Stoic advice column: who should I spend my time with?

Advice[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

D. writes: “As a guest on the Partially Examined Life podcast you remarked that one of the ancient teachers had a quote of something along the lines of not wasting time with those who you cannot learn or enjoy time with, even if that means conversing with Seneca or Aristotle or Descartes next to the fire instead of going out to the pub, for example. My issue is how this sentiment coincides or aligns with Marcus Aurelius when he speaks of us as being naturally social creatures, or what about if your best friend has a husband that is not worth spending time with, or someone on your project team at work is not worth spending time with. One may be able to choose their friends, but not their friend’s friends. One may be able to choose their place of work, but not their workmates.”

This is a very interesting question, and one I struggle with on a regular basis. You are right, on the one hand we are told by Epictetus and Seneca to choose our company wisely and not waste our time; but on the other hand Marcus stresses that we are social beings and ought to be concerned with others (and bear with them, if the need be).

Here, for instance, are some pertinent quotes:

“Formerly, when you were devoted to worthless pursuits, your friends found you congenial company. But you can’t be a hit in both roles. To the extent you cultivate one you will fall short in the other.” (Epictetus, Discourses IV, 2.6-7)

“I spend my time in the company of all the best; no matter in what lands they may have lived, or in what age, I let my thoughts fly to them.” (Seneca, LXII. On Good Company, 2)

“As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.” (Marcus, Meditations, IX.23)

Indeed, I devoted an earlier essay entirely to this question, but I’m glad to revisit it here. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the best way to deal with the issue is as suggested in a broader context by Larry Becker, in his A New Stoic.

Near the end of ch. 6 of that book, Larry gives an argument for reconceptualizing virtue as the perfection of (moral) agency. While the argument and its conclusion are controversial (see here), I want to focus on some of the crucial steps (though I do encourage you to look up the full chain of reasoning and the accompanying commentary):

Step 1: “I have many endeavors — many things I want to do — and each of those endeavors warrants normative propositions about what I ought (or am required) to do or be, nothing-else-considered.”

For instance, one thing I ought to do is to keep the company of people who will help me in my quest for being a virtuous person, which means also to avoid the company of other people, those likely to hinder me in such a quest.

But another thing I ought to do “nothing-else-considered,” that is, independently of other considerations, is to maintain friendships with worthy people, even though this means at the least occasionally having to interact with their own friends, some of whom I’d rather not frequent. (The same goes for your example of a co-worker, etc.)

Step 3: “My normative practical reasoning about my endeavors, done serially, routinely generates a welter of conflicting requirements and oughts.”

What Larry is saying here is that if I consider a number of things that I ought to do nothing-else-considered I’m going to run into conflicts, which is what your question is about.

Step 5: “Thus even the sequential application of practical reasoning nothing-else-considered to a long, arbitrarily selected series of target endeavors will routinely face local optimization problems — conflicts between two endeavors that can be solved by integrating them so that both of them can be pursued successfully.”

That is the challenge you (and I, and every other prokopton) face. How do we balance different requirements, such as those of frequenting people who can help us with our virtue, and yet maintain friendships, relationships with coworkers, and so forth?

Step 6: “The indefinitely repeated, stepwise solution of local optimization problems eventually results in global optimization, but as I reflect on this process in the course of integrating any two projects, I see that I may fail in my local endeavor if I do not now consider matters globally.”

This is beginning to get close to the answer: we need to stop considering things sequentially nothing-else-considered and move to a global perspective, all-things-considered.

Step 7 (the last one that will concern us here): “When I reason all-things-considered, however, I am no longer engaging in an endeavor whose aim is local optimization. Rather, every endeavor that I consider (because it defines an aim for me; is normative for me) becomes a target for the optimizing work of practical reasoning.”

This is essentially saying that we need to balance the individual tasks according to our overall plan. That plan is to become more proficient in the practice of Stoicism, but to do so also means — as Marcus would put it — doing the work of a human being. That work isn’t to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world in the company of a selected few. That’s what the Epicureans do, over at the Garden. But the Stoics spend their life in the open market, the painted porch, constantly interacting with other people, and some of those people we cannot assume to be virtuous, or even simply to be interested in becoming virtuous.

The right balance to keep, then, calls on all four of the cardinal virtues: i) phronesis, because we need to develop the practical wisdom of figuring out how best to deal with individual situations while keeping our global goal constantly in mind; ii) justice, because we want to be fair to our friends and coworkers and treat them with respect, regardless of whether they are helpful to our practice of virtue or not; iii) temperance, because more often than not we will have to control our impatience or mounting frustration with some of those people; and iv) courage, to occasionally tell a friend that we simply do not wish to spend time with someone that friend thinks highly of, because we don’t share his judgment.

Lest you think this is far too theoretical to be useful, I can tell you that I actually am experiencing at the least a couple of such situations myself, one with a friend and a friend of this friend (whom I don’t think is a virtuous person), the other with a relative and someone that relative cares about (and I’d rather avoid). These two situations lead me to engage in a constant balancing act that puts to the test my commitment to virtue and the Stoic way of life. I think I am managing well both cases, at the least thus far, but I do keep in mind that the overriding goal is to practice my own virtue, and that other people’s virtue is, of course, both a preferred indifferent and outside of my control.

One thing that I noticed in all of this is akin to what Bill Irvine talks about in chapter 22 (“Practicing Stoicism”) of his A Guide to the Good Life, where he says that he keeps a score of his successes in practicing virtue against his own recalcitrant self, who would rather do things the easy way: “it is, somewhat surprisingly, fun to do. It is quite enjoyable to ‘win a point’ in this game by, for example, successfully overcoming a fear,” or, in the case of your question, successfully navigate the balance between spending as much time as possible with virtuous friends and the inevitable fact of life that we need to have social intercourse with people for whom virtue is not at all a priority. As Epictetus aptly put it, “When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Enchiridion 51.2)

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4 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: who should I spend my time with?

  1. I wonder how this question applies to teachers, who must often spend time with people unlikely to make one virtuous. Should teachers consider the improvement of students’ virtue (should there ever be any other final goal for one’s teaching?) as a preferred indifferent? I suppose so, but I wonder how many current teachers–from passionate to absolutely indifferent–would accept such a formulation. And the Stoics themselves seem to be very motivated to teach others, but did they consider a positive result from that teaching a preferred indifferent? It must have been a struggle to do so.

    I ask because last night I got an e-mail from a former student who asked for the syllabus of a seminar I taught on Hamlet because she was teaching the play to her high school students. This made me very happy–perhaps too happy for something that should have been a preferred indifferent. Any thoughts?

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  2. Jmyers,

    You should be happy about your former student, i can sympathize when things like that happen to me (or when someone writes to me saying that this blog is having a positive impact on their life). The fact that it is a preferred indifferent simply means that it doesn’t affect your virtue, not that you should not be glad about it.

    But yes, in general I consider my students’ welfare and virtue to be (highly) preferred indifferents. Meaning specifically that I gladly do my best to help out, keeping in mind of course that the outcome is not up to me, per Epictetus’ dicothomy of control.

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  3. We are gregarious animals, far more so than any other species. But opposing this is our selective nature, leading us to choose friends and acquaintances with care. This is the cause of much pain and loneliness since some lack the social skills for easy integration. In the last three decades loneliness has gone up from 20% to 40%, in rough numbers. This has painful outcomes in depression and suicide.

    A major cause is that societal changes have increased mobility, allowing friendships to move from propinquity to selection. We are aggregating into small islands which are marked by exclusion.

    This trend towards exclusion has a clear potential for elitism, pain and harm.

    But there is not just harm to excluded individuals, but also broader harm to society. When exclusive groupings form, four things happen,
    1) they communicate less between groups,
    2) they misunderstand each more,
    3) certainty of their own rightness increases and
    4) hostility increases.

    Considering the potential for hurt, I suggest that the advice in the post be offset by these considerations:

    1) seek to do no harm.
    An attitude of exclusion and elitism is readily perceived by others, no matter what your intention. This is hurtful to the person concerned and harmful to society.

    2) do unto others as you would have them do to you.
    Treat other people as you would wish them to treat you. Ask yourself carefully how you would wish to be treated in the same circumstances.

    3) seek out the good.
    There is always good to be found in people. Look for it, recognise it and affirm it. It will make you a better person.

    4) be respectful.
    Each person is valuable in their own right. They possess innate worth and dignity. Their life is sacred.

    5) be affirming and be generous.
    Give generous, positive recognition of the good in the other person that shows respect for their worth and dignity.

    Follow these steps and you will be surprised by the increased number of people whose company you can enjoy(and vice versa). You will almost certainly become a better person.

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  4. …successfully navigate the balance between spending as much time as possible with virtuous friends and the inevitable fact of life that we need to have social intercourse with people for whom virtue is not at all a priority.

    Nowhere is this more true than in a corporate environment. Here one has no choice who to spend time with. This is more challenging because the corporate environment is largely a virtue-free zone where survival of the fittest is the dominant rule and virtue is always subordinate to this rule. This is where the next piece of advice is so pertinent:

    …keep in mind that the overriding goal is to practice my own virtue, and that other people’s virtue is, of course, both a preferred indifferent and outside of my control

    The practice of virtue in a virtue-free zone is very challenging and the following piece of advice is a remarkably good guide to achieving this:

    …keeps a score of his successes in practicing virtue against his own recalcitrant self, who would rather do things the easy way

    I am planning to incorporate this practice into my Daily Examen in the form of a checklist of the seven cardinal virtues, suitably expanded. The Daily Examen is already a form of doing this but using a checklist makes it more explicit.

    … realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option

    This emphasis on acting now without excuses for delay is important. A powerful way to do this is to keep a daily Stoic journal, or, in my case, a Daily Examen journal. The daily journal focuses one’s attention on acting now, since otherwise the journal page would be empty.

    on the one hand we are told by Epictetus and Seneca to choose our company wisely and not waste our time

    however:

    but on the other hand Marcus stresses that we are social beings and ought to be concerned with others

    I agree with Marcus’ counterpoint and even think this is the dominant consideration. But there is a further consideration. Virtuous people must be present and active in social life so that their example can influence others to live a more virtuous life. This does emphatically not mean talking about it since that is invariably counter-productive. It needs to be quietly and unostentatiously lived in a state of humility and sincerity. This is the most powerful example.

    In any case to learn the practise of virtue we must be exposed to the rough, raw world of challenges to our virtue. Retreating from undesired social contacts won’t achieve this. To toughen the skin on my feet I must walk barefoot on rough ground.

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