‘Modern Stoic Responses to Terror’ by Kevin Kennedy

“Barbarians at the Gates.” Stoic Responses to Islamist Terror and the Refugee Crisis

by Kevin Kennedy

This symbol went viral as people across the world showed their solidarity for the Paris attacks. What is the Stoic approach?

This symbol went viral as people across the world showed their solidarity for the Paris attacks. What is the Stoic approach?

Blood on the streets of what had just been peaceful neighbourhoods. The mutilated bodies of men, women and children, innocent victims of sudden violence, strewn among the wreckage. The survivors, wounded and terrified, trying to understand what has just happened to them. Only slowly will they realize that their lives have been shattered forever. But the state then responds quickly with all the armed force it can muster.  The perpetrators are either killed on the spot or hunted down and taken prisoner. Those captured are then sent to the capitol, where they paraded before a jeering crowd before being publicly executed. As readers will surely realize after the last sentence, this is not a description of the recent terror attacks in Paris. The event referred to is instead the invasion of the Roman province of Pannonia (the upper Danube region) by the Marcomanni and the Quadi (ancient Germanic tribes) sometime between 167 and 170 CE. The “Marcomannic Wars” (ca. 167-180)  in no way prefigured the current conflict with the terror group Daesh (better known as ISIS). Nevertheless, those of us interested in Stoic philosophy may find it worthwhile to consider how second-century Romans, living during the final flourishing of Stoicism in the ancient world, responded to a violent attack on their own way of life.

The Historia Augusta claims that the Marcomannic Wars had “surpassed any in the memory of man.” The Romans themselves, accustomed as they were to war, brigandage and violent crime, were shocked by the brutality of the attack. Even though the fighting never came close to the city of Rome itself, panic still broke out there, for this was the first time that Italy had been invaded in over 260 years. The man who had the task of repelling the invaders was the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 160-180 CE). Today Marcus is far better known as a philosopher than a warrior. While the Marcomannic wars have long been forgotten, Marcus’ philosophical journal, the Meditations, still enjoys great popularity. But Marcus spent much more of time fighting than philosophizing.  His valiant yet frustrating attempts to pacify the region only ended with his death. In the year 176 CE, however. Marcus decided he had achieved enough success to hold a triumph in Rome, which he celebrated together with his son and successor Commodus (reigned 180-192 CE). Victorious but traumatized, the Romans would never forget the Marcomannic onslaught. Proof of this can still be seen in Rome today at the Palazzo Colonna. Dominating this square is.the “Aurelian” column, dedicated to Marcus Aurelius and his triumph over the Marcomanni and the Quadi. The column, originally erected at the Campus Martius, the “Field of Mars” (dedicated to the Roman god of war), is some 30 metres tall. Running down the entire length of the column is an elaborate relief, comprised of many scenes from the wars Marcus fought: terrified women and children fleeing the attackers, the savage combat between the legions and their foes, as well as the gruesome retribution taken by the victorious Romans. To the side, impassively viewing the suffering, fighting and dying, is Marcus Aurelius himself. The Romans had repelled the “barbarians” — at least for the time being — and restored their sense of security. And how will we in the West today, the cultural heirs of Rome, confront our own security threats?

Comparing the Marcomannic Wars to 21st century Islamist terror may sound far-fetched. The Germanic invasions posed an existential threat to the Roman Empire. The attacks carried out by Daesh, however horrific, do not, as yet, have the power to bring about the decline and fall of Western civilization. And yet, this is exactly the comparison being made right now. Just as Rome fell because it allowed too many Germanic people to live within its borders, it is argued, so contemporary Western society is now threatened by its many Muslim inhabitants. Such rhetoric is not only coming from private citizens opinionating in their personal blogs, but also from serious thinkers writing in respected media sources. The well-known but controversial historian Niall Ferguson, for instance, compares the West to a tottering empire. As he views it, the distant shock to this weakened edifice has been the Syrian civil war, though it has been a catalyst as much as a direct cause for the great Völkerwanderung of 2015. As before, they have come from all over the imperial periphery — from North Africa, from the Levant, from South Asia — but this time they have come in their millions. Without using the actual word, Ferguson portrays the refugees as the new barbarians: an alien people who practice a religious faith hostile to Western values. His conclusion is clear. We should fear these people, prevent more of them from coming to our homelands, and roll back the influence of those who are already here. Otherwise we shall suffer the fate of the Romans.

Stoicism Today is a forum for philosophical matters; therefore the cogency of such arguments, as well as the proper political responses to terrorism and migration, must be discussed elsewhere. But there is a Stoic aspect to these matters. Like the ancient Romans in the aftermath of the Germanic invasions, many of us today in the West now live in an atmosphere of  fear and anger. The desire to eliminate threats to our physical safety and to punish those who assault us is natural.  As the ancient Stoics admonish us, however, we must not allow primordial passions to guide our thinking, but reason and practical wisdom. Stoics recognize the need to take a step back from our emotions, examine the representations of reality they create, and analyze their accuracy before formulating a reasoned response. Regarding the subject at hand, what is it exactly that demands a response from us? If we are not members of the military or the police, then most of us are only personally affected by the crisis when we personally encounter the refugees fleeing their homes in Syria to seek safety and shelter among us. And Stoic philosophy can be of great benefit here.

The greatest Stoic teacher we know of, Epictetus (lived c. 55-135 CE), claimed that Stoic principles make love in a house, concord in a state, peace among nations and gratitude to God (Discourses, Chapter V). That is to say, Stoicism holds out the promise of the community of all humankind. The goal of Daesh, however, is to destroy that community by sowing discord between Muslims and non-Muslims. As a BBC-journalist recently wrote, To maintain the flow of recruits in the long term, the jihadists need to make Muslims feel more vulnerable and alienated in Western societies. The greatest individual contribution a Stoic could make toward establishing world peace would be to cast aside his or her own fears and welcome all those now fleeing from violence and terror in the Middle East.  The presence of the refugees already here, as well as the fact that many more are on the way, are matters that lie beyond our personal control. What is up to us, however (no matter how we believe the refugee crisis should ultimately be addressed), is to show them the kindness all Stoics are expected to show every inhabitant of this planet. As Marcus Aurelius said, Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you. True, some terrorists may have hid themselves among the refugees. Reason nevertheless dictates that the majority of them have fled their homes because their lives were threatened. The few cases who might pose a danger to us are a matter for the authorities. Meanwhile, In order to live with the uncertainty, we need to have the courage of our convictions.

The problem is that we too often tend to cast aside our Stoic principles when remaining true to them requires an effort on our part.  As Epictetus also said, We indeed are able to write and to read these things, and to praise them when they are read, but we do not even come near to being convinced of them. (Discourses, Chapter V). The author of the essay you are now reading is as guilty of this failing as anyone else. I  live  in Germany and Sweden, the two European nations accepting the greatest number of refugees. (Sweden, with only 9 million inhabitants, has taken in more Syrian refugees per capita than any other country.). When I encounter refugees with what I would consider stereotypical features of conservative Muslims (men with beards, women with headscarves), I have to confess that my first reaction is a sense of unease. Who are these people? Why are they here? What do they believe? But then I try to step back and consider the soundness of my immediate reactions. Am I the type of person to judge others by their outward appearance? After all, my own grandmother never went out of the house without a headscarf, and she was a devout Protestant. Moreover, when I’m out on the streets of Gothenburg and Berlin, I see bearded hipsters by the score. But I have no fear of grandmothers or hipsters. What have these refugees done to deserve my apprehension? Are they not here precisely because they didn’t want to live in a land dominated by extremism? They have taken on incredible hardships to get here. (Many of them don’t get here at all.) While it is safe to assume that the refugees I see on the streets don’t share all of my values (which is the same case as with almost all of the native Europeans I meet), I have no rational reason to believe that they pose a threat to me, my family and friends, or European society in general. The immediate representation of “Muslims” in my head does not correspond to the reality of the individual before my eyes. These people are not barbarians. They are human beings.

Maybe now, more than ever, we need to rethink some famous words from that ancient “anti-terrorist” fighter Marcus Aurelius. They have been quoted time and time again, usually in reference to the tribulations of our daily lives. But before we reconsider them, let us imagine Marcus himself, a soldier who knew battle, blood and death. His experiences in war also found their way into his Meditations: Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to? When Marcus challenges us to remain decent despite the most unspeakable horrors, he speaks from experience. He prosecuted his wars with all the force needed to vanquish his enemies. But there is no evidence that he ever punished an entire people for challenging Rome. (As was common practice among Roman emperors and generals.)  And now consider this, perhaps the most powerful passage from the Meditations, in light of our own situation. Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say, rather, ‘How lucky I am that this has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.”

Kevin Kennedy is a 53-year-old German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He live with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at kevin.alterfritz@gmail.com.

‘What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter Edition’ by Massimo Pigliucci

What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter Edition

by Massimo Pigliucci

Editor’s Note: This piece comes from Massimo’s blog, How To Be A Stoic, and he has kindly let us post it here. 

TwitterI’m starting a new occasional series, entitled What Would a Stoic Do? The idea is to explore, based on actual (as opposed to hypothetical) situations, what the best Stoic response might be to things that happen in everyday life. Some of the examples will be drawn from my own experience, others from friends’ and relatives’, still more, perhaps, from the news.

The idea is that Stoicism is a living philosophy with practical value, not just a theoretical exercise, or a devout reading of ancient authors. As much as I enjoy the theory, as well as the readings, it seems like the point is to get down and dirty with real life, so here we go. Obviously, I very much welcome readers’ suggestions, as I certainly don’t consider myself an oracle (ah!) on what proper Stoic behavior would be under given circumstances. I’m here to learn.

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 4.20)

The first episode of this new series concerns Twitter, the popular social network on whose platform interactions among users are limited to 140 characters at a time. I have been using it since March 2010. So far, I have tweeted 20,200 times, have 11,700 followers, and follow 13 people.

Those stats are a reflection of how I use Twitter: i) as a way to alert people to my own work, or to work by people I think should be read more widely; and ii) to keep up with news in my own areas of interest (I follow a number of philosophers and philosophical organizations).

By its very nature, Twitter is most definitely not suited to discussions. While it is an interesting challenge to be able to come up with something clever and engaging to say in less than 140 characters, there simply is no way that sort of exchange, even prolonged, lends itself to anything thoughtful or insightful. Twitter, in other words, is a great platform to let people know about certain things, but a horrible one to engage in discussions about those very things. (Other social networks do not have that sort of limitation, especially Facebook and Google+, though even there it quickly comes down to just how much time one has or is willing to spend in order to talk to hundreds, or thousands, of strangers across the world, rather than getting on with one’s own life and business.)

I wrote all the above to provide some context and explain why I rarely answer people on Twitter, and usually do so only in response to specific questions concerning additional sources they are seeking. But occasionally I do engage in “twiscussions” (I believe this is a neologism, you’ve heard it here first!). And I usually regret it.

One such case occurred recently, after I sent out a link concerning a petition from a number of academics to world leaders, aimed at having the latter take the issue of global warming more seriously. (The petition was started by my colleague Lawrence Torcello, at the Rochester Institute of Technology.)

Predictably (this sort of thing has happened before), I received a relatively high number of negative, and in some cases downright nasty, comments from climate change “skeptics.” And that’s where things become delicate.

First off, it is easy, all too easy, to get upset or angry (at being called nasty names in public). Second, one is at a loss as how to respond properly (or whether to respond at all, or block some people, or “mute” others, and so on). Third, one gets discouraged by being reminded once more that even mainstream science and a rather mild open letter can be vehemently rejected out of hand by people who are otherwise intelligent and articulate about other topics.

What is a Stoic to do? Let us begin with the first problem: upset feelings, offense or anger. As Marcus, Epictetus and Seneca say a number of times (I’m paraphrasing here), get over yourself. If the insult where hurled at a rock, would a rock be worse off for it? No, it would continue to be a rock (which, admittedly, isn’t that exciting). The point is that negative opinions expressed by others need to be considered objectively, because they might have a valid point of criticism, but not subjectively, i.e., as “insults,” “offenses” and the like. Of course, we are all humans, not Sages, so we cannot avoid immediate emotions. (Actually, even the Sages can’t, since they too are human beings, they just know better how to react to those emotions.) The obvious counsel here, therefore, is to create a space between you and your emotions — say, by getting up and walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes — until you have regained enough self control to inquire about the emotion in question and decide whether you want to give it “assent,” as the Stoics say, or not. This, I’m sure the reader knows, is much harder to do in practice than it sounds like, because social networking lends itself to immediate engagement, usually with regretful outcomes. Still, it seems like the Stoic thing to do (or to attempt to do, at the least).

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Second, how to respond properly. I think a Stoic here would have to reflect on what is the purpose of engaging others on Twitter, given the special characteristics of the medium. As I said above, my purpose is to alert people to interesting material, not to change their minds about any specific topic (for that I write books and blog posts). Seen that way, twiscussions are beside the point, and since they are more likely than not to generate ill feelings, they should probably be avoided altogether. Again, this is easier said than done, partly because the instinct of a teacher is to converse with people, and partly because we all think we know better than our antagonists, and if they just listened to us for a minute… What I try to do — if I absolutely feel like engaging — is to bring up a couple of points that my interlocutor may not have considered, and then explain that Twitter is just not a proper platform for involved conversations and bow out. But I should probably simply establish a policy of never answer a Tweet, even though there is a risk of coming across as rude or close minded. (Hmm, perhaps from now on I could simply respond with a link to this post, or would that be too self-conceited?)

Finally, how to deal with the feeling of discouragement at what one sees in response to one’s Tweet? Here again I think Stoic advise is very clear: we are responsible (at best, according to modern cognitive science) for our own opinions, not for those of others. The first part means that I need to listen carefully to what others are saying about my own opinions, because I may, of course, be wrong on certain issues. The second part means that I ought to internalize my goals, as Irvine nicely puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: again, my aim isn’t to change other people’s minds, but rather to put forth the best material available for public consumption. Whether others read and learn from such material, it is up to them, not me.

“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)

Prof. Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He had done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, the relationship between science and philosophy and the nature of pseudoscience. He has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.”

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in Philosophy Now and The Philosopher’s Magazine, among others. He edits Scientia Salon web magazine and co-hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast.

‘Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death’ by Elen Buzaré

Body, Soul and Spirit, and the Exercise of Death

by Elen Buzaré

Editor’s Note: Here are the PowerPoint slides of Elen’s presentation at Stoicon 2015, along with a PDF of instructions to introduce you to anakhoresis.

Click here to download the presentation: Body soul and spirit in Stoic and Christian meditation

Click here to download the PDF on Anakhoresis

After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops  an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations. She also created  Yahoo ! Discussion group named Stoici Amici for French speakers. You can join here