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Modern Moral Problems
A Stoic Approach to Racism
Frank Thermitus says prepare for the worst to achieve the best.
Rather than imagining an ideal world, Stoics try to manage their emotions in order to deal with the world as it is. With this in mind, Stoicism would suggest that people of color should begin each day by reminding themselves, “I will face racism, I will be stereotyped, I will be racially profiled, I will face racial discrimination, and people will be culturally or racially insensitive.”
Although this idea of negative visualization – visualization of the inevitability of suffering – seems an odd approach in contrast with presently popular positive thinking psychology, it is rooted in a time-tested philosophy that started in Greece in the third century BCE. The original Stoic principles are based on the idea that we may not have control over the things that happen to us, but we do have control over how we respond to them. The Stoics also believed that one should cope with the real world while pursuing self-improvement through wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. The best-known Stoic philosopher was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), who in his book Meditations wrote, “Begin each day by telling yourself: ‘I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness’ – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good and evil.”
Some argue that racism has not lessened much since the days of colonialism but has simply evolved. Others say that the type of racism we face today is a ‘privilege’ compared to what our ancestors or grandparents endured centuries or even just decades ago. But regardless of comparisons to the past, the fact remains that racism is still active in our societies. The recent resurgence of neo-Nazism and other white supremacy groups, sometimes even condoned or supported by some leaders of powerful nations, is a testimony to racism’s strong roots and persistence. This must be perceived as a substantial moral problem, not merely a political or economic one. Indeed, racism is undoubtedly one of the most prevalent evils of our society. It has also been the most challenging obstacle for people of color for the past four centuries. Racism still affects people of color in many complex ways, including operating as a form of ‘invisible hand’, which works in obscurity within political, social, and economic systems. I want to argue that a moral fight within the framework of Stoic ethics will help destroy it.
According to the American psychiatrist and sociologist Frances Cress Welsing, racism is a ‘systemic structure’ that functions in all areas of society: economics, education, entertainment, labor, healthcare, law, politics, religion, sex, and war. An argument can be made therefore that it’s not sufficient to simply recognize that racism is deeply rooted in all aspects of society: people of color should fight against racism on a personal level. Awareness alone will only bolster the typical negative emotions that most individuals of color experience when facing varieties of racism, including confusion, helplessness, fear, anger, and frustration, which often lead to a state of depression and/or victimhood. Moreover, recent research by USC and UCLA, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (Vol. 106, 2019), has found that day-to-day racism drastically increases the risk of disease and chronic illnesses among people of color. It can even be argued that racism is a toxic public health hazard stemming from the same system that ought to cure it. But since people of color cannot rely on the system for a cure, a strategy based on self-therapy through philosophy should be explored. As the ancient physician Galen once wrote, “The best physician is also a philosopher.” This is why I wish to advocate Stoicism to combat racism.
Stoic Anti-Racist Virtues
While at the frontline of Rome’s war against the Germanic tribes in around 170 CE, Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way, becomes the way.” Such is the creed, the motto of Stoicism, and it should also be the attitude of people of color in the fight against racism.
Aurelius’s words stand on the premise that we don’t control most of the external obstacles to our happiness or fulfillment, but we can maneuver round and otherwise use these obstacles to our advantage. We people of color can’t control that we are born black or brown or yellow, and consequently are marginalized and discriminated against because of the color of our skin, ‘due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good and evil’. However, we are fully capable of using these factors as opportunities to improve ourselves and be better than the offenders. When they go low, we go high.
Stoics believe that everything around us operates in a web of cause and effect. Stoics call the anima mundi, the operative principle of the world, the logos (logos literally means, principle, explanation, or word). They originally applied the concept of the ultimate principle to explain how the gods interacted with the imperfect universe. In the present-day case of people of color, logos could refer to the principle used to understand how the evil of racism operates in human culture. So for the sake of our discussion, let’s say the logos is the systemic racist structure that Dr Cress Welsing described. To put things in Stoic terms, while we may not have control of the system and how or when some form of racism will challenge us, we do have full control of how we react to it, and how we allow it to affect us.
Following Stoic principles, people of color should deal with these challenges through cultivating the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism, namely wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. For the purpose of responding to racism, I also dare take the liberty of adding a fifth virtue, using the concept of v-rules advanced by Rosalind Hursthouse in her 2001 book On Virtue Ethics:
Wisdom: The ability to navigate the system in a logical, informed, and calm manner, as exemplified by Michelle and Barack Obama, for example.
Temperance: The exercise of self-restraint and moderation in the face of racism, as shown by Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela.
Justice: Treating others with fairness even when they do wrong. A Stoic would argue that racist people are not necessarily intrinsically bad; rather, they have a misguided view or a misconception of what’s good and evil. Hence, one should fight against racism, but not necessarily against racist people (hate the sin but not the sinner) – just as Martin Luther King approached his own fight against racism.
Courage: Having the courage to stand against racism with clarity and integrity, not only during exceptional circumstances but also during ordinary situations; for example by kneeling at work like quarterback Colin Kaepernick, or by refusing, like Rosa Parks, to move to the back of the bus.
Resistance: Resisting our natural instincts to have negative emotions towards racism, in order to react in accordance with the aforementioned virtues while nevertheless taking action through organized defense tactics, persistence, and ingenuity – almost as Malcolm X did, or as Huey Newton did with the Black Panther Party, but retaining non-violence as a principle.
As Ryan Holiday says in his book The Obstacle is The Way (2014), these five cardinal virtues can be aligned with three basic practical steps: Perception, Action, and Will:
Perception: The Stoic concept of managing one’s emotions by viewing things objectively can be applied to racism if one elects to perceive racist acts as almost inevitable. And by pragmatically viewing racist acts perpetrated by racist agents for what and who they are – products of the environment and the racist system – one can eventually take wise, tempered, and just action against them.
Action: Circumvent the racist system creatively to our benefit. It behoves people of color to respond to racist challenges with our natural gifts of creativity as our best weapons. Our ‘difference’ allows us to view things from a unique angle, thus providing the opportunity to creatively fight and approach issues differently, in a controlled or even humorous manner. For example, during a game in Spain in 2014, Brazilian soccer player Dani Alves casually ate a banana tossed at him onto the pitch. The act was a racist attempt to insult Alves, but his reaction was a Stoic one, embodying Aurelius’s concept of using challenges to one’s advantage. In a brief instant, Alves covered all five virtues in one simple action. Or as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said, “I laugh at those who think they can damage me.”
Will: ‘Will’ does not apply only to willpower and persistence, but also means to have the willingness, wisdom, and courage to accept the things we can’t control – like racism and racists. It’s about having inner strength by understanding that racism is a system based on historical factors and that some people are naturally products of that system. Yet we are willing to fight for the good cause and stand for something much bigger that won’t bear fruit overnight but could ultimately change that system.
Using Stoic philosophy to deal with racism is not a new concept. Seneca’s book Letters from a Stoic (c.65 CE) was often read by African American activists and abolitionists in the nineteenth century. The first free black American community in NYC, founded in 1825, was called Seneca Village. In the late 1700s, one of the greatest generals of the age, Toussaint Louverture, architect of the first free black nation of the Western world – Haiti – was known to be an avid reader of Epictetus (one of the first Stoic philosophers, who had also lived as a slave). Toussaint’s Stoic approach allowed him to have a diplomatic but militaristic stand against slavery and racism, which helped him make deals with Spain, France, and Britain to gain freedom for the slaves in Haiti. And Toussaint’s initial fight for freedom in Haiti helped pave the way to free black slaves in many other South American countries.
One can argue that every aspect of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) was an example of reversing the apparatus of slavery/racism to the advantage of the slaves. When Toussaint was betrayed, captured, and about to be exiled and imprisoned in France, his last words at the port before leaving the island were one of the most powerful quotes of the time. Before boarding the boat, he said with pride to his French captors: “In overthrowing me in Saint-Domingue [Haiti], you have done no more than cutting down the trunk of the tree of black liberty. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” These words epitomized a great Stoic concept called in Latin amor fati, or ‘love of fate’, which embodies the idea of embracing one’s fate even when it’s bad. Toussaint had already accepted his fate, but he knew that the fight would continue without him – which turned out to be worse for the French in his absence.
Nelson Mandela was another black leader who followed the philosophy of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’s journals would guide and comfort Mandela during his twenty-seven years of imprisonment. After being released from prison and becoming the President of South Africa, Mandela’s approach to the fight against racism was also arguably Stoic. He stressed that the injustice of the past could not be changed, but in the present black people can confront the offences of the past by seeking to build a better future for South Africa.
Epictetus wrote: “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are in our control and some things are not.” If people of color can begin to apply Stoicism against racism, it could make a difference in their own lives and in the current battle against it. Instead of getting frustrated and irritated by the constant racist challenges and attacks – discrimination, stereotyping, microaggression etc – they will realize that due to the systematic nature of racism, things are not so black and white. Those attacks are not in their own control and perhaps not even in the control of the offenders in some instances, but they can control their reaction to (and against) them. For our own peace-of-mind we ought not to allow these offenses to negatively affect our emotions, nor give the offenders the satisfaction of knowing that their evil behavior has negatively affected us. As Seneca said, “all cruelty springs from weakness” – therefore people of color should exercise inner strength when racists display their weakness in this way.
Stoicism is not simply a philosophical idea, but also a recipe for daily personal growth and happiness. By adhering to the principles of Stoicism, it is my belief that people of color can reverse most of the obstacles of racism to the way of tranquility, self-empowerment, and the overall betterment of our people and community. Ultimately, what stands in the way – racism – becomes the way – to empowerment.
© Frank Thermitus 2021
Frank Thermitus is an Haitian-American financial market veteran from New York. He is working on a non-profit project to create a network between Afro-diasporas in the Americas.