The Stoic Activist

The Stoics (a school of philosophy in the 3rd Century BCE) often used the image of the 'Stoic Sage' as a way of imagining their ideal philosophic practitioner. While recognizing that it was an unattainable ideal, the Stoics found it one nonetheless worth contemplating. Through this contemplation, the individual aims him or herself towards the blissful state of tranquility in which the Stoic Sage resides. This end -- ataraxia -- is very much about the individual and their state of mind. Ultimately, however, Stoicism has much to offer those interested not just in tranquility for themselves but in providing the opportunity for tranquility to arise in others. Put another way, one particular iteration of the Stoic Stage might be the 'Stoic Activist', a vision of Stoicism in the trenches of every day life, taking part in the shaking and moving of history.

A student of Stoicism might give pause here, doubtful of the link between Stoicism and activism. After all, trying to shape the story of the world is bound to lead any Stoic away from the path towards tranquility and into the underbrush of frustration. We can begin to address these doubts by looking to the lives of the great Stoics themselves: a prisoner-in-chains to renowned philosopher in Epictetus, a political advisor and an investment banker in Seneca, and the ruler of the known world in Marcus Aurelius. Certainly, these Stoic thinkers did not sit by idly as the world passed them by; they were change makers, fiercely engaging in the story of a transforming world through their ideas, politics, and governance.

Consider the thoughts of one of these Stoics in particular, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus recognized that in the morning it might be easier to stay under the covers, lingering in the pleasant warmth. Despite this, he counseled himself that to do so was folly: man must do the work of man. And what, then, is that work? Marcus answers, "I am bound to do good to my fellow-creatures and bear with them" (Meditations 5.20, trans. Staniforth, 1969). Even though as he steps out of bed Marcus reminds himself that he will be met with all the awfulness of humanity throughout the coming day, he reaffirms his commitment to others because man is a social animal and to connect is to be human.

Now, then, we can set aside the seeming paradox of the Stoic Activist and imagine what she might look like. The Stoic Activist actively visualizes all sorts of mishaps -- organizing snafus, shifts in public opinion, or more timely matters arising -- and, in doing so, is able to navigate around some and prepare for the cases where they are unavoidable. The Stoic Activist constantly evaluates what is within her control, focusing her energy entirely on what is and not diverting any attention to what isn't. At the end of the day, following one of Seneca's practices, the Stoic Activist reflects on the steps taken to make sure they were in line with her principles. That pause of reflection grows the space of tranquility from which she can be the most effective advocate. Finally, when the cause meets failure, the Stoic Activist is not slowed down by the shortcoming but energized by the existence of any awareness of the issue in the first place.

You might not consider yourself an activist. The word might have all sorts of connotations that you feel do not apply to who you are. Whether you like it or not, though, the world is changing on every level, every day; each rise of the sun you have the chance to exercise whatever control you have, to be part of the unfolding story. To choose not to engage is still a choice. You are an activist, in one form or the other. Today, will you act as a reflective, contemplative agent of change?

This essay was originally published by The Caesura Letters on October 22, 2015 as part of ongoing reflections on Stoicism. This submission marks my second published piece on the site (the first being The Adjacent Possible) and I'm grateful for the chance to share my writing more widely on such a wonderful site.