Kai Whiting wrote an insightful article entitled Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self: The Power To Change Society. It explores the need to look into Stoicism, in particular its emphasis on the social virtue justice. After reading it these words just flowed from my fingers as I responded to it:
Ayn Rand’s philosophy has really poisoned the intellectual/philosophical well of the United States. And I don’t mean academic philosophy, I mean the philosophy of the common American. Not only, as Isaac Asimov warned, have we attached ourselves to anti-intellectualism in this country, we have managed to individualize our experiences to the point of moral solipsism. We think of ourselves as me vs me vs me. The only time we ever collectivize is when its us vs some other that we poorly understand.
It’s true that Stoicism has no political ideology but it is of course political, as it cares about justice, which means it will care about the downtrodden who are exploited by corporate sociopaths. It will care about women who still endure sexism from their employers through their unequal pay or something sinister like their male colleagues mansplaining to them how to behave or express themselves, constantly silencing their opinion through interruption.
It’s time that we care about social virtue. It’s time that we read Stoicism exactly as it was intended, to create a pluralistic society that unifies everyone in a common cosmopolis of humankind.
We need to break away from intellectual laziness and embrace wisdom in its pure and practical forms. As Socrates said before he drank the hemlock, “the unanalyzed life is not worth living.” Epictetus says that we’re all little spooks carrying around our corpses. Well, sometimes, I see no evidence of a spirit in some of these corpses that lost their soul years ago when they learned to embrace willful ignorance.
It’s time that we enlighten a few of these spiritless corpses and bring back the spirits.
Is Stoicism individualist or collectivist? Individualism tends to value the individual needs above family needs, work group needs, and needs of the broader society. Collectivism tends to value the needs of the family, work group, society above the individual’s needs. It’s actually not an either/or for Stoicism because Stoicism incorporates both the needs of broader groups and the needs of the individual.
Stoically speaking, individually we need to focus on our virtue. We need to make sure we are trying to live up to the life of a Sage. By living a life of virtue we ensure that we’re keeping ourselves mentally healthy and simultaneously flourishing and being worthy of praise.
Some people think Stoicism stops at just making ourselves better. But there’s a problem with that. One of the Stoic virtues is justice. And the Stoic concept of justice entails a sense of compassion, empathy, fair treatment of other individuals as well as oneself. So our need to get ourselves ethically perfected means we must also care about the needs, interests, and welfare of others.
Because of the virtue justice, we can never think of ourselves as apathetic to the needs of others. We should care about other’s interests, needs, and feelings. Everyone is our sister and brother. We are all rational human beings helping each other achieve a better life.
Marcus Aurelius compares human beings to bees and ants working together, doing our social duties. Individually, we don’t want to fail to do our social duties. If we do that we isolate ourselves and harm our ethical development.
As Stoics we have just as much as obligation to get our house in order and the world’s house in order at the same time. Just because our own satisfaction of our needs is in our power doesn’t mean our attempt at justice for the world isn’t in our power. Is a better world in our power? No. Is trying to make the world better in our power? Yes. There’s a big distinction between trying to do good and doing good. Trying to do good, for the Stoic, is always in our power. Achieving good results for others is never in our power. Always in the hands of fate.