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The Stoic vs the Activist
Q: Can we reconcile Stoicism with Social Justice?
Q: Can we reconcile Stoicism with Social Justice?
Stoicism works against the premise of social justice, which is that there are populist movements that can and must re-engineer society on the outside of the justice system and law.
I think the fairest assumptions that can be made about social justice is that there are permanent classes of people whose social status is set in stone and cannot be advanced without sustained social and political action in defiance of the established law and order. This is the difference between justice and social justice.
The difference between social justice and charity is that social justice is always secular. This may not always be the case, but it is in America. I think this is partially because of a naive construction on behalf of those in favor of social justice against organized religion. The Western understanding of the separation of church and state is prepared for organized religion with the supremacy of secular law over canon law with an understanding that there shouldn’t be much mutual overlap. We certainly should very well understand that a state that meddles as much as a church is oppressive and a church that rules as broadly as a state is oppressive. If we already have a free press, then what is the role of social justice activists? It seems to me that they are a fourth leg, superfluous to the three legged stool of the state, the free press, and the church, disruptively encroaching on the aegis of all three.
In any case the Stoic, aligning himself with the laws of nature, seeks to guide himself and his concerns to recognize his responsibilities to those laws of nature. This is something that works towards continuous incremental understanding and self-improvement, not towards outward activism that seeks to coerce others. A Stoic is a citizen whose deportment is disciplined and moral and works well within a libertarian context. You don’t need to (and may not be able to) coerce a Stoic, he will not defy nature. But the business of the state (law) and the church (canon law) is to coerce. The business of the press and free education is to inform and persuade through rationality. The Stoic might be best employed there.
Since the Stoic ultimately achieves the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, the courage to change things he can change and the wisdom to know the difference, he is ultimately reconciled with the law and with canon law. He will defy injustice in either with courage or serenity. But this is manifest through the virtuous character of the individual, not through the sloganeering of activist groups. For whom does the social justice activist work? For those who cannot work for themselves. And what standards can the social justice activist stand by if neither law nor canon law suffice? So how can that ever be consistent over time in any society, much less in accord with the unchanging laws of nature?
The Stoic sees this as an individual journey which of course can make use of the study of principle, of rationality, of ethics. It is, after all, an open-ended search for the truth of the laws of nature. But the Stoic understands that any individual’s capacity to become righteous comes at an unpredictable pace and quality. It therefore cannot be demanded and expected of the public at large by any activist group. The wisdom of Diogenes, for example, can only be approached by students of Diogenes — here we are many hundreds of years later and how many people have approached such ancient and timeless wisdom? It cannot be externally demanded.
One must ask of the social justice activist why they are not content to work to reform the law, or reform the canon law? The answer can only be that they are impatient. And why cannot they be satisfied with their own individual defiance of these? The answer can only be that they would be lonely and individually ineffective. They therefore must take the stage and dramatize their own struggles collectively speaking to the masses and take hope that the masses will similarly act up. But whatever principles they seek to defend are either in line or out of line with the laws of nature — and these will be known to the Stoic and anyone who seeks truth. So it must be concluded that they simply protest too much. Doesn’t the slave know he is denied liberty? Doesn’t the robbed know he has been deprived of his property? Doesn’t every victim of every crime know the injustice done to him? The law is sufficient to see all of this, either secular or canon, and if not, certainly the individual done harm. But this seeing and knowing is not sufficient to the activist. The activist wants to take part and take credit for seeing what anyone can see and then take issue with the laws for not being panoptic and expedient.
It is the distance between the law and the individual conscience that is liberty. If that gap is closed by any means, it is overreach. The individual must wait because he would have no license to act of his own accord — to right any wrong done him beyond the scope of the law, to use his immediate sight to correct any error. A law covering any gap that is not secular law or canon law would then be ‘social law’ and that would always be, like the other two, coercive. Where then would be individual freedom? Let the individual have space to act in his own defense. Let him have room to interpret the laws of nature and act accordingly. Keep the activist clear of this space every man must have to rationally consider his position and act accordingly. Without that space for individual agency, which is certainly presumed by the activist ‘in solidarity’ with the benighted masses, there is no freedom. There is no liberty. There is only waiting upon the machinations of social justice. That space space for action belongs to the individual, not the activist crowd. The individual is the atom of society, not the social justice partisan.
Originally published at https://cobb.typepad.com.