“Life is slavery if the courage to die is absent.”
Fear is the mind killer.
I just finished a multi-part series on Stoicism with Brett Veinotte at the School Sucks Project. We covered plenty of ground but I wanted to tease out what I think is something rarely if ever discussed. The Stoic values inform a mindset that is distinctly libertarian. One might even say the state of mind shares a deep kinship with abolitionism. In fact, some of the Stoic philosophers were slaves themselves. The Stoics paint a broad and useful road-map to live a good life and joyous existence on their own terms.
Stoicism is not as popular today as then because it takes work to be a virtuous Stoic and the foregoing of present consumption for future return is not exactly a hipster vision of living in society today. These hard decisions tend to militate against affluence and find happiness and tranquility in less material well-being than more.
The exploration of Stoicism takes a lifetime to contemplate and master. I‘d like to visit a narrow aspect of it and the concomitant relationship to ultimate freedom. This is the Stoic view of death and the advancing of individual refusal and the withdrawal of consent. If fear is the mortar of all statist government then compliance and obedience is the brick. These two components strip the statist conceit to its essence: the employment of immoral means to achieve moral ends, an impossible calculus but the simple equation that all government lives and dies by. The state threatens and employs violence to build society; absent these means it would be out of business in an hour. At its core, the state must practice slavery to get the tax cattle to do as they are told. It is the antithesis of civilization and the highest form of mob rule. It is, in the end, a death cult.
So if that were the case, how would the government handle tens of thousands of subjects who simply refused? I am not referring to homicide or suicide bombers. They willingly employ violence to bring yet another murderous framework into being. How would they respond to a 21st century satyagraha campaign that did not seek to replace the government but dispose of it and stay rid of it? How would they cajole the unwilling to participate in any of their murderous schemes?
The government would kill them, of course. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn tells us that “[a]ny man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle. These are the twin pillars of the state to guarantee its existence.
And what of it, what would happen then? The state would expect the smoking corpses left behind would serve as object lessons to the rest of the tax cattle and instill a level of fear that would force compliance. This is the single historical knot that binds all collectivist governments from communism to socialism to the sclerotic soft fascist entities throughout the West. Every statist conceit is based on the simple notion that you force humans through ultimate threat of death to comply with the legion of schemes that give government power.
How do you cut the knot? The Stoics have some answers whether the abolition of slavery was their object or not.
One of the greatest strategic minds to grace the geo-strategic stage after the War to Save Josef Stalin concluded was USAF Col. John Boyd. He had many interesting things to say and discovered the OODA loop among other things. He distilled strategy to an elegant yin-yang that simplifies library shelves of overwrought and wrong-headed strategic thinking: strategy is all about alliance and isolation to be effective. The Stoics riff off this elegant construction very simply. Epictetus tells us: “All philosophy lies in two words, sustain and abstain.”
You either submit or defy. The middle course will always benefit the former and the acceptance of death as a certitude will inform the latter.
Seneca demonstrates why all the ills of the world come down to an acceptance of life lived on others’ terms than your own which makes you complicit in the evil itself.
“And so, if only we are willing to withdraw our necks from the yoke, we can keep as stout a heart against such terrors as these. But first and foremost, we must reject pleasures; they render us weak and womanish; they make great demands upon us, and, moreover, cause us to make great demands upon Fortune. Second, we must spurn wealth: wealth is the diploma of slavery. Abandon gold and silver, and whatever else is a burden upon our richly-furnished homes; liberty cannot be gained for nothing. If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else.”
This is not a strike against affluence but a jeremiad against making the ends you seek with the concomitant submission required. If your wealth leverages a system in which your neighbors are your property, everyone loses their freedom.
Seneca: “It is so, my dear Lucilius; there are a few men whom slavery holds fast, but there are many more who hold fast to slavery.” Absent the slavery mindset, no state could exist. All government require degrees of submission enforced by death.
To which Seneca responds: “We Stoics are not subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to his own freedom.” They possess this freedom in the same way that Maximus’ former owner in the film Gladiator responds to the swords poised at his neck in the pivotal scene before he is killed by the Praetorians. He submits on his own terms. This is much like the parallel and independent development of the Bushido code in Japan among the samurai. But curiously, the Japanese variant was in service to the state instead of against it.
Seneca again speaks to the tranquility of acceptance of life on your own terms even if it means certain death: “Refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.” He goes on to say: “Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. He is above, or at any rate, beyond the reach of, all political powers.”
This is illustrated by the apocryphal story of the Stoic philosopher sought by a Roman emperor for an audience. The Stoic refused and the emperor threatened to bring him there bodily to which the philosopher claimed you will have my body but not my consent. Much like the stump speech by Michael Collins in the film of the same name.
Your refusal is the sword that will cut the Gordian knot of the state stranglehold on humanity since time immemorial. Ralph Waldo Emerson assures us that to “do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain” may be the recipe for success.
“You want to live—but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying—and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?”