Friday, October 7, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street Movement and Stoicism

Sierra Club


Photographer Russell McNeil PhD (Physics) lives in Nanaimo, British Columbia. His book, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing) presents a radical and modern science-based interpretation of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. This way of living teaches that happiness and healing come to us in life when we learn to “live according to nature” - this is the ideal that Russell strives to reflect in all of his photography.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution provides for the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Article 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms defines the "freedom of peaceful assembly" together with "freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; and freedom of association"... as "fundamental."

In both Canada and the USA these freedoms have been protected to ensure that our nations are never co-opted by tyranny or hijacked by special interests. The fundamental argument underlying the Occupy movement protests currently underway is that this co-opting has occurred.

Our Rights and our Freedoms have been threatened by a corporate minority. We have been hijacked by fascistic forces and that the majority have been subjected to economic, political and environmental oppressions. Furthermore we argue that the elected governments and assemblies of both nations no longer effectively represent the will of the majority, but represent rather these forces of oppression. That this is so requires that we exercise our fundamental freedoms and that we peaceably recover what is ours.

This is our right, and this is our duty. The argument that we are duty bound to recover ourselves from enslavement is embedded in the ancient principles of democratic right developed in the philosophies of Athens and echoed in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius who asserted that human rights are derived from the Law of Nature:

"As you are yourself a component part of a social system [family, city, nation, world], so let every act of yours be a component part of social life. Any act of yours that has no reference either immediately or remotely to a social end tears asunder your life [this refers to acts that are self directed such as those by corporate entities designed to serve and benefit the few over the many], and does not allow it to be in solidarity, and it is of the nature of a mutiny [this asserts that the acts of the corporate few are in effect a mutiny against the interests of the community]..." ~ Russell McNeil (from Chapter 9 on Political Activism, Criticism, and Dissent, p. 229 ff, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained (2008))

The unpublished meditations presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.


Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical of your opinions of stoicism in relation to present day politics.

Socrates, the man from which stoicism is derived, and who you even called in one of your posts "the first stoic" was opposed to democracy. The system you seem to think is the equivalent to freedom. He thought it was the essentially mob rule, which it is. As it would turn out, for good reason. He also praised the undemocratic Sparta as being superior to Athens on many occasions.

Marcus Aurelius was dictator (and a good one to boot) of an imperialist empire and while he may not have personally ordered the persecution of Christians, he was aware of the persecutions and did nothing to stop them. He did tolerate a certain amount of free speech (even criticism of himself). But he didn't, I believe, support it to the extent that it would've torn apart the social values of the empire. If he had, he would've granted complete religious freedom to the Christians. But didn't, probably because he saw them as a dangerous cult and that their beliefs were in direct opposition to Roman imperial rule. Not to mention many Christians' refusal to serve in the military.

We don't know much about Zeno, other than he was a theoretical anarchist, unfortunately his Republic hasn't survived so we'll never know much about his opinions in full detail.

I'm not disagreeing that corporations have too much power over government or that there's not a quid-pro-quo cycle between business and the state. But I also don't take your view that every left-wing view of yours has to be tied into and justified by stoicism. Stoicism is primarily an individualist philosophy that values self improvement over deliberate action in the social sphere. Not as much as epicureianism, but it's still more individualist as far as what it advocates. Epictetus in his Enchiridion even stated that we shouldn't put much time or energy towards trying to obtain political offices.

Russell McNeil said...

I won't disagree that I may be overreaching my ties between Stoicism and Democracy or that Plato's Socrates (but not necessarily the real Socrates) was not a democrat. The Republic is inherently about the virtue of the philosopher king - a system the Republic lionizes, but ultimately acknowledges as unworkable in practice - many scholars have subsequently argued that Plato is thus begrudgingly tipping his hat to the multi-colored coat of democracy.

I could not disagree more with your assertion that "Stoicism is primarily an individualist philosophy." Stoicism is first and foremost a social philosophy. That's one of the three core principles of Stoicism. The second principle is that human nature is distilled from Logos or reason - the active aspect of nature. The third principle is that as rational creatures we are deeply interwoven within the fabric of a larger nature that is governed by perfect laws. Our duty as human beings is to uncover these laws and to use these laws in the government of community - or to "live according to nature."