like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In fact, CBT owes quite a bit of its development to Stoicism, which is pretty much Stoic psychological techniques being tested in the lab.
3. Jordan Peterson may have won that interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News but he can’t win an argument against a Stoic. Why is that? A true Stoic is adept at logic and rhetoric and knows when someone is using rhetoric as opposed to logic. Jordan Peterson is an excellent rhetorician but if challenged by an actual professional philosopher or psychologist like Massimo Pigliucci or Donald Robertson, he’d have to eat his hat. The problem is Jordan Peterson is used to being interviewed by people who don’t have expertise. But how would he do with an expert in his same field or in his crossover field: philosophy?
4. Jordan Peterson Lobster Lobster Jordan Peterson. Stoicism doesn’t use lobsters to justify its philosophy. Any questions?
5. Finally, Jordan Peterson doesn’t calm down his rabid followers. Zeno of Citium is known for reprimanding his followers whenever they became too uncontrollable. Jordan Peterson seems to make a killing out off having a fervent crowd of young pissed off white males. Stoicism has no place for any amount of fervent followers, even if a few.