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Have you noticed that Stoicism appears to be “having a moment” as the kids say? I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure I understand why. I know this is just my personal observation, but when I was in college, my impression was that someone was as likely to identify an epicurean as declare that they were a stoic. But now, just a couple of decades later, you’ve got people like Ryan Holiday who’ve built their whole careers around evangelizing Stoicism.
As I said, I’m a little vague on why it’s suddenly so popular. I would assume that the political situation has something to do with it. (Hegel thought that Stoicism is a philosophy for times of de-democratization.) Which makes it interesting that it seems to have started before things got nasty or at the very least well before the election of Trump. I also suspect that it’s a response to the culture of victimhood, or to rephrase it in less loaded terms. Some people put a lot of weight on what has happened to you and your ancestors and the whole point of Stoicism is the opposite. They’re focused on minimizing the importance of external events. Thus one possibility is that it may have become more popular as a way to push back on the trend of victimhood.
Lest there be any confusion, speaking just for myself, I’m a big admirer of Stoicism. Though I know that there are some who will claim that Stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. A point I’ll return to before the end. That wrinkle aside, during a recent period of severe economic distress I took great comfort in the writings and advice of the ancient stoics. I also particularly like their emphasis on moderation, and insofar as stoicism is resurgent because of the current political moment I hope that it acts as a moderating influence on both sides of things. As this recent quote from Holiday’s Daily Stoic newsletter illustrates, moderation has a lot to recommend it.
We often hear people speak of wisdom, justice, and courage, but rarely do we hear people praise moderation. Moderation is the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society. It might not be the most exciting principle, but locating this middle ground—the golden mean—has the capacity to make the largest difference.
The idea for this post came to me a while ago. I was at a dinner party and a debate started over the effectiveness of psychedelics, in particular, how much insight they actually provided. On one side were people who felt like psychedelics triggered a feeling of “insight” without providing any actual epiphanies. On the other side were people who felt that they had received genuine wisdom while under the influence of these drugs. As you might have guessed I was on the first side, and I argued for my side of things with particular vigor, leading someone to ask, “Why do you care? What’s your stake in this argument? So what if the actual insight gained from ingesting psychedelics is less than what was claimed?”
Something about the way the question was stated lead to a genuine epiphany. (Not the fake kind you get with psychedelics. Kidding… sort of.) And I realized that, while I do genuinely care about getting as close to the truth as possible, in this particular case, it was more about where I felt the “pendulum” was on the issue. What’s the pendulum you ask? Well if moderation is “the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society” then the idea of the pendulum is even more secret than that.
Generally speaking, on any given issue, one side or the other has the momentum, and they use that momentum to push laws and culture and even public opinion as far as they can in their preferred direction. Metaphorically you might imagine the pendulum of a clock. The true believers think that it should be all the way over to one side (or perhaps the other) while the person who values moderation knows that it never stays on one side or the other for very long, and that the harder you push it in one direction the more violent the eventual swing back ends up being. The stoic, who values moderation, wants to keep the pendulum as close to the middle as possible. Doing so also has the benefit of lessening the disruption and violence associated with large swings back and forth. How is this accomplished? By taking the opposite side of the issue from whichever side is ascendant, and switching when the other side is ascendent.
Returning to the debate on psychedelics, we can now break down the many things one should consider when arguing for moderation rather than for a specific ideology:
- What’s the truth? I do think that the insight granting powers of things like LSD and psilocybin are overrated and prone to overfitting. I am arguing for the truth, but as I pointed out, my argument had more vigor because I thought the people I was with needed more convincing on this point, not because the argument was more true than other arguments I might make.
- Who are you trying to convince? And what represents a moderate position for them? The dinner party attendees, other than myself, were all late 20s/early 30s (and yes, I worry about being the creepy old man). All of them regularly read Tim Ferris (speaking of stoics) and other individuals who espouse LSD microdosing as being the greatest thing ever. If I were among a bunch of church attending mother’s I probably would have been arguing the other side, that LSD will not cause your child to become a serial killer or act as a gateway to heroin. This is the classic, Devil’s Advocate position, and it’s always useful for someone to take this position, though, I will admit, that people often overdo it.
- What direction is the pendulum moving? Obviously in this day and age there’s no one overarching opinion on drugs and the war on drugs. It’s a no man’s land in the cultural war just like everything else. But for people in the demographic I mentioned above, most feel that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, that way too many people are locked up for drug related offenses, and that stuff like LSD should not only be legal, but that it has the power to revolutionize the world. Needless to say I think it’s more complicated than that.
This probably seems like a lot of effort just to justify being a jerk at a dinner party, but of course the difficulty of dealing with drugs and their many positive and negative effects, and the subsequent swinging of the pendulum too far to one side or the other has a long, long history. Perhaps the best large scale illustration of this would be Prohibition. It was and is clear to everyone that alcohol is responsible for numerous harms, and that for the vast majority of people, alcohol consumption is a net negative. But just as clearly, in retrospect, making it entirely illegal was swinging the pendulum too far. More recently it swung too far in the other direction when it came to prescribing opiates. And now, again in retrospect, everyone agrees that we were too lax there.
If you’re with me so far and you agree that moderation is valuable, and that it’s sometimes useful to view things as swinging between two extremes like a pendulum, then where should we go from here? Or stated more directly how do we go from applying this at dinner parties to applying it to the world as a whole?
Mostly it’s the same list, only massively larger in scale:
- It is still important that regardless of what direction you approach things from that your arguments are true. In particular I recommend being up front about the pendulum model. “Oh, I’m not in favor of large scale drug legalization by any means, but I think creating safe injection sites is a way of balancing both justice and reality.”
- The terrain is still important. Supporting a Democrat in Utah is very different from supporting a Democrat in California. In the first case you are almost certainly pushing the pendulum back towards the center, in the second case you’re much more likely to be pushing it towards the end it’s already at.
- The final point, figuring out where the pendulum is headed, is a lot more difficult when we scale up to the nation as a whole. In 1920 the support for prohibition was pervasive enough that three-fourths of the states in addition to two-thirds of congress voted to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. I assume, though I wasn’t there, that in 1919 it would have been pretty easy to know which direction the pendulum was headed. I think our increasingly fractured society makes that task more difficult. For example, you would assume, based on recent mass shootings, that the pendulum is heading towards more gun control, but also nothing concrete has actually happened yet, and certainly some people have gotten more opposed to gun control recently.
Additionally there’s one other thing that shows up more often at the state and national level than at the dinner party level. At the dinner party level you can take a very nuanced position, even going so far as to mention the fact that what you’re really interested in is moderation, not the ultimate and final triumph of one ideology or another. But at the national level, generally such nuance is not available. Generally you have two, and only two, very blunt options (more if you take my advice and vote third party, but that has its own issues.) There is no option that moves the pendulum exactly as far as it needs to go to return to the center. (And, of course, even if there was such an option, the mere fact of your vote does very little to bring it to pass.) Rather your two options are:
- Move the pendulum farther along the path it was already on. Even if it’s not very far.
- Move the pendulum back the other way. But perhaps in such a way that you completely overshoot the moderate middle.
Trump vs. Clinton was very much the situation above, but it’s not the only time it’s happened either. Frequently, you only have one choice to move the needle, and it’s not a great choice, but you may feel that the pendulum has swung so far in the wrong direction that if you don’t try moving it back in the other direction the moderate middle may be lost forever, or out of reach for a very long time.
I expect that this explains much of Trump’s appeal. That, as a said before, Trump was a speculative attempt to complicate in a situation where on most issues the pendulum has been traveling left for a very long time.
There’s one final benefit to everything I’ve mentioned so far, beyond just greater moderation, and whatever benefits that entails. Arguing from the standpoint of the pendulum is also great practice for steelmanning and passing ideological Turing Tests. Both ideas are closely related, but the first is the opposite of strawmanning, that is rather than putting forth your ideological opponent’s weakest arguments you assemble and put forth their very strongest arguments, even if it’s a position you oppose. On the other hand an ideological Turing Test makes reference to the original Turing Test, where a computer could be said to be intelligent if it was indistinguishable in conversation from a person. To pass an ideological Turing Test you need to be able to explain an ideology so well that you are indistinguishable from a true believer of that ideology.
As you might imagine both skills come in handy when you’re pushing for moderation, when, depending on the position of the pendulum, you may be arguing for two completely opposite positions. In a larger sense, pushing for moderation forces you to think of reasons why the conventional wisdom might be incorrect. Why, in 1919, despite massive support, nationwide prohibition would be a very bad idea. Why the same thing might be true of issues today which also enjoy massive support, and which appear to have the wind on their side. It requires taking all of the criticisms and putting them into the best light, of understanding them as well as the people who advocate them.
Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning, there are some who will claim that stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. As one example of this, I remember expressing admiration for the poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley while I was in the Missionary Training Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) prior to serving my mission, and having one of the other missionaries mention that Orson F. Whitney, one of the early apostles, had penned a response to Invictus pointing out that (at least for the Christian) without Christ it didn’t matter whether you were the “captain of your soul”, you still weren’t going to make it to your destination. Whitney and this missionary have a point, but I still don’t think it’s a bad thing to occasionally reflect on the radical responsibility advocated by “Invictus”.
No, where Whitney and this missionary have a point is precisely with respect to the topic we’ve been discussing, moderation. Despite some LDS individuals declaring (incorrectly) that “moderation in all things” is part of our canonized scriptures. There are some areas where moderation is not appropriate and in fact the Bible agrees with me:
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
I know that a lot of my readers aren’t believers, but if you are going to be part of a religion; working and hoping for ultimate salvation, then moderation is the last thing you want. If God exists, then nothing about our relationship with him should be moderate. That said, it’s certainly not the way the world is going. Instead, more and more I am seeing the opposite: moderation in religion (particularly Christianity) and extremism everywhere else. And that’s perhaps the final lesson: it’s necessary to be moderate even in our quest for moderation.
The pendulum on these closing “jokes” is firmly on the donate end of things. So don’t donate. I don’t need your money. I’m solidly middle class without your money, and retiring on my writing income is a stupid plan. If you’re actually contrary enough that these arguments produce the opposite effect you can donate here.