Stoic advice: should I join protests in the streets?

Massimo Pigliucci
Nov 23, 2020 · 10 min read
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[image: anti-government protest in front of Democracy Monument in Thailand on 14 October 2020, WikiCommons; this is essay #249 in my Patreon/Medium series]

P. writes: I’m from Thailand, where you may know there are frequent protests against the government going on right now. Sometimes the government uses violence in order to silence the protesters; and I am ashamed that I dare not protest with them even though I believe that they are in the right. While I do not (or at least do not think that I do) fear death, I know that I still fear pain, even though I should not let it get in the way of doing what is right. Currently I only support the protesters financially because I lack the courage to take to the streets myself. And every time I hear that someone gets hurt, I wonder if I am to blame, if it’s immoral to stay safely in my home and watch others taking risks in my place.

This is a great and timely question, and one that I may have to contemplate myself, should Donald Trump succeed in his currently ongoing and plainly visible attempt at a coup, as unlikely as such success looks at the moment.

The first thing I’d like to point out, however, is that I would phrase the question in a different way, from the Stoic perspective. To ask whether “it’s immoral to stay safely in my home and watch others taking risks in my place” implicitly accepts the moral framework unfortunately so common in modern philosophy, for instance in utilitarianism or Kantian deontology, that the point of ethical inquiry is to establish, in a universal fashion, whether action X is moral or immoral.

By contrast, virtue ethics assumes that the answer to such questions is always “it depends,” on the specifics of the situation as well as on the character of the agent. This, I hasten to say, is not an endorsement of moral relativism, but the recognition that ethics is local and situational. In virtue ethics, the proper question is something along the lines of: “does engaging in action X improve or undermine my character?” Because the focus is on the moral betterment of the individual. And of course Stoicism is a kind of virtue ethics, so this is the framework I’ll adopt here.

Now to your specific issue. As it turns out, Epictetus addresses it directly in chapter 2 of the first book of the Discourses, entitled “How may a person preserve their proper character upon every occasion?” I will therefore draw heavily from that section, using the freely available W.A. Oldfather translation. (You can find the full text here.)

Epictetus begins Discourses I.2 by stating that we need to train ourselves to do what is rational and to be averse to what is irrational. That’s because, for the Stoics, we should “live according to nature,” meaning human nature, the nature of a creature who is prosocial and capable of reason. But how do we train ourselves to that effect?

“For determining the rational and the irrational, we employ not only our estimates of the value of external things, but also the criterion of that which is in keeping with one’s own character.”

So there are two criteria to be deployed in order to decide — in your case — whether to join the protests in the streets or not. One is “the value of external things,” meaning how important the action you are considering may be; the other is “one’s own character,” because we are not all born in the same way and we need to take that into account.

Let’s talk about the first criterion first. Joining protests against a tyrannical or undemocratic regime is obviously important, and you recognize this, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking this question, nor would you send money to anti-governmental organizations. So the cause is clearly a virtuous one. This, of course, will not always be the case. There may very well be “externals” that are not worth risking physical pain over, for instance a riot caused by the outcome of a soccer game. And then there are causes that are simply misguided, so that one not only should not join them, but should actively oppose them, like the anti-mask protests during the pandemic. What about the second criterion? Jumping near the end of I.2, Epictetus elaborates:

“The great and pre-eminent deed, perhaps, befits others, Socrates and men of his stamp. — Why then, pray, if we are endowed by nature for such greatness, do not all people, or many, become like him? What, do all horses become swift, all dogs keen to follow the scent? What then? Because I have no natural gifts, shall I on that account give up my discipline? Far be it from me!”

There are several crucial concepts in this passage. In the first place, Epictetus is recognizing that some people are capable of greater deeds than others. Socrates had a great deal of courage, serenely accepting the unjust verdict of the Athenian court and drinking the hemlock after an amiable last conversation with his friends (as recounted in Plato’s Phaedo). But not everyone is a Socrates, and that’s okay.

Similarly, not every horse is made for running a race, nor is every dog capable of following the scent of the prey while hunting; and yet that doesn’t mean that other horses or dogs don’t have their places and their functions. Hence the concluding sentence: just because I don’t have the gifts of a Socrates that doesn’t mean I cannot improve myself, striving to become a better person.

Back near the beginning of I.2, Epictetus provides two telling examples, one involving two slaves, the other involving two senators — from one end of the social ladder to the other, to underscore that what he is saying applies to everyone in society. About the two slaves, he presents us with the following situation:

“For to one man it is reasonable to hold a chamber-pot for another, since he considers only that, if he does not hold it, he will get a beating and will not get food, whereas, if he does hold it, nothing harsh or painful will be done to him; but some other man feels that it is not merely unendurable to hold such a pot himself, but even to tolerate another’s doing so. If you ask me, then, ‘Shall I hold the pot or not?’ I will tell you that to get food is of greater value than not to get it, and to be flayed is of greater detriment than not to be; so that if you measure your interests by these standards, go and hold the pot. ‘Yes, but it would be unworthy of me.’ That is an additional consideration, which you, and not I, must introduce into the question. For you are the one that knows yourself, how much you are worth in your own eyes and at what price you sell yourself. For different people sell themselves at different prices.”

This is essentially your situation. On one level of consideration, not being beaten by the Thai police is certainly better than being beaten. Not feeling pain is better than feeling pain. These are the sort of things that Stoics referred to as “preferred indifferents,” meaning that they have value — they are preferred, other things being equal — but are morally neutral when considered on their own.

But you also asked an additional question, explicitly stating that you fear it is unworthy of you not to join the protests, despite the risk of physical pain. That’s where Epictetus says that the decision is up to you and “how much you are worth in your own eyes.” He then immediately moves on to the second example:

“Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it, Agrippinus said to him, ‘Enter.’ And when Florus asked, ‘Why do you not enter yourself?’ he replied, ‘I? why, I do not even raise the question.’ For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their own proper character. Come, what is this you ask me? ‘Is death or life preferable?’ I answer, life. ‘Pain or pleasure?’ I answer, pleasure. ‘But unless I take a part in the tragedy I shall be beheaded.’ Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part. ‘Why not?’ Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful.”

Again, a lot to unpack here, so let’s proceed cautiously. Florus and Agrippinus are both senators, and they have been asked by the tyrannical emperor Nero to contribute with an entry of their own to an arts festival he is sponsoring. When Florus asks Agrippinus for advice, the latter replies that Florus should contribute to the emperor’s event. But Agrippinus also says that he doesn’t even consider the possibility of doing likewise.

How did Agrippinus know that Florus did not have it in himself to oppose Nero? Because, as he explicitly says, Florus was considering the value of externals — including, of course, the possibility of being sent into exile, or even executed, should he displease the emperor. Once you start doing this, Epictetus comments, considerations about your character become secondary.

Epictetus then readily acknowledges that there is an obvious ranking of externals: life is preferable to death; pleasure is preferable to pain. But then, he has Florus saying, consider the fact that unless I second Nero’s wishes I will be beheaded. Epictetus has Agrippinus replying that that’s why Florus need to go, though he himself will not. Why on earth not? And here comes the interesting — and typically Stoic — response by Agrippinus. Florus is thinking of himself as an average person, “as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads.” Agrippinus, by contrast, wants “to be the red,” meaning the purple enhancement that makes the whole garment more interesting and pleasing. But to do so he has to stand out, so he will refuse to accommodate the emperor’s request.

Agrippinus, incidentally, was Paconius Agrippinus, a senator and Stoic philosopher whose father had been put to death for treason by a previous emperor, Tiberius. Agrippinus was accused of treason in 67 CE and banished from Italy. He apparently accepted his fate with equanimity. It was the price for being the purple thread. Later on in I.2 we learn that Epictetus himself defied a later emperor, Domitian:

“‘Come then, Epictetus, shave off your beard.’ If I am a philosopher, I answer, ‘I will not shave it off.’ ‘But I will take off your neck.’ ‘If that will do you any good, take it off.’”

What’s this business with the beard? At the time, sporting a beard was the hallmark of a philosopher. And by “philosopher” Epictetus doesn’t mean someone pursuing a specialized academic career, such as myself. He means someone who is attempting to practice the “art of living.” Indeed, at one point in ancient Greece and Rome you could tell which school of thought a philosopher belong to by the way he wore his beard. Well kept and neatly trimmed? Aristotelian. A bit longer and not particularly cared for? Stoic. Very long and entirely left to its own devices? Cynic.

So when Domitian threatens Epictetus with death if he doesn’t shave his beard, this is serious business. The emperor is asking the philosopher to reject his core identity, to stop being a philosopher, and incidentally to cease speaking truth to power — as we would say today — because he is becoming a nuisance to the State. Epictetus refuses to shave his beard, and as a result he was sent into exile around the year 93 CE, to Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece. The joke’s on Domitian, though, since Epictetus’ school thrived and became the most sought out destination for young Roman aristocrats to learn about the art of life before embarking on a political career. A later emperor, Hadrian, was apparently on friendly terms with Epictetus and visited him in Nicopolis. In the end, what shall one do? Epictetus gives as direct an answer as we’ll get, near the end of I.2:

“Only consider at what price you sell your freedom of will. If you must sell it, man, at least do not sell it cheap. … Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest.”

Milo here probably was Milo of Croton, a 6th century BCE wrestler, who won many prizes in all the most important athletic festivals of ancient Greece. Interesting, Milo is also credited with leading his fellow citizens to an important military victory against neighboring Sybaris. Croesus was a 6th century BCE king of Lydia, who was very wealthy and a defender of the Greeks against the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who however defeated Croesus in 546 BCE.

Epictetus is telling his students that he is no great athlete, nor a wealthy man, and certainly not a better philosopher than Socrates. But he nevertheless takes care of his body and of his property, and is happy enough not to be worse than his role model. Just because we can’t be the best it doesn’t mean we can’t do good. And now the ball is back into your side: depending on “the price of your freedom of will” it is possible that sending money to the protesters is enough for you. Or it may be that your character is more like that of Agrippinus and Epictetus, in which case you’ll have to take to the streets, come what may.

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