On Friday, Donald Trump will become president of the United States. Many people do not want this to happen—but there’s nothing we can do to stop it. And so the philosophical question arises: What should we do about things we can’t do anything about?
According to Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy now experiencing a popular resurgence, we should attempt to curb our emotions when faced with things we can do nothing about. Historically, the Stoics believed in a strict “dichotomy of control”—that is, they divided the world into things that lie within one’s power to change and things that do not. Most suffering, they said, comes from our mistaken belief that we have power over things we actually cannot control. Their solution is to focus on what we can control: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions, instead of external events. Stoics concluded that we should accept the rest, saying, “as God wills.”
But the problem with this attitude is that it can lead us to accept things that we shouldn’t. As we confront the global rise of authoritarianism, we should not respond by attempting to gain control over our emotions. Instead, we must let our emotions guide us to action.
One popular Stoic metaphor recommends we think of ourselves as a dog tied to a cart, which has no choice but to follow where the cart takes it. To accept this is the only way to live a good life in agreement with what fate—our unchangeable future—has in store for us. As Seneca says, “to obey God is to be free.”
Although modern Stoics may not necessarily believe in God, they continue to advocate for curbing emotions like anger and fear in the face of injustice. Stoic author Ryan Holiday, for example, told Quartz that “a Stoic wouldn’t spend time complaining about whether Trump deserves to be president and worrying about the uncertain terrible effects of his leadership.” Instead, Holiday opined, Stoics would focus on affecting the next presidential election.
Emotion is a kind of transfiguration, in which certain insuperable difficulties are made harmless or invisible. On the surface, this approach might seem practical. But Holiday fails to see how emotions are directly tied to our actions. We are angry about Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, so we call our state representatives to object; we are scared about encroachments upon the freedom of speech, so we join the American Civil Liberties Union. What’s more, Holiday’s word choices are also revealing. He characterizes questioning Trump’s legitimacy as “complaining,” and labels fears about the dangers of Trump’s regime as “worrying.” These words downplay the gravity of Trump’s election, thereby attempting to discredit the feelings of many people who are rightfully fearful, grieving, or angry. Even in contemporary times, Stoics are mired in their resignation to live in the world as it is, rather than imagining the way it could be.
Indeed, other philosophers have long argued that Stoicism, in failing to grasp the complexity of the world, offers only self-deception. Friedrich Nietzsche called Stoics “extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders” who choose to see things falsely. And Jean-Paul Sartre saw Stoicism as an evasion that aims to keep both master and slave in their places. So Stoicism is inimical to freedom. It is true that we cannot control everything, but Stoicism is the wrong response.
If Stoicism is not the answer, what, then, should we do about things we can’t do anything about? One possibility is to look to emotions as a means of engagement.
“Man is so made that when anything fires his soul, impossibilities vanish,” said the poet Jean de la Fontaine. There is something about passion enables us to take on obstacles—even those that seem insurmountable.
But Stoicism is unable to work the “magic” of emotion, as Sartre says. In his view, people initiate emotions when they are confronted with obstacles they seemingly have no rational way of overcoming. Facing an impasse, they tap into their anger, love, grief, and fear; these emotions make the situation appear different. They are a way of acting as if the world was other than it is.
So emotion is a kind of transfiguration, a behavior by which people create worlds for themselves, in which certain insuperable difficulties are made harmless or invisible. This doesn’t really remove the obstacle. But emotion strategically allows us to re-engage with the situation on new terms.
That said, Sartre believed that emotions were primarily effective because they allow us to deal with our own perceived impotence—not because they help transform the world around us. There is something to his view, in that emotions like grief and despair can sometimes overwhelm us to the point that we fail to recognize how we might be empowered to change the situation.
But Sartre’s sketch doesn’t fully grasp the way emotions work in the world. He sees that they are not merely isolated feelings happening in private mental spaces, but does not follow through on that thought.
When we feel emotions like grief or anger, we are already challenging the world as it is—a fundamental act of resistance. When we feel emotions like grief or anger, we are already challenging the world as it is—a fundamental act of resistance. Yes, emotions themselves do not change the world, but in resisting it, they plant the seeds for change. Emotions, then, are creative. They become activist when they transfigure a sense of individual impotence. This is to magically rework the obstacles for “me” into possibilities of change for “us.”
Emotions, then, are not to be dismissed—particularly now, as people around the world grapple with Trump, Brexit, Rodrigo Duterte, and other disturbing political changes.
On Trump’s inauguration on Friday, Jan. 20, many Americans will be in mourning. Their feelings will allow them to articulate the things that matter to them—queer lives, black lives, and women’s lives; democracy, civil liberties, and better climate futures. Feelings of outrage, sadness, and defiance are in themselves an act of protest, turning the officially sanctioned celebration back against itself.
But we shouldn’t stop there. The point is neither to stifle our emotions nor to simply share them and console one another. Instead, we can channel our feelings toward grassroots struggle. On Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration,, women-led marches in cities around the world will protest Trump and his values. This is a mass movement of affective dissent. It is ardently life-affirming and mobilizing: passionate, angry, and bold.
What do you do about things you can’t do anything about? You resist, you protest, you create with others the possibilities of change. You put your emotions to work.