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.
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.
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.
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.