A Case for Stoic Outreach

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A picture of the Earth (albeit a very badly-drawn one probably rife with inaccuracies) has on it somewhere a red icon of a generic person - symbolizing that we are inherently a part of a larger world. The world is shown against a black background representing the vastness of space - but with a few equally-badly-drawn stars in the background to remind us that, even in the Universe, we are not alone. This image is for articles in this blog that discuss Cosmopolitanism - a teaching, inherent to Stoicism, about our interconnectedness with the rest of the Universe.
As a Stoic, I realize that as far as I am concerned, for anyone other than myself to practice Stoicism is an indifferent (neither inherently good nor bad). Still, I see a strong case for Stoics with a pro-justice understanding of the ancient philosophy to organize some kind of outreach by which to invite others to try Stoicism.
This article is cross-posted – available here as well as on my main blog.
A core teaching in Stoicism – the most central core teaching of them all, as a matter of fact – is that a Stoic should strive to see nothing outside of their locus of control as being either inherently good or inherently bad. This goes all the way from minor things like it raining on the day that a picnic is scheduled, to major things such as you dropping dead in the next ten minutes. Also, this category of things labeled “indifferents” specifically includes decisions made by anyone other than one’s self.

For this reason, it goes without saying that a Stoic can not see someone else taking up the practice of Stoicism as being an inherently good thing – because that would be attributing a value of “good” to one of these things that isn’t in our locus of control, and which therefore can’t be inherently good or inherently bad. That said, arranging public activities for the purpose of introducing more people in society to Stoicism and inviting them to try it, and even, where possible, offering some encouragement, could be justified by the fact that while their adoption of Stoicism is an indifferent from the point-of-view of the one doing the outreach, it is nonetheless a preferred indifferent.

Before I go on, I must be clear that my understanding of the Stoic philosophy places a strong emphasis on social justice – and I believe that any interpretation of Stoic philosophy that doesn’t do so is missing a key component of the philosophy. This is because inherent to Stoicism is a concept called “Cosmopolitanism“, the notion of our interconnectedness to other beings – from those immediately around us all the way to everything in the Universe. This implies an inherent obligation to care for all the fellow citizens of our Universe when applicable.

Of course – this does not change the fact that since the existence or non-existence of social injustice is outside of our control it automatically is in the category that Stoics see as “indifferent”. However, while the existence or non-existence of social injustice is an indifferent – the decision whether someone will or will not be complicit with said social injustice is well within that person’s locus of control, and therefore eligible to be seen as either inherently good or inherently bad.

One obstacle we very often run into when campaigning for social justice is that most people in society aren’t trained to make rational decisions. Most people make whatever decision their untamed emotions tell them to make. Also, many people tend to have a mentality in which being perceived as right (be it by themselves or by others) is more important than being right for realsies. And no – this isn’t limited to those on just one side of America’s political aisle – but is present in conservatives and liberals alike.

These emotional interferences in the otherwise-would-be rational decision-making process are what a Stoic would call “pathos” – often translated (with debatable accuracy) to “passions”. If these pathos are unchecked, someone’s logic is going to be impaired. And if evidence of a social injustice is presented to someone – whether or not that person is persuaded will be more a function of whether or not acknowledging that injustice resonates with their pre-conceived views than of how sound and reliable the evidence actually is.

This can not be overcome by calling out fallacies. For every actual fallacy you can call out in a truly insane argument, there has got to be at least one false-alarm fallacy (if not more) that could be thrown at a perfectly sound argument. For example, one web-site that advocates Creationism has a page that convincingly (at least convincingly-to-the-naive) accuses some of those who expose its flaws of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

And this problem in turn can not be solved by devising a set of criteria for each fallacy to examine its applicability to any given argument. (Believe me, I have tried – and I strongly suspect that many with far more qualifications than I and far more time to devote to that pursuit have tried as well.) Any razor for determining whether or not a specific fallacy applies to a specific argument will always have intricacies into which our pathos can crawl into so as to cloud our judgement.

So what can be done to deter the interference of pathos in public discourse? The answer is that you’re looking in the wrong place if you are exclusively focused on the structures of the arguments themselves. However, if you broaden your search to include the people making and analyzing the arguments (instead of treating them as black boxes) there is a way – and that is that the pathos themselves must be addressed. Stoicism is a powerful tool, quite possible the most powerful tool, for doing this. Therefore, the more people in society learn and practice Stoicism, the more effective public discourse is likely to be.

Of course, as a Stoic, I realize that it is beyond my locus of control to have more people (except for one more person, i.e. myself) study and practice Stoicism – thereby, once again, making that an indifferent. However – there may be things within my locus of control that I can do as my small part in promoting that, of increasing the probability of that happening – and I submit that attempting to organize a Stoic outreach is one such thing.

Do I advocate standing on street-corners thumping copies of the Enchiridion of Epictetus in much the same manner that Christian street-corner preachers do with the Bible? Not at all. Their style is based on a pathos of seeing other people join their church as an inherent good – and they attempt to persuade by appealing to the least-rational aspects of people’s psyches. But more logic-respecting approaches are very much in order — from leaving flyers around town with information on the benefits of Stoicism and how someone can reach the local Stoic outreach group — to even sometimes holding meetings in public places where we learn and teach one another Stoicism in a format that is conducive to passer-bys joining in (much as Zeno of Citium did in the very kind of public-space structure that gave our school of philosophy it’s name). And there may be other outreach strategies that also respect the nature of logic.

But with all the threats facing our planet – from climate change to rollbacks in civil rights to even the still-extant possibility of nuclear war — though all the things threatened are indifferents, they are very much dispreferred indifferents. In our campaign in response to such threats, we should search for a strategy that has a chance of gaining ground – and that means doing our part to promote a more rational and sane society – which could very well include organizing a kind of Stoic outreach.

Another advantage of Stoic outreach would be that members of marginalized groups whose external circumstances are adversely affected by social injustice could benefit from the resilience that comes from Stoic training. I and other Stoics have rightly criticized some people of using a similarly-sounding suggestion as a cop-out from their duties to society under Stoic Cosmopolitanism. However, this criticism applies only when one suggests offering Stoic resilience training (and often a half-hearted effort at that) as an alternative to doing what they can to campaign for social justice. On the other hand, providing a more-serious effort at Stoic resilience-training – and doing it not instead of campaigning for social justice, but in addition to it, is not at all a cop-out, but a true effort to help.

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