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.
Stoic Week 2013 ends tonight. It has been an excellent exercise for me, and I hope my posts this week have added to your enjoyment and given you wholesome food for thought. I’ve certainly appreciated the new “likes” and followers StoicLawyer has gained this past week. They have made my return to blogging much easier.
Days Six and Seven of Stoic Week were focused on two exercises that demonstrate what I interpret as the Stoic Perspective. The first is the exercise of “philanthropy” or “love of mankind.” In one version of that exercise, the practitioner considers the people of the world as being contained in a series of concentric circles, like so:
The goal of that exercise is to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre” to increase the feeling of connectedness with others. This is intimately related to what is commonly called the Doctrine of Appropriation (oikeiosis), which is the Stoic doctrine holding that the first impulse of all creatures is self-love or self-preservation. Through the exercise of philanthropy, the Stoic learns to extend that first impulse to include the whole family of humankind.
The second exercise is called the “View from Above.” In that exercise, the practitioner attempts to consider his or her place in the cosmos in a detached manner. There are two reasons for this exercise: to perceive the world accurately and to foster tranquility. By placing events in the context of the entire cosmos, rather than in the smaller view of how important they are in the present moment, Stoics believe we will be less upset or aroused by them.
Another aspect of adopting the View from Above ties together the exercises from days Six and Seven (as well as many other aspects of Stoicism). Both exercises attempt to coax the practitioner to abandon a self-centered point of view and adopt a broader perspective. In the first, the Stoic must learn to see others in the same light as him- or herself. In the second, the Stoic must take a view of the entire cosmos in which he or she is but a tiny part, like a grain of sand swirling in the tide. In a sense, both exercises seek the same thing; the Stoic must learn to take the perspective of the Logos (seen as God by theist Stoics, Reason by atheist Stoics). From that perspective, one person is substantially the same as all of humankind and no one atom in the universe is more or less significant than any other, but all are moving parts of a whole.
These exercises and this change in perspective cut to one of the core beliefs in Stoic thought. That belief is that human beings are (uniquely?) able to exercise the power of Reason to align their thoughts with the reality of the Logos. By doing so, the practitioner is able to attain true understanding and peace. In that alignment, nothing is passion-inducing, nothing creates fear or worry. Instead, the Stoic (who I submit will have obtained the status of a Sage) will see each event or object as it relates to all other events and objects. In that view, nothing can be distressing or arousing because all things simply are as they must be. By obtaining and holding the perspective and understanding of the Logos, the Stoic can embrace the reality of living in the best of all possible (because the only possible) worlds.
Interestingly, that view seems to me to be similar to some religious understandings. It parallels those religious expressions in which the appropriate resolution to a conflict is seen as taking the perspective of a greater being or a higher understanding. Some notable examples are:
- Jesus’ prayer at Gethesmane : not as I will, but as You will (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42);
- The root meaning of Islam “surrender” or “to give in” to the will of God;
- The Buddhist belief that suffering is caused by ignorance (and resulting attachment/aversion to occurrences), but can be relieved (in part) by Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration
In addition, that view seems to me to be most in line with scientific objectivity. Good science (in the sense that it is developed following appropriate procedures for measurement, review, repetition, etc.), requires that experimenting and reviewing scientists eliminate (as far as is possible) the effects of personal biases, emotional involvement, other commitments, and anything else that would interfere with an accurate understanding of how the universe functions. Good science has no room for emotionally-driven or interested disagreement with the rules by which the cosmos operates.
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.
The morning reflection this morning was an excerpt from Seneca’s letter to Paulinus usually called “On the Shortness of Life.” There is a free audiobook version at Librivox that rewards listening. The reader is a bit quiet, but I feel like he captures some of the nuances.
It struck me today that time is like many other things that are indifferent. We stress about how we’re going to spend time, how we’ll ever find the time, and where the heck the time went. As a solo lawyer who works on a largely billable hour basis, I understand exactly how time=money. When you break down your time into 6 minute blocks as a professional habit, it really hammers home just how much time is spent on different tasks. (And just how much escapes without being put to a productive use–but that is a topic for my business plan, not for a philosophy blog.)
But there is another side to time=money. A Stoic side.
Time, like money, is an indifferent. It is neither Good nor Evil, but it can be turned to different purposes. Possessing it does not contribute to developing virtue; lacking it does not detract from the pursuit. The important thing with Time, as with all indifferent things, is how one uses it. That is a theme that comes up so often in Stoic writing that it is easy to miss it, if you don’t know how much it means.
For example, in the evening reading, notice how Lucan describes Cato as taking enjoyment in the meanest things:
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring …
Lucan, The Civil War. That passage could be read to mean that Cato was a tough and old-fashioned grump, who did not believe in the luxuries that began to be publicly enjoyed by the patricians during the late Roman Republic (and I believe my Roman History professor suggested to read it that way). But thinking about Cato as a Stoic, a Sage according to some, another interpretation comes to mind. Cato treated meager quantities of indifferents as another might treat riches. He took full measure of each of those things in just the same way that Seneca later urged Paulinus to do with time. By doing so, he used the indifferents presented to him by Fate as objects through which to exercise his virtue.
Erik Weigardt described the same idea in The Stoic Handbook (Second Edition), through a metaphor that I found helpful when struggling with the idea of indifferents:
It’s like the potter sitting at his wheel. The indifferents are like the clay. How can the potter be indifferent to his clay? Without the clay he has nothing to do but watch the wheel spin around. The potter cares about his clay. The skill of the potter in working with his hands to form a beautiful and useful vessel from this lump of clay is like the skill of the Stoic in working with the cardinal virtues in forming a noble character. The Stoic’s clay is made up of the indifferents. Without the clay and the indifferents, the potter and the Stoic have nothing upon which to practice their skills.
So that’s what I tried to do today with Time. I endeavored to exercise the virtues– wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice–with respect to Time. How I spent my time was in large part a matter of justice: how is my limited time most ethically distributed? But courage came into play more than I expected. After all, sometimes the best use of time is not the most desirable, so an unpleasant task must be faced and cannot be put off any longer. And moderation was also a concern. Surely, it is preferable to spend time in luxury or relaxation when it is available. But just as surely, it is important to spend time laboring when that time comes along. Practicing moderation (or decorum) through Time is a matter of knowing when the time is appropriate for one thing or another, keeping in mind all the time that the way time is spent in general has no necessary ethical value.
I didn’t do this perfectly. I spent too long at lunch with my wife to complete my entire task list. And I spent enough time working on my new firm’s website that I nearly ran late to pick up my daughter. But (except for some momentary anger at myself when I anticipated being late to pick up the kid), I managed to embrace making the most of time without falling into the trap of becoming entangled in managing time as a passion.
This would be a worthwhile exercise to repeat until it becomes a habit, lest I become a slave to the billable hour.
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.
StoicLawyer hasn’t been updated in a little over a year. In that time, I’ve: left private practice; worked in an in-house position; all but had a complete mental breakdown; tried my damnedest to ruin and end my marriage; confronted flaws that have plagued me in silence for much of my life; reformed and improved my relationship with my wife; left my in-house position; and returned to the private practice of law. Through all of that, I’ve continued to read and study Stoicism. And I thought I was living it.
Stoic Week 2013 starts Monday. The first step for participation is a series of pre-study questionnaires to gauge items such as satisfaction with life, the balance between positive and negative feelings, and (most tellingly for me) the extent of Stoic attitudes and behaviors. My answers revealed what I should have been able to tell from the past year; although I understand a great deal about Stoic thought and history, I am not living like a Stoic.
Here are a few examples from my pretests:
Positive and Negative Emotions Scale (how often over the past four weeks have you felt…)
Those weren’t the answers I wanted to give, but they were true. In fact, I think the last two were on the conservative side. I probably should have answered both with “disagree.”
But I have a remedy. One of the insights from Stoic thought is that the present is the only moment in which we can act; the only one that is “real.” The past is beyond my ability to control. So for me, Stoic Week 2013 is going to be a boot camp or 7-day cleanse type of exercise. Each day of Stoic Week, I can take a quote from my early Latin lessons and say “ME PHILOSOPHIAE DO!” By doing that for a week, I can start to build a habit that will lead me back to practicing living a Stoic life every day.
I intend to post progress every day of Stoic Week, and I invite you to join me in the experiment. Take the pretests and download the Stoic Week Handbook before Monday, November 25. Learn for yourself why the Financial Times and the UK’s Channel 4 have noted the tremendous history and growth of Stoic thought.
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.
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.