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.
One of my LinkedIn connections recently posted a link to Positive Thinking: Avoid 5 Toxic Beliefs That Ruin Careers | Inc.com. 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
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.
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.