Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. Americans tell ourselves many stories about the history of Thanksgiving, but one of the most common (especially when considered along with the modern celebration of the holiday) illustrates the concepts of acceptance and mindfulness. I know StoicLawyer has gained a bit of an international audience this week, so I’ll briefly retell the tale.
In 1620, a group of approximately 100 men, women, and children traveled across the North Atlantic from Plymouth, England to North America. Many of them were members of a religious sect, seeking freedom from persecution by the Church of England. Although these travelers originally intended to establish a colony near the other English colonies in what is now Virginia, harsh weather and chancy navigation prevented them from reaching that area. Instead, they anchored in a harbor in what is now Massachusetts, at the beginning of a harsh New England winter. During the voyage and upon arrival, there was constant temptation and pressure to turn back to England. After searching for several days for a suitable site for their colony, the immigrants discovered an area that was “miraculously” clear. (In reality, the area had been cleared by the Patuxet villagers; Native American Indians who were wiped out by an epidemic shortly before the colonists’ arrival.)
The colonists began to establish their settlement during the winter of 1621. During that winter, about half of them died from a combination of illness, exposure, and malnutrition. In March 1621, however, another “miracle” occurred: two of the local Native American Indians, Samoset and Tisquantum (Squanto), turned out to speak English and approached the village. Even more miraculously, Squanto was intimately familiar with the area surrounding the colony, being a former resident of the Patuxet village. With Samoset and Squanto as interpreters, the colonists established a peace treaty with the local Native American Indian nation. In addition, Squanto used his knowledge of Patuxet tradition and the area to teach the colonists how to produce food and survive in this unfamiliar land. By the fall, the colonists’ fields were filled with a bountiful harvest and their larders were full of a variety of game and wild foods. The colonists threw a great feast of Thanksgiving to celebrate their good fortune and thank God for the miracles that had allowed their survival, and invited the nation with which they had established the treaty. It is this feast that Americans commemorate today.
(Keep in mind, the above is not meant to be an accurate history. It contains several omissions, errors, and flat-out falsehoods. It is, however, the story that Americans tell ourselves about the holiday, the one we teach our children and memorialize in cartoon specials. The point here is to examine this American myth to draw out meaning, not to write an accurate record of past events.)
Examining this American myth, we can derive a few lessons in behavior. According to the story, the colonists arrived in a strange wilderness after a harsh and uncertain voyage across a hostile sea Half of them died during the first few months after landing. The rest of them faced unceasing work to establish the conditions to survive any further. And even with an excellent harvest in 1621, their survival was not assured. Despite all of that hardship, the colonists arranged a celebration and a day of rest to give thanks for their incredible fortune and the miracles that had enabled their survival.
And that is where the story intertwines with the lessons of Days Three and Four of Stoic Week.
Wednesday’s lesson was “Acceptance,” the practice of accepting that some things are beyond our control and that our ventures can be successful only “fate permitting” or “if nothing prevents.” A key part of Stoic acceptance is the understanding that the fact that something may intervene to prevent success is no excuse not to try our best to accomplish our ethical purposes or to obtain preferred indifferents when possible. In the Thanksgiving myth, acceptance is demonstrated in two places. First, in the voyage and the first winter, when so many of the colonists died. Despite all of their labor and devoting their savings to the colonial venture, half of the travellers never saw the fruits. Fate did not permit; something prevented. But, from the colonists’ perspective, the possibility of failure was not a reason to stay in England and face continued persecution. Second, acceptance is demonstrated in the Thanksgiving feast itself. The colonists had seen the end that fate could have in store for them; the graves of their fellow-travellers were barely covered with grass by the time of feast. And success in one year could hardly be seen as a guarantee of success in the next. But the colonists looked forward to the next year, planning at the Thanksgiving feast to continue with their plans, even with the specter of failure always present.
Thursday’s lesson is mindfulness. And I submit that is something every American should consider in the story of the first Thanksgiving. Mindfulness is embraced by being aware of one’s thoughts and the feelings those thoughts might engender. It also involves putting off the consideration of very negative (or very positive) thoughts until they can be considered in light of calm and reason. The feast of Thanksgiving embraces that concept in a few ways. First, Thanksgiving was a day set aside for the consideration of the events of the previous year-the successes and failures. Second, when setting aside that day and reflecting, the colonists did not allow themselves to be carried away by the risks or the possibilities of success. Instead, they celebrated the day in the spirit of thankfulness; they chose to be grateful for the opportunities afforded to them and the “miracles” that fate had given them.
I suggest we celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of these two Stoic lessons.
- Acceptance — For those preparing a feast today, cook your best, but be aware that something may arise to prevent your dishes from turning out exactly as intended. If something does, recall that event is merely indifferent and that you remain in control of how you respond to that event. But do not let the knowledge that the result is indifferent prevent you from using all of your skill to prepare your dishes with excellence. For those welcoming family into your homes, remember that you are in control only of how you treat them and how you react to them. You cannot control your uncle’s crazy political ranting, but you can accept that it is and respond to him with love.
- Mindfulness — For all of us lucky enough to have the day away from work and responsibility, consider this a whole day set aside for reflection. Reflect on the events of the past year in the light of reason. And consider the events to come in the same light. Remember to distinguish between what is Good, Bad, and Indifferent. Do not let yourself despair over the failures through the past year or be carried away with exuberance over the deals available in Black Friday sales. Instead, be thankful for the fact that you continue to be endowed with reason, with control over the choice between virtue and evil, and for the understanding that you can act only in this moment.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Wisdom – knowledge of what is Good, Bad, or Indifferent
- Courage – wisdom concerned with endurance
- Temperance – wisdom concerned with acquisition
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.