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.
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:
“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.
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.