Applying Stoicism to Online Debates
Applying Stoicism to Online Debates
I run several online groups, including the largest Facebook group for Stoic philosophy — it currently has over 78k members. I’ve been running large online discussion forums since way back in 1999, when I created my first Yahoogroup. Since then I’ve written several books on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life. The most recent was called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. A good Stoic would follow Epictetus’ famous slogan when on social media: endure and renounce. So when it comes to getting sucked into arguments online or wasting too much time on Twitter and Facebook — I should probably know better by now.
I am convinced that Stoicism is especially relevant to the challenges of coping with social media.
I guess I do have the excuse that social media has been an important part of my job for as long as I care to remember now. So maybe I can’t avoid it completely. I’ve been thinking for a long time now, though, that I should be applying the teachings of Stoicism more consistently to my own online behaviour and the way I deal with arguments, etc. I get plenty of practice. If you write books then trolls will eventually come after you online. Also, if you run forums often you’ll have to ban people for becoming abusive, usually following complaints from other group members. Most of the time they’ll be angry and you’ll get quite a few abusive messages from them. In this article, I’m going to explain why I think this is really just a modern version of an age-old problem and how some specific techniques from ancient Greek philosophy can help us.
Social Media as the Digital Sophist
Funnily enough, I am convinced that Stoicism is especially relevant to the challenges of coping with social media. That surprises many people. They can see that it might help a bit but why would an ancient philosophy, one that originated in 300 BC, offer anything special when it comes to problems that only arise in the Age of the Internet? Well, here’s the thing… Socrates developed his philosophy in response Athenian intellectuals called the Sophists. The Stoics stand very much in the Socratic tradition — they further developed the practical application of his ideas. Maybe you’ve heard of the Sophists. I’m going to say that Facebook is a Sophist.
In fact, social media in general, IMHO, is the digital equivalent of the ancient Sophists. Let me explain. The Sophists were orators who often became fabulously wealthy very quickly if they achieved celebrity status. They would go from one Greek town to another, like rock stars on tour, delivering speeches to audiences consisting of hundreds, perhaps even a thousand or more, wealthy young men. They claimed to teach wisdom and improve their listeners. You could say they promised to impart sophistication, an English word with a long history that actually derives from “Sophist”.
Now, curiously, Socrates actually said that the Sophists often appeared indistinguishable from philosophers. They might talk about the same things, often about the virtues. Indeed, the Sophists would borrow concepts and arguments from philosophers. Likewise, philosophers, even Socrates himself, would often quote from the Sophists. You might even loosely describe the Sophists as sort of like philosophers. However, Socrates said there was a fundamental difference that actually meant they were quite opposed to one another. Although they may both say identical things, at times, about virtue, they were doing so in a different way and for different reasons.
The Sophists would say whatever people wanted to hear. They would literally, when delivering speeches, compete with one another to win the most applause from a crowd. You could call that a simple algorithm. If they borrowed something from Socrates and people applauded — they’d keep saying it. If the audience weren’t impressed, though, they’d change their tune and try saying something else. They were only interested in the appearance of wisdom — at least that’s what Socrates alleges — and not the real pursuit of it. Social media works in pretty much the same way. Content that gets the most likes, or the most engagement, gets the most exposure. It’s a popularity contest — the ancient Sophists would have been in their element today.
Modern-day self-improvement gurus, motivational speakers, and social influencers are also the Sophists’ descendants.
Now, sometimes that means the Sophists actually said things that were true and virtuous — they appeared wise and good. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, though, isn’t it? They didn’t really live in accord with their own teachings. How could they? They changed them to suit whatever their audiences wanted to hear. They also tended not to be very good at defending them from rational criticism. Socrates notes that they liked to deliver long speeches, where the audience would lose track of the steps involved in the argument. He employed a completely different method, known as the “question and answer” approach, which required clear definitions of key terms and proceeded more slowly and cautiously, one (relatively) short statement at a time, so that each could be properly evaluated in turn.
That’s a simple observation that’s often forgotten today: it’s easy to blind people with rhetoric if you’re allowed to speak for a long time without interruption. What if the assumption upon which your entire argument is based turns out to be false though? In reality, that’s often the case. The audience lose sight of that pretty quickly, though, as long as you keep talking and can maintain their attention. Today we get to watch videos online of people ranting for ten minutes about the political hot potato of the day, from “Antifa” and “cultural Marxism” to the “alt-right” and even the word “racism”. It would be less fun to watch if someone interrupted them after one minute and asked them to clearly define these terms. That would be more likely to happen in a face to face conversation but we seldom get that opportunity online, for various reasons. So, yes, I’m saying that, in a sense, social media makes us all stupider.
How did the Sophists win applause? By capturing and maintaining the attention of the audience. By using rhetoric to manipulate their emotions, often stirring up anger or anxiety, pride or patriotism, etc. It’s the art of persuasion rather than logic, which seeks praise rather than truth, and does so by every shortcut available. Sophists would dress in fine clothes and develop their speaking voices to create an attention-grabbing appearance, by seeming exotic, unique, and important. They had the status of celebrity experts but were ultimately professional showmen. Modern-day self-improvement gurus, motivational speakers, and social influencers are also their descendants.
So what’s the problem? Well, suppose your real goal is to get the biggest rounds of applause from the largest crowds possible because that’s how you make the most coin. You’re going to find yourself in competition with a bunch of other people doing the same thing. So you’re engaged in a battle for the public’s attention and their approval— to catch their eye in the first place, keep their attention as long as possible, and win their praise. One easy way to get their attention is to say something shocking. Then you keep their attention by provoking an emotional state of fear and anger, and puffing them up with a sense of their own importance. Then you win their approval by telling them whatever they want to hear — like an echo chamber.
Yup, that’s basically what social media, the news, and politicians, are trying to do to you every day as well. “Trump supporter leaves CNN anchor speechless”, the headline says, or “Biden’s comment on black voters leaves ‘The Five’ [Fox News] speechless” — they both use essentially the same type of emotive rhetoric to mess with your head and hijack your attention for five or ten minutes. And you know what else? I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Internet trolls do more or less the same thing. The media make money by gaining your attention because their sponsors want to sell you things. Trolls just desperately crave your attention because they’re ultimately narcissists who feel more lonely than they’re capable of recognizing or admitting to themselves — they need your reaction to temporarily fill the emotional black hole inside them.
How Stoicism Kills the Digital Sophist
Then Socrates walked into town, into the agora, and the game changed. He started asking people difficult questions, which often provoked their anger, but he never got into arguments with them. That took self-discipline on his part. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus repeatedly tells his students that they should take Socrates as their role model. This might surprise you but do you know what he says the main thing is that we can learn from Socrates?
Now this was the first and chief peculiarity of Socrates, never to be irritated in argument, never to utter any thing abusive, any thing insulting, but to bear with abusive persons and to put an end to the quarrel. If you would know what great power he had in this way, read the Symposium of Xenophon, and you will see how many quarrels he put an end to. — Epictetus
Sometimes people, who don’t know very much about Socrates, say that he was the Athenian equivalent of an Internet troll. He was actually the opposite. Socrates didn’t try to provoke arguments. His goal was always to get a step closer to wisdom, for both his own sake and that of the person with whom he was conversing. Socrates was always exceptionally polite to other people, even when, as often happened, they became abusive or even violent toward him because they didn’t like being questioned so much. Epictetus understood this aspect of Socrates very well and emphasized it to his students.
Socrates and the Stoics also didn’t allow themselves to be baited by the Sophists. In fact, they actively employed counter-measures against the emotive power of rhetoric. How? Well, the Stoics developed this into an art form that consists of many different psychological techniques. The most fundamental is perhaps the separation of our judgments, particularly our value judgements, from external events. (I call this “cognitive distancing”, borrowing a technical term from cognitive psychotherapy.) This notion is summed up in perhaps the most famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.”
So let’s begin translating this into practical advice for the modern world… When someone gets angry with you or tries to make you angry online, you should remind yourself of this quote from Epictetus. Ask yourself, as Epictetus does in the very next sentence actually, whether other people would necessarily feel the same way about what just happened. How, for instance, might Socrates, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius respond to an Internet troll? Exploring these alternative perspectives can create something we call “cognitive flexibility”, the ability to entertain several ways of looking at an event. By contrast, when people are really upset they tend to get rigidly locked into a particular viewpoint, and fused with that way of thinking. It’s normal and healthy to be able to say: “I guess I could be angry about this… or I could view it differently.”
In a sense, you’re choosing to be angry. So a Stoic would also consider the consequences of doing that. One of their favourite slogans is that “Anger does us more harm than the things we’re angry about.” Marcus Aurelius actually imagines saying this to someone who’s angry with him, possibly even his own son, Commodus.
No, my son, we were born for something other than this; it is not I who am harmed, it is you, my son, who are causing harm to yourself. — Meditations, 11.18
Getting annoyed with the Internet troll or the alarmist news that Facebook’s algorithms think you want to read, will do you moral harm, destroying your character, whereas the most that external events can do is kill you. And Internet trolls can’t really do much harm at all unless you let them. (Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, as the rhyme goes.) That goes for people who are angry with you as well — it’s their choice ultimately. You’ll find a lot of people online get angry just because you don’t agree with them. Other people respond very differently to that, though. And they do themselves more harm by getting angry than you ever could just by saying something they don’t like.
Now, that’s no reason to deliberately go around saying provocative things, though. Quite the opposite. Unless you get a kick out of upsetting people, why bother if it’s not helping anyone? Nobody is perfect. We should anticipate that other people will sometimes get mad unnecessarily. They’re only human after all. That’s why Socrates was known for being so patient and courteous to others. He had no desire to harm or upset anyone but he accepted the fact that sometimes they would get angry even though he was trying to help them.
Another important aspect of Stoicism is sophrosune, which is traditionally translated as “temperance” in Victorian English or nowadays as “moderation”. Those aren’t perfect translations, though. For the ancient Greeks, it was a more subtle concept, which implied a kind of moral wisdom and self-awareness. In many ways, it also resembles what we mean today by mindfulness. In one of the Socratic dialogues, Plato’s Charmides, the boys wrestling in the gymnasium are asked to define the virtue of sophrosune and they give what seems to them the most obvious example: speaking quietly and walking slowly, as opposed to running around being noisy and boisterous, and annoying others.
Socrates quickly notes that this isn’t exactly wrong but it’s too specific to be a good definition. However, it’s still a good example of one type of moderation. It’s about having the self-awareness to realize what’s appropriate. The person who speaks loudly and annoys other passengers on the bus, without realizing, lacks this virtue — they’re not being mindful of their surroundings. We should use social media with moderation and self-awareness. We’re entering into a wrestling match, in fact, with algorithms and obnoxious individuals who are out to trap us by grabbing our attention and provoking an emotional reaction.
Some philosophers, such as the Epicurean sect, might advise us simply to withdraw from contact with things that ruffle our feathers. The Stoics think we need to face these challenges, though. Nevertheless, that’s necessarily going to require the deployment of psychological counter-measures, which will take at least a little bit of consistent effort on our part. We have to be motivated to help ourselves, in other words. Moreover, the only realistic way to deal with a threat like the digital Sophist is to exercise more or less permanent vigilance. That’s precisely what the Stoics taught. They call it prosoche, or continual “attention” to the way you’re using your mind, particularly your value judgements and how they interact with your emotions and desires.
The Stoics have various ways of helping us to do this. One would be to pause and ask yourself whether each interaction is really necessary. Does it actually serve your fundamental goal in life? For Stoics, that’s synonymous with asking whether it’s going to make you more fulfilled, whether it’s going to help you flourish as a human being, or whether it’s leading you astray, in the opposite direction from genuine flourishing (eudaimonia).
Psychologists now know that people often engage in habits they consider pleasurable — from social media to crack cocaine — as a way of distracting themselves from or suppressing unpleasant feelings. […] Someone compulsively checking social media might stop and ask if not reading each individual notification would really be so unbearable. If you practice self-awareness in this way, you’ll often (but not always) realize that the pleasure you obtain from such habits is actually much less than you previously assumed. — How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
Someone says something you don’t like online. Stop and think. Do you really need to respond? Does it actually benefit you or them? If you’re not sure then guess what? The answer is that it probably benefits you more to exercise restraint and develop the virtue of sophrosune. That’s a good guide in life. Precisely when it takes an effort to hold back, even if you’re not sure what else to do, learning to hold yourself back is probably going to make you stronger. You can always, as Epictetus tells his students, wait until your emotions have settled down naturally, and respond later if it still seems worthwhile.
There are many ways in which Socrates and the Stoics help us to deal more wisely with the digital Sophist, or social media, and Internet trolls, etc. I believe that the most powerful tool we have available in this respect is simply to shift the discussion on to this question. I spent years training psychotherapists, a notoriously argumentative profession, and I became very aware that if I started talking about ways in which we can communicate better and learn more in group discussions, well, that changed the whole atmosphere dramatically. So let me ask you: how can the teachings of Socrates and the Stoics help us to live more virtuously in cyber-space?
How would Marcus Aurelius use Facebook? Some people, I know say he wouldn’t, but I’m certain he would. We’re told the Stoics believed that a wise man engages in public life, if nothing prevents him, and that the good naturally have an inclination to write books, or blog posts, that help other people. So how would a Stoic use social media wisely? What do you think their teachings tell us about responding to argumentative people online. I think the famous slogan of Epictetus can help: endure and renounce. We should be mindful of ourselves and learn to endure provocative behaviour without getting upset about it, and renounce our desire to respond angrily or to indulge excessively in online behaviour that’s not contributing to eudaimonia. What do you think, though?