We appear to have entered an age of tyrants. Whether that is true or the global shift towards fascism and oligarchy yields to a new age of collectivism, only time will tell.
For now, many of us wake each morning bracing for the daily news as though a spiteful imp were hovering by our bedside waiting to greet our tired faces with a slap.
Grief, anger, and indignation now seem woven into our days like a new color has been added to the spectrum of light we can see, they are simply there… like blue or yellow, ready to catch our eye at any moment.
Of course, that makes it sound like the injustices created and protected by the narcissists of the wealthy class and their government enablers are new, when in fact they are old as the hills. The ascendancy of the Trump administration and the proliferation of war, racism, and ecocidal madness over the globe in recent decades has surely brought what was in the shadows to many of us glaringly into the light.
Even if recent developments signal the end of the Trump era, our problems are far from over.
At times like this, those of us interested in keeping our hearts and our reason intact might look for examples of those who have lived well in the face of tyranny and brutality, and to that end, we would find no better counselors than the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Epictetus, a teacher of philosophy in the 2nd century in the time of Nero (the Mugambe of Rome, perhaps) and was himself exiled from Rome due to his teaching, often discussed how to live in the face of irrational and authoritarian government. In a passage titled by Arrian, a student taking notes in his class who preserved the lecture for us, “on how to respond to tyrants” the great Stoic and former slave begins by taking the “tyrant” down a peg.
In a quote which seems prescient in the days of Trump (as does every other quote about foolish leaders and tyrants from the last three millennia):
“If someone is superior in some respect, or at least fancies that he is when that isn’t, in fact, the case, it is altogether inevitable that, if he is uneducated, he’ll become puffed up with pride because of it. A tyrant, for instance, thus exclaims, ‘I’m the most powerful man in the world!’
Is that so, says Epictetus, then asks, “Can you make me happy? Can you make even yourself happy?” What greater power could there be? Yet this is one the “most powerful man” does not possess. “Everyone pays me every attention,” Epictetus imagines the tyrant protesting.
“Yes,” responds Epictetus, “but who wants to emulate you?”
“I will have you beheaded,” Epictetus’ tyrant threatens.
“Ah yes,” responds the philosopher. “I had forgotten that I must attend to you as I would the fever or cholera.”
Epictetus then points out that what frightens the people is not really the tyrant but his guards. The tyrant himself has no power without his lackeys, be they centurions, SS men, or Republicans (couldn’t resist). Further responding to the tyrant’s ultimate leverage- the power to beat, incarcerate or kill. Epictetus asks, “What does one value, the body which may be beaten or incarcerated or oneself?”
What Epictetus means by this is that a person’s true self lays only in what is truly theirs- their reason and their heart. Others can take everything else away, but according to Epictetus, no one can take away our mastery over our sole domain- that of our own hearts and minds.
“‘So you mean to say that, when you enter my presence, you’ll pay no attention to me?” asks Epictetus’ tyrant. “No,” answers Epictetus, “but rather to myself.”
Epictetus essential point is that the Tyrant cannot actually harm anyone since a person’s true benefit lies in their character, which is determined by how we use our reason and our heart.
This is essential advice. Though as a matter of course we should choose virtuous resistance over obedience to the tyrant, our primary attention should always be on that which is truly ours and which no one can take from us.
That is the essence of Epictetus’ philosophy and his recipe for happiness in the face of life’s adversities. If we base our happiness on that which is under our control than we will not suffer from not getting what we want. What is under our control? Our own character. For Epictetus, there are only two realms where we should invest our emotional energy: in our care for the quality of our own thinking and feeling, and in fulfilling the social roles and duties life gives us.
Those roles and duties might include being a parent, or a spouse, or a government official. As citizens of democratic societies, Epictetus would surely feel that the obligation of democracy, that is, civic engagement, was inescapable. That doesn’t mean, though, that we should surrender the reigns of our own happiness- our own hope and fear, our own joy and misery- into the hands of anyone else, especially not of a tyrant. We should keep those reigns firmly in our own hands, and based only on what we control. The ideal person, in Epictetus’ opinion, does not just do the right thing with disregard to the threats of the tyrant- they do so joyfully.
At the end of his lecture, Epictetus notes that everyone acts with regard to their own benefit, but no one can gain it without giving benefit to others. True self-interest is not antisocial, says Epictetus, and titles of respect depend on contribution to the community. Mere titles do not confer respectability. To those who would respect a president just because they are called “president,” or any other official merely because of their title, Epictetus would say “balderdash.”
Only one factor confers respect: character; and worth of character is intimately and inescapably bound up in whether one is an authentic giver to the community at large. “Even Zeus,” says Epictetus, “When he wants to be “rain-bringer” must contribute to the common benefit to earn the title.”
In Epictetus’ thinking, then, the tyrant who does not authentically contribute to the community at large is no ruler, no authority, and not worthy of any regard at all. The philosopher will go one doing their duty and caring for their own character, seeking the true good of themselves and others, taking joy in having found what is truly good in life.
Matthew Gindin is a journalist, educator and meditation instructor located in Vancouver, BC. He is the Pacific Correspondent for the Canadian Jewish News, writes regularly for the Forward and the Jewish Independent and has been published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Religion Dispatches, Kveller, Situate Magazine, and elsewhere. He writes on Medium from time to time.