[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)