Most people misunderstand Stoicism. They believe that Stoics are unemotional robots. It’s this misconception that draws me, from time to time, to think about the role of robots in society today. And perhaps how they are like our version of slaves. And also, what the consequences of their unstoppable march are on society.
one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.
This will be awful for those who will lose their livelihoods. Marcus Aurelius, the 16th Emperor of Rome wrote:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’
–But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel “nice?” Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
–But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that–as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat.
The implication here is that a human is designed to find meaningful work. This is work that provides purpose in life. We should all try to find employment where, if possible, we can accept our roles, grow and become happier.
Robots and Slaves
While in general, the stoics were against slavery they likely accepted them as a function of society, as a fact of life. This helps to explain that in Ancient Rome around 25% of all workers were slaves. And of course slaves weren’t paid a wage. People paid tax on property, land, livestock, etc. and not income. This could be a model that modern day governments could adopt. After all the amount of tax coll
ected will progressively fall as the use of robots becomes more widespread. The existing taxation regime was created 60 years ago when men were in one job for life. Now not only do we have to contend with the impact of robots, but also self-employment, zero hour short term contracts.
If you exchange the word “robots” for “slaves”, then this is an approach that we can copy today. Not only would this provide governments with an ongoing source of income but it would provide a basis for the even distribution of wealth too.
Seneca exhorted in Moral letters to Lucilius, Letter 47: On master and slave:
Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.
Would he have taken a similar stance with an electro-mechanical machines guided by computer programs? I’m not so sure. What do you think? Please leave a comment below: