I haven’t posted much recently, for some good reasons and some bad reasons. The good reasons are easy to discuss–I’m focusing on building my practice; I don’t believe in blogging when I don’t have anything worth while to say; I’ve had client work and family time to attend to.
The bad reasons aren’t so easy to write about. One towers over the others. For the last few weeks, I’ve been a raving lunatic.
That isn’t entirely fair. Not to me and not to anyone who has ever been unkindly described as a lunatic. Mental illness isn’t anything to take lightly. I should know. For the last few weeks, I’ve been going through the process of weaning off of Paroxetine Hydrochloride, and it hasn’t been a fun time for anyone close to me. Any side effect of withdrawal that I could have, I had–suicidal ideations, dizziness, headache, anxiety, irritability… All of which made it much more difficult to interpose my reason between impressions and judgment.
On top of those symptoms, the litigation part of my practice is becoming more active and I’m dealing with some very aggressive opponents and clients in difficult positions. I’d like to be able to say I acted according to reason and modeled the behavior of a Stoic, but my wife would tell you that was a lie. I put on a decent front for clients, courts, and opponents, but in the privacy of my office, I ranted, stomped, and yelled the most intricate and vile of profanities. That alternated with unsummoned and uncontrolled tears at most of the songs on the Frozen soundtrack, which my daughter is listening to on constant repeat.
In short, I did not act like a Stoic. I was a far cry from Epictetus, sold into slavery, made lame by an angry master, and exiled to a barren island, still taught the path to tranquility. I was just as far from Seneca, bleeding out in a bathtub on the unjust order of a tyrant, laughing and smiling with his friends. I abandoned all distinction between good, bad, and indifferent.
But the point of this post isn’t to lament or ask for sympathy. It is to reflect on the experience and the lessons of Stoic thought that relate to it.
One of the passages from Epictetus’ Discourses came into my mind last night when thinking about the past few weeks:
Show me a Stoic if you can! Where or how is he to be found? You can show me men who use the fine phrases of the Stoics, in any number, for the same men who do this can recite Epicurean phrases just as well and can repeat those of the Peripatetics just as perfectly; is it not so?
Who then is a Stoic?
Show me a man moulded to the pattern of the judgements that he utters, in the same way as we call a statue Phidian that is moulded according to the art of Phidias. Show me one who is sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him me. By the gods I would fain see a Stoic. Nay you cannot show me a finished Stoic; then show me one in the moulding, one who has set his feet on the path. Do me this kindness, do not grudge an old man like me a sight I never saw till now. What! you think you are going to show me the Zeus of Phidias or his Athena, that work of ivory and gold? It is a soul I want; let one of you show me the soul of a man who wishes to be at one with God, and to blame God or man no longer, to fail in nothing, to feel no misfortune, to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy—one who (why wrap up my meaning?) desires to change his manhood for godhead, and who in this poor dead body of his has his purpose set upon communion with God. Show him to me. Nay, you cannot.
In context, Epictetus was remarking upon the folks who toyed with the language of philosophy instead of living the life of philosophers. But his remarks here express two important realities of Stoicism that are often overlooked and that have helped me come out of the depths.
There are no Icons
Pay close attention to Epictetus’ words here. He is issuing a challenge to his collected students (and–through Arrian–to us, the inheritors of Stoic tradition): “Show me a Stoic!” And he gives them an answer: “You cannot.”
But Epictetus was the leading Stoic teacher of his day. He heavily influenced Marcus Aurelius. And he is one of the most commonly read of the ancient sources in the modern era. Surely his students had at least one Stoic example, a Sage they could produce for their instructor’s examination.
Not according to Epictetus.
And he wasn’t being humble. He was merely being philosophically consistent. The Stoics have never recognized a sage; there is no model of perfect wisdom. The absolutism of classical Stoic theory requires perfection of a Sage. It recognizes no degrees of wisdom. One has either attained perfect wisdom or remains one of the many unwise. Epictetus placed himself among the unwise and imperfect.
And did that make him unfit as a teacher? Certainly not. He knew the path to wisdom and could explain it to others. He had the ability, as shown in the near-dialogues recorded by Arrian in the Discourses, to reach into the soul of his students and sow the precise seeds needed to further that students’ growth. But of all the records that survive to the present day, none of them reflect that he (or any other ancient teacher) attained perfect wisdom and ascended to the status of a sage. So it should be no shame that I have failed equally. I should not let that stop me from writing and speaking; from participating in the broader community.
But it is no excuse either. My path is to continue working to turn theory into practice. To find ways to turn the logical understanding that I need to make distinctions between the good, bad, and indifferent into the subconscious habit of doing so. To imprint the knowledge that there are two kinds of things, those within my power and those without, into every part of my soul until I cannot see the world through a foggy lens. Remembering that Epictetus himself never stopped striving, even with his certainty that he had so far failed, encourages me to turn from this dark place and back to my search and study.
Judgment and Forgiveness
There is a counterpoint to the lack of a Sage that stands to be mentioned. In my mind, it is even more important because it is more commonly relevant. Epictetus and Seneca died just as far from perfection as I have lived.
I cannot remember the source (I think it was Sellars’ Stoicism, but I can’t find the exact page), but I once read that Stoic absolutism about the Good could be explained by the metaphor of drowning. The person one inch below the surface is drowning just as surely as the person fathoms below. Until they’ve broken the surface, they are equally lost. Virtue is the same way in Stoic thought. Either one has broken through and attained it, or remains as much without as the most vile of us.
In light of that, I must embrace the reality that Seneca, Epictetus, and I are all ultimately unworthy. For that reason, if for no other, I should not judge myself and my progress more harshly than I judge theirs. In fact, their progress is completely beyond my control, so I should not judge it at all. As far as my own, my history is out of my control, so I should not judge my past actions either. Instead, the Stoic solution is to focus on exercising my control over my present disposition and judgments to pursue a virtuous end.
In light of that, I must understand that the others I encounter are due at least the same measure of forgiveness I would give Epictetus, Seneca, and my past self. My clients, other attorneys, my wife, my child–their thoughts and actions are all beyond my control. Why, then, should I direct my feelings about those thoughts and actions to disturb my tranquility? There is no good reason. I should let them pass. Instead, I should redirect my thoughts toward what I can control, which is the way I treat those people; the way I respond to what they present. It remains in my power to treat them with respect and decency, to love them in the spirit of recognizing that they have the same nature as myself.
Epictetus,you great soul who taught us how to be happy, even when beaten, exiled, and treated unjustly, I hope you are still watching. You and Diogenes, lift your lanterns high. I will try my damnedest to show you a Stoic. And if I fail half as well as you did, together we may inspire the one who will surpass us both.