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From Vol. 4, Issue 4, April 2022

“In the minds of men”


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In the minds of men

As Covid-19 seems to be winding down, our return to normalcy is once again threatened, this time by the Russo-Ukranian war. What should a Stoic do? Where does a Stoic stand on this?

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” - Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO

The idea that war, like everything in life, begins and ends in our minds is Stoic. It’s always the internals and never the externals. Wars are not started by generals but by the thinking of those in power. Wars are not sustained by armies but by the people who think they are a good way to solve problems. Generals and armies are proxies for what happens in our minds. War is an external manifestation of our internal turmoil.

Stoic metaphors

Ancient Stoic writings are full of military metaphors. Violence carried out in a “good cause” either against oneself (as was the case with Porcia who cut herself or Cato who killed himself) or against others (as Stoic metaphors would suggest) was greeted with general approval and even admiration.

The Stoics held that actions themselves are neither good nor bad. An action is good or bad depending on whether virtue was behind it or not.

Stoics did not talk much about the consequences of any action, because it was “not up to them” and so beyond their control. It was none of their concern. What mattered to them was whether they were motivated by virtue or not.

Stoic compassion

This does not mean that the Stoics were not compassionate. It is fairly evident from ancient Stoic writings that Stoics practiced compassion. But strangely though, their compassion was not for the benefit of others. It was simply a virtuous thing to do. No other justification or motivation was needed to practice compassion.

If a million people are displaced because of a war, a Stoic may ask the question, “What does virtue ask me to do here?” and do whatever needs doing even at the risk of grevious personal injury – not necessarily because she is concerned with others’ suffering, but because she considers herself cosmopolitan, a part of humanity, and attempting to lessen other people’s misery is a virtuous thing to do. As Marcus Aurelius would put it, “What injures the hive injures the bee.” (Meditations, 6.54)

A Stoic does not explicitly examine the suffering in the world because in the Stoic worldview, the entire suffering and happiness of an individual is caused and nurtured by the individual and the individual only.

Piotr Stankiewicz on war

Piotr Stankiewicz, who lives in Poland and so close to the war region has this to say (On war, see page 12 of this issue):

The works of the ancient Stoics are teeming with military examples. We ought to tackle adversity just as we confront an enemy in battle, we must harden ourselves just as the soldiers train before a campaign, all that. This is I think the most common pattern in the writings of the Stoics and one of their favourite ways to make the point. Surely, this was relatable lingo back in the day. Does it work today, however? And do we want it to work this way?

He goes on to elaborate:

“Watching the horrific images coming from Ukraine we need to ask ourselves: is this really the way to go in the 21st century? Do we still want to cherish the concept of war as a part of our thinking? Is this “appeal to warfare” really necessary, even as a conceptual device?

“I admit I was quite prone to it a decade ago in my own work and writings on Stoicism. Fortunately, over the years I have bit by bit given up the reliance on such military metaphors. I strongly encourage everyone to entertain that path too. If never again is to mean anything, this is the homework we must do. We must learn to express our truths without recourse to warfare. In politics and rhetoric alike.”

Piotr is echoing the idea expressed in the UNESCO preamble I mentioned earlier:

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

The ancient Stoics lived 2,000 years ago. They lived in a world so different from ours, it is hard to imagine what their world was like and in what context they developed their philosophy. But the philosophy they developed has stood the test of time and much of what they taught is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

And yet, a blind adherence to what someone said so long ago is not a rational approach to life. I suspect the ancient Stoics would not have apporved of such an unexamined approach to life.

Humankind may never live in a world without war. But we can, as Piotr says, gradually stop “cherishing war metaphors as a part of our thinking.” You may agree or disagree with what Piotr says, but his is a thoughtful article and I recommend that you read it.

Unwanted aggression is not confined to wars. Workplace bullying has similar dynamics. Matthew Sharpe outlines ways of dealing with it.

On a peaceful note

On the flip side we can do things that contribute to our peace of mind. Kai Whiting and Santora Gonzales talk about what it means to a Stoic to be a friend and why we need to cultivate friendships.

Brittany Polat highlights the importance of being gracious.” she writes, “There is no shame in being decent, understanding, and non-strident; in fact, that’s where virtue lies. In a world where everyone is constantly angry, offended, and spoiling for a fight, be a model of decent behaviour.”

A warm welcome to Kai

I am pleased to announce that, starting this month, Kai Whiting joins us as member of our advisory board. He will also serve as the Associate Editor of THE STOIC magazine. Kai needs no introduction – he has been a regular contributor to the magazine for many years now. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium, and a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. Kai cofounded the, a place for Stoic community, discussions, and debates. He is an active figure in the modern Stoic movement. You may want to follow him on Twitter (@kaiwhiting). With Kai joining us, we can expect good things to happen. Welcome, Kai!

Chuck Chakrapani, Editor