Stoic Compassion: Should I Be Understanding Toward Terrorists?

Figs in Winter
Jan 18 · 9 min read
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[image: a gallows hangs near the United States Capitol during the 2021 riots, Wikipedia; this is essay #265 in my Patreon/Medium series]

Sometimes it is difficult to really practice Stoicism, or any serious philosophy or religion. Which is as it should be. If things were always easy according to one’s philosophy of life one could reasonably doubt the effectiveness of such philosophy. Rarely has my Stoicism been put through a difficult test as during and after the recent events in Washington, DC. From my point of view, a narcissistic President who is unable to comprehend that he lost an open and fair election has incited a large group of lunatics into an open and violent insurrection against the US government. The attempt failed only because Mr. Trump is far less focused, motivated, and organized than Mussolini was. Otherwise we could have seen a repetition of the infamous “march on Rome.”

But of course, the above description is, as I said, from my point of view. From the point of view of the participants to the event — judging from interviews and social media posts — it was a patriotic act made necessary by a corrupted government who had overturned the legitimate election of Donald Trump to a second term. And this is where Stoicism becomes both difficult to practice, and yet absolutely necessary. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

There is a lot of wisdom in this quote, so let us take a closer look. The first bit is a realistic appraisal of human affairs: we should expect some people to behave badly, because that is in the nature of things. I was, in fact, expecting some sort of turmoil on the day Congress was going to finally ratify the election of Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States. I just didn’t expect the magnitude of such turmoil.

The second sentence addresses why these things happen. Some people are ignorant of the difference between good and evil, as Marcus puts it, and therefore confuse the two. The rioters were convinced that they were doing good, even though reasonable people would say they were definitely not. I am even convinced that Trump truly finds it inconceivable that he lost the election, from which premise it logically follows that there must have been shenanigans at play. He is probably also convinced — because of his narcissism — that he deserved to be re-elected, because he is the best and the country couldn’t possibly do well without him. None of this stands up to the scrutiny of facts and reason, of course, not even for a minute, but that doesn’t mean the people involved do not genuinely believe it.

Lastly, Marcus says to himself (he was, after all, writing in his own diary) that he cannot be touched by such evil, and that moreover he cannot be angry with his fellow human beings. Why on earth not? He cannot be touched by it because he has made a constant effort to cultivate his “ruling faculty,” i.e., reason, and has done his best to arrive at a true conception of good and evil. And he cannot be angry because anger is a destructive response. Far better to be compassionate and helpful, as he says in another passage:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

I had a hard time not being angry with the people who stormed the Capitol building, and even more so with the man who sent them there on his behalf. And I’m having a really hard time figuring out how they could possibly be taught better. But those are precisely the challenges a decent practitioner of Stoicism faces. Having given some thought to such challenges over the past week or so, I was reminded of a few of pertinent points that I’d like to share.

First off, can I truly imagine how the rioters felt and why they acted that way? Yes, because I would have done the same, under (very) different circumstances. I can honestly say that if I had good reasons to believe that my government were acting nefariously, in a way that undermines free and fair elections and makes a mockery of our constitutional system, I would be prepared to march and — if I had sufficient courage — even to join the barricades. This sort of things has happened plenty of times in human history, and at least some of those times were indeed amply justified. The French and American revolutions, for instance. Or the Italian insurrection against the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Pope during the 19th century.

So yes, I can truly say that I sympathize with the motives, and even the actions, of those people. Where we depart speaks to my second point: the reasonableness of their beliefs. It is my considered opinion that supporters of QAnon, for instance, are acting under a completely illusory understanding of the world. There simply is neither reason nor evidence to believe — as the Wiki entry summarizes — that a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal. It is nonsense on stilts. Not because conspiracies are not possible. They are, they have taken place in the past, and undoubtedly will continue to do so in the future. It’s just that that particular conspiracy is delusional.

I have encountered this situation — being able to understand where people come from and yet at the same time being very confident they were mistaken — before, when I was teaching evolutionary biology in Tennessee. I engaged in countless discussions with fervent creationists who thought I was the path to the devil and whom I in turn regarded as incapable of basic reasoning and understanding of the available facts. But then it struck me: these people are not ignorant country bumpkins, they simply reason about the world starting from axioms that are radically different from my own.

Aristotle very nicely explained what is going on here, and thus gives us a key to understand the DC riots and the lunacy (from my perspective) of President Trump. (Who would have thought that a philosopher who died more than two millennia ago would be useful to understand politics and violence in the 21st century, eh?)

Aristotle said (in Physics, 184a10–21) that all reasoning must begin with certain axioms, or first principles, that are not demonstrated within that particular system of reasoning. For instance, Euclidean geometry is characterized by five postulates, from which its theorems can be derived. The postulates can be rejected, in which case one also rejects all the resulting theorems, perhaps embracing a different set of postulates as part of one of many types of non-Euclidean geometry. But any new set of postulates can in turn be rejected, and the process starts over.

In classical logic, the law of non-contradiction, which says that something cannot be both true and false (formally, P is not non-P), is one of the first principles; so is the principle of identity, which states that a thing is identical to itself (formally, P is P); and so is the law of excluded middle, stipulating that a thing either is or is not, with no middle ways (formally, either P or non-P). But there are other kinds of logics that reject, or modify, these axioms, and that when applied lead to different, internally coherent, conclusions. Note that there is no possibility of demonstrating the principle of non-contradiction (or any of the others), it is axiomatic. Note also that such impossibility doesn’t count against the use of the principle. We use that principle within a given framework because it yields interesting or useful results. If it stops doing so, we replace it with other axioms.

Back to my creationist friends. The difference between us wasn’t so much that they reasoned incorrectly and I did, but rather that we began from different first principles: I take it for granted that we live in a naturalistic universe made of matter and energy and where things happen with cause-effect regularities that we call laws of nature. They took it for granted that we live in a universe created by a loving and omnipotent God a few thousand years ago.

The creationist conclusion that I must be wrong when I teach that the Earth is billions of years old is logically derived from their basic axioms. Therefore when we engaged in conversation we were actually talking past each other, and Aristotle rightly warned that it is fruitless to debate someone whose first principles are radically at odds with our own.

Of course, there is a major difference between the cases of Euclidean geometry and classical logic on one hand and creationism vs evolution, or Trumpism vs ordinary thinking: the major axioms at play are not theoretical, they are empirical. While it makes no sense to try to disprove the principle of non-contradiction, it does make sense to analyze empirically the statement that there is a nationwide conspiracy of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Theoretical axioms can only be judged on the basis of their coherence and usefulness, but empirical axioms can be factually investigated.

Then again, any such investigation in turn relies on a more fundamental set of axioms, about how the world works (metaphysics) and about how we obtain knowledge (epistemology). So it isn’t as simple as “just the facts, ma’am.” What counts as a “fact” and what methods are acceptable to uncover such facts can be debated. There goes yet another reason philosophy is so useful.

Please realize that I’m not making an argument for epistemic relativism here. I am definitely not saying that the chances that creationists are right are just about the same as that evolutionists are. Nor am I saying that QAnon makes as much sense as a more mainstream understanding of reality. I am simply reminding myself why people can coherently and honestly make mistakes about facts and reasoning.

Which is why the Stoics insisted on the following fundamental equation for a good human life:

Physics + Logic => Ethics

Ethics, in the ancient world, meant not just the study of right and wrong, as it is often defined in contemporary moral philosophy. It meant the study of how to live a life worth living. As such, ethics is the most important concern for a human being.

But, according to the Stoics, one cannot arrive at a good conception of ethics without a good understanding of “Physics” and Logic. Physics, from the Greek root physis, which meant nature, is the study of how the world works, to the best of our knowledge. If we act (ethics) on the basis of a dramatically incorrect view of physis, we are bound to make mistakes and mislive our life.

Logic, in turn, was not just the study of formal reasoning, as it is usually taught nowadays, but anything to do with sound reasoning, including what we would today call psychology and cognitive science. Why should we train ourselves in logic? Because if we don’t reason correctly about either physis or ethics we are, again, bound to mislive.

So the difference between myself and my creationist interlocutors was that I had a better grasp of physis (since I am a professional evolutionary biologist) and of logic (because it was part of my academic training) than they did. Similarly with the QAnon rioters: I am fairly confident that my understanding of the world and my ability to reason about it are better than theirs.

But, you say, that’s what they think too, in reverse! Indubitably, and that is precisely the basis for Stoic compassion. But just because there are two equal and opposite sides to something it doesn’t mean they are equivalent. If you argue with a mathematician because you are convinced that the Pythagorean theorem is wrong, my bet is with the mathematician.

All of the above said, should there be limits to our compassion for rioters and terrorists? Yes. And those limits demarcate the line between action and inaction. Marcus says:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Rioters may be genuinely misguided, rather than evil. Trump may really think that he has a right to stay in office no matter what. This doesn’t mean we should not stop the rioters and remove Trump. It is what is required by the reason of a social animal such as ourselves.

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Figs in Winter

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Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Figs in Winter

Written by

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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