Monthly Archives: March, 2012

Stoicism and A Lawyer’s Creed

With my previous posts, I’ve set a little groundwork. But I shouldn’t call this blog Stoic Lawyer without coming around to write about lawyers and the law. I have a firm commitment (for ethical and financial reasons) to not using Stoic Lawyer as a funnel for free legal advice. Instead, I want to explore how being a better Stoic can make me a better lawyer and vice versa. To start that exploration, I should start by defining what I think it means to be a good Stoic and a good lawyer.

Stoicism originally developed in Athens at the end of the 4th century before the Common Era. Like the other major schools of philosophy in that period, Epicureanism and Cynicism, Stoicism was concerned with the question of happiness.

Greek Philosophers

L to R - Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros

The early Stoics developed their philosophy around the theory that happiness could only exist for a person who had attained a state of perfect virtue through the development of wisdom. The Stoic view of virtue was absolute and admitted of no degrees; one either had attained perfect wisdom about what is Good or one had not.

The practical effect of that absolutism is that most things in life are not Good because they can be used for either good or bad purposes. They can be used with wisdom (that is, through a rationality which is in accordance with the rationality of the Universe) or they can be used contrary to right reason. The Stoics considered it misleading to speak about such things as good or bad, but held that one should instead consider them merely preferable or not preferable. The most common examples of such things are wealth/poverty, liberty/bondage, lack of pain/pain. The virtuous person should be perfectly capable of being wise and virtuous in any of those conditions, without being rendered any less wise by poverty, slavery, or pain, but would prefer wealth, liberty, and the lack of pain without seeking them out at the expense of wisdom. In agreement with that, the Stoics believed that all people were equally capable of developing virtue, whether they were a king or a slave and that, regardless of whether a person were a king or a slave, one should seek to become an excellent and virtuous king or slave.

Turning to the law, then, the Stoics would consider being a lawyer equal to any other profession. The skills of a lawyer can be used for good or bad purposes, and being a lawyer itself has its positive and negative aspects. The important thing, then, would be for a Stoic lawyer to make the most of it and become the best lawyer he or she could be.

To stop there, however, would be weaselly. One certainly cannot say, “I’ll be the best I can be” without setting out an idea of what one is striving for. Thankfully, I practice law in Ohio, where the Supreme Court of Ohio has taken its role in providing leadership to the bar seriously and published a manual of  “Professional Ideals for Ohio Lawyers and Judges.”  Of all the selections in that manual, the most succinct and inspirational is A Lawyer’s Creed.

I won’t reproduce the entire creed here. In summary, the creed takes the form of a pledge. It is written in first person and sets out the expectations a lawyer should have for his or her own conduct in dealing with different people.

  • To clients – The lawyer’s creed promises “loyalty, confidentiality, competence, diligence, and my best judgment.”
  • To opponents  – The lawyer’s creed promises “fairness, integrity, and civility.”
  • To courts and court staff – The lawyer’s creed promises “respect, candor, and courtesy.”
  • To the public – The lawyer’s creed promises service and dedication to promoting the common good and to improving the legal system

As a whole, A Lawyer’s Creed promotes the idea that lawyers can be effective and successful without being argumentative, petty, and disrespectful. In short, the creed stands for the aspiration to avoid being the caricature found in poorly-written fiction and lawyer jokes.

Honore Daumier, "The Opposing Lawyers," 19th Cent.

Viewed in the light of Stoicism, the creed offers inspiration and guidance to the Stoic Lawyer. To the Stoic, virtue largely consists of the ability to exercise wisdom in any circumstances, regardless of the pressures applied. The creed suggests what qualities a good lawyer must have under a variety of circumstances and pressures. Key to the spirit of the creed is the idea that a good lawyer must bear up under the pressures exerted by clients, opponents, courts, and society and remain dedicated to the ideals of loyalty, unclouded judgment, fairness, and integrity. In so doing, the lawyer must recall the special trust placed in her or him as an officer of the court and a guardian of the justice system.

I believe the virtues and passions identified by Zeno can assist today’s lawyers to follow the creed and find success. Friday’s post will introduce the virtues and passions and discuss them as they relate to lawyers and the practice of law.

Carving on the east face of the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center


Versatile Blogger Award Nomination

Yesterday Dr. Hari Chana supported Stoic Lawyer with a nomination for the Versatile Blogger Award. I am very grateful to be nominated, especially by a blogger whom I respect as a thoughtful and insightful writer.

As with anything, there are some rules for me to follow with respect to this nomination.

Here are the rules to the awards:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to them in your post.
  2. Share 7 things about yourself
  3. Pass the award on to 15 more bloggers that you enjoy
  4. contact the people you have nominated.

Seven things about me:

1) I’m learning to be a runner. I ran two 5ks last year and plan to run at least one this year. Since starting running in August 2011, I’ve lost nearly 30 pounds and am lighter than I was at any point in college.

2) My first love is history and I have my undergraduate degree in that field

3) I took up baking bread while studying for the bar exam. I make a mean batch of bagels.

4) I am married with a young daughter and 2 cats.

5) Although I was raised without organized religion, I really wish I belonged to one. If I had been born Catholic, I think I would have pursued a life in the priesthood.

6) I’m a huge geek. I subscribe to Marvel Digital Editions and I still play in a monthly tabletop role-playing game. We’re currently playing Exalted and Scion.

7) My favorite past-time that I don’t get many chances to indulge is fishing. I can’t wait to take my daughter fishing for the first time this spring. (She asked to go; I didn’t even have to bring it up.)

Paying it forward:

I don’t actually read 15 blogs. I’ve only recently discovered that blogs aren’t a waste of time and I’m trying to catch up. That said, I’d like to give a shout out to my current favorites.

Empathy, Affinity, and Living in Accordance with Nature

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, summarized the goal of the Stoic life as living consistently with nature according to one harmonious plan. Later Stoics tinkered with the wording in an attempt to respond to doctrinal critiques or for greater clarity, but consistency with nature (or at least with human nature) remained a key feature of Stoic thought.

One difficulty for modern readers encountering Stoicism is the word nature, which has been loaded with a number of conflicting meanings over the centuries since Zeno. A modern reader might bring with him notions of an Earth Mother type of nature or the conception of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”  To avoid confusion, it is important to remember that Zeno and the other Stoics used a Greek word (Physis– roughly meaning the way a thing grows), which does not implicate either of those concepts. Instead, the “nature” at issue for Stoics is human nature (and to another extent the nature of a created universe).

In modern times, it has been popular to assume the worst about human nature. From Hobbes’ Leviathan to some aggressive economic theories to social Darwinism, the modern assumption about human nature is that it tends toward self-interest and isolation. In that view, each person is a creature who must strive to survive alone, even at the great cost to fellow creatures. But that was not the Stoic conception of human nature. The Stoics assumed that human nature included a tendency to have an affinity for one’s relations, neighbors, and other humans (to one extent or another). Similar to Aristotle’s concept of humans as the “social animal,” the Stoics assumed that empathy for and contact with other people was a key part of living in accordance with human nature (and therefore the universal nature).

Image by SoftEdMan available under Creative Commons License

The Stoics, like all ancient people operating without the benefit of the scientific method, were terrible scientists. But they believed that the nature of human beings and the universe could be discovered through scientific inquiry and the use of reason. Therefore, it should be heartening to modern Stoics to see that recent research appears to confirm the ancient observation underlying the Stoic assumption of affinity. Much of that research has been done by primatologist Frans de Waal (View page on Wikipedia)  Dr. de Waal most recently presented his research at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (AAAS Summary)  De Waal’s conclusions can also be found in his 2009 book, The Age of Empathy.

To me, this has two meanings. First, it is a reminder that science and rational inquiry into human nature and the nature of our universe must remain an important part of modern Stoicism. Stoics cannot fall back on the truths discovered by the ancient writers, but must stay current with scientific discoveries and see what impact those discoveries have on the Stoic understanding of nature. I would urge that we must keep Zeno’s formula in mind and continue to live consistently with nature and with the apparent order of the universe, even if that someday is not as consistent with ancient teachings as Dr. de Waal’s research.

Second, it is a reflection of why a personal commitment to living consistently with nature and striving for virtue is so important. Human nature and the force of biology urge us toward an affinity with our fellows, but we are still divided by racism, sexism, and other prejudices. It is apparent that a merely natural tendency is not enough to make us remain true to our principles. Instead, virtue takes hard work. Just as human nature tends toward good health and vigor but requires hygiene and exercise to maintain it, we must face the reality that we cannot fulfill our tendency toward affinity for our fellows without taking the appropriate actions. One practical goal of Stoicism must be to learn and practice how that can be done.