On Whether Stoics Can Be Activists

by Jan Garrett

March 15, 2004
Many of my posts to the International Stoic Forum over the last several years have addressed this point in one form or another. The reason it keeps coming up is that we are prone to certain conceptual confusions that make it likely.

People confuse resoluteness with passionate commitment and with uncritical attachment to dogma. Stoics do deliberately try to avoid the passions (understood as violent feelings generated by the making of incorrect judgments) and uncritical attachment to dogma. There is no reason they cannot pursue appropriate goals with appropriate resoluteness.

People confuse activism with advocacy. Activism and advocacy overlap but differ: the first refers to activities such as standing on a streetcorner distributing leaflets or marching in demonstrations or organizing rallies more than does the second. The second refers to a range of persuasive activities, such as writing letters to newspapers and sending messages to email groups or chat rooms, composing articles or pamphlets, giving lectures, and speaking at rallies.

There's nothing preventing a Stoic from being either an activist or an advocate for certain well-thought-out public policies. The two approaches are in fact complementary. But the Stoic will take responsibility for his or her own practice as an advocate and participation as an activist. She will not follow a leader or a party just on his or its say-so. She will even join particular membership groups so as to promote their effectiveness if their work meets certain standards and membership does not compromise her exercise of reason.

People confuse Stoic apatheia (internal freedom from the violent feelings) with relative lack of action or interaction with larger groups of individuals. That is, they confuse Stoic apatheia with retreat into the private sphere.

It is useful, however, to keep in mind that social justice activism or advocacy including opposition to unjust wars and the plundering of the commonwealth to fill the pockets of elites relates to matters that are not entirely under our control. Most of us are unable before they occur to prevent them from happening and usually unable after they have occurred to bring justice to the malefactors or ensure reparation for the victims. But "usually not" is not the same as "never." Unjust wars and massive distributive injustice belong to the category of strongly (to be) rejected things. These are things worthy of preventing just insofar as they are (partially) in our power, either individually or collectively. (Note how I am, just slightly, modifying Epictetus' classification of things from the first chapter of his Manual.)

That they are to be rejected does not entail that that when we cannot prevent them, the situation calls for outrage on the part of the good person. (There are people who think that it does, but their view of the virtues is closer to the Aristotelian view than to the Stoic.) Yet since the good person in the strict Stoic sense (the sage) may be as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix and Stoics who are making progress are not sages, those who are rightly trying to make a positive difference in the public realm must be able to cooperate with individuals who may be given to the sort of outrage the Aristotelians find appropriate. If the Stoic herself occasionally slips into anger at the massive injustice going on around her, she ought not to beat up on herself but admit the slip and move on.