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.
This is what’s under my Christmas tree as of today. At first glance, you wouldn’t think such a materialistic tradition would deserve mention in a blog about Stoicism. But there is a lesson here that reflects Stoic principles; a lesson I’m glad to be learning from my 5-year-old daughter.
I should mention my wife LOVES Christmas. Even in a 1-bedroom apartment, she used 7 storage boxes of decorations to celebrate the season. I’ve never really cared for Christmas, so I didn’t understand or appreciate my wife’s exuberance. But I went along with my wife’s wish to make the season special for our daughter. It was hard to justify not making Christmas a great season to be a kid. All of the early presents in the picture above are for our daughter to open before Christmas eve.
The funny thing is, almost none of those packages contains something new, and my daughter knows it. The bulk of them are books she already has, many handed down in one side of the family or the other over the years. She gets to open one of those every night between the beginning of December and Christmas Eve. The few packages that do contain something new are little crafts or seasonal knickknacks that my wife bought at post-Christmas clearance sales last year (usually at several for a dollar or two). She gets to open and complete one of those crafts or play with one of those knickknacks a few nights each week in the 25 days leading up to Christmas. She’s always so excited to tear into and read, build, or play with each one.
My daughter’s reaction to all of these gifts is complete joy. Whether it is a book I’ve read her a dozen times, a plastic baggie of pom poms, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, or a cheap windup Santa Claus, she responds to each gift with happiness and gratitude. When I remarked to my wife that I found it so remarkable that my daughter could respond that way to these little things, it hit me–it shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be natural. None of these things make her happy by themselves. Instead, it is her attitude toward them that helps her maintain her happiness. And that is a perfectly Stoic insight.
A Stoic understands that belongings cannot create happiness. Only virtue can create happiness; all other things are indifferent. In addition, none of those other things are our own. As Epictetus is reported to have said, “nothing is your own that it does not rest with you to procure or to keep when you will.” Discourses, Book IV. And elsewhere, Epictetus likened all externals, whether belongings or loved ones, to a pretty shell examined by a sailor on shore leave; something temporary and to be cast aside at the bidding of the Captain.
But Stoics are not Cynics, they do not cast aside externals or disregard them entirely. Preferred indifferents are to be appreciated for what they are. They are not sought, but should be appreciated for the temporary benefits they provide. Seneca referred to continued life, one of these preferred indifferents, as something to be regarded as a “windfall” each morning. Epictetus continually reminded his students to live with gratitude, coining aphorisms such as “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
So I want to take this lesson from my daughter. A Stoic should respond to all of the preferred indifferents with the same kind of joy and vigor that she takes to those presents. Whether it is waking up in the morning, heading out to represent my clients, or opening an almost-expired pint of half & half to pour a splash in my tea, I want to have that attitude of gratitude and joy she displays over rediscovering her old belongings. None of those things are guaranteed to me, I control none of them. And while they cannot contribute to happiness in lieu of virtue, by responding to them virtuously, I can grow closer to real happiness.
Stoic Week 2013 ends tonight. It has been an excellent exercise for me, and I hope my posts this week have added to your enjoyment and given you wholesome food for thought. I’ve certainly appreciated the new “likes” and followers StoicLawyer has gained this past week. They have made my return to blogging much easier.
Days Six and Seven of Stoic Week were focused on two exercises that demonstrate what I interpret as the Stoic Perspective. The first is the exercise of “philanthropy” or “love of mankind.” In one version of that exercise, the practitioner considers the people of the world as being contained in a series of concentric circles, like so:
The goal of that exercise is to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre” to increase the feeling of connectedness with others. This is intimately related to what is commonly called the Doctrine of Appropriation (oikeiosis), which is the Stoic doctrine holding that the first impulse of all creatures is self-love or self-preservation. Through the exercise of philanthropy, the Stoic learns to extend that first impulse to include the whole family of humankind.
The second exercise is called the “View from Above.” In that exercise, the practitioner attempts to consider his or her place in the cosmos in a detached manner. There are two reasons for this exercise: to perceive the world accurately and to foster tranquility. By placing events in the context of the entire cosmos, rather than in the smaller view of how important they are in the present moment, Stoics believe we will be less upset or aroused by them.
Another aspect of adopting the View from Above ties together the exercises from days Six and Seven (as well as many other aspects of Stoicism). Both exercises attempt to coax the practitioner to abandon a self-centered point of view and adopt a broader perspective. In the first, the Stoic must learn to see others in the same light as him- or herself. In the second, the Stoic must take a view of the entire cosmos in which he or she is but a tiny part, like a grain of sand swirling in the tide. In a sense, both exercises seek the same thing; the Stoic must learn to take the perspective of the Logos (seen as God by theist Stoics, Reason by atheist Stoics). From that perspective, one person is substantially the same as all of humankind and no one atom in the universe is more or less significant than any other, but all are moving parts of a whole.
These exercises and this change in perspective cut to one of the core beliefs in Stoic thought. That belief is that human beings are (uniquely?) able to exercise the power of Reason to align their thoughts with the reality of the Logos. By doing so, the practitioner is able to attain true understanding and peace. In that alignment, nothing is passion-inducing, nothing creates fear or worry. Instead, the Stoic (who I submit will have obtained the status of a Sage) will see each event or object as it relates to all other events and objects. In that view, nothing can be distressing or arousing because all things simply are as they must be. By obtaining and holding the perspective and understanding of the Logos, the Stoic can embrace the reality of living in the best of all possible (because the only possible) worlds.
Interestingly, that view seems to me to be similar to some religious understandings. It parallels those religious expressions in which the appropriate resolution to a conflict is seen as taking the perspective of a greater being or a higher understanding. Some notable examples are:
- Jesus’ prayer at Gethesmane : not as I will, but as You will (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42);
- The root meaning of Islam “surrender” or “to give in” to the will of God;
- The Buddhist belief that suffering is caused by ignorance (and resulting attachment/aversion to occurrences), but can be relieved (in part) by Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration
In addition, that view seems to me to be most in line with scientific objectivity. Good science (in the sense that it is developed following appropriate procedures for measurement, review, repetition, etc.), requires that experimenting and reviewing scientists eliminate (as far as is possible) the effects of personal biases, emotional involvement, other commitments, and anything else that would interfere with an accurate understanding of how the universe functions. Good science has no room for emotionally-driven or interested disagreement with the rules by which the cosmos operates.
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. Americans tell ourselves many stories about the history of Thanksgiving, but one of the most common (especially when considered along with the modern celebration of the holiday) illustrates the concepts of acceptance and mindfulness. I know StoicLawyer has gained a bit of an international audience this week, so I’ll briefly retell the tale.
In 1620, a group of approximately 100 men, women, and children traveled across the North Atlantic from Plymouth, England to North America. Many of them were members of a religious sect, seeking freedom from persecution by the Church of England. Although these travelers originally intended to establish a colony near the other English colonies in what is now Virginia, harsh weather and chancy navigation prevented them from reaching that area. Instead, they anchored in a harbor in what is now Massachusetts, at the beginning of a harsh New England winter. During the voyage and upon arrival, there was constant temptation and pressure to turn back to England. After searching for several days for a suitable site for their colony, the immigrants discovered an area that was “miraculously” clear. (In reality, the area had been cleared by the Patuxet villagers; Native American Indians who were wiped out by an epidemic shortly before the colonists’ arrival.)
The colonists began to establish their settlement during the winter of 1621. During that winter, about half of them died from a combination of illness, exposure, and malnutrition. In March 1621, however, another “miracle” occurred: two of the local Native American Indians, Samoset and Tisquantum (Squanto), turned out to speak English and approached the village. Even more miraculously, Squanto was intimately familiar with the area surrounding the colony, being a former resident of the Patuxet village. With Samoset and Squanto as interpreters, the colonists established a peace treaty with the local Native American Indian nation. In addition, Squanto used his knowledge of Patuxet tradition and the area to teach the colonists how to produce food and survive in this unfamiliar land. By the fall, the colonists’ fields were filled with a bountiful harvest and their larders were full of a variety of game and wild foods. The colonists threw a great feast of Thanksgiving to celebrate their good fortune and thank God for the miracles that had allowed their survival, and invited the nation with which they had established the treaty. It is this feast that Americans commemorate today.
(Keep in mind, the above is not meant to be an accurate history. It contains several omissions, errors, and flat-out falsehoods. It is, however, the story that Americans tell ourselves about the holiday, the one we teach our children and memorialize in cartoon specials. The point here is to examine this American myth to draw out meaning, not to write an accurate record of past events.)
Examining this American myth, we can derive a few lessons in behavior. According to the story, the colonists arrived in a strange wilderness after a harsh and uncertain voyage across a hostile sea Half of them died during the first few months after landing. The rest of them faced unceasing work to establish the conditions to survive any further. And even with an excellent harvest in 1621, their survival was not assured. Despite all of that hardship, the colonists arranged a celebration and a day of rest to give thanks for their incredible fortune and the miracles that had enabled their survival.
And that is where the story intertwines with the lessons of Days Three and Four of Stoic Week.
Wednesday’s lesson was “Acceptance,” the practice of accepting that some things are beyond our control and that our ventures can be successful only “fate permitting” or “if nothing prevents.” A key part of Stoic acceptance is the understanding that the fact that something may intervene to prevent success is no excuse not to try our best to accomplish our ethical purposes or to obtain preferred indifferents when possible. In the Thanksgiving myth, acceptance is demonstrated in two places. First, in the voyage and the first winter, when so many of the colonists died. Despite all of their labor and devoting their savings to the colonial venture, half of the travellers never saw the fruits. Fate did not permit; something prevented. But, from the colonists’ perspective, the possibility of failure was not a reason to stay in England and face continued persecution. Second, acceptance is demonstrated in the Thanksgiving feast itself. The colonists had seen the end that fate could have in store for them; the graves of their fellow-travellers were barely covered with grass by the time of feast. And success in one year could hardly be seen as a guarantee of success in the next. But the colonists looked forward to the next year, planning at the Thanksgiving feast to continue with their plans, even with the specter of failure always present.
Thursday’s lesson is mindfulness. And I submit that is something every American should consider in the story of the first Thanksgiving. Mindfulness is embraced by being aware of one’s thoughts and the feelings those thoughts might engender. It also involves putting off the consideration of very negative (or very positive) thoughts until they can be considered in light of calm and reason. The feast of Thanksgiving embraces that concept in a few ways. First, Thanksgiving was a day set aside for the consideration of the events of the previous year-the successes and failures. Second, when setting aside that day and reflecting, the colonists did not allow themselves to be carried away by the risks or the possibilities of success. Instead, they celebrated the day in the spirit of thankfulness; they chose to be grateful for the opportunities afforded to them and the “miracles” that fate had given them.
I suggest we celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of these two Stoic lessons.
- Acceptance — For those preparing a feast today, cook your best, but be aware that something may arise to prevent your dishes from turning out exactly as intended. If something does, recall that event is merely indifferent and that you remain in control of how you respond to that event. But do not let the knowledge that the result is indifferent prevent you from using all of your skill to prepare your dishes with excellence. For those welcoming family into your homes, remember that you are in control only of how you treat them and how you react to them. You cannot control your uncle’s crazy political ranting, but you can accept that it is and respond to him with love.
- Mindfulness — For all of us lucky enough to have the day away from work and responsibility, consider this a whole day set aside for reflection. Reflect on the events of the past year in the light of reason. And consider the events to come in the same light. Remember to distinguish between what is Good, Bad, and Indifferent. Do not let yourself despair over the failures through the past year or be carried away with exuberance over the deals available in Black Friday sales. Instead, be thankful for the fact that you continue to be endowed with reason, with control over the choice between virtue and evil, and for the understanding that you can act only in this moment.
The morning reflection this morning was an excerpt from Seneca’s letter to Paulinus usually called “On the Shortness of Life.” There is a free audiobook version at Librivox that rewards listening. The reader is a bit quiet, but I feel like he captures some of the nuances.
It struck me today that time is like many other things that are indifferent. We stress about how we’re going to spend time, how we’ll ever find the time, and where the heck the time went. As a solo lawyer who works on a largely billable hour basis, I understand exactly how time=money. When you break down your time into 6 minute blocks as a professional habit, it really hammers home just how much time is spent on different tasks. (And just how much escapes without being put to a productive use–but that is a topic for my business plan, not for a philosophy blog.)
But there is another side to time=money. A Stoic side.
Time, like money, is an indifferent. It is neither Good nor Evil, but it can be turned to different purposes. Possessing it does not contribute to developing virtue; lacking it does not detract from the pursuit. The important thing with Time, as with all indifferent things, is how one uses it. That is a theme that comes up so often in Stoic writing that it is easy to miss it, if you don’t know how much it means.
For example, in the evening reading, notice how Lucan describes Cato as taking enjoyment in the meanest things:
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring …
Lucan, The Civil War. That passage could be read to mean that Cato was a tough and old-fashioned grump, who did not believe in the luxuries that began to be publicly enjoyed by the patricians during the late Roman Republic (and I believe my Roman History professor suggested to read it that way). But thinking about Cato as a Stoic, a Sage according to some, another interpretation comes to mind. Cato treated meager quantities of indifferents as another might treat riches. He took full measure of each of those things in just the same way that Seneca later urged Paulinus to do with time. By doing so, he used the indifferents presented to him by Fate as objects through which to exercise his virtue.
Erik Weigardt described the same idea in The Stoic Handbook (Second Edition), through a metaphor that I found helpful when struggling with the idea of indifferents:
It’s like the potter sitting at his wheel. The indifferents are like the clay. How can the potter be indifferent to his clay? Without the clay he has nothing to do but watch the wheel spin around. The potter cares about his clay. The skill of the potter in working with his hands to form a beautiful and useful vessel from this lump of clay is like the skill of the Stoic in working with the cardinal virtues in forming a noble character. The Stoic’s clay is made up of the indifferents. Without the clay and the indifferents, the potter and the Stoic have nothing upon which to practice their skills.
So that’s what I tried to do today with Time. I endeavored to exercise the virtues– wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice–with respect to Time. How I spent my time was in large part a matter of justice: how is my limited time most ethically distributed? But courage came into play more than I expected. After all, sometimes the best use of time is not the most desirable, so an unpleasant task must be faced and cannot be put off any longer. And moderation was also a concern. Surely, it is preferable to spend time in luxury or relaxation when it is available. But just as surely, it is important to spend time laboring when that time comes along. Practicing moderation (or decorum) through Time is a matter of knowing when the time is appropriate for one thing or another, keeping in mind all the time that the way time is spent in general has no necessary ethical value.
I didn’t do this perfectly. I spent too long at lunch with my wife to complete my entire task list. And I spent enough time working on my new firm’s website that I nearly ran late to pick up my daughter. But (except for some momentary anger at myself when I anticipated being late to pick up the kid), I managed to embrace making the most of time without falling into the trap of becoming entangled in managing time as a passion.
This would be a worthwhile exercise to repeat until it becomes a habit, lest I become a slave to the billable hour.
I chose the above passage, which I remembered imperfectly from the last time I read the meditations, for this morning’s reflection. Admittedly, it was a lazy choice; I was too bleary-eyed to contemplate what I might do to further my pursuit of a specific quality. On the other hand, looking it up and concentrating on the meaning had some benefit through the day.
Part of this passage is about managing expectations. That is an important part of making accurate judgments. When one’s expectations are not fulfilled, that tends to create stress or anger as a first reaction. This is partly because we tend to anticipate the things we see as “good.” But it is important for the Stoic to contemplate the world as it exists, not as he or she might wish it. After all, our chief doctrine is to live in harmony with nature, not with our ideal vision of nature. To prepare himself for each day, Marcus suggested considering how the people he encountered might not meet his ideal. By adjusting his expectations to include people who were unpleasant, Marcus readied himself to exercise more accurate judgment in his dealings; he wouldn’t be carried away by frustration.
The remainder of the passage is a reminder of how a Stoic should view other people. In that way, Marcus prepared a judgment to come readily to his mind. That preempted the rash or inaccurate judgment he might otherwise make. The view Marcus reminded himself to take is that each human being is part of the same whole. To a Stoic, the entire cosmos is an entity and all people are parts of the entity, each endowed with divine reason and able to fully participate in the experience of the cosmos. That remains true even when people don’t act the way we would want them to.
Contemplating both parts of the passage prepared me for a day of dealing with the people I encounter daily: adversaries, clients, officemates, other drivers, other shoppers, etc. It readied me for the fact that some of the people I deal with will be difficult. But it also readied me with the knowledge that all of them are very like me–in substance and in spirit. They are as deserving of respect as I am.
And that was the point where this passage helped me expand self-love a little beyond myself into love for others. The realization that I am not always easy to deal with either and that other people are sometimes difficult not because they hate me or because they are awful people, but because they are just having a bad day. But just as I am powerless to change their attitude into beneficence, the mean or nasty are without power to turn me ugly. Unless I give it to them.
With this in mind, today was just a little smoother. I was less inclined to take someone cutting me off in traffic as a personal affront. I didn’t assume a cashier’s frown in response to my smile was because she felt sexually harassed. Hell, I bet her feet hurt. Mine always did by the end of a shift when I worked at Big Bear.
So as I prepare for sleep tonight, I’ll mark a page in Erik Weigardt’s 32 Principal Doctrines of the Stoa to reference in meditating upon a virtue to contemplate. Justice might be particularly appropriate.
So, in the spirit of tonight’s text for reflection, from Seneca’s 12th Letter, I await tomorrow, if it comes, ready to say, “I have lived.” And ready to practice the Stoic art of living for another day.
StoicLawyer hasn’t been updated in a little over a year. In that time, I’ve: left private practice; worked in an in-house position; all but had a complete mental breakdown; tried my damnedest to ruin and end my marriage; confronted flaws that have plagued me in silence for much of my life; reformed and improved my relationship with my wife; left my in-house position; and returned to the private practice of law. Through all of that, I’ve continued to read and study Stoicism. And I thought I was living it.
Stoic Week 2013 starts Monday. The first step for participation is a series of pre-study questionnaires to gauge items such as satisfaction with life, the balance between positive and negative feelings, and (most tellingly for me) the extent of Stoic attitudes and behaviors. My answers revealed what I should have been able to tell from the past year; although I understand a great deal about Stoic thought and history, I am not living like a Stoic.
Here are a few examples from my pretests:
Positive and Negative Emotions Scale (how often over the past four weeks have you felt…)
Those weren’t the answers I wanted to give, but they were true. In fact, I think the last two were on the conservative side. I probably should have answered both with “disagree.”
But I have a remedy. One of the insights from Stoic thought is that the present is the only moment in which we can act; the only one that is “real.” The past is beyond my ability to control. So for me, Stoic Week 2013 is going to be a boot camp or 7-day cleanse type of exercise. Each day of Stoic Week, I can take a quote from my early Latin lessons and say “ME PHILOSOPHIAE DO!” By doing that for a week, I can start to build a habit that will lead me back to practicing living a Stoic life every day.
I intend to post progress every day of Stoic Week, and I invite you to join me in the experiment. Take the pretests and download the Stoic Week Handbook before Monday, November 25. Learn for yourself why the Financial Times and the UK’s Channel 4 have noted the tremendous history and growth of Stoic thought.
I’ve mentioned before that the Stoics saw great value in performing one’s role in life to the best of one’s ability. In seeking to do that, I often contemplate what it means for me to be a good lawyer. There are almost as many opinions on this subject as there are lawyers (especially because where lawyers fail to differ, clients will be happy to make their thoughts known). It is also a matter addressed by innumerable legal bloggers, usually while trying to sell their consulting services or advertise their approach to prospective clients. In that, I don’t imagine I’ll appear much different or more valuable, but I feel compelled to publish my thoughts.
But it is a thing I spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ve been studying the different thoughts and approaches as I’ve been working for a court, taking advantage of the luxury I’ve had to be able to sit and watch other lawyers without having clients of my own. One thing I’ve watched with particular interest is the ABAJournal.com series, The New Normal. I feel that a recent post by Paul Lippe offered a succinct metaphor for the New Normal approach and the model from which the New Normal seeks to distinguish itself. In the article, Mr. Lippe used two hypothetical doctors to illustrate the two approaches:
“Brenda Brain Surgeon is the chief of Neurosurgery at Mass General Hospital. Brenda has nimble hands, deep insight, and a calm demeanor. She excelled through four years of medical school, six years of residency, and four years of fellowships at top programs. When she operates, the room is silent, the patient sedated, and younger doctors and operating room nurses hover at her beck and call. She has a waiting list of patients, and makes $1,500,000/year. Many (but not all) of her patients do well after surgery.
Victor VHA Chief Medical Officer is the senior physician for the Veterans Health Administration Medical system, one of the largest medical delivery systems in the world. Victor is responsible for overall policy-setting for tens of millions of veterans and their families. The VHA is a leader in both outcomes research and electronic medical records, and is rated more favorably than other health care providers who spend more per patient. Victor has to worry about training and retaining doctors and nurses among the VHA’s 240,000 employees, setting care guidelines, trading off costs within his $47 billion budget and making sure patients take the meds they are prescribed and don’t do things to make their health worse. He has brain surgeons (none perhaps quite as individually skilled as Brenda) working for the VHA, but he can’t afford to have them operate in all the scenarios Brenda would. Victor makes $250,000/year, and has a good pension.”
To Mr. Lippe, Brenda was the model of the dominant professional ideal. But he argued that Victor was the model for what lawyers need to become to remain relevant to clients. Stating that we are entering “The Age of Operational Law,” he argued that clients are seeking lawyers who provide systemic, operational services and not targeted, judgment-centric troubleshooting services. He argued that the operational lawyers provide the most value by adjusting and directing the management of entire systems, instead of offering only high-cost, high-stakes advice on individual situations.
Reading the article, it struck me that both models are equally irrelevant to me as I enter private practice. I’m heading into a small practice focusing on working- and middle-class individuals and their businesses. To give some indication of what my potential clients are facing, I’m joining my wife’s bankruptcy practice. These are hard-working people facing some of the toughest situations they’ve ever encountered. I hope to protect them and help them rebuild after my partner helps them obtain a fresh start. These aren’t people who need (or who can afford) the best surgeon in the region. They also don’t need (and wouldn’t appreciate) an outsider to step up to take over their lives and make their mundane decisions. They aren’t in need of life-saving surgical intervention or a person to run their day-to-day lives; they need a knowledgable, regularly-accessible person who knows them well, who can prescribe an acceptable course of action for treating their ordinary acute needs, and who knows when to refer the matter to a specialist. They aren’t looking for Brenda Brain-Surgeon or Victor VHA Chief Medical Officer–they are looking for Patty PrimaryCare.
In the style of the other doctors, I’d describe Patty like this:
Patty PrimaryCare is one of two doctors in a neighborhood clinic. Patty has a wide comprehension of the illnesses generally contracted by people in her area and the most commonly effective treatments for those conditions. She has also developed a refined sense of when something is beyond her skill to treat. Her clinic is not widely known, but it is well-regarded by her patients and colleagues, who know they can trust Patty to keep appointments, spend the necessary time to make the right diagnosis, and remember what treatments will give her patients an allergic reaction. Patty often has several patients she is treating at the same time for different conditions; one of her most important skills is treating each patient as an individual. Patty prides herself on knowing the smaller details of her patient’s lives. She knows their personal history, living situation, and when they change careers, and recognizes them and their family members when she encounters them in the community. Patty’s income varies; there are bills she sometimes struggles to pay, but she considers herself fortunate to be doing real good and practicing in the field she’s always dreamed of.
That’s the kind of lawyer I want to be. I think its the kind of lawyer that exists a lot of places and goes uncelebrated. Lawyers like that don’t appear on TV or in movies, except as background characters, but they provide vital services to ordinary people every day. Sometimes they don’t get their clients everything they hoped, sometimes they can’t collect on all of their outstanding billables, but they keep practicing because they love what they do and know that it matters. They don’t need to be famous, they’re happy to honestly and responsibly fulfill the role they’re fated to play.
And because of all of that, they might be the perfect models for the Stoic lawyer.
Little by little, the internet is beginning to rebel against cutting and unnecessary sarcasm. It is beginning to reject the idea that other people’s enjoyment serves only as a target for our superior wit and that truly enjoying a mundane moment is a pleasure reserved for morons. Soon, we may no longer judge how sophisticated a person is by how thoroughly they denigrate and dissect the food at a chain restaurant.
This is partially a cultural movement. But there are other implications that will take is further. Some commentators are beginning to suggest that snarkiness is actually beginning to be viewed as an undesirable quality in business circles (perhaps suggesting that college coffeehouse culture no longer rules the pop-business scene). A recent Lifehacker post cataloged how snark (as a habit or lifestyle) has ill effects on a person’s health, career, relationships, and even the wider structure of society.
To deal with snark, it is important to mark how it arises. Knowing that, we can better know how to guide our behavior away from it. According to the professionals interviewed for the Lifehacker article, it develops as a defense mechanism. People use snark to project their own unhappiness or bad feelings on to others or redirecting the contempt they imagine others feel toward them.
Beyond that, it serves another protective purpose. Snark is a cheap way of establishing a veneer of superiority. By mocking the enjoyment another takes from an experience as unworthy or by taking the position that the other person is naive, the snark can appear more sophisticated or intelligent. From early in life, we learn that pleasing the critic is important and that the critic is likely an expert. The snark takes advantage of that lesson; he directs criticism (often founded in nothing but opinion) and gains the imprint of the critic’s expertise.
So how can we use Stoic philosophy to steer away from snark?
First, we can take a Stoic approach to the causes of snark. Instead of projecting unhappiness at others or seeking to avoid the contempt we might imagine others feel for us, we can seek the counsel of reason. Reason suggests that instead of multiplying misery by inflicting pain on others, we should seek out and address the causes of our unhappiness. In many cases, the root cause may be a failure on our part to discriminate between what is in our control and what is not. By taking a new perspective, guided by Wisdom, we can alleviate our negative feelings without being snarky.
Second, we can determine whether it makes sense to attempt to appear superior. Will our attempt impress someone who is wise? That seems unlikely. The wise are impressed by Wisdom, not the mere appearance of knowledge. It might impress someone else, but why does that matter? The unwise person is just as imperfect as we are, just as foolish as we are; it makes no sense to seek to impress him. As Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus both advised, it does not matter how other foolish people view us, it only matters that we seize upon what we control to seek to live virtuously. In addition, surely we should be spending the energy and time involved in being snarky to pursue virtue.
Finally, a special note for lawyers: Snark is not persuasive. Too many lawyers resort to sarcasm in written or oral argument. Instead of seeming smarter than their opponent, those lawyers come across as childish and unprofessional. A snarky approach often appears (whether justified or not) to be a cover for a lack of preparedness or good support. You are better off supporting your own argument or countering with calm, reasoned analysis than you are stabbing at your opponent with what you are sure is your rapier wit.