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Kai Whiting: Clearing up Misconceptions about Stoicism

The other fans that have a dangerously inaccurate idea about what it means to be Stoic are the ‘Broics.'”

On July 6th, Merion West’s Johanna Leo spoke with Kai Whiting, who is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. In this interview, Mr. Whiting discusses his latest book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. In this book, which he co-wrote with Leonidas Konstantakos, the authors seek to apply Stoic principles to contemporary life and dispel the myth that it is an ancient philosophy only applicable to another era. They also challenge the conception of Stoicism as being predominately a philosophy for men. As such, in this discussion, Mr. Whiting and Ms. Leo discuss common misconceptions about Stoicism, how the philosophy might play out differently in various cultural contexts, and how Stoicism might help a person navigate modern life, from social media on down.

Hello Kai, it’s nice to talk to you. I enjoyed your book, and congratulations on your Vice feature, by the way. 

Thank you.

To get started, in chapter one, you write that there is “this nuanced understanding of the Spartan code of conduct [that] is a far cry from the egotistical and macho Sparta of pop culture or indeed from the type of Stoic philosophy that gets promoted by ‘experts’ on social media, life-hacking blogs, and in mainstream newspapers.” So, I want to ask you: What would you say is the biggest misconception about Stoicism that you see spread through social media or mainstream media?

Where do I start? Part of the challenge is that there are so many. With any philosophy, religion, even language, we mirror it, right? We inject our values and our observations and our perceptions into that mix. Then we say, “that must be Christianity” or “That must be Mexican culture” because that’s my understanding of it. So, unfortunately, a lot of people have injected their values. 

Silicon Valley, for me, is perhaps one of the most challenging fans of Stoicism, precisely because it has a disproportionate amount of power and money. I think a lot of people get into Stoicism because they think that it’s the secret sauce of Silicon Valley. They’re thinking, “Silicon Valley talks about Stoicism. Silicon Valley has power and money. How can I get into Stoicism?” Not because they want to improve themselves but because they really want to be rich and powerful.

The problem is that Silicon Valley has a vested interest, in my opinion, to focus on wealth being a Stoic “indifferent” (meaning the Stoics held that it has no bearing on your character). The Stoics never said we couldn’t be wealthy or powerful (the most famous Stoic was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, after all). Silicon Valley adherents are right to say, “We can be wealthy because wealth is indifferent.” But it isn’t Stoic to restrict your focus on being better wealthy people simply by removing what might make us weak at the expense of community and progress towards virtue. That’s how I’ve seen Silicon Valley operate, and that can be dangerous because of precisely what I said: It gets proliferated because it’s the “secret sauce.”

The other fans that have a dangerously inaccurate idea about what it means to be Stoic are the “Broics.” I don’t know if you came across that term in my work, but there is a certain group within the Stoic contemporary community that believes Stoicism is only for men, that it is a male philosophy. Again, they look at exhibit A: They look at Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Broics tend to say things like, “Oh, I can use Stoicism to become more masculine, more powerful, more Spartan.” They will use Stoic ideas to help them do a pull-up or to attract women. Unfortunately, this reflects their insecurities rather than what Stoicism is actually saying. That can be quite insidious, too—or very insidious, in fact—because they tend to come together. They are searching for answers, and it’s right that they do, but the way that they go about telling everybody what the answer is isn’t conducive to community. It actually breaks down the cosmopolitan spirit of Stoicism. 

I just told you the two things that are the biggest problem. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, wrote a utopic vision of society in his Republic, which unfortunately only exists in fragments. The fact that he called it Republic should tell people something: He wasn’t particularly interested in what made a good Stoic individual. What he wanted to know was what made a Stoic community. This is not some hidden obscure fact you really have to dig for; it’s right there in the title. So, when we focus on individual pursuit at the expense of community, we’re going against Zeno completely. In his utopia, there is no private property (oh dear, Silicon Valley!) There is no money (oh dear, Silicon Valley!) Nobody takes more than what they need; there is no need to accumulate other than on a group level because, basically, it’s a utopic vision of the wise, and the wise don’t need to accumulate at all. They just literally know what they need at a given moment, and they have what they need. There are no temples either, which leads us to another misconception. 

A lot of people come to Stoicism because they’ve lost their faith or they want to move away from their cultural tradition. They come from sort of a religious perspective, and they think, “I’ll just take some quotes,” like you would potentially from the Bible or the Quran or the Torah. “I’ll put that on my fridge and that’s Stoicism,” and that’s not Christianity either, by the way, but that’s what they’re used to. They’ll say things to me, like, “Is that Stoic? “Is such and such a thing Stoic?” “What quote could I use to make myself more efficient in this situation?” That’s really not how Stoicism works. 

In the book, you definitely bring Stoicism down to the theory and the philosophy. Like you said, it does come across as a school of things and not just bullet points and applicable life hacks, which is kind of a big takeaway. I want to go a little towards the beginning of what you said, the “looking stronger” and the image that one could seek to portray through Stoicism, rather than actually embracing this conduct. And because of my previous question about mainstream media, I want to talk about social media because I remember that in the book you talk about the notion of “fake it until you make it” and the flaws in this logic. It’s very focused on image and not on actual change.

Virtue signaling as opposed to virtue, definitely. That’s how I would put it.

Yes. And, obviously, social media is very image-driven, right? What would you think would be a more Stoic way to navigate social media and cope with the superficial pressures on there? 

It always depends on who you are. For example, are you the guy who invented the social media platform? If you are, then you have a very different role than I do, right? For example, as an academic, I actually don’t put “Dr.” in front of my name because I feel it can make people think what I’m saying is true just because I have a PhD. I’m not saying that no one should use the prefix. I understand, for example, why women typically put “Dr.” on their Twitter handle; I know that they do this because they’re often excluded from certain conversations. They’re often assumed not to be an academic or not to be intelligent. In this case, “Dr.” allows them to show that, “Actually, I do know what I’m talking about.” Men tend to get listened to more regardless of title; I absolutely understand that this rule of mine shouldn’t be applied universally. 

I can certainly say that I have a policy of not arguing on social media because I feel that you cannot create a Socratic dialectic. I said that the main method in Stoicism is for you and me to have a debate. And we have to define our terms, right? We might have a debate about, “Is everybody who’s a certain certain nationality racist?” Well, first, you’d have to define when you say the term racist, what do you mean? For the ancients, if you couldn’t define your term properly (logically), you lost the argument because you weren’t even able to defend your position. Let’s say someone disagrees with me on the piece I co-wrote for Merion West on cancel culture. It’s practically impossible on certain forms of social media to fully elaborate on what I mean by “cancel culture” beyond what I said in the article. It would take me like a whole thread just to define, “When I say cancel culture, I mean this: I don’t mean that nobody should ever be cancelled, and this is my caveat…” For me, it is not an appropriate medium to have a debate, which is why I prefer to write articles. For example, I wrote one about a Stoic God. Then, I emailed Massimo Pigliucci, who has the opposite view to me in the contemporary stoic movement. I was like, “Massimo, would you like to be involved in the conversation? I will introduce you to the editor,” which I did, because that way we could actually have a proper debate. We didn’t decide what was the right answer because, frankly, who can decide what’s the right answer when it comes to the existence of God? But we both put our case forward respectfully and let the audience decide.

On social media, I don’t have the ability to do that, but I do have the obligation to pick my words appropriately and to conduct myself in a manner that brings the community together. Stoicism is all about being pro-social. I think that if I use social media to have an argument, rather than to say, “Hi, how are you? It is nice to see you’re doing well,” that would be anti-social, because what I would be doing is creating tension and dividing the community.

That said, I don’t see social media as something negative necessarily, but I do find that it’s not conducive to a debate that needs to be had. Instead, we get particularly frustrated with each other. All of us do; it becomes an echo chamber. I just don’t think that’s a very cosmopolitan attitude. You have, like, tribes developing: People follow you, and you follow them. Then, if you go through your social media—regardless of which social media you go on—you get certain opinions, right? And if you don’t like them you can just unfollow. But, if you’re never exposed to somebody else’s opinion, even if you don’t like it, then how can you work out if what you’re saying makes any sense? Which is why I like Merion West because you don’t do that. You say, openly, “We take voices from the Left; we take voices from the Right; we take voices from the Center. We actively search for what is a reasonable argument, or what is an intriguing argument.” I think there are very few media outlets that are prepared to do what you guys do, which is why Jonathan Church and I submitted our article on Stoicism being an antidote to cancel culture to you, as opposed to a right-wing platform—or what people would call a right-wing platform—because then people on the Left would not even read it. We thought it was important to have people from all walks of life read it because we are all affected when it comes to who is cancelled or has the right to cancel and for what reason.

I like that you touched on the theme of cancel culture because that’s something that I thought about while I was reading the book. As you’ve said (here and in the book) Stoicism—even though it’s a community thing—is also about evaluating what your role is in your environment. What we can do is completely different from what the person next to us can do, and cancel culture tends to put itself in this high ground of, “I know what everyone can do best, and this is not enough.” 

You’re absolutely right, I’m going to steal that. I’ve never, ever thought of it like that. It’s basically having one standard, and it’s my standard, right? Whoever’s doing the cancelling. You’ve put it so concisely, you’ve crystallized so well. That was excellent.

Thank you. Yes, so I just want to quickly ask you how you feel, from a Stoic perspective, about cancel culture? How Stoic is it, for me as a person, to decide that someone has been virtuous enough or not virtuous enough? Is that something that only I as a person can decide? Or can we as a community judge?

That’s a really, really good question. I mean, Stoicism is pretty black and white. You’re either not virtuous, or you’re virtuous. There’s no degrees, right? In Stoicism, there is an equality of moral errors because in Stoic epistemology the only thing that can exist is now. The past doesn’t exist. It exists in our head, but it doesn’t actually exist. The future doesn’t exist—only in one’s head. So, the only thing that we can control is our thoughts, actions, and attitudes right now. It’s not consequentialist; it’s not because something happened that makes you bad. 

I’ll give you an example. Imagine I drive a car while drunk, and I end up in a ditch. I then brag to my friends, “Yeah, guys, I was driving like a maniac! I hit a ditch. It was great.” My friends might find it quite funny that I hit a ditch, and they had to tow me out. Now, imagine I only ended up in that ditch because the person who was walking down that street had their shoelaces undone and decide to re-tie them, so they didn’t cross the road the minute I ran past. Now, imagine that they had decided to wear different shoes that day, a slip-on shoe that didn’t require laces, so they never took 20 seconds to do up their shoelaces and so instead of ending up in a ditch I hit them. Now, my friends wouldn’t be laughing, would they? They might not even speak to me because they’d say, “Oh, you’re a murderer,” or at least it’s manslaughter. And the judge might say, “he is a murderer” because I’m drunk. They wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, yeah, that’s perfectly fine. You didn’t mean to do it right?” Because once I’m drunk, in any country which has driving laws, that’s it. I am more or less guilty.

For the Stoics, I’m equally morally wrong. It’s not the fact that I hit a person or that I didn’t that was wrong; it was the minute I decided to get in the car knowing that I was drunk. The minute I put the ignition and turned the key, that was the wrong decision. The Stoics would say, “With all the things that were in your power, you messed up. You are just as morally bad as the person who hit the person crossing the street just because they didn’t have shoelaces.” The consequences are just luck. I was lucky to go through a ditch. Now, I might not see it that way. I might say, “Oh, how unlucky I didn’t make my way home.” But if we think of the alternative, we then think it’s lucky, right? 

So to come back to your question on cancel culture, the Stoics wouldn’t ask if someone is more virtuous but would instead ask if it is appropriate for me to cancel someone else, and, if it is, on what grounds? For the Stoics, my exact answer depends on who I am, what my intentions are, and how I go about cancelling someone (or not). It is also very appropriate to decide what is reasonable based on a balanced debate rather than unilaterally deciding something or resorting to group think. One way to balance the debate is to consider our response to, “Oh, we think this individual is very, very dangerous.” Rather than automatically accepting or dismissing that statement, we might do well to say, “Okay, define danger.”

One of my pet peeves is that we now call things violent, like silence is violence—which not only is incorrect, but it’s actually very, very difficult then to distinguish between someone who’s getting beaten violently every day and silence being violent. Like, no. No, don’t say a word that actually means something quite different. So, you’d have to then say, “Okay, so if we decide to cancel this person, what would that mean?” Does that mean that, for example, in Oxford University, they were like “We should cancel people.” If the students at Oxford can’t deal with it—their opinion—and can’t dismantle their beliefs, or their mistakes, then who can? These are among the most intelligent individuals on the planet. Surely, we can put a difficult figure in front of them. And by having 25 intelligent individuals in the room, plus the lecturers, plus people who visit Oxford University in general—the general public who’d like to do this as well—isn’t that how we attack an idea? Basically they say something for an hour, and then they get ridiculed out of the room. Because they say, “Well, you said this,” but don’t you think that’s nonsense? If we just cancel that person, are they necessarily going to go away? Now, we can de-platform them, but the thing that’s dangerous is not the person necessarily but the idea. And the idea doesn’t go away.

In your book, you talk about the self-made man myth, which I found really interesting because I started wondering about collectivist and individualistic cultures and what role Stoicism could play in each? Do you think that, for example, Stoicism could be more challenging to achieve in an individualist culture, like the United States? Which is notably capitalistic and individualistic vs. a more collectivistic culture because the latter has more of this thought of “No man is an island,” which is something that you discuss. What would be a good way to navigate Stoicism in such an individualistic culture?

It’s a really good question. I mean, Stoics are individualistic in the sense that they’re not calling us to treat everybody the same. We are called to treat people as individuals. It’s not like as a white person, I must treat all people like this because I have privileges and all these things and whatnot. Why do I have to treat every individual I meet on a groupthink basis? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. One of the reasons I asked you when you said you’re from Mexico wasn’t to make a point. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to make a point out of you, because we’re different.” But, “We have two common languages that we speak. We can speak in Spanish if you want” because I was trying to show you I build community. I really think community is important. One of the reasons I learned a language (or I learned two languages) is because I feel the need to connect. And I do feel like, for example, Latino values: We don’t get into this problem in Spanish precisely because the culture is different. There is not this individualistic need to prove a point in the Spanish language. We don’t see it. I say “we” because I feel part of the family—the family that I married into is Colombian. I don’t see that when we talk in Spanish that we have these problems because our value system is very much about family. It’s a lot about faith.

It’s more collectivistic.

Exactly. It’s about building culture; it has nothing to do with the American sense of self-reliance. Instead,  you rely on family. I just watched In The Heights—I don’t know if you saw that film—but it’s about the barrio and being part of the community, being part of the family and building something together. In Latin American culture, in my opinion, it’s not only about me. If I do well, my siblings do well, and then I can help my mum or mother-in-law, and I can help pay for her to have a house. Whenever you are thinking about the whole community and the common good, that’s Stoicism.

In Stoicism, there is no concept of selfishness or altruism. And the reason for this is the following: It’s always about what’s appropriate and inappropriate. So, people might say, “You’re being really selfish, Johanna because you had an interview with Kai, but you got a headache, and you canceled on him because you didn’t feel well. He has been waiting for six weeks.” And as a Stoic, you could say:

“My duty as an interviewer to the interviewee is to be the best interviewer I can be. It’s about asking questions that provide interesting answers for my audience. If I have a bad headache, I can’t achieve that. So I’m not being selfish. On the contrary, it’d be selfish of me to battle one through just because I wanted to prove a point about punctuality or something. My role is to give the best interview that I can for the audience, to bring them insights—not so they go out and buy Kai’s book but because I want them to think and because I want them to evaluate social phenomena from a different world perspective. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

So, the Stoics wouldn’t say that was selfish; they’d say that was appropriate.

In terms of altruism: We can think of a self-made man who says things like, “I have so much money now, I’ll donate to charity. And, by the way, I don’t have to give away my money. I’m going to do that, because I’m a good person.” However, the Stoics would say anyone who says,“I don’t have to do it, but I’ll do it anyway” is mistaken and very far from being a good person. Altruism does not factor into it.

Stoicism says: If you have money, virtue is using it appropriately. Having it or not having it doesn’t have anything to do with virtue at all. So, with the self-made person myth my co-author and I explore in Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, we explain how you are mistaken in thinking you deserve all the profit you have or the salary or the tax breaks. You might tell me, “I’ve worked really hard and I’ve achieved lots, and I’ve led this team.” If you’ve led a team, then why do you deserve so much more? Did you build the roads that get your team to the office every day? Or did you build the computers that you use now for Zoom calls? Did you do that? If you respond, “No, I didn’t do that,” how can you claim that you deserve all of that money?

If you act appropriately, you build community. You look after those in your circles, and you expand those circles to include what would have been the whole city-state. (There wouldn’t have been the whole world because they didn’t have a concept of the whole world; I’m not going to say it was the whole world.) But the minute you start saying, “No, it’s for me and so I can retire,” and you start doing what Jack Welch did and firing people because you can make more profit, how appropriate is that decision? That tells me something about your values; that tells me about your character. There’s not much character to be built on when you just say, “Oh, it’s a bit hard. Now I’m not making the same profit as I was, so I’m just going to let the people go.” That tells me something negative about your character. Character is the only thing in Stoicism that is worth having because money, though you might have it in your bank account today, tomorrow you might not. 

From what I learned from the book, Stoicism is about not always taking the easy choice or the most tempting choice but, rather, the right choice: the one that aligns most with your role and your values. Thank you very much for your time today, Kai. 

Thank you very much.

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