Varieties of Stoicism

I have a bunch of colleagues who do serious work on stoicism, and, well, I don’t. (1) But I’m teaching moral psychology again this semester and there’s a lot of relevant insights from various debates that I think are stoicism adjacent. (2) So here’s a kind of typology:

There’s stuff-upper-lip stoicism (which I associate with Rudyard Kipling and pasty British imperialism) that engages in emotional compression in the name of power-wielding, declaims the passions as unmanly, and has this dangerous tendency to explode when challenged. It’s actually deeply sentimental in its denial of emotion—it puts emotions to work ordering the world towards a hierarchical goal, that requires the passionate pretend to dispassion. Kipling’s poem “If” captures it perfectly, (“If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,/Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”) but so does Henley’s Invictus. (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”) And to be clear I like both poems!

There’s the stoicism of the weak: don’t get angry or resentful even at outrageous injustice because these reactions are seen as challenges to powerful and punished. Nietzsche hated this kind of stoicism: it makes all kinds of external circumstances over into an unchangeable order of Nature, flattening mortality, morality, and mores into a single situation we must merely find a way to stomach. Of course this can be pragmatic but it denies so many possibilities in the name of survival. Ironically, a lot of Admiral Stockdale’s “Courage Under Fire” probably should be classified here, in large part because he embraces Epictetus over Marcus Aurelius, and because his main practice is in his incarceration rather than in his warfighting.

Finally there’s the mindfulness stoicism of modern western buddhists (lowercase because they tend to be anti-metaphysical) and Silicon Valley self-help gurus and “techbros.” This has a developed a few different strands, but the key as far as I can tell is that there is a mix of practices: meditate to be 10% happier, update your priors dispassionately, take bets when offered, and entertain provocative ideas without blinking.

That said, I think a crucial precursor to all these ideas is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Allen was a heroin addict and he transformed his drug recovery and New Age mysticism into a project management method for translating projects into discrete tasks, and allowing the careful management of those tasks to free oneself of anxiety. It’s all about preventing perseveration and allowing easy flow states—but it also suits automation and software replacement really well. That’s why Tim Ferris claims stoicism is “an ideal ‘operating system’ for thriving in high-stress environments.”

I sometimes talk about the way that doing logic sets—or programming for that matter—can feel like turning off your brain. That’s obviously not true: it’s “cognitively loaded” work, and confusing if you don’t know where to start. But it’s also mechanical and somewhat pleasant for its ability to give you direct feedback. The word “flow” seems to apply here: GTD is all about how to reduce big projects into discrete tasks small enough to develop that meditative flow while completing. And meditation holds out the same promise: to relate to your life with a little less attachment, to do your work with less friction, and yet still be very productive. The “Bayesian” rationalists sometimes promise a similar experience of mechanically updating ones’ priors as new information comes in—but I’ll note that one of the first metacognitive strategies of the Less Wrong rationalists is the Stoic move of separating the world into facts and beliefs, external realities and internal states. Once that is done there’s no reason to stress about it any longer: the goal is to make one’s internal states (of belief) match up with the external realities, and to bracket the various anxieties and hopes that often lead us into false beliefs.

What worries me about Silicon Valley’s mindfulness stoicism is the sense that it combines all the worst elements of world mastery and manliness with the stoicism of the weak: acceptance of injustice, the embrace of a hostile natural (and social!) world to which we must conform, and a quietism that locates our agency in that compliance while praising it as mastery. Ironically, some of the Bayesian rationalists are not at all quietistic. They create new things and institutions, organize communities, and protect their interests. There are social norms and trendsetters. But I think it’s pretty obvious that these activities fall outside of their principles, and that to a certain extent they are setting aside their stoicism when they do it. (That’s particularly obvious when they take non-rationalists to task for putative betrayals.)

There’s a lot more to be said about the intersections of buddhism and stoicism (and indeed about the intersection of Buddhism and Stoicism) but I have been pondering the role of the subject. The detachment of the stoic is hyper-individualistic in some ways: it counsels the precarity and fragility of others and the external world, but in the name of self-discipline, personal honor, and a duty to integrity. The detachment of the buddhists (and Buddhists) can’t be so easily incorporated here: embracing no-self and emptiness can be a lot more challenging and disruptive. So while Silicon Valley has adopted meditative practice without a care for the metaphysics that might be smuggled in, it may also be that these practices carry their own phenomenological lessons and insights. Perhaps the techbros are going to learn some things in spite of themselves.

  • (2) I’ve run roughshod over a bunch of important differences here, and I’m not sorry for that.

Joshua Miller’s Top Ten Things that Arendt Got Right About Political Theory

I wrote this little primer at the bottom of a long discussion of the Schocken Books editions of Arendt’s work, and then reposted it a while back on Facebook. It’s been popular, so I’m reposting it again here so I can easily link to it without feeding social media.

  1. Race-thinking precedes racism. Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarianism is a mammoth book, but the basic argument is simple: you can’t hate Jews for their race until you think of the fundamental flaw with Judaism in racial terms. Thus, race-thinking comes before racism.  Before race-thinking, Europeans hated Jews for completely different reasons: religion! You don’t exterminate other religions, you convert them. But once you have race-thinking, you can create justifications not just for anti-Semitism but for colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery of Africans. You can see strands like this in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which is (supposed to be) a comedy! Jessica and Lorenzo get a happy ending. Miscegenation fears require a biological theory of social differences.
  2. The Holocaust happened because Europeans started treating each other the way they treated indigenous peoples in the rest of the world. Europeans learned to think racially in the colonization of Africa, and the European model for dealing with resistance involved murderous concentration camps. Thus, when race-thinking eventually returned as a form of governance in the European continent, so too did the concentration camps. (Arendt makes this claim in the second volume of The Origins of Totalitarianism, though it’s built into the structure of the book. It’s often called the “boomerang” thesis: that the men (like Lord Cromer and Cecil Rhodes) who practiced racial imperialism brought those techniques back to Europe to found “continental imperialism.”)
  3. Totalitarianism is largely caused by the growth of a class of “superfluous” people who no longer have a role in their economy. In an industrializing society, much traditional work can now be done with fewer workers. One possible solution to this oversupply of workers is to put some of that surplus labor force to work monitoring, policing, and murdering the rest.
  4. Ideologues ignore counter-evidence. A very good way to understand ideology is as a logical system for avoiding falsification. There are alternatives theories of ideology that aren’t immune to counter-evidence but instead merely exert constant pressure: for instance, there’s a difference between what Fox News does and what Vox does, and Arendt’s account is more useful for criticizing Fox’s constant spinning than Vox’s technocratic neoliberalism. But Arendt supplied us a useful account of ideology that is closest to our standard use and our current need.
  5. The language of human rights is noble and aspirationally powerful. However, statelessness renders most rights claims worthless in practical terms and in most judicial institutions. Someone who must depend on her rights as a “man” or a human is usually worse off in legal terms than an ordinary criminal.
  6. You don’t discover yourself through introspection. You discover yourself through action. The main set of claims she made in The Human Condition about the role of public and political life strikes me as pretty important, especially insofar as it denigrates economic and racial identity politics. Think of the cocktail party version of this: on meeting a new person, some people will ask, “Where do you work?” in order to get to know them, identifying them through their profession, their economic role. Others will ask: “What are you into?” as if to say that our recreation and consumption is what defines us. But for Arendt, the appropriate question is: “What have you done? What do you stand for?”
  7. If you take that seriously, “identity” politics is frustratingly restrictive. A person is not defined merely by the class or race they come from: they are defined by the principles upon which they act. While it is often necessary to step into the political sphere as a representative of Jews or women–and Arendt acknowledged that this becomes unavoidable when one is attacked as a woman or a Jew–the best kind of politics allows us to enter the political sphere as ourselves, not knowing what we will discover about those selves until we have acted. So the need for identity politics is an indication of larger injustices: we respond as members of our groups when systematic and institutional forces oppress us as members of these groups.
  8. Revolutions that aim for political goals are more likely to succeed than revolutions that aim for economic goals. Misery is infinite and thus insatiable; political equality is comparatively easy to achieve. Thus it’s important to connect economic complaints to a deprivation of political equality: the important problem with white supremacy, for instance, is not that whites “have” more than Blacks, but that we count for more, that it is uncontroversial that “White Lives Matter.” (Though an important indication of that “counting for more” is that white people have more than Blacks because we continually plunder Black people and are able to get away with it systematically.)
  9. Philosophy as a discipline is fundamentally at odds with politics. This is a problem for political philosophy, and it helps to explain why so much of political philosophy is hostile to politics and tries to subsume the agonistic nitty-gritty of the public sphere under rules of coherence and expert knowledge. This is because thinking as an activity is a withdrawal from active life, and especially politics: the fundamental conflict between the eternal and the ephemeral is not one that can be usefully bridged, and most often those encounters are pernicious for both thinkers and doers.
  10. Work and labor are different. Some activities are repetitive and exhausting, and only biological necessity forces us to continue them. Some activities make the world and our lives within it meaningful and fruitful. Many people have economic roles that mix the two activities, but still and all they are distinct. What’s more, there’s not shame in wishing and working for a world without labor, perhaps a world of automation. But a world without work would be fundamentally meaningless.
  11. Evil is not complicated, so don’t overthink it. (No kidding, either. Arendt’s view is the opposite of the Spaceballs version of evil: “Evil will always triumph over good because good is dumb.” She seemed to think that evil is dumb and that’s why it can be so powerful.)

Is Deliberate Underpolicing a Problem?

Propublica thinks so: What Can Mayors Do When the Police Stop Doing Their Jobs?

Rises and falls in crime rates are notoriously hard to explain definitively. Scholars still don’t agree on the causes of a decades long nationwide decline in crime. Still, some academics who have studied the phenomenon in recent years see evidence that rising rates of violence in cities that have experienced high-profile incidents of police brutality are driven by police pullbacks. Many criminologists also cite the general deterioration of trust between the community and police, which leaves residents less likely to report crimes, call in tips or testify in court. Added to that are the dynamics that are now likely also driving a rise in violent crime, even in cities that have not witnessed recent high-profile deaths at police hands: the economic and social stresses of the pandemic lockdowns, including disruptions to illegal drug markets, and the usual seasonal rise in violence during summer.

I tend to discount the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” because the overall crime rates are already so noisy, and Michael Brown was killed while there was already a rising crime rate.

ProPublica acknowledge this evidence, but then cites anecdotes from Baltimore to raise the problem anew:

But the post-consent-decree pullback did not result in a rise in violent crime in the city, whose homicide rate remained very low compared with other large cities. In this, the city is representative of a broader trend, according to two recent de-policing studies. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and Joel Wallman, the director of research for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, examined the impact of arrest rates in 53 large cities on homicide rates from 2010 to 2015. They found that arrests, especially for less serious crimes such as loitering, public intoxication, drug possession and vagrancy, had already been dropping over that period, even prior to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. And they found that in nearly all of those cities, the declining arrest rates did not result in higher rates of violence. To put it another way: Over the first half of the past decade, many cities shifted away from the “broken windows” style of policing popularized in New York under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but even as they did so, violent crime continued to decline in most places, as it has since the early 1990s.

Here are the anecdotes about Baltimore:

In Baltimore in 2015, the underpolicing was so conspicuous that even some community activists who had long pushed for more restrained policing were left desperate as violence rose in their neighborhoods. “We saw a pullback in this community for over a month where it was up to the community to police the community. And quite frankly, we were outgunned,” the West Baltimore community organizer Ray Kelly told me in 2018. In fact, the violence got so out of hand — a 62% increase in homicides over the year before — that even some street-level drug dealers were pleading for greater police presence: One police commander, Melvin Russell, told New York magazine in 2015 that he’d been approached by a drug dealer in the same area where Gray had been arrested, who asked him to send a message back to the police commissioner. “We know they still mad at us,” the dealer said. “We pissed at them. But we need our police.”

I think there’s good reason to be skeptical (beyond the self-serving motivated reasoning inherent in a police commander’s report of a drug dealer’s plea): aggregate crime levels are a noisy phenomenon, and they’re unusually responsive to the agencies that are charged both with monitoring them and lowering them. We know precincts in NYC would “juke the stats” and we also know that a lot of crime is inexplicably random, or tied to the efforts of third parties. So if there are two cities where police pullback was associated with subsequnce increases in violent crime, and hundreds of cities where it wasn’t, it looks irresponsible of ProPublica to write this article, even if it’s ultimately a sympathetic one.

There’s some historical justification for this view, as well:

The Week Without Police: What We Can Learn from the 1971 NYC Police Strike

Over the course of the five day strike, there was no apparent increase in crime throughout the city. In fact, the only real differences noted by reporters were an increase in illegally parked cars and people running red lights, the actions of opportunistic motorists. Richard Reeves, writing for the New York Times, said “New Yorkers— ‘a special breed of cats’…went about their heads‐down business. There was no crime wave, no massive traffic jams, no rioting.” Some attributed all of this to Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy’s “visible presence” strategy of deploying superior officers and detectives in patrol cars in heavily populated areas, like Times Square. Others simply attributed it to the cold. However, the strike brought to light another very real possibility: maybe the city was able to function as normal with a much smaller number of police officers.

In New York, major crime complaints fell when cops took a break from ‘proactive policing’

Each week during the slowdown saw civilians report an estimated 43 fewer felony assaults, 40 fewer burglaries and 40 fewer acts of grand larceny. And this slight suppression of major crime rates actually continued for seven to 14 weeks after those drops in proactive policing — which led the researchers to estimate that overall, the slowdown resulted in about 2,100 fewer major-crimes complaints.

Here’s the underlying 2017 study. (Here’s where I predicted these results in 2014.)

At the same time, the version of policing reform that’s most commonly endorsed by leftist politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one where the simultaneous over- and under-policing of African-American communities is understood to be part of the same phenomenon, and corrected together such that Black Americans finally receive the same treatment as middle-class whites.


If the ideal of policing abolitionists is that we should all have responsive, service-oriented police, then a very good way to get there would be community control boards. My colleague Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò has argued that this could just as easily be abolitionist as reformist:

By taking public control over the police who handle the bulk of arrests, we act before other parts of the system can get involved. Without community control, abolition just means asking a larger set of white supremacist institutions to restructure a smaller set. Instead, we are asking our neighbors.

Come Work in Prison Education at Georgetown University

We’re hiring two new staff for the education team at PJI, which I will supervise.

(We’re also hiring a Department Administrator!)

I’m incredibly proud of the work that we do at the Prisons and Justice Initiative–but this has been an especially powerful year. After the Pivot graduation this June, we all thought we had settled into a rhythm, until a confluence of events suggested that we’d be able to expand the Scholars program in the corrections system in the state of Maryland, with a bachelor’s degree. Now the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has agreed to help fund that expansion.

Georgetown has been committed to teaching in prisons in one way or another for almost forty years. The support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will allow us to redouble that commitment, with a bachelor’s degree and an expanded footprint in Maryland. We love to showcase the genius of students who are incarcerated—both their greatness and their goodness—because it points to the more fundamental fact that they are our neighbors and fellow citizens.

​​Because of mass incarceration, there are millions of people incarcerated in the US who would not be incarcerated in most of the rest of the world: generations of should-have-been undergraduates in prisons and jails who have been waiting for their chance to be that first year student in a philosophy class or to write that senior thesis on trade policy. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Georgetown is going to educate the next generation of formerly-incarcerated leaders who will help to reverse the policies that trapped them.

​​I’ve always argued that punishment requires mutual responsibility, and that one form of that mutual responsibility is a willingness to both teach and learn. We need to respond to harm with something other than more harm. Georgetown gets this, in part because of the Christian commitment to “visit the prisoner” and the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, “care for the whole person.” That pedagogical ideal ends up meaning more than just “a sound mind in a sound body.” It means a commitment to serious attention to others, even students and even those we tend to ignore. Ignatius—himself formerly incarcerated—put it this way: “be slow to speak and patient in listening to all.” It’s the model for what we’re trying to do with prison education.

If those sound like your values, please apply!

Supervision is a Major Barrier to Reentry

I’m speaking today at the RAND Corporation on “Career Prospects for People with Criminal Records.” While I’m there, I’ll speak about our work at the Prisons and Justice Initiative (founded by Marc Howard) at Georgetown University, focusing on the education work: the Scholars Program, the Paralegal Program, and the Pivot Program.

In addition to discussing our programs and bragging about our graduates, I plan to make two points:

  1. Reentry is a difficult process. The formula we often use is “housing + employment = successful reentry.” For this reason, we generally find that the most successful pre-release strategies are mediation with family members (to guarantee housing upon release), and education (to guarantee employment.) BUT…
  2. Reentry is needlessly complicated by the court supervision processes of parole (and sometimes probation.)

When we say that the three year recidivism rate is 68% (which is what you’ll find when you look at Bureau of Justice Statistics) we’re saying that 68% of formerly incarcerated folks are rearrested for something–but not necessarily for a crime, and certainly not for a crime that has a victim. More often then not, recidivism is the result of technical parole violations. These are activities that are not themselves illegal, but violate the terms of a person’s parole and lead to a short (or sometimes long) stint of re-incarceration.

Parole can thus interfere with the building blocks of reentry: housing and employment. What I’ve observed is that the restrictions of parole around housing can leave DC residents housing-insecure or homeless–while the meddlesome nature of drug tests and CSO visits can lead many employed returning citizens to lose their jobs because they must continually leave work to race across the city for a timed urine sample, or stay home unexpectedly for a home inspection.

Parole officers are not always caring and concerned mentors, either. It’s rare–I’m sure!–but sometimes they can be rude and disrespectful, not only to the person on parole but to their employers and family members as well. All of this puts unneeded stress on frayed bonds that returning citizens need to take advantage of their second chance. It is something that potential employers have to factor in to their decision to hire returning citizens.

Some supervision agencies are working to provide alternative hours for employed returning citizens, and to punish disrespectful attitudes from officers. However, the ongoing stigma and skepticism directed at returning citizens means that enforcing these provisions remains difficult.

Ideally, we’d treat supervision in much the same way that we treat other factors that hamper full commitment to an employer: parents face similar pressures from school cancellations and illnesses, for instance, but to at least some extent we socially value these conflicts and thus work to manage the difficulties parents face–again, not adequately but to some extent. We can and should do the same for returning citizens who face difficulties from supervision and monitoring. But we do not accommodate them!

This failure to accommodate returning citizens is exacerbated when an individual applicant or employee has multiple intersecting strains: a family to care for, a parole officer to negotiate with, a chance of being re-incarcerated. Employers struggle to manage these risks, and so they resist hiring returning citizens–even when they are missing out on talented workers.

It may well be that court supervision serves important public safety goals. However, it is long past time for supervision itself to be assessed for its efficacy and evaluated according to its benefits and its economic (and human!) costs. We already know that supervision is creating serious obstacles to measuring the efficacy of every other reentry program, since it undermines the efficacy of measures of recidivism by aggregating technical parole violations with reoffenses. If the true measure of “corrections” is “desistance” then we will struggle to measure that against the backdrop of drug and alcohol screenings, GPS monitoring, and association violations.

It’s worth repeating this fact: the US incarcerates 2.3 million people, ten times the global average. What’s more, almost 70 million of our fellow citizens have a criminal record. It’s almost certainly not a good idea to discriminate against returning citizens, because it’s a signal that no other country provides, meaning most returning citizens would be employed if only they had had the good luck to be born outside of the US.