Juneteenth and Stoicism

Today, we’re celebrating our most recent national/federal holiday, Juneteenth. June 19th, 1865 marks the day that Black Americans in Texas learned that they were free (during the state ratification process for the 13th Amendment). The emancipation proclamation didn’t have any teeth in Texas, so far from D.C. and the Union. For one, it was merely an executive order (which we now all know may be overturned with the next presidency) For two, it passed in the midst of the Civil War. The future was uncertain for people living in the furthest westward point where slavery was sanctioned. So news of the 13th Amendment certainly called for celebration.

There are just two things that I wanted to mention here in regard to slavery and Stoicism.

First, there is an important distinction between what I’ll call “external slavery” and “internal slavery.” External slavery is the condition of being barred from doing what you want to do or being coerced to do what you don’t want to do due to some specific external factor (e.g., the real threat of physical violence by another person). Internal slavery—to put it simply— is the condition of wanting the wrong things due to internal factors (e.g., incorrectly judging that one should compromise one’s character under threat of physical violence). As you can see, they can be easily conflated and confused. But if we conceptually distinguish them, we can say that the slave experiences a ‘dispreferred indifferent’ in the former condition and a genuine evil in the later condition. I’m sorry to say that we all experience this later condition. Stoicism is meant to help emancipate ourselves from internal slavery.

Second, I venture to say that Juneteenth should not be a time to dwell upon the distinction I just made. The institutionalized and legally-sanctioned slavery that Black Americans endured was indeed an evil because it was unjust. We should not spend today parsing our conceptual distinctions and qualifying each one of our statements with the word “technically”. Doing so would dismiss the real hardship and tragedy that took place for hundreds of years in America before this important tipping point. Yes, there was/is a lot of work to be done (by individuals and by institutions) to continue the pursuit of internal freedom—W.E.B. DuBois articulated this point very well in his essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” (1903). But today is for jubilee. It’s a time to recognize a small victory in which an injustice was rectified and the human law was more closely aligned with the moral law.

Take care.

—Justin K.


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