Should Stoics Wear the Yellow Vest?

First published in French on

Since October 2018, the yellow vest — that venerable accessory to road safety — has become a revolutionary symbol. Every Saturday, tens of thousands of citizens or more march in the streets, proudly wearing this familiar, fluorescent garment-turned-rallying-sign.

Yellow Vests in Strasbourg on 12 January, in front of the Palais du Rhin

While it focused initially on challenging the domestic consumption tax on energy products, the movement has expanded to include many other fiscal, social, ecological, and political claims. Leaderless, ever-changing, and operating outside traditional political patterns, the Yellow Vests raise many ethical, political or social questions. Does Stoicism require a particular relationship between the progressor (προκόπτον) and this movement? This post tries to provide some food for thought…

We can consider the relationship of the Stoic progressor to the movement of Yellow Vests in at least three ways: 1) Stoicism’s relationship to the claims of Yellow Vests, 2) its relationship to the actions of the movement, and 3) the possibility or even necessity of our personal involvement in the movement, considering points 1 and 2.

This post will look at each of these aspects in turn — claims, actions, and personal involvement — and then follow it up with some further reflections on how Stoic theory interacts with political engagement.

1. Prolegomena: Self-interest and Common Interest

Before looking at the claims of Yellow Vests, let us ask ourselves the following question: what is my own interest as a human being? What is best for my development and happiness? For a Stoic, it is following Nature, that is to say, my reason — my individual portion in the universal law that crosses the Cosmos. To follow reason is to progress towards a stable and perfect inner disposition that expresses Good.

I need nothing more than an appropriate use of my reason to be Happy, virtuous, and morally excellent (these are synonyms). The rest (everything that is external to me: health, reputation, surroundings, wealth, material possessions, etc.) corresponds to what the Stoics call “indifferents.” I control the effect they have on me through the proper use of my reason. Some indifferent are preferable (those mentioned above), others not preferable (illness, bad reputation, poverty…).

The expression of Good is necessarily expressed — or at least almost always expressed — in a social context for human beings, because we are a social animal. The expression of Good in a social context is essentially one which promotes human solidarity through the virtue of Justice, a science that distributes to everyone according to their merit. If I want to distribute something to someone who doesn’t deserve it, I disregard the Good. If I want to distribute to someone who deserves it, I follow the Good. The Stoic can distribute preferable (rewards…) or non-preferable (blame, sanction…) indifferents. It all depends on the context and merit of each individual.

The law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature… It is spread through the whole human community, unchanging and eternal, calling people to their duty by its commands and deterring them from wrongdoing by its prohibitions.

Cicero, The Republic, III.32–33.

The Big City and the Small City

But the state of a stable and perfect inner disposition expressing the Good is an ideal, the ideal of the Sage. Almost all humans remain fools, to varying degrees certainly, but fools nevertheless. In the ideal Stoic City of Zeno, where everyone is wise, courts and written constitutions are not necessary because the Sages naturally follow laws of benevolence, wisdom and Justice that are within themselves. Everyone gets what they deserve, no one is harmed.

On the other hand, in our small city, where not everyone gets what they deserve and some are wronged, courts, constitutions, etc. are necessary to imperfectly set the rules of these universal laws that the Sages of the Great City have incorporated. In the small city, we are all fools (the wise man is very rare). That is why the State and philosophers must reflect the ideal of wisdom as best as possible. They must be just, benevolent educators, like the wise. In the city of the unwise, their benevolent actions can take the form of blame or coercion, if this allows the foolish to progress morally. They must also show solidarity and distribute wealth appropriately, not because wealth is a good but because its fair distribution is. Their Justice has different modes of expression but ultimately only one purpose: the ideal of wisdom.

The Large City and the Small City

My interest is in the interest of others

In any case, the common point for wise and foolish people is that their own interest lies rationally in the common interest: “Have I done something useful to my fellows? Then I have already profited,” says Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations (4.4). Indeed, my only interest is to follow the Good. If I express Justice, if I am benevolent, I will be Happy. However, Justice and benevolence are expressed in my relationship with others and this relationship is in their interest, even if they think otherwise. For example, if I blame a fool it may seem like an evil to him, but if it makes him progress morally, it is actually the expression of Justice, a Good, for him, for me, and for others. And the foolish do not only derive a moral benefit from my Justice (although it is the only one that truly responds to their true interest) but also, sometimes, a material benefit since Justice encourages me to redistribute preferred indifferents fairly, when it is up to me to do so.

2. Stoicism and the claims of the Yellow Vests

Let us then return to the Yellow Vest movement and ask ourselves the following two questions: 1) do they propose measures that go in the direction of a more just state?, and 2) do they propose measures that promote the moral progression of fools?

The moral progression of fools

Looking at the (non-exhaustive) list of Yellow Vest claims published on the Internet on 28 November 2018 at the initiative of a Sarthe demonstrator[1], we notice that there is only one measure explicitly related to education, and the latter concerns more the form than the content: “Maximum 25 pupils per class from kindergarten to high school.” If we consider the education of fools in the broadest sense, the list also wishes “Substantial means brought to psychiatry.” Nothing really talks about the philosophical education of citizens.

In fact, and understandably, Yellow Vests mainly demand structural changes — better living conditions — not changes that seem to be details. It would be irrational not to understand the nature of their claims, which is part of a necessary causal chain, and to want to teach them that they must be satisfied with what they already have.

Moreover, moral progression — which leads us to philosophical knowledge, the only thing that can make us perfectly happy — does not pass, as Pierre Hadot showed in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? (What is Ancient Philosophy?), through coercion, discourse, or written laws. At least, it does not shrink to that. I will study this point later. In any case, there is no explicit link between the claims of the Yellow Vests and a possible desire to help fools progress morally.

A wiser state

Let us now turn to the second aspect of the general interest: the wisdom of the State (its institutions, laws, representatives, etc.). As we have said, the State must be fair, benevolent and educational. How do we know if the claims of the Yellow Vests are in that direction?

First of all, before anything else, if the poorest cannot satisfy their vital needs (drinking, eating, sleeping), it is absolutely right that the State should take from the richest to give to the most deprived, because thus, we only repeat the scheme of the state of Nature, which offers in an equivalent way to each human being the things necessary for his survival. But in fact, Yellow Vests are, for the most part, and fortunately, above the state of survival.

Second, social justice does not stop at this vital limit. In general, the State must replace the virtuous action of the richest to redistribute wealth equitably. That’s what the Yellow Vests are asking for and that’s what a Stoic would ask for. This wealth should first be sought from those who most deserve to be deprived of it. In our time, a typical Stoic fight should therefore focus on tax fraud, an act of non-solidarity par excellence, which represents a loss of more than 80 billion euros per year for the French State. The Yellow Vests are very sensitive to this and a real political fight at this level would improve the material situation of many and would be the act of a less foolish state.

Moreover, just as the virtuous state blames the misconduct of fools for their moral progression, the most evolved fools (philosophers) in the small city must blame the state when it lacks its virtue. In his time, the Stoic and politician Panaetius blamed Pericles for his extravagant spending. Nowadays, this is what the sociologists Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot have done in a recent book, Le Président des Ultra-Riches (The President of the Ultra-Rich). They blame the very unfair redistribution of wealth implemented by the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron. According to them, it is the ultra-rich (the 1% richest in France) who have benefited the most from the policy of the En Marche! government. They refer to measures that go against the principles of justice and solidarity: abolition of the wealth tax (which was a measure of solidarity), tax exemption on capital income, abolition of the exit tax, perpetuation of the CICE (tax credit for competitiveness and employment) in spite of the absence of concrete results until now, maintenance of the Bercy Lock (“verrou de Bercy,” which mixes judiciary and political power), etc.

The Yellow Vests denounce the injustice of most of these measures. And Stoics can agree with them that these are measures that do not come from a wise state and that the wisdom of these measures needs to be evaluated or even challenged.

Finally, in addition to challenging existing policies, the Yellow Vests also propose new laws. The Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC), for example, is an emblematic demand of the movement. It is a direct-democratic system that allows citizens to use a number of signatures set by law to call the population to a referendum, without the agreement of the parliament or the president being required. The Yellow Vests want four modalities for the RIC: to vote on a bill (legislative referendum); to repeal a law passed by Parliament (repeal or optional referendum); to amend the Constitution (constitutional referendum); and to dismiss an elected official (revocatory referendum). Again, if this allows the moral progress of the State and/or citizens, the Stoics would give full support to this measure.

Political action is dependent on the intentions of the doctrine

Some of the movement’s demands therefore seem to be in line with stoicism and the desire to make moral progress for the State. To motivate the political action of a Stoic, it is nevertheless necessary that the other claims of the Yellow Vests are not in contradiction with the doctrine. For example, it would be complicated for a Stoic to support claims that go in the direction of punitive justice when Justice must, in Stoicism, serve to educate; or claims that the State and all other institutions should be abolished (anarchy), when these institutions exist because fools are precisely not wise; or calls for violence that would not take into account Hierocles’ circles (see below). In this case, these measures are not included in the claims. The Stoic can therefore, a priori, be in agreement with the general content of the movement.

3. Stoicism and the actions of the Yellow Vests

But what about the political action that goes along with these claims? The logic of agreement is the same. A Stoic can fully participate in a demonstration, as long as it does not explicitly claim means of action that go against Stoicism (hateful violence, malice, injustice…) and as long as its claims do not explicitly go against Stoic principles.

The main and claimed mode of action of Yellow Vests is peaceful demonstration (despite the drifts of some small groups!). In these demonstrations, the Stoic activist will thus avoid any form of violence against a fellow citizen, if the moral context does not require it, and would condemn Christophe Dettinger for hitting a police officer, just as he would condemn most police violence. Why? Because there is no ethical distinction to be made between “Yellow vests” and “police officer.” All are compatriots, citizens, colleagues, friends, and even family. We recognize here the different strata of the circles of Hierocles, in which the Self must open itself to ever-larger circles of sociability in order to blossom fully. Our confraternity demands that we have a comprehensive dialogue, to be benevolent. A Stoic police officer would perhaps be more inclined to rebel when orders go against natural law.

An expanded rendition of the Circle of Hierocles, taken from a 2018 paper by Whiting et al.

No philosophical school is kindlier and gentler, nor more loving of humankind and more attentive to our common good, to the degree that its very purpose is to be useful, bring assistance, and consider the interests not only of itself as a school but of all people, individually and collectively.

Seneca, On Clemency, 2.5.3.

Secondly, the Stoic would not demonstrate with anger. A Stoic who supports the Yellow Vests does not support them out of hatred of power, anger at the country’s injustices, or despair. He supports them out of love for Justice and for what he considers to be an action for the common good. He is not driven by his passions but guided by Justice. The Stoic militant is a serene militant, driven by an inexhaustible and unfailing inner energy (unlike anger) that rests on a solid inner disposition. He remains open to discuss about the measures he stands for, thinks about their relationship to the common interest, is ready to change them if the common good is not targeted, and does not necessarily adhere to all of them on the pretext that they would emerge from a movement he supports. At the same time, he maintains a high level of self-attention and acts with kindness.

This does not mean that he condemns the anger of the Yellow Vests or that he would not join a demonstration of angry people, but that he simply does not share this passion, because he knows it is harmful to him. And, while showing fraternity in political action, his presence near the Yellow Vests contributes, if fate permits, to the philosophical education of his fellow citizens. It is in this respect that the moral education of the State is rather a matter of political (collective) action and the moral education of the foolish a matter of moral (inter-individual) action, though the two categories are not completely hermetic one to another. In any case, behavior, character, and the desire for a comprehensive dialogue contributes to moral education. Here we find all the principles of Socratic education: listening to others, dialogue, humility towards one’s own knowledge. A benevolence that is not faked, equal to equal, brotherly, is already the expression of a natural Justice more majestic than any written law and the human being is naturally receptive to this form of Justice. The Stoic does Justice even before justice is done. And it is this Justice that is best able to change the subjectively lived situation of those who desire a better material situation.

Diagram of the compatibility between Stoicism and popular movements such as the Yellow Vests

4. Theory of political action

On this last point, one might think that Stoicism would then require the poorest to change their representations rather than the order of the world, insofar as they have at least the bare necessities of life. After all, Seneca says that “‘The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles’… That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden.” (Letters to Lucilius, 17.11–12).

In actuality, the Discipline of Desire is a moral matter. It says nothing directly about political action. We can consider that political action is an action having as its intention the moral progression of the State (its institutions, representatives…); and that moral action is the action having as its intention the moral progression of the fool/individual. If, as a Stoic, I work for the common good, both forms of action are necessary because I must remain humble in the face of Fate, which has the last word on the realization of my actions.

Indeed, if I were sure that I could make fools to become wise men by my simple moral action, I would have to put all my efforts here. However, I am never sure, because this evolution does not depend only on me. It also depends on Fate. The same applies to political action. I can demonstrate, but my demonstration may not advance the state in a political-moral way. Thus, to work effectively for the Common Good, I must act on both levels. While wishing the fool who lives in poverty that he will succeed in being satisfied with his situation; I must do everything in parallel so that his situation improves; and the improvement of his material situation requires the political and moral evolution of the State. Let us repeat, it is not only up to me whether the fool or the State becomes wiser, nor that the living conditions of the fool improve; but, by working on both levels, Justice is exercised in awareness of the possible scenarios of Fate.

The duty to act or not to act

Let us consider a fool objectively poor and unsatisfied with his situation. The possibilities for action and results can be represented schematically as follows:

Moral evolution corresponds to an increase of the satisfaction of the fool, regardless of the improvement of his living conditions (otherwise it means that he has simply made himself dependent on this improvement by correlating his happiness with what is not up to him; it is not a moral progression).

Political evolution corresponds to an improvement in the material living conditions of the fool.

The boxes in red are those where we can be held responsible for the result. Just as, if I am sick, it is not completely up to me to heal, I must keep in mind that the condition of my recovery may lie in calling a doctor. So, I have to call a doctor because that includes the possibility of my recovery, if Fate wants it. Similarly, if the foolish are poor and foolish, it may not completely depend on me to improve their situation, but the improvement of their situation may lie in the moral and political actions I can take. The benevolence and Discipline of Action from Epictetus encourage me to help them on these two levels.

Rephrased in terms of a the Stoic activist who works for Justice, we could interpret the table like the one below:

The hierarchy of the values of the indifferent is an extension of Epictetus’ reflection. We can indeed add to his thought, “for it is better to die of hunger, but free from distress and fear, than to live in plenty with a troubled mind” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 12. 1), that it is even more preferable to live in abundance and in the absence of disorder than in disorder and poverty, and that between these two extremes, there are just as many absolutely preferable situations. If I am Stoic, it is better if my next-door neighbor, who lives in relative poverty and existential dissatisfaction, experiences an improvement in his material living conditions. I would be delighted. At the same time, if I had to choose, it would be even more preferable for him to undergo a moral evolution leading him to be satisfied with his situation. For I know that this is closer to the Good — to their Good, to my Good, and to the Good of others. Independent happiness is better than any additional wealth. Finally, the best I can wish for is that he follows a moral AND material evolution. After all, I do not know if he will ever have evolved morally enough to become a Sage — perhaps he will never stop considering the preferred indifferent as goods, it does not depend only on me; so long as these preferred indifferents do not hinder the possibility of his moral progression, I must rejoice that he acquires them.

Where I am responsible (boxes in red), my actions are fully in accordance with Fate. They are spaces of pure freedom because my intentions are in line with reality. However, the choices for action are morally inequivalent. For example, I can do nothing, neither morally nor politically, and be in agreement with Fate while being responsible for the result, which is a not preferred indifferent. It is because “Fate” is neither an excuse nor a fatality in Stoicism; because it is possible that the result (this non-preferred indifferent) is also the result of my own choices: perhaps having done nothing has caused this situation. On the other hand, getting involved politically and morally will only, at worst, lead me to an inadequacy of my intentions with Fate, but I cannot be held responsible if the result is a preferred indifferent! In any case, it should never be forgotten that what must happen sometimes happens because of my involvement in the causal chain of Fate, as in the example of the sick person calling the doctor to heal.

What has just been said is especially true for the non-sage disciple of Stoicism. If it is very often preferable to act, it is because I, a non-sage disciple, am not fully lucid, I do not know if the effort is worth it. In doubt, since there are more favorable scenarios when I act (either for myself or for others), I must act first and foremost in a moral and political way, if I am allowed to do so, of course. Only the Sage really knows when not to act and when to act. A Sage will not try to reason with a madman who can no longer evolve. A Sage will not get involved in the political life of a city completely frozen in vice. A Sage will not seek to act if his situation objectively prevents him from doing so. And we can’t hold him responsible for the result. But we, fools, what do we know about the possibilities of evolution of the city and the foolish? Very often less than the Sage himself, so it is necessary to act with this humility in the face of Fate and this concern for Justice.

5. Does the Stoic have to wear the Yellow Vest?

This theoretical detour should allow us to answer with some precision to the question of whether the Stoic should wear the yellow vest. To put it bluntly, it is impossible to answer this question categorically for a non-sage because the claims are not all clear and do not always enjoy consensus among the demonstrators. Nevertheless, Stoicism makes it clear that it is above all our rational assessment of the situation that should encourage us to join the movement or not. This rational evaluation is specific to each disciple, according to his moral progression and knowledge and situation, but there is only one evaluation that is in adequacy with the intentions of Fate.

How to assess the situation? First, we must see if the Yellow Vests have claims and means of action that do not contradict our own moral progression, that of others and that of the State. The Stoic will not participate in a demonstration where punitive violence is a mode of action, he will not defend anarchy or any form of ideology aimed at distinguishing the value of human beings (this would be contrary to Hierocles’ circles), he will not support measures of justice at the price of another injustice. In theory, the movement of the Yellow Vests is therefore not fundamentally contrary to Stoic virtue. This is a first evaluation. We introduced it at the beginning. Let us add that a well-informed disciple will also not engage if he is not able to support the movement without letting himself be drawn into irrational emotions. He will have to be more prepared.

The second evaluation is less obvious. It consists in knowing whether the movement works for the common interest or whether it works only for indifferents. The common interest for a Stoic is that the State and fools progress morally to the level of wisdom. The Yellow Vests partly want a more united, fairer, more benevolent state. Perhaps they want this to obtain preferred indifferents, but their claims do not ignore that the Good is located in the moral and not in the material progress of the State. A just and poor state is better than an unjust and rich state. For a Stoic, there is nothing contrary to the common interest in this since collective action can be consistent with his virtuous intention.

Nevertheless, Stoicism reminds us that if the moral evolution of a State is a Good that can materially benefit fools (because the redistribution of wealth will be fairer), the material evolution of fools is itself only a preferred indifferent. The Good is in their moral and non-material progression. What is required for the State (virtue, justice, solidarity, benevolence…), the Stoics also demand for the fools. And nothing in the movement seems to be going in that direction. We must ask for a just state but also think about the moral education of the rich and powerful people of the following generations who are currently sitting on the benches of school. Demands for philosophical education, for empathy, benevolence and justice would potentially have far better consequences than the mere moral progression of the State. Marcus Aurelius did not wait for laws to force him to justice to become one of the most righteous emperors of his time. His education by Apollonius of Chalcedony or Fronto may have something to do with it. And this education is necessary for all.

The third evaluation is the one related to Fate. This is the most complex. It is linked to the theory of political action developed in point 4. Is it up to me to make the state fairer? If I evaluate it that way, I have to do something. Is it up to me to discipline the desires of a fool? If I evaluate it that way, I have to do something. If the movement of the Yellow Vests, finally, allows a more just state, and I did not participate in the movement when I could have, the Yellow Vests[ will have followed Fate while I would have been pulled by It.

This last evaluation almost never leads to certainty. Indeed, in this kind of situation, I only know in hindsight whether or not I have followed Fate. That is why a reserve clause is necessary. This clause should allow me to change my judgment as the situation evolves. I can eventually move from action to inaction, and vice versa. For example, if I consent to the representation that it is unlikely that the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC) will be introduced and that it is unlikely that the RIC will participate in the common good, I will not go out in the street to defend this measure, but if the RIC is indeed introduced, and that it does participate in the common good (evolution of the city and/or fools towards the Good), I must acknowledge my mistake and admit that people in the street have followed fate more than I, I who could nevertheless join them. Like the dog behind or in front of the advancing cart, I was pulled by Fate instead of following it. But my reserve clause means that I was less drawn than the one who had consented to the judgment that it is certain that the RIC will not be introduced and that it does not contribute to the common good. I could even have been in front of the cart with a more precise reserve clause that would have moved me from inaction to action as the battle progressed. It is all a matter of degree and evaluation so that our intention adheres as closely as possible to the intentions of Fate.

Political action from the third evaluation

Political action from the third evaluation

In any case, if, after passing through the sieve of reason, I consider it probably/certainly wise to participate, and that I can participate, I must participate. The choice is therefore necessarily specific to the evaluation of each one, but there is only one evaluation that is in adequacy with Fate. Fate recommends that we act when the evolution of the situation, towards the wisdom of the city and/or the wisdom of the fool, is possible through our action. This is what guides the choice of each disciple and it is in this that there are “good” and “bad” choices.

Negative visualization

In any case, the disciple who wishes to participate in a march must be prepared for all the events that may occur during such an activity. In his Enchiridion, Epictetus says:

When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’ And follow the same course in every action that you embark on. So if anything gets in your way while you’re taking a bath, you’ll be ready to tell yourself, ‘Well, this wasn’t the only thing that I wanted to do, but I also wanted to keep my choice in harmony with nature; and I won’t keep it so if I get annoyed at what is happening.

Enchiridion, 4.

During a political parade, especially with the Yellow Vests, many things can disturb me. I must expect to be pushed, prosecuted, to breath tear gas, to be shot by the highly controversial defensive bullet launchers (LBDs), injured, confronted with scenes of physical, verbal, and material violence, etc. If I know that this can happen and I am prepared for it, then I will be in agreement with myself, if not with what will happen politically.

I would like to personally thank Jérôme Robin, without whom this article would not have been possible. His attentive and benevolent rereading, as well as his precious advice and feedback, allowed me to structure my writing in its current form while preserving the original argument. I am indebted to him for the idea of a state to replace the virtuous action of the rich.

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Un regard stoïcien / A Stoic Perspective

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