The Problem with Modern Stoics

 Father, forgive the Stoics for they do not know what they do.

“We forget: In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given.” (Ryan Holiday)

When you are in a place of privilege and comfort, it is easy to preach the philosophy of "suck it up, buttercup."

Take the story of Jackie Robinson. 

The first Black man to break the color barrier in major league baseball, Robinson is a true hero. 

 Robinson was the target of aggressive racism. 

He was forced to play with people who were vocally racists and questioned his right to he there. 

Robinson proved his right by not fighting back. 

He never took a swing at those who deserved it or publicly gotten into arguments. 

He even allowed himself to have his picture taken with out and loud racists. 

By playing through the hostility, Robison opened the door for others. 

If he had responded to violence and bigotry with aggression, it would have played into the hands of the racists. It would have been used as justification to continue to discriminate. 

The Stoics celebrate Robinson for putting up with the inexcusable. 

In contrast, take the story of Rosa Parks.

Stoics would say to go along to get along.

That is not what Parks did.

She refused to go along when she refused to give up her seat on the bus.

In modern stoicism, you graciously accept whatever happens to you. 

Parks was knowingly breaking the law when she refused a white passenger. 

Parks acted because that was the only way to advance civil rights. 

It was necessary in that moment to not be civil and accept the way things are.

Progress does not take place without breaking things. 

Advocating that victims of racism should just suck it up, ignores the reality on the ground.

Modern stoics celebrate the late great Byzantine general Belisarius who served under the Emperor Constantine. 

The modern stoics repeat false news from medieval time that Constantine stripped Belisarius of his lands and blinded him. 

The Stoics praises Belisarius for how when given the chance to overthrow Constantine, Belisarius refused. 

If Constantine was so bad, wouldn’t the right thing have been to overthrow him and install a new government? 

The stoics argue it is better to go along with the powers that be than make waves. 

That is easy to say when you have a vested interest in the way that things are.

In truth, this story about Belisarius is fiction invented hundreds of years later. 

Belisarius and Constantine died as friends on their respective estates at almost the same time.

Constantine was a great emperor, as emperors go and deserved Belisarius's loyalty.

The false history fits the idea that great people who are great because they take other people’s garbage and smile.

To understand the roots of stoicism, one must also understand epicureanism.

Both life philosophies emerged in Greece around 2,500 years past.

Stoicism follows from the idea that the world is the way that is due to Divine design. 

If the world as it is follows the will of the Divine, the key to happiness is to be virtuous and always do the right thing, consistent with the design.

Epicureanism counters that there is no evidence or proof the Divine.

All we can know for certain is that we exist in a physical world.

Thus, happiness comes from physical pleasure.

The modern Epicurean Anthony Bourdain wrote, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

During the waning years of the Roman Republic, these two opposing philosophies competed for mindshare among the Roman elite.

Stoics such as Cato the Younger adhered to the idea that physical pleasure from eating, drinking, or other activities were not virtuous. 

The Epicurean philosophy provided justification for pursuing culinary and other delights. 

Cato favored cheap wine, not because he could not afford the good stuff, but because as a Stoic, enjoying wine and food were sinful.

These differences spilled over into politics. 

Favoring the maintenance of the traditional systems of Roman government and society, Cato and his allies were the primary resistance to Julius Caesar. 

The Stoics lost the civil wars. Cato killed himself rather than be ruled by Caesar.

Modern Stoics skip over these ideas of the philosophy they claim for themselves.

Cato today would protest foodies, craft beer, and Burning Man.

Modern stoicism makes it okay to be a rich, white man in 21st century America. 

Modern stoicism offers a selective interpretation that teaches it is okay if my life is great, and if your life is not great, then get over it. 

Modern stoicism corrupts Stoicism to being a philosophy to support the status quo and existing structures of power and privilege.

Stoicism seeks to define what is virtuous behavior and define universal standards of behavior. 

Living the good life is not adherence to a philosophy that is over 2000 years old. 

Living the good life is about making good choices for who you are and where you are at this particular moment.

Life is not meant to be lived with only one approach. 

Sometimes acceptance is the right thing for a person to do, and sometimes resistance is the right thing. 

What makes it right is the intersection of the person and the situation. Only the person can determine what is the right course of action. 

Jackie Robinson was right to demonstrate Stoic principles in his actions. 

Rosa Parks was also right to ignore this same course of action in providing resistance through civil disobedience. 

But what if Robinson had taken a different approach?

While there are many players of color today, there are far fewer managers and owners of color.

How much has changed and how deep do those change go?


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