It’s never been easier to get information than it is today. You have access to Wikipedia, to podcasts, to social media, and a near infinite library of books. You can chat with just about anyone about anything. We live in a wonderful time where facts and opinions are abundant like truly never before in history.
But there is danger in all this abundance as well. Because with this access has come instant connection and viral sharing, which means that for all the diverse sources of information out there, it’s also never been easier to see what other people are thinking. The algorithms of Facebook and Twitter can create a filter bubble. The public-ness of our discourse now makes it easier to enforce political correctness and consensus-thinking. It incentivizes virtue signaling and a mob mentality.
Think about how impressive it was that Marcus Aurelius didn’t need to publish his Meditations. He didn’t need to get credit for his ideas. All he cared about was truth. He was thinking for himself, literally. What made someone like Cato so powerful and inspiring was that he didn’t care what anyone else thought. He also thought for himself. In fact, he actively practiced inoculating himself against public opinion by walking barefoot and bareheaded through Rome. He wanted to get used to being laughed at, to being different. It shouldn’t surprise us then that when nearly everyone in Rome was willing to rationalize Julius Caesar’s norm-breaking behavior, only Cato could see it for what it was. Only he was willing to stand alone.
A Stoic has to be willing to do that. A Stoic has to think for themself. A Stoic doesn’t care what the mob thinks—they don’t need to “consort with the crowd,” as Seneca put it. Yes, it’s wonderful that we have access to all kinds of knowledge and tools that the Stoics didn’t have. But how we use these assets is essential. Are we just going to agree with everyone because we don’t want trouble? Are we going to seek out only what we like and what confirms our worldview?
Or are we going to think for ourselves? Are we willing to stand alone?