Stoics in Action
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Stoics in Action

Stoicism and Nonviolent Resistance (By Johnathan Pinckney)

This post was written by Jonathan Pinckney on December 19, 2018, and is posted here with permission.

In this post I want to advance a simple argument: that people interested in following the principles of Stoicism have a duty to practice nonviolent resistance (though not necessarily to be pacifists). At first glance their might not seem to be much common ground between Stoicism and nonviolent resistance, and its clear that the ancient Stoics were not pacifists. After all, the Stoic emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius spent most of his time waging war. The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, whose teaching inspired Epictetus, was a knight who fought in the Roman army. And Cato the Younger, the Roman Stoics’ greatest exemplar, led a civil war to attempt to prevent Julius Caesar from overthrowing the Roman Republic.

Yet it is important to remember that, while the Stoics emphasized certain universal moral principles, the specific application of those principles was always dependent on context. Epictetus emphasizes fulfilling the various roles that we have at different points in our life and in relation to those around us. Very few of the Stoic authors were ever willing to give anything like a specific set of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” (with the possible exception of Musonius Rufus, who was happy to tell his followers, for instance, that a good Stoic man would always grow a beard). Instead, we are called upon to use our rational faculties to apply the four cardinal virtues to our specific situation. We can adopt figures such as Cato or Marcus Aurelius as examples of those virtues, while still acknowledging that their specific actions may be more or less appropriate to our current situation.

In addition, even our virtuous exemplars were themselves flawed people, with limited moral insights. This isn’t some revolutionary statement for a Stoic to make. None of the Stoics claimed to be the ideal Stoic sage, who lives a life of perfect virtue. So gaining inspiration from Stoic philosophy and admiring people who have put it into practice doesn’t mean that we should hold up any one of the great Stoics of the past as flawless exemplars. The Stoics were people of their time and limited in the scope of their moral imagination by the common ways of thinking prevalent then. Many of them pushed against these prevalent ways of thinking, for instance by arguing (as Zeno and Musonius Rufus did) that women were equally capable of virtue with men,1 and arguing that one should treat even slaves with dignity and respect (though not, perhaps,free them from their bondage).

So, acknowledging that the historic Stoics might not have had much to say directly on nonviolent resistance and clearly found violence for political ends to be compatible with virtue, how might we look at their underlying insights into human nature and the character of virtue in order to apply Stoicism to the question of nonviolent resistance? I see it as informing two key choices: first, should we seek to achieve positive political change at all and second, what methods should we use to seek those changes?

The Stoic answer to the first question is abundantly clear. For the Stoics civic engagement and public service was a duty required by virtue, not an optional matter for us to pick up or not. This is still true today. As social animals, living in accordance with nature demands that we care not just for ourselves but for our broader community. And indeed, I would argue that for citizens of advanced democracies, the obligation for civic engagement is even greater than for the Stoics of the past. Our opportunities for political engagement are infinitely greater, and our scope of action infinitely wider, than in the limited areas of political engagement available to most people throughout history. Most historical figures could make the argument that they could not reasonably affect the politics and societies in which they lived. Democratic citizens, with the capacity to vote, demonstrate, strike, and engage in other methods of nonviolent resistance do not have this excuse.

So, if we are consistently following Stoic ethics, we must be actively engaged in seeking the welfare of our fellow human beings. What about the second question of methods? Here too the Stoics speak very clearly. We have an obligation to seek the welfare of others through methods that are in accord with virtue. Stoic thinkers saw a fatal flaw in thinking that immoral means were justified by moral ends. What is this flaw? The results of any action are outside of our control, subject to the whims of fortuna. What we can control is the way in which we pursue those actions. In setting our intention to be in accord with virtue we are invincible. So if we wish to live a virtuous life we must pursue actions for the benefit of others, and those actions must be dictated by their virtuous quality in the immediate moment, rather than by their perceived long-term benefits.

If we drop thinking that the ends justify the means, very quickly almost all our reasons for using violence to pursue political goals similarly drops away. Should we assassinate a dictator because getting him out of the way will allow a more just political leader to come to power? Well, we don’t know if the assassination will actually bring about the change we think it will. It’s up to fate. So we are left with just killing him either because we don’t like him personally or because he’s done terrible things that we think deserve punishment. Yet on both grounds we will have departed far from Stoic virtue. It’s not rational to kill someone just because we don’t like them. And evil actions spring out of ignorance — the dictator is harming themselves by acting in that way. Thus seeking to kill them for retributive reasons also falls short.

The good thing is that there is a more virtuous path available to the Stoic, and one in which our chances of dealing with the whims of fortuna are better than approaching problems through violence anyway. Nonviolent resistance is a more powerful force for political change than political violence ever has been. And critically, it is a force for political change that involves growth in Stoic virtue rather than departing from virtue because of ends-means justification. Let me explain what I mean, first what nonviolent resistance is, how it works in practice, and how it meshes well with growth in virtue.

What do I mean by nonviolent resistance? Nonviolent resistance is quite simply a refusal to cooperate. Like Camus said, a rebel is a person who says no. It is withdrawing your consent and cooperation from a political order that you believe to be unjust. It has some typical tactics that are familiar to us, like protest marches, strikes, and boycotts, but it isn’t synonymous with any of these. What it means is refusing to accept the channels of power created by the powerful and instead forge your own. One of the great practitioners of nonviolent resistance in the 20thcentury, Vaclav Havel, described it as refusing to accept a lie and instead choosing to “live in truth.”

My favorite Stoic exemplar here is the Roman senator Helvidius Priscus, as described in Epictetus’s Discourses (Book 1, Chapter 2). The emperor Vespasian gave Helvidius the opportunity to keep his mouth shut and go along with imperial policy, thus allowing him to save his own life. Helvidius refused to play the game, but instead insisted that as a Roman senator he had a duty to speak the truth no matter what the consequences might be. And when the Emperor threatened to kill Helvidius for standing up to him, Helvidius replied: “When did I tell you that I was immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine. It is your part to kill, it is mine to die — but not in fear.”

The effectiveness of nonviolent resistance rests upon a simple premise: rulers rely upon the ruled to stay in power.2 They rely on us accepting their avenues for exercising political control as right and just for that control to be sustainable. When enough people refuse to give that acceptance, then the whole edifice collapses and change becomes inevitable. This is why nonviolent resistance movements against unjust political orders tend to succeed in ending those orders more than twice as often as violent movements, even when only a relatively small proportion of the population is willing to boldly stand up and participate.

Finally, the practice of nonviolent resistance involves disciplining yourself in ways that are integrally Stoic. An excellent example of this comes from the US Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, one of the most powerful campaigns of the civil rights movement was the lunch counter sit-ins. These started when black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina decided to attempt to forcibly desegregate the lunch counters in their city by simply sitting there and refusing to leave until they were given service. The movement spread like wildfire across the segregated south, and was helped along by foundational civil rights leaders like James Lawson, who had studied the Gandhian nonviolent resistance movement in India. James Lawson organized a training regimen for lunch-counter sit-in activists that would make Epictetus proud. Students who wanted to participate in a lunch counter sit-in had to be prepared to remain peaceful, calm, and polite no matter how bad the situation around them got. So before going out the students went through a kind of premeditatio malorum training exercise. The black students preparing for a sit-in would sit in a chair while their white fellow activists stood around them and played the role of racist agitators trying to disrupt the sit in. They would hurl insults at the black students, and even physically assault them. The black students had to remain completely calm and nonviolent. When they subsequently went out on their sit-in, they were prepared and remained peaceful. Like the Stoic sage, they refused to respond in kind to violent provocation, and their refusal made their example that much more powerful. The lunch counter sit-ins were a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle, and helped end legal segregation in the American South.

It’s easy to recognize the Stoic virtues at work in the example of the lunch counter sit-in activists. And these stories are common throughout nonviolent resistance movements. Engaging in nonviolent resistance is perhaps one of the best examples we have of all the four cardinal Stoic virtues at once: practical wisdom in selecting a method of struggle that is more likely to succeed (though of course the ultimate outcome is outside of our control), justice in that we treat our fellow human beings with dignity and respect, courage in that we champion the right and refuse to go along with political orders that harm others, and temperance in that we hold our emotions and irrational responses in check like the sit-in activists. So, there is a strong case that most Stoics in most situations should be prepared to engage in nonviolent resistance, and in many cases have a duty to do so.

I don’t, however, think that Stoicism implies a kind of total pacifism that would eschew physical violence in any circumstance whatsoever. First, as I discussed earlier, most Stoics are quite light on absolute moral dictates. You must apply the virtues to your situation, and your role in that situation. And it’s certainly conceivable that there are situations where violence is the appropriate, virtuous response. Even people we think of as more or less absolute pacifists like Gandhi said that violence was acceptable in certain circumstances. The important thing for the Stoic to consider is the true justification for violence. Am I choosing to engage in violence for reasons that are really in accord with virtue? Or am I simply going along with cultural expectations and “ends justify the means” thinking?

One should also consider one’s own strength and capacity to engage in particularly strenuous forms of resistance. Part of the role ethics of Stoicism is knowing when something is beyond your personal capacity. Yet we can all strive for more, as we seek to approach the sage’s virtue. As Epictetus says, we can all strive to be “the purple, the small part which is bright, and makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful.”

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