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From Vol. 4, Issue 2, February 2022

Stoic virtue signalling


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The trap of feeling superior

The Stoics taught us to lead a virtuous life. But why? The purpose of virtue is presumably to enable us to lead the good life. However, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of feeling superior because one practices virtue, which may not be a virtuous thing to do. The temptation to let others know of one’s superiority can be irresistible.

As Brittany Polat observes, “For whatever reason, a person (or group of people) believes he is superior to others due to advantages of wealth, social status, intellect, beauty, achievement, or some other external characteristic.” Piotr Stankiewicz adds, “Some people may get the ultimate fulfillment from Stoicism and/or other forms of spiritual development. Yet, some find it in much more mundane matters, like travel, sport, business, or simply enjoying their material wealth.” Kai Whiting and Santara Gonzales caution, “As a follower of Stoicism, we are not immune from the urge to boast or from placing too much importance on our reputation.”

The need to feel superior

But the need to feel superior to others and let others know about it goes deeper. It can express itself in many subtle ways. There are people who will even let you know that they are more humble than you. This tendency to use anything to assert superiority (including spirituality) has been described by Buddhists as ‘spiritual materialism’. But why do we want to assert our superiority? Even if we are superior (rather doubtful), why should others know about it? Why do we need to establish our superiority over anyone else, espcially if we are, in fact, superior?

I don’t know the answer, but I think we secretly suspect that we are not really superior unless we are so acknowledged by others.

But there is a problem. The moment we think someone has to acknowldege our suprioity we are going after externals, things over which we have no control. Just for this reason alone we, as Stoics, need to watch ourselves constantly to see we don’t fall prey to this trap.

Ancient Stoics and virtue signalling

The trap can be quite subtle. While reading the Stoics, I was surprised to find that virtue signalling is as old as Stoicism itself. Even eminent Stoics weren’t immune to it and were not above virtue signaling.

Epictetus, addressessing the Epicureans, says this: Your doctrines are bad; they’re subversive of the state, ruinous to families... - Epictetus, Discourses, 3.7.20 (Tr. Robin Hard) What makes this virtue signalling is that Epictuetus is making the Epicurean position look bad and harmful thereby signalling Stoic superiority. However, the real position of Epicurus is much more subtle and credible, as noted by Chris Gill (The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought, OUP. 2006)

Here is Seneca contrasting himself with someone who is presumably not as highly developed as him in the department of virtue: If my riches leave me, they will carry away with them nothing except themselves: you will be bewildered and will seem to be left without yourself if they should pass away from you: with me riches occupy a certain place, but with you they occupy the highest place of all. In fine, my riches belong to me, you belong to your riches. - Seneca, On the Happy Life 22. (Tr. A. Stewart & D. Stevenson.)

I am not trying to suggest that the ancient Stoics were virtue signallers. But, as Stoics themselves pointed out, no one is a sage and occasional lapses may be inevitable. And that’s a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

Chuck Chakrapani, Editor