Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Stoic Path: The Meaning of 9/11

How ought we react to terror? There is no question about the Stoic reaction to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Stoicism is a philosophy of universal love. It is a philosophy that maintains that our first duty is always to others. We maintain that human beings - all human beings - are sacred. From this perspective, the actions of the perpetrators of the mass killings and destruction on 9/11 are actions that were contrary to the nature of our species. This, in fact, is how Stoics define evil. An evil action is any action contrary to the Law of nature.

But the Stoics (like the Christians who assimilated much of Stoic thinking in the early Church) maintained that love of neighbor must be absolutely unconditional. We must also love our enemies, for they too are inseparable from the universal nature of humanity. With love comes compassion. With compassion comes forgiveness. With forgiveness comes a duty to move our enemies toward the truth of nature.

Yet there is a difference in the ways a Stoic and a Christian would respond to the terror of our times (or the events of 9/11). A Stoic will never turn the other cheek. Marcus Aurelius was, after all, a warrior. A Stoic will defend and protect himself and his neighbor offensively from any action designed to destroy the social fabric of the community.

But the thing that differentiates the Stoic response to terror, from the more typical motivations of our modern age, is his "attitude." The true Stoic is never motivated by hate or revenge. From the Stoic vantage, a terrorist is motivated by his (or her) ignorance of the true nature of the universe. And the Stoic attitude to anyone who acts from ignorance is always compassion. Stoics are duty bound to turn their enemies toward the light. This Stoic attitude is devoid of the raw emotional (or "irrational") attitude that expresses itself as hate. It is a "reasoned" attitude.

A second element in the Stoic response to terror is the absence of fear. The loss of life and damage to property caused by acts of terror are indeed extreme misfortunes for all of us. These are events we must ensure will never happen again. But, for the Stoic, damage to property and loss of life is not viewed in the same way as by the non-Stoic (or a Christian). The only thing the Stoic truly values in life is acting rightly. Acting rightly means doing the right thing. Doing the right thing means directing all of our actions toward the social benefit of others. Death and property loss are certainly unfortunate consequences of terror, but inconsequential in the larger sense, because neither of these things can destroy our capacity for compassion (unless we allow).

However, the compassion shown by the Stoic is never mindless, or simply reflexive. In fact, it can take forms that might indeed appear ruthless. But this is an enlightened ruthlessness - if, for example, the destruction of our enemy is the only means left to educate (but it ought to be the final means). However, because this enlightened response is directed by intelligence (as opposed to passion), the consequences will differ greatly from the consequences of actions driven by motivations of revenge, hate, or fear.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.

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