One way to get a sense of how powerful something is is how scared people are of it. Why have governments gone to such trouble to ban various books over the years? Why do people try to censor things they disagree with? Because they’re scared of meeting ideas on an open playing field. Would Nazism or Stalin’s communism have been possible if people had more access to information? Possibly, but it would have been harder.
Today, most of us don’t live in totalitarian regimes (if you did, you probably wouldn’t be able to read this). But that doesn’t mean those forces of censorship don’t still exist. Indeed, that’s the plot of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: Firemen burn books in that novel at the request of the people because no one wanted to be offended, or offend anyone. In America, this trend continues. The left wants to ban certain books or ideas for being politically incorrect, for supposedly being racist (or being from racist eras), for expressing dangerous ideas. The right gets upset when books are immoral or transgressive or when they are critical of power.
The Stoic must have the courage to resist both of these impulses, whatever their political persuasion. Think of Seneca, reading Epicurus like a “spy in the enemy’s camp.” Think of Epictetus reminding himself that it’s not possible for anything to offend him, that being offended is a choice. Think of Marcus Aurelius saying that there’s nothing wrong with being proven wrong, in fact, he welcomes ideas that challenge his thinking. Think of the biggest failing in Stoicism—it’s persecution of the Christians—and think about what that was rooted in: Ignorance. Close mindedness. Suppression.
For us, there should be no such thing as a banned book. In fact, the more controversial a book, the more open we should be to reading it. We should always have our mind open. We shouldn’t hide from offensive or even stupid ideas—we should try to understand them, to see how the enemy thinks, as Seneca said. You can’t learn what you think you already know, Epictetus said. How can you get better, smarter, more wise if you only read books that you agree with, that stay within your comfort zone?
Read widely. Read dangerously. Read courageously. And remember: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”