The Stoic Approach to 5 Toxic Beliefs That Ruin Careers

One of my LinkedIn connections recently posted a link to Positive Thinking: Avoid 5 Toxic Beliefs That Ruin Careers | Reading the article, I realized that some of the problems in the article were problems the ancient Stoics had considered and addressed. Considering the way the original article is likely making the internet rounds, I thought it worthwhile to consider the Stoic approach to these problems.

“1. My self-worth is based on what others think of me.”

As Geoffrey James (author of the Sales Source blog linked above) pointed out, criticism from bosses, co-workers, and customers can be disheartening and have the tendency to demotivate people by undercutting their self-esteem. The Stoic writers recommended dealing with this problem in two ways.

First, the Stoics advised that a person should view himself realistically. Every person, unless a sage, remains fallible and foolish to some degree. Some Stoics believed that every person who wasn’t a sage (in other words, a person who hadn’t become perfectly wise) was equally foolish; after all, a person who is an inch under water is drowning just as certainly as a person who is three feet under water. That concept had two consequences. First, the Stoics believed that a person should be open to improvement. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” Meditations, Book 6. Second, the Stoics recommended a person should keep a sense of humor about himself. For example, Epictetus recommended, “if anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ‘He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.'” Enchiridion, 33.

Second, the Stoics recommended concentrating on what matters and what is in a person’s control. For example, if someone insults a person with little hair for being bald, why should the person take offense? It is merely a statement of fact–a circumstance of fate over which hurt feelings would be unreasonable. Seneca, On Firmness, XVI.4. Similarly, a Stoic should consider the source of an insult. If a person who is not pursuing a life of virtue criticizes a philosopher, it is entirely possible the person is too ignorant or wrongheaded for the opinion to matter to the philosopher. Finally, and most powerfully, the Stoics recommended taking insults as a reminder to attempt to be better and let the hatred or jealousy of the insulter remain a problem for that other person. As Marcus wrote, “Suppose any man shall despise me. Let him look to that himself. But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt. Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.” Meditations, Book 11

“2. My past equals my future.”

This sentiment reflects the despair that a person can experience when confronted with hardship. I addressed this possibility in a previous post on Courage. In that post, I discussed the Stoic idea that hardship can be met by carefully considering whether the hardship is itself Bad or merely indifferent and by focusing on the pursuit of virtue instead of being distracted by temporary setbacks.

Seneca offered another angle of attack on this problem. In his essay On Providence, Seneca took a theistic approach. Considering that the Stoics believed that the circumstances of their life were caused by the rules and actions set out by God or Fate, Seneca wrote about what it might mean that a particular person seemed to experience more than her fair share of abuse. He put it in terms of a training program; a person tested by adversity would have more of a chance to build resilience and more occasions to truly test her virtue. These quotes are illustrative:

Why is it that God afflicts the best men with ill health, or sorrow, or some other misfortune? For the same reason that in the army the bravest men are assigned to the hazardous tasks; it is the picked soldier that a general sends to surprise the enemy by a night attack, or to reconnoitre the road, or to dislodge a garrison. Not a man of these will say as he goes, “My commander has done me an ill turn,” but instead, “He has paid me a compliment.” In like manner, all those who are called to suffer what would make cowards and poltroons weep may say, “God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure.” Seneca, On Providence

Caryatid from the Augustan Forum (Rome)

If we are lashed and torn by Fortune, let us bear it; it is not cruelty but a struggle, and the oftener we engage in it, the stronger we shall be. The staunchest member of the body is the one that is kept in constant use. We should offer ourselves to Fortune in order that, struggling with her, we may be hardened by her. Gradually she will make us a match for herself. Familiarity with exposure to danger will give contempt for danger. So the bodies of sailors are hardy from buffeting the sea, the hands of farmers are callous, the soldier’s muscles have the strength to hurl weapons, and the legs of a runner are nimble. In each, his staunchest member is the one that he has exercised. By enduring ills the mind attains contempt for the endurance of them; you will know what this can accomplish in our own case, if you will observe how much the peoples that are destitute and, by reason of their want, more sturdy, secure by toil. Id.

“3. My destiny is controlled by the supernatural.”

The Sales Source article suggests dismissing all thought that a supernatural source controls what will happen to a person, good or bad. The reasoning is that a person is made complacent and will waste time waiting for his luck to change or for the Universe to turn his way. This is a point upon which the Stoics would disagree.

The Stoics did hold that events were fated and that there was only one way that history might unfold. Despite that, Stoics still believed in the pursuit of virtue. Even more than that, it is evident from the litany of well-known Stoics that they did not let a belief in Fate keep them from striving. Chrysippius was well-known as a prodigious writer and thinker, Seneca was accomplished in the realms of literature, politics, and finance, Epictetus built a reputation as a teacher even after being exiled, and Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations as he actively took up the responsibilities of a Roman Emperor.

The reason for that is that Stoics did not allow the existence of Fate or God eliminate personal responsibility. Epictetus said, “Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.” Enchiridion, 17. Although the path of one’s life isn’t entirely within one’s own control, the Stoics firmly believed that a person should make the most of that life. In one of the most common examples, various writers noted that no person can escape the fate of death, but every person can choose to act so that they do not waste the time allotted to them before the moment of death comes.

Marcus Aurelius put it a little differently. In Book 12 of the Meditations, Marcus remarked that, if there is a providential God, a person should act to make herself worthy of the benefits bestowed, and if there is no God, a person should remain at least true to improving one’s own character and actions, for all other things can be swept away by circumstance or the actions of others. Meditations, Book 12, Para. 16.

“4. My emotions accurately reflect objective reality.”

It would almost be redundant to address this point. The flaw of thinking that one’s emotions are a reflection of the objective value of events instead of merely a reflection of one’s opinion about those events is at the heart of Stoic thought. A large portion of Stoic training is to learn to take a thing according to its appearance without the filter of emotion. Doing that is the practical aspect of distinguishing between what is Good, Bad, or indifferent; it is the practice of Wisdom.

Vitold Muratov, Optical Illusion 1. Shadow Play (1957)

Marcus Aurelius wrote frequently on this point. The following are some examples:

Seventh, that it is not men’s acts which disturb us, for those acts have their foundation in men’s ruling principles, but it is our own opinions which disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss thy judgement about an act as if it were something grievous, and thy anger is gone. Book 11

Eighth, consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed. Id.

Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. Book 4 

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?- But some insuperable obstacle is in the way?- Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on thee.- But it is not worth while to live if this cannot be done.- Take thy departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles.  Book 8

“5. My goal is to be perfect or do something perfectly.” 

The Sales Source article counseled avoiding perfectionism. The Stoics, on the other hand, had to confront the fact that they hoped to develop their virtue and train their wisdom to the point where they would become a Sage. The Stoic ideal of the Sage was of an infallible person with perfect virtue and perfect wisdom. A Sage was considered to be the only truly happy individual.

It is worth noting that no Stoic writer ever claimed to be a Sage and there is no historical individual who was considered by any great number of the Stoics to have been a Sage. So Stoics approached the goal of attaining something very like perfection with the thought that perfection had never yet been attained by anyone. This set their expectations in a different place. The value that became important was not perfection, but striving.

Different Stoics approached this from slightly different angles. Seneca reasoned that even the perfect Sage should consider that there are forces in the Universe which exceed his own power. Therefore, he said, “The wise man comes to everything with the proviso ‘if nothing happens to prevent it’; therefore we say that he succeeds in everything and nothing happens contrary to his expectation, because he presupposes that something can intervene to prevent his design.”

Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, took failure as inevitable, believing that people (or at least he himself) were not formed by Nature to attain perfect reason. For his part, Marcus counseled that failure was an opportunity to rededicate oneself to the goal of living in accordance with Nature and to recommit to one’s principles. He wrote, “Be not disgusted, nor discouraged, nor dissatisfied, if thou dost not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but when thou bast failed, return back again, and be content if the greater part of what thou doest is consistent with man’s nature, and love this to which thou returnest; and do not return to philosophy as if she were a master, but act like those who have sore eyes and apply a bit of sponge and egg, or as another applies a plaster, or drenching with water. For thus thou wilt not fail to obey reason, and thou wilt repose in it. And remember that philosophy requires only the things which thy nature requires; but thou wouldst have something else which is not according to nature.” Meditations, Book 5.

These five career-killing thoughts are ones that have plagued people for generations. Stoic thought offers some approaches which have been found helpful over the years. Although these techniques and answers may not satisfy all, they are at least better than the mere suggestion to avoid thinking these things.


The Courageous Lawyer

Last week, I wrote about ways lawyers can benefit from Stoic Wisdom. I hope that post helped illustrate the practical effects of a Stoic life. This week, I’ll focus on Courage, which I previously identified as “wisdom concerned with endurance.”

Initially, it is important to notice that Courage starts with Wisdom. That means that the focus remains, at least in part, on identifying and discriminating between the Good, the Bad, and the indifferent. So in a way, Courage is the particularization of Wisdom to matters of endurance. The best summary of Courage I’ve come across in Stoic literature comes down to us from Marcus Aurelius:

Image Courtesy of Carol Guillaume under a Creative Commons license

“Whatsoever doth happen unto thee, thou art naturally by thy natural constitution either able, or not able to bear. If thou beest able, be not offended, but bear it according to thy natural constitution, or as nature hath enabled thee. If thou beest not able, be not offended. For it will soon make an end of thee, and itself, (whatsoever it be) at the same time end with thee.”  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X, Section III. 

Simplified from the archaic language of the public domain translation, Marcus’ sentiment is essentially this: Either you were made to survive this hardship, or it will kill you. Either way, it will be over.  This is a reminder that any hardship or duress is ultimately transient. To Marcus (who wrote the Meditations as a journal to himself), that reminder would serve to help him exercise Wisdom unobstructed by transient stress or pain. It would help him identify stress or pain as something that is indifferent and therefore cannot be permitted to interfere with the pursuit of excellence (virtue).

A modern lawyer is probably not faced with the physical privation Marcus suggested in his Meditations. Unlike Marcus, the modern lawyer is not typically faced with long marches through hostile territory, the possibility of political assassination, or the hazards of (relatively) primitive living conditions and medical care. Instead, the hazards modern folk must endure are more likely to be less direct, although the risks of illness and other natural conditions have not changed.  When it comes to lawyers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the largest problem facing young lawyers today — lack of employment. (Not to mention I could hardly be a lawyer blogger without complaining or commiserating about a lack of lawyer jobs.)

A recent NALP study reported that only 65% of 2011 law school grads have jobs as lawyers, a record low. Judging by the number of depressing stories and bitter comments in the blawgosphere, it may be worse than that. Even in my own experience, I’ve faced the costs of a  shrinking legal job market. And the failures of behemoth firms over recent years shows that it is not only new lawyers who face the fallout of a depressed legal hiring market. Worse, when new lawyers can’t find jobs as lawyers, they find it more difficult to get legal experience, without which neither employers nor prospective clients want much to do with them.

Stoic Courage can help. Just like Marcus, these lawyers are worried. They aren’t worried about the Germanic tribesmen on the other side of the river, but about the student loan debt collectors who may call next week. They don’t fear losing a limb or child to illness, but they dread losing their dreams of becoming the lawyer they went to law school to become. Either way, they share the emperor’s feeling of powerlessness. And Marcus’ advice applies to their situation just as forcefully as it did to his.Image courtesy of jridgewayphotos under a Creative Commons license

To summon their Courage, these lawyers need to remind themselves that the circumstances they face now or what they have done in the past cannot be changed. They can only affect the future. As for their present circumstances, lawyers should consider the limits of those circumstances. As Marcus noted, a person will either survive his circumstances or will not. Stated another way, either a person will endure or she will not. To a Stoic, the mere fact of survival or death from those circumstances is indifferent. The key is to remember to exercise Wisdom concerning those circumstances while they persist and concerning the course toward the future.

So what does Wisdom dictate about enduring those circumstances? Wisdom, as always, dictates that a person should pursue virtue. In this context, it is important to explain what virtue means to a Stoic. Virtue is the English word most often chosen as a translation for the Greek word “arete.” Arete differs from the modern concept of virtue in that it does not necessarily carry the connotation of morality. Instead arete is concerned with excellence or with fulfilling one’s potential and obtaining results. Taking all of that, Wisdom dictates that a person work toward accomplishing their aims and accomplishing them well.

But what does that mean for down on their luck lawyers? The period of unemployment or underemployment must come to an end. That will happen either when the lawyer finds a job or when the lawyer dies. Given the choice, I’d prefer it to end with finding a job. Sharing one’s bitterness at not finding a job (or a good job), spending time creating or perusing blogs about law school scams, or pursuing a lawsuit against one’s alma mater don’t seem to me to be helpful to that end. Instead, networking, participating in pro bono clinics, and engaging in nonlawyer work while developing a plan for further education or saving to start one’s own firm seem they would be more beneficial.

To put all of this more simply, Courage is about using Wisdom to guide one through difficult circumstances. Where Wisdom is purely concerned with identifying what is Good, Bad, or indifferent, Courage is about choosing the Good and disregarding the indifferent when times are grim. For the hordes of out-of-work attorneys, the courageous thing would be to stop concentrating on their debt or lifestyle and to start concentrating on their skills (whether as an attorney or otherwise). The practical results of this are obvious. Worrying about whether or not one will survive doesn’t affect whether one will survive. But working on becoming better at one’s chosen career improves the chances that career will become remunerative.

In that way, the Stoic lawyer becomes both more tranquil at heart and more successful in his profession.

The Wise Lawyer

I’ve spent a great deal of time writing in the negative. That is, much of the content so far has been about what a Stoic should not do or what a Stoic should consider unimportant. That might leave the reader with the idea that Stoicism presents only a set of restrictions and encourages a disconnection with the goals that move a person to be productive. To lawyers—who are acutely aware of the restrictions placed on the by general laws and regulations and the additional demands of court rules, best practices, and professional conduct rules—the idea of further self-imposed restrictions might be especially unattractive. And to many lawyers, whether they are trying to travel the partnership road at a large firm, ascend to leadership in an organization, or build their own book of business, being goal- or success-oriented is a necessary way of life.

Considering that, its time to write directly about how the practice of Stoicism can assist the practice of law. This week, I’ll discuss how Wisdom can liberate a lawyer from some of common concerns and help a lawyer focus on developing goals that will foster professional success.

First, we must remember that the essence of Wisdom to a Stoic is recognizing what is Good, Bad, or indifferent. Second, it is helpful to think of Epictetus‘ division of things between what is up to us and what is not up to us. As translated by Elizabeth Carter, Arrian recorded that Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” Notice that the first category of things are items where the proper approach leads to virtue; the second category of things are all indifferent–they do not aid or harm the search for virtue.

As it applies to a lawyer, Epictetus’ analysis helps define priorities. Given the choice, it is more reasonable to concentrate on those things over which one has control than on those things over which one does not have control. To the Stoic Lawyer, it is imperative to spend time taking the right approach to those things which can lead one to developing virtue and the attitude of the Sage. Applying Epictetus’ categories to those things which are important to lawyers, we can see what priorities the Wise Lawyer would attempt to establish.

Things in our control — Epictetus defined this category to be composed of one’s own actions. As it applies to lawyers, this category includes the lawyer’s composure, her treatment of clients, opponents, employees, and third parties, how the lawyer maintains the confidences of clients, how the lawyer manages his office, and how the lawyer acts to uphold her duties of competence and diligence.

Things not in our control — This category is composed of things other than one’s own actions. As it applies to lawyers, this category includes the results the lawyer obtains for his clients, her income and reputation, the success of marketing strategies, attaining partnership, and being the subject of attorney discipline or malpractice actions.

Comparing these, Epictetus’ advice is very instructive to the Wise lawyer. That lawyer, who has learned to differentiate between that which is Good, Bad, and indifferent and who has learned to determine what is in her control has the power to choose to focus on those things which tend toward virtue and which are in her control. She will not stress herself out over whether she will prevail for her client or close a deal, whether she will obtain money or fame, or whether her client will make a complaint against her. She will recognize that those things are all in the control of others, for example a jury, opponent, or the client. Instead, the Wise lawyer will concentrate her energies on those things which are in her control. She will remember to present her best arguments in the order she intended, to return calls from clients, to treat opponents with respect, to monitor and avoid conflicts of interest or the disclosure of client confidences, to reconcile her trust account on a regular basis, and to pay close attention to developing her skills and professional contacts.

As you may have already considered, by concentrating on those things in her control, the Wise lawyer may also increase her odds of affecting those things not in her control. Juries will not be distracted by unprofessionalism, opponents and third parties will be more receptive to her arguments and proposals, clients will feel well-represented and will be more likely to pay on time and refrain from making disciplinary or malpractice complaints. The Wise lawyer likely will also develop a network of referral sources and colleagues who feel a genuine connection and respect for her. Her reputation in the community will be that of a lawyer who does both well and good. As an additional benefit, this lawyer will not be driven into unprofessional conduct by seeking money or results at the expense of her professional integrity.

This is not to say, of course, that the Wise lawyer will be always met with resounding professional and financial success. Obviously, Fate or the actions of others may intervene. However, the Wise lawyer will keep in mind the advice of Cleanthes, as related by F.G. Sandbach in “The Stoics“:

“What brings happiness is to have the right attitude, to choose the right actions, to aim correctly at the mark. This is in the man’s own power; success, in the popular meaning of the word, is not. Unforeseen and incalculable causes may prevent his hitting the target, his actions may be obstructed, his attitude disregarded; but so long as he does all he can and has nothing with which to reproach himself, all is well with him… [F]or a strong character it is a welcome challenge to be told that he must rely upon himself and that self-reliance is the road to happiness. ” 36-37.

Characteristics of the Virtuous?

Several weeks ago, I promised to post about how the Stoic virtues and passions can contribute to the effective and ethical practice of law. In the meantime, Michel Daw at Living the Stoic Life  posted an article discussing the Stoic concept of passion (pathê)  with far better clarity than I was approaching in my drafts.  I recommend it to your attention.

After a few attempts, I’ve reached the realization that I can’t meaningfully distill all of this into a single post. I will begin by discussing virtues. These are qualities which will aid in developing that excellence and coordination with the dictates of reason and nature that are the goals of a Stoic life. In coming weeks, I’ll address how these relate more specifically to practicing law.

Zeno identified four qualities Stoics should cultivate:

  1. Wisdom – knowledge of what is Good, Bad, or Indifferent
  2. Courage – wisdom concerned with endurance
  3. Temperance – wisdom concerned with acquisition
  4. Justice – wisdom concerned with distribution

The core of these virtues is a focus on three categories into which every item or experience can be placed. A thing can be:

(a) Good – an absolute category containing only those things which should be sought after by all people; that which is ethically beneficial;

(b) Bad – an equally absolute category containing only those things which should be avoided by all people; that which is ethically harmful; or

(c) Indifferent – the largest category containing all those things which can be either helpful or harmful depending on their use and the circumstances.

The major importance of these categories is the understanding that most things fall into the last one. Those things (wealth/poverty, power/weakness, liberty/slavery)  may be reasonably preferable or not preferable, but they are not Good or Bad because they cannot by themselves dictate ethical development and do not signal ethical development. They are a rejection of the idea that the character of a person can be determined by or judged upon anything but their own choice and reason.

1. Wisdom

I have arranged the list of virtues in the order I imagine they must need to be learned in most instances. The first one is obvious, since three virtues are characterized by the exercise of wisdom, wisdom must be learned first. A person does this by abandoning the idea that wealth, liberty, power, sex, family, satiety, etc. will make him happy or that poverty, bondage, weakness, abstinence, loneliness, hunger, etc. will make him wretched. Instead he must recognize that only virtue will make him happy and that much of virtue lies in accepting that his only real power is to make the choice of how he will act or respond to stimuli, over the presentation of which he has no power.

2. Courage

After wisdom, I have classed the other qualities in an order that appears most natural. A person with nothing but wisdom must learn courage. He or she must learn what things can be endured, what things cannot be endured, and to be reconciled to the result either way. The Stoic must learn the secret of courage, which is that there are two possibilities; either one is capable of enduring the current circumstances or one is not. If capable, the person will eventually come through those circumstances and so should not act unreasonably in response to current duress. If incapable, the person will eventually be released from the circumstances by death and so should not act unreasonably in response to current duress.  The intervening stress or pain is not Bad, the possibility of death is not Bad; they are both merely not preferable. The only truly Bad thing that could occur would be if  a person were to  act out of accordance with reason and nature, which would not happen if the person develops wisdom concerning endurance.

3. Temperance

After enduring the period spent with nothing but wisdom and courage, a person will tend to have the ability to acquire things. These will be friends, family members, possessions, skills, social standing, and so forth. Temperance is the quality that a Stoic needs to develop to manage that acquisition. The chief danger at this point is that a person might lose track of the lessons learned earlier in the process and begin to seek to acquire things out of line with reason and nature. Chiefly, that might happen if a person were to begin to see those things as Good or the lack of them as Bad.

4. Justice

Once a person has accumulated wealth, family, friends, a position, etc., he or she is then faced with two problems of distribution. The first is that he or she must then consider how to wisely use those things he or she has accumulated. The person will need to avoid using the power that can be gained through distribution for wasteful purposes. For example, it would be tempting to abandon the lessons learned about the relative value of things and spend all of one’s gains on creature comforts and other luxuries. That could lead to chasing after luxury as if it were Good instead of merely preferable.

The second problem of distribution is that a person runs the risk of mistakenly valuing that which he or she has acquired to the point that one can no longer bear its loss. Although it is inevitable that a person will be separated from the things he or she acquires, a person may tend to grow so accustomed to those things that he or she begins to consider them necessary or Good. At that point, the person will require the aid of Justice to understand the redistribution of the things he or she has gained. By focusing on the understanding that those things are not Good and by understanding that the nature of the Universe dictates that possession of any thing in temporary, a person can avoid or mitigate the effects of that inevitable distribution, whether by theft, death, breakage, or other transfer.

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.

What Do Stoics Believe?

Many people visiting this page will be unfamiliar with Stoicism, except in the most basic sense. For their benefit, I think it would be useful to set out a brief overview of Stoic beliefs. I’m indebted to Beliefnet for the format, which is borrowed from their “What Do ___ Believe” pages.

Belief in Deity
Stoicism is theist. Ancient Stoics paid lip service to the Classical Greek gods, but saw them as tools for human understanding of a single deity. The Stoic concept of deity was expressed through the word Logos, which the Stoics used as a term of art to describe the active reason which plans and organizes creation.The Stoic concept of God can be thought of as having three parts: (1) Physis – Nature or that which dictates how things grow and develop, (2) Fate – the certainty of things progressing according to their Physis, and (3) Providence – the purpose to which things develop; generally aimed at the good order and maintenance of creation.
Stoics believed in no incarnations of deity.
Origin of Universe and Life

Ancient Stoics attempted to be scientific, which in Classical times meant an acceptance of variations on the theory of four elements. Modern Stoics are more likely to accept a theory of creation supported by modern science.In either instance, Stoicism assumes that the universe is the product of a deity and operates according to laws created by that deity, which are largely discoverable through investigation and reason. Throughout history, Stoics have been largely unconcerned with demonstrating the existence of that deity, but have assumed its existence from the apparent order and majesty of the universe.

After Death
The ancient Stoics held a variety of beliefs about the period after death. Generally, the spirit was not believed to survive the body. Some Stoics believed that the spirit (pneuma) did survive in some form, but would eventually come to its own end or, at the end, would be destroyed at the end of the world.Any period after death was not of great concern to the Stoics. The human physis tends toward death, so death was accepted as being in accordance with nature and as a thing to be accepted.
Why Evil?
Stoics did not believe in an incarnate force of evil. Instead, Stoics believed that all people were imperfect except for the perfectly wise. Therefore, every person had the possibility to commit wicked acts. Stoics also believed every action had a voluntary component; that is, even an impassioned action required that the person assent to acting out of their passion. For that reason, Stoics held the individual responsible for all of their acts.That said, many Stoics considered that wickedness was often the result of a lack of understanding or that what one person may consider a wicked act by another might be justifiable. Because of that, Stoics looked to the guidance of reason to educate people away from committing further wickedness or to understand the rational justification behind acts.
Undeserving Suffering
Stoics did not believe in undeserving suffering. In fact, one of the goals of Stoicism was to reach the understanding that many of the things people think of as “good” or “bad” are really just preferable or not preferable. The core of Stoic teaching was that one’s outlook and attitude determines whether one suffers from hardship.Additionally, some Stoics taught that hardship was a blessing because it would cause a person to test the development of their virtue. Those Stoics believed it would be foolish to seek out hardship, but if one were fated to face hardship, one should view it as an opportunity to develop the appropriate attitude.Finally, the Stoics believed that a person guided correctly by reason would recognize that the universe has its own Physis. That was an explanation for why people suffer some hardships. For example, sickness and death are contrary to a human being’s physis, but are perfectly consonant with the physis of the universe. Therefore, a person guided by perfect reason would recognize the propriety of the hardship and submit to it without grief.

Hello world!

This blog is a place to spread out and organize my views on two things I hold dear: Stoic philosophy and its place in the modern world and the effective and ethical practice of law.  through writing, I hope to discover ways those two interests coincide and ways to deal with the conflicts between my desire to be wise and my duties as an attorney.

In the early posts, I intend to journal my notes and reactions on some reading material. Much of that material will be in the public domain; when it is, I will link to available editions so that readers can follow along.

I hope you will enjoy reading and commenting.