What Stoicism Is NOT: The School Of Isolation

By Kai Whiting and Allan John

When Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism he wasn’t particularly interested in what constituted the ideal Stoic individual but rather what made the ideal Stoic community. We know this because his magnum opus is his Republic – a utopian vision of how wise people (sages) live together in one city state. The Stoic sages are virtuous, which means they are in harmony with the cosmos. They are not hermits and they do not take veils of long silence to focus on the Divine, free from the need to interact with others.

Neither virtue nor vice exist in a vacuum but are apparent in how and why we choose to interact with others. This is why the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus says:

Evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbour.

Musonius Rufus, Lecture 14:9

It is in our interactions with others and our environment that we are given the opportunity to perfect our capacity for reason. The Stoic method for discovering what is reasonable, and subsequently the appropriate action to take, is the Socratic dialectic. It involves a cooperative argument where very intentional questioning and answering causes all individuals partaking in the exercise to fundamentally reflect on the reasonableness of their ideas and the soundness of their beliefs or assumptions.

 Contrary to his convictions, the man lying on the couch is acting very unwisely indeed if he believes that there is no benefit in talking to the man offering help. He is correct to say that he is in control of his thoughts. But how does he know if those thoughts are driving him towards or away from virtue? Stoicism isn’t merely deciding what is right based on thinking long and hard about something in complete isolation. In fact, if we engage in mistaken thinking (e.g. believing that we have to be rich or in a meaningful job to live the good life) isolation will only make it worse. Stoics are called to be prosocial and it’s by engaging in reasonable and respectful dialogue that we allow ourselves to grow and progress towards the “good life”.

As stated in Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos’ book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in: 

Stoics seek to examine personal and societal perceptions and how they are formed. Only by educating ourselves in this way can we become aware of premises and apparent “facts” that may be false and conclusions that might well be wrong. The harder we cling to uninformed, or less-informed, opinions, the more difficult it becomes to pivot away and set our own record straight. Eventually, we lose our suppleness and get completely stuck. Over time our life stagnates, and we transform into something so brittle that even the gentlest push against our values and opinions causes us to snap. If we hold on too tightly to unexamined ideals, we end up isolating ourselves to the point that, by limiting our potential for growth, we journey away from eudaimonia (the good life).

Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com

Allan John runs WhatIsStoicism.com, where he publishes Stoic essays, exercises and interviews. What Is Stoicism? can also be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – @WhatIsStoicism