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From Vol. 5, Issue 3, March 2023

Does it matter where you live?

Doing Stoicism || TANNER CAMPBELL

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Recently, I’ve decided to take advantage of the new Digital Nomad Visa program in Portugal. I am an American and American politics have exhausted me. I’m not expatriating on a permanent basis, for now I just want to live where I can find calm, inner-peace, and contentment in a place that isn’t the US. This doesn’t sound particularly Stoic, does it? Escaping? Well, let’s see.

Zeno’s Republic has no rules

In the now lost work Republic, by Zeno of Citium, the ideal city has no rules. According to Zeno, everything should be reasoned in as close to real-time as possible. Context matters. For example: It’s wrong to run a red light at high noon in a busy city, but is it wrong to run a red light at 2am on a lonely backcountry road when no one is around?

Generally speaking, rules are designed to protect people from dispreferred outcomes. Running red lights is illegal because doing so can put others (and oneself) at risk. But if there is no risk present, then there’s no one to protect; and if there’s no one to protect, is the rule still productive?

Zeno, I suspect, would have said no.

What does this have to do with expatriation? Nothing. Not directly anyway. Indirectly, however, I’m trying to make a point: in Stoicism a thing’s appropriateness or inappropriateness is determined by context. In the case of expatriation, in response to political exhaustion, Zeno’s Republic suggests this sort of decision will, depending on context, be sometimes appropriate and other times inappropriate.

Determining what is appropriate

In Epictetus’ words,

Is it true then that all horses become swift, that all dogs are skilled in tracking footprints? … Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me; for I shall never be a Milo, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor shall I be a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, do we neglect looking after anything because we despair of reaching the highest degree.” - Epictetus, Discourses (1.2.34)

Not all humans can become the same thing. You may become a teacher, I may become a policeman, and another may become an author. This doesn’t mean the policeman ignores their writing skills, or that the teacher ignores their physical fitness, but it does mean, as adults, there are things we’re fit for doing and things we’re not.

In his 2016 work, The Role Ethics of Epictetus, Brian Johnson suggests, according to Epictetus, four criteria by which one determines appropriate action:

  1. One’s capacities and competencies
  2. One’s responsibilities (to individuals and one’s community)
  3. One’s personal preferences
  4. Divine signs

I feel we can safely exclude item 4 because, “divine signs” are hard to quantify or qualify. However, if you’re trying to determine the appropriateness or inappropriateness of expatriation for political reasons, items 1-3 are worth examining.

What are one’s capacities and competencies?

Is one a teacher? Then, given the Stoic’s Cosmopolitan view, it hardly matters where in the world one lives as this role can be dutifully fulfilled most anywhere.

Is one a soldier? If so, it’s very likely a requirement of the soldier role that those filling it permanently reside, when not deployed, in the country for which they are filling the role of soldier. In such a case, expatriating would be in conflict with this role and the requirements associated with it.

What are one’s existing responsibilities?

What responsibilities does one have to one’s communities and fellow citizens? Perhaps the would-be expatriate is charged with caring for an elderly parent, or perhaps they are the Mayor of their town! Would expatriating be abandoning these responsibilities? Almost certainly.

My answer: Your preferences

The changing of one’s geographic location is, of course, an indifferent. It is either preferred or dispreferred only once one determines the change’s impact on their character.

So, returning to my immanent relocation plans:

  1. My role in the Cosmopolis is as an educator.
  2. My competency is in educating.
  3. My current responsibilities, to both community and country, respectively, are to educate and to act as an informed voter (responsibilities which I can easily fulfill, regardless of my geographic location).
  4. My personal preference is to live elsewhere for a few years.

So, then, I can assert, confidently, that relocating to Portugal for a few years is contextually appropriate for me.

What about you? Could you expatriate from your country, or take a multi-year break, in a Stoically appropriate way?

Tanner is the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast, co-author of the Daily Stoic Journaling program, and owner of Practical Philosophy. He considers himself a "Stoicism Communicator" by trade and creates daily education content related to both Stoicism and philosophy in general.