Stoic advice column: should I be thankful?

Advice[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

C. writes: “Is it appropriate for a Stoic to express thanks for a preferred indifferent? While I believe I was totally prepared to accept my fate, on being given a reprieve, I feel the need to, in Christian terms, “fall on my knees.” What is the Stoic equivalent?”

That very much depends on the circumstances, as well as on what you mean by “thankful,” but let me begin with the broader point that there is nothing in Stoicism that precludes being thankful for a positive outcome regarding something falling under the (very) broad category of “preferred indifferents” (i.e., everything that does not affect virtue). On the contrary, it can be argued that part of the point of several Stoic exercises is precisely to enhance our gratitude for the things we have and the people we love, properly appreciating them in the brief span of time that we have them.

Modern Stoic Bill Irvine writes: “Hedonic adaptation [the psychological phenomenon by which we get used to the pleasurable things we enjoy] has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.” (A Guide to the Good Life, p.73) Which implies that we should be grateful for what we have, actively trying not to get used to it and thus take it for granted.

The message is patently clear in some of the ancient texts. Consider, for instance, that the beginning of the first book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a long list of thanks to people he is grateful to because they taught him something valuable:

“From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. … From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. … From Diognetus [I learned] not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of demons and such things. … From Rustics [I learned] with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled. … From Sextus [I learned] to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.” And so on.

Seneca even thanks the gods for our very nature as human beings and our place in the cosmos: “How much better is it to turn to the contemplation of so many great blessings, and to be thankful that the gods have been pleased to give us a place second only to themselves in this most beautiful abode, and that they have appointed us to be the lords of the earth!” (On Benefits, II.29)

And here is Epictetus: “And what is the divine law? To keep a man’s own, not to claim that which belongs to others, but to use what is given, and when it is not given, not to desire it; and when a thing is taken away, to give it up readily and immediately, and to be thankful for the time that a man has had the use of it, if you would not cry for your nurse and mamma.” (Discourses II.16)

So, yes, Stoics can, indeed should, be thankful when good things happen to them. But this comes with a caveat, made clear in the last quote above: we don’t actually own either things or people, we “borrow” them from the universe, as Epictetus puts it, and we should not complain when the universe takes them back, in whatever fashion, and at whatever time.

Stoic thankfulness, however, is not at all like the Christian variety. Despite the fact that both Seneca and Epictetus mentioned God in the passages quoted above, let’s not forget that the Stoics identified God with Nature, and especially from a modern standpoint it sounds a bit weird to think natural processes for anything, since they are impersonal. Even within the ancient Stoic paradigm, consider this passage by Marcus:

“For hand or foot to feel pain is no violation of nature, so long as the foot does its own appointed work, and the hand its own. Similarly pain for a man, as man, is no unnatural thing so long as he does a man’s appointed work. But, if not unnatural, then is it not an evil either.” (Meditations VI.33)

That is, even when they talked about Providence, the Stoics saw themselves as part of a cosmic organism (the hand or foot of the metaphor), which could readily be sacrificed, or made to step in the mud, for the good of the body (i.e., the cosmos). In other words, the universe doesn’t care about us in particular, there is no God that answers to prayers and who loves every one of us. But rather than deriving despair from this realization, the Stoic finds comfort in it, and even more reason to be thankful (to no one in particular).

Finally, there is the particular case of another human being responsible for whatever good happen to you. In those instances we actually have a specific one to be thankful to, and we should express such thanks to reinforce that we are part of a cosmopolis, that is of a social world were everyone is supposed to take care of improving things because that benefits both himself and everyone else. Sometimes we are not willing to do our duty within the cosmopolis, but Marcus reminds himself, and therefore us:

“In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1)

That work includes expressing gratitude to people who do good things for us (because it is in our power to do so), though we don’t necessarily expect them to do likewise (because what they do is not within our power).

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52 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: should I be thankful?

  1. Paul Braterman

    Perhaps C’s problem (which, albeit in lesser matters, I often share) is, how to use or bestow the feeling of gratitude that comes over us at moments of joy or insight or relief, when there is no one responsible, since, as you yourself put it, “especially from a modern standpoint it sounds a bit weird to th[a]nk natural processes for anything”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Mann

    While most of us acknowledge the connection between gratefulness and psychological well-being, we differ about how to be grateful.

    While it is natural and even rational to be grateful for the sun and the rain, if you are a farmer, it is equally natural and rational to be ungrateful for the tornado and the tsunami. This suggests that we are fated to be grateful when things go well and miserable when they go badly.

    The same is true if we are grateful for the people in our lives. If they make us feel good and teach us valuable lessons, we are grateful. If they don’t, it is both natural and rational to not feel grateful. Therefore to practice gratefulness when there is nothing for which to be grateful is both irrational, unnatural, and not in accord with wisdom, even if it might momentarily make us feel better.

    The Christian understanding is different. We have the resources to feel grateful in the worse of circumstances. Why? We are convinced that our Lord is working everything for our good. Besides, even if we experience the worst forms of victimization, we are convinced that the Lord has everything under His control, and that we will ultimately be with Him in paradise for all eternity.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Daniel,

    Right, Christians can (ought?) to feel grateful for disease, natural catastrophes and human evil. Of course that’s based on the assumption that there is a benevolent god behind all this. An assumption that, you may not be surprised to discover, I see no reason whatsoever to buy into.

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  4. Daniel Mann

    If think that you will find that all of your Stoic principles – for many of which I have great respect – are best fulfilled in Christ. He provides a coherence and a satisfying underpinning for all of life’s challenges.

    Besides, I think that there are many weighty theistic proof, if you’d care to entertain them. Besides, there are also many personal assurances that we receive from Christ.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    From what I understand, it isn’t against stoic principles to actually be grateful for dispreferred indifferents if they manage to give one a needed kick in the pants in order to practice virtue. At least, that’s how I interpret some of the things the ancients have said. But I imagine it would be a rather advanced practice, especially if it goes beyond the level of Irvine’s creative responses to insults.

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  6. Ronald Salmond

    Professor Pigliucci I was first exposed to Stoicism as a 15 year old high school drop out in 1971. My neighborhood grocer, Mr. Stein who survived internment in two concentration camps during World War II and lost his entire family, loved me and gave me a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”.

    Professor I have kept a copy with me since then.

    Professor I served 15 years in the United States Army. I performed two combat tours.

    I served in the Infantry (11-Bravo, Airborne Ranger, 7th Cavalry/ First Cavalry Division, 75th Ranger Regiment, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division [All American].

    After graduation from college and medical school, Professor I served in the U.S Army Medical Corps.

    Professor none of those things that I accomplished gave me eudemonia.

    Professor it was not until I experienced another life crisis in 2006 that I really appreciated that I had lived what Socrates called “the”unexamined life”.

    Professor I turned 60 in December of last year. I came to a recognition that I spent much of my life pursuing indifferents that I thought would give me happiness and allow me to feel that I was contributing to humankind and that I was part of a world community.

    I acted from the wrong will Professor. I did not use various ‘indifferent” for their instrumental value in pursuing virtue.

    As Seneca wrote: “Some things are superfluous, and others are not worth the price we pay for them”- Epistulae MoralesI., 281

    Am I thankful? Yes sir. Despite wasting many of my years I am thankful.

    I am thankful for everything that I have.

    I am thankful for this column in which you and other participants have been kind enough to share your practical wisdom to help me in my pursuit of virtue and eudemonia.

    I am thankful that now as I approach what may be the close of my life due to a Myelodysplastic Syndrome that I have finally truly appreciated what Epictetus advised in the Enchiridion 8

    “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do, and you will go on well.”

    It’s a very simple maxim Professor Pigliucci. It took me 45 years to really understand it.

    I will forever be thankful for the practical wisdom of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca The Younger, the other Stoics of antiquity, and the contributions that you and other contemporary Stoics have made that have been so beneficial to me in my pursuit of virtue and an examined life.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Ronald Salmond, M.D., Major, Medical Corps, U.S Army, Retired

    Liked by 1 person

  7. labnut

    Massimo,
    Right, Christians can (ought?) to feel grateful for disease, natural catastrophes and human evil.

    I can’t see anything of that in his words. Perhaps you have not understood his words?

    Of course that’s based on the assumption that there is a benevolent god behind all this.

    What to you seems like an assumption is to us a carefully reasoned position based on good facts. I respect your right to make the opposite assumption.

    An assumption that, you may not be surprised to discover, I see no reason whatsoever to buy into.

    We respect your right to believe differently. We, on the other hand, think there are good, solid reasons for our beliefs that can withstand careful examination. We have differing views. I welcome that. Vive la différence.

    I think it would be preferable if we worked from a standpoint of mutual respect for each other’s positions instead of being combative. Then we need not spend time on mutual contradictions and can instead address the substantive issues of the essay.

    In this case Christians and Stoics approach the question of gratitude in different ways. I think it could be a useful discussion to contrast these approaches and also to look for commonalities. I could make a strong case in defence of Daniel’s assertion.

    On the other hand you may be uninterested in the Christian approach and wish to more narrowly confine the discussion to the Stoic approach only, that you described. If that is the case a polite note to that effect would be enough.

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  8. Daniel Mann

    Labnut:

    “We respect your right to believe differently. We, on the other hand, think there are good, solid reasons for our beliefs that can withstand careful examination.”

    So true! I had wanted to explain that Christ is the glue that holds our dearest values together. Just to take a simple one – humanity-centered virtue or ethics! Stoicism is humanity-centered as it should be, but why? Without Christ, Stoicism is left to build with only pragmatic reasons or building blocks.

    Meanwhile, many Western voices claim either that all life is of equal value or that there are certain characteristics – like sentience or the depth of feeling – that convey a greater value upon us.

    Of course, if all life is of equal value, then our laws should reflect this “fact,” to our ultimate destruction. If, instead, value is derived according to the degree of our intelligence or emotion, then human equality and “equal protection under the law” are out-the-window.

    Pragmatism lacks the essential glue to hold these vital foundational elements (even gratefulness) in place. It leaves us with evolving-virtue – an inadequate foundation for any life or building.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    To begin with, please do not assume that if I disagree with you (or Daniel) then I must not have understood what you (or him) said. Here is Daniel:

    “We are convinced that our Lord is working everything for our good. Besides, even if we experience the worst forms of victimization, we are convinced that the Lord has everything under His control”

    That seems to me precisely to imply what I wrote above about Christian doctrine.

    You and Daniel can keep repeating all you want that the existence of your god is a fact, but the fact is that it isn’t. And, again, do not insult my intelligence by reminding me that there are arguments and evidence. I know them very well, and I find them woefully inadequate. You and him have of course the right to believe in whatever you wish to believe, but this is not a site for Christian apologetics, so I would invite you once again not to engage in it, thanks.

    I am not being “combative,” but I am allergic to blanket declarations like the one that Daniel makes (please, do re-read what he wrote, this time and on other occasions). Such declarations are hard to take in the spirit of mutual respect. Once more: we can agree to disagree, but I’m getting tired of the apologetics, which seem to say “we agree to disagree and respect, but our side is so obviously better than yours, you blind fool.” An attitude, interestingly, that Daniel has in common with the New Atheists.

    And if you are not convinced, read what Daniel wrote after your last response, including: “Stoicism is humanity-centered as it should be, but why? Without Christ, Stoicism is left to build with only pragmatic reasons or building blocks.”

    If that doesn’t count as confrontational apologetics I don’t know what does. Please remember, this is my forum, which means you guys are my guests. Try to abide by my rules, which are pretty simple and, I think, fair.

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  10. PixieGloLife

    I grew up in a Christian household. My dad didn’t teach me to be grateful for bad occurrences because it’s part of a higher purpose. This is perhaps as bizarre but at least it helped me accept that bad, disaster n suffering is part of life. Basically whatever happens in the world that has a negative impact happens because of What Christian doctrine calls “original sin”. . I googled the meaning …”Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is the Christian doctrine of humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden, namely the sin of disobedience in consuming from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
    Wild story hah! Lol I don’t buy the Adam n Eve eating the forbidding apples. I find this pretty sexist that they are blaming eve for the fallout of the human race. Nor do I accept that God is behind bad occurrences n that we should be grateful. This misleading rhetoric is popular amongst narcissist pastors n priests. Used as a tactic to make Christians codependent on religion. But I dissect what works for me. To make sense of it … bad happens because is a natural law of nature. We need to go through bad experiences so we can be able to differentiate bet bad n good, learn from, accept n move on. But this is me n perhaps my dad n a few other Christians. Sadly reality is that Many Christians esp in the US think it’s all part of Gods major plan… I find this delusional. :/

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  11. Daniel Mann

    PixieGloLife,

    I too disagree with the faith with which you were raised, but rather than going into theology, I’d prefer to address your comment:

    “We need to go through bad experiences so we can be able to differentiate bet bad n good, learn from, accept n move on.”

    In a godless world, there is no basis for an objective good or bad. As even a number of
    Stoics here acknowledge, good and bad are purely justified by their results – whether what we deem good is of “benefit” to us. (Nature is also not an adequate basis for virtue. Nature is also a matter of rape and greed.) Consequently, it is relative to our society and what is acceptable at the moment.

    Interestingly, if we truly base our case on a far-sighted pragmatism, we will believe in Christ for His many benefits.

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  12. E. O. Scott

    In several passages of the Discourses, Epictetus explicitly models what Stoic thankfulness should look like (usually in the form of a prayer). The interesting thing to note is that he does encourage being grateful for externals—but only perhaps as a sort of exercise or metaphor for being grateful for the things that really matter:

    “Don’t be ungrateful, man, nor yet forgetful of better gifts than these, but off up thanks to God for sight and hearing, and , by Zeus, for life itself and all that supports it, for dried fruits, for wine, for olive oil, remembering all the same that he has given you something better than all of these, the faculty that makes use of them, that tests them out, that passes judgment on the value of each.” (2.23.5–6).

    In that view, being thankful for indifferent things is almost like a scaffolding—it helps us gain some “grateful inertia” that we can use to help ourselves feel thankful for the things that are not indifferent.

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  13. labnut

    Massimo,
    I think the discussion is tending to get out of hand. The issue is remarkably simple. You and I have different priors, axiomatic beliefs, call it what you will. Let’s just accept that as a fact and refrain from unhelpful disputation.

    Eric said a remarkably wise thing when he urged us to imaginatively enter into each other’s world views. Your world view and mine lead us to approach the subject of gratitude in very different ways and yet we still agree that gratitude is important. I think that is potentially an interesting area for discussion(but maybe not for you?).

    Gratitude is a central part of Christian living. In the face of adversity and suffering we still feel gratitude.This comes out clearly in our practice of the Daily Examen. Why should gratitude so deeply permeate Christian life? I think a Christian perspective on the subject could be a useful contribution.

    You say, but without further elaboration

    Stoic thankfulness, however, is not at all like the Christian variety

    I can see that from your description of Stoic thankfulness but I wonder if you fully understand the depth of the difference?

    I am allergic to blanket declarations like the one that Daniel makes

    Yes, that is evident from the tone of your comments. But should you be allergic? Here a Stoic perspective is helpful. Can you change his behaviour? Is he doing any harm? Is it not perhaps interesting to do as Eric advises and enter imaginatively into his world view. Are you perhaps being overly confrontational? What is really under your control? Surely it is your own thoughts and emotions which should be the primary object of your control?

    A nice civil discussion that respects each other’s rights to hold different priors is what I wish for.

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  14. E. O. Scott

    (Forgive me in advance, Massimo, if I’m stoking the fire. How to handle conversations that are falling apart just happens to be a special interest area of mine 😉 )

    Labnut,

    The question on the table right isn’t so much how to go about “entering imaginatively” into the other’s view, as how one should respond when the other side has refused to enter imaginatively into your view.

    Daniel said that Stoicism is “an inadequate foundation for any life or building.” He is choosing to take an uncharitable view of all views except his own—and he repeatedly expresses an extreme level of assurance that his religion gives him an unassailably firm meta-ethical foundation (http://www.iep.utm.edu/metaethi/), and he frequently expresses contempt for alternative meta-ethical positions (namely, any and all forms of Humanism).

    In the game of “entering imaginatively,” Daniel has made an impermissible move.

    What next? One can 1) pretend that he did not err and proceed in good faith despite his bad faith (forgive and forget), one can 2) ignore him entirely (disengage), one can 3) provide complex negative feedback (in the form of psychologizing your opponents or patronizingly telling them how they ought to use their introspection), or 4) one can provide simple negative feedback in hopes that he will change his behavior.

    Massimo chose number (4), but in response to Massimo’s statements you seem to have chosen number (3). IMO number (3) is seldom effective, because it really enters into territory that is better applied to one’s self than to others.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. E. O. Scott

    Paul,

    “how do I offer up the thankfulness I feel”

    Personally, I do it through a form of meditation. Most of the Stoics didn’t literally believe that God was listening to their prayers, so it’s much the same as meditation to begin with. If I pause before a meal to cultivate a sense of gratitude, or if I sit quietly for a moment and contemplate “how wonderful it is that I live in a universe that gave me the seeds of virtue,” it’s is almost the exact same thing as uttering a Stoic prayer.

    That is my little non-theistic way of incorporating a bit of Stoic physics into my modern Stoic practice. I find that it is sometimes a big boost to my practice, in the sense that it strengthens my commitment to the idea that virtue is the only good, and that dispreferred events are not first-class “evils.”

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  16. Paul Braterman

    Eric,

    What you said is very much what I expected. One interesting point (to me) is that it implies a re-evaluation of the logic of gratitude. In person-to-person transactions, one feels gratitude for something to the person(s) who helped make it happen, especially if they did so out of generosity, and this is part of the social structuring by which we build up mutual cooperation. When there is no to, using the emotion to nourish the search for virtue may serve much the same end.

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  17. labnut

    Paul,
    how do I offer up the thankfulness I feel

    What a good question!

    Through service to others so that you can give them reasons for gratitude. This need not only be charity. We contribute to the good of others through every creative, moral or productive act we make. If you leave this world, in some sense, a better place for having been there, you are showing gratitude to the people who left a better world for you to enjoy. Your acts of gratitude will in turn earn the gratitude of the people who follow you.

    And that is why gratitude is so important.

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  18. E. O. Scott

    Labnut,

    I think that somehow you are missing something that seems very obvious to Massimo and I.

    Unfortunately, while I believe it is possible in principle to explain to you what I think is wrong with the way Daniel went about stating his position, it actually takes a great deal of hermeneutical effort to clarify differences in perception like this among people whose intuitions disagree wildly.

    Entire domains of philosophy and literary theory have been invented to settle even simpler disputes!

    Suffice to say that, while I agree that there are certain scenarios—such as in the opening salvo of a formal debate before an audience, or in casually feeling out other people’s opinions when you don’t know them—in which it is appropriate to make statements like “X is an inadequate foundation for any life or building,” or “lacks the essential glue to hold these vital foundational elements (even gratefulness) in place,” there are additional conditions at play here that make this situation different.

    Less dialogue-oriented and more “loaded” and “prejudicial,” to use your terms.

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  19. E. O. Scott

    Paul,

    “One interesting point (to me) is that it implies a re-evaluation of the logic of gratitude.”

    Arguably. However, I think the concept of “gratitude” has always include elements of both “to” and “non-to,” if you will.

    The Stoics often discussed gratitude from the perspective of Justice, for instance: gratitude is something we have a social duty to show those who benefit us, because that is what is due to them. Sometimes they described the gods in a similar way—piety and gratitude is something we render as a duty. Anything else would be unfair, “ungrateful.”

    But I think that simply choosing to look at things and say “this is good,” and to cultivate inner Joy thereby, has always also been a component of what both Christians and Stoics mean by the word “gratitude.” In that sense, one was always able to be “grateful” without explicitly offering thanks to a second person as remuneration.

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  20. Massimo Post author

    Labnut, Daniel,

    Eric has said it much better than I did (thank you, Eric!). As a result, from now on I will not allow comments on this blog that sound to me like Christian apologetics. That, of course, is a subjective criterion. Then, again, it is my public living room, so to speak, so my subjectivity, I’m afraid, rules.

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  21. E. O. Scott

    PS: Labnut, I think there are still interesting aspects of this topic (meta-topic?) that you and I have yet to uncover together. I’m happy to continue our conversation in a more focused way, if you want to find a way of taking it offline.

    Daniel and I once did this by moving to the comments section of my personal blog.

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  22. Daniel Mann

    Although I do not agree with where Eric and Massimo are drawing the line – I think that examining the foundations or metaphysics of Stoicism is entirely relevant – I do respect the fact that this is Massimo’s “bedroom,” and that he has the right to close the door whenever and wherever he pleases.

    Therefore, if anyone wants to pursue this discussion elsewhere, you can count me in.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. labnut

    Paul asked the question:

    how do I offer up the thankfulness I feel

    This is a most important question which received little attention(thanks Paul).

    I replied:

    Through service to others so that you can give them reasons for gratitude. This need not only be charity. We contribute to the good of others through every creative, moral or productive act we make. If you leave this world, in some sense, a better place for having been there, you are showing gratitude to the people who left a better world for you to enjoy. Your acts of gratitude will in turn earn the gratitude of the people who follow you.

    Gratitude, by itself, is another example of self-directed emotion, the problem I pointed out in previous comments. You feel glad, good, happy, rewarded, appreciative etc, etc because of what others or circumstances have provided for you. The focus is on what the self received from the outer world. By itself it is a form of narcissism but it is not full blown narcissism because at least it recognises that the other is the source.

    What rescues it from narcissism is a strong regard or concern for others. In other words by embracing other-directedness and retreating from self-directedness, which is the main concern of Stoicism.

    Gratitude becomes healthy when it expresses itself as a form of living that enriches the world and the life of others so that they may also be grateful. The best form of gratitude is to give back more than you receive. Real gratitude expresses itself in concern for others and desires that they may have reasons to experience gratitude. This is what rescues it from self-directedness and its extreme manifestation, narcissism.

    This is important because our world is moving towards a tipping point of dangerous change, fuelled by self-absorption. To survive that we need more than the self-directedness of Stoicism. Resilience is of course important and healthy but it is far from being sufficient. More important than my survival is what I can do to promote the survival and flourishing of others. A healthy society demands strong other-directedness, something that is largely neglected in modern Stoic writings.

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