The U.S. presidential election results have affected many people at the core of their being. One one side, elation and vindication; on the other side (I am in this camp), anger and a feeling approaching despair. Stoicism, however, has helped me put things in perspective, plan for the future, recognize common ground, and feel hopeful.

It was a particularly stressful run-up to the election, to say nothing of the outcome. The feeling of fear was palpable on both sides. Seneca in Letter 88 offers a compelling take on bravery, one of the four cardinal Stoic virtues: “Bravery is the one which treats with contempt things ordinarily inspiring fear, despising and defying and demolishing all the things that terrify us and set chains on human freedom.”

Feeling contempt, despising, demolishing–these don’t appear to be Stoic actions, but I like the counterbalancing effect they have on humans’ fear. “Be brave” is an empty phrase and is often not enough when we are faced with deep, shapeless anxiety for the future. Demolishing in this case is a virtuous activity that will increase the heart-rate and reduce the feeling of victimhood.

It is useful to remember that fear, in Seneca’s words, “set[s] chains on human freedom.” Although people who are unhappy with the election results seem to feel that if they are not deeply anxious for the future then they do not have a conscience, I would argue that it is perfectly possible both to have a conscience and be optimistic. Anxiety is not the Stoics’ way; it hampers our innate freedom to fulfill the highest calling of our human nature: to be rational and to flourish. Epictetus writes in his discourse “On Anxiety”: “When I see a man anxious, I say, What does this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?” When we are anxious over something not in our control, we are being irrational and we impose unnecessary burdens on ourselves.

However, the Stoics did not just want to mollify people with the equivalent of verbal aromatherapy. The other side of the coin is that there are things that are in our control, and we should concentrate our efforts there–and it encompasses a lot more potential actions than we might have thought. Rather than say “Epictetus is right, I can’t control any of this, I might as well just put it all out of my mind,” we need to take a carving-knife (Thanksgiving dinner is on my mind) and carefully carve out areas we can control from those we can’t. I don’t want to make this a political blog; other people are doing it much better than I could, so you should follow them. Suffice it to say that if someone is unhappy with the government, she needs to stay engaged and exercise her voice as much as it is feasible.

Finally, in this time of utmost political schism and the feeling that there are two “United” States of America, it will be crucial to strengthen the ties among neighbors and communities. The Stoic cardinal virtue of justice, or humanity, cannot be underestimated. Seneca tells us that “Humanity is the quality which stops one being arrogant towards one’s fellows, or being acrimonious. In words, in actions, in emotions she reveals herself as kind and good-natured towards all” (Ep. 88). It is especially difficult for some of us not to be acrimonious right now, but knee-jerk reactions are not the best we can achieve as rational beings, and they are very likely to lead to more acrimony in the future, not less. If this election leads to a greater degree of dialogue between those with different viewpoints, greater political engagement, and stronger community ties, then that would be cause for optimism.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and that you don’t encounter any terrifyingly large turkeys such as the one depicted above. Thank you for reading!

One thought on “Demolishing the things that terrify us: Bravery, Seneca-style

  1. Anna,

    Very beautifully said! I especially like your suggestion that we can “both to have a conscience and be optimistic.” Maintaining a balance between such seemingly contradictory things is a big part of Stoics practice, IMO. Action and inner peace, Justice and equanimity, firmness and kindness.


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