Stoic advice: I’ve done terrible things, now what?

Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger, a real Stoic role model

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

[Note: this post is part of a special one-week marathon of Stoic advice, which is made necessary by the sheer volume of requests I keep receiving. If you have written and I haven’t gotten to your letter yet, please be patient. If you are interested in the other features of this blog, we’ll resume regular programming next week…]

[Please note that this letter is heavily excerpted and somewhat redacted, because the original was too long and full of delicate personal details.]

F. writes: As a young child growing up in my African community, I was indoctrinated religiously into a Christian environment. But for as long as I could remember, I started crossing moral boundaries early on. I lied and stole in my parent’s house. I got worse when I left my parents house for junior high school at a boarding school. There I met an older student who I looked up to as my role model. I walked with him, studied with me, and stayed in the same hostel with him. And because he was the smartest in the school, I looked up to him and imbibed every one of his habits. My stealing habit stepped up because he too stole and I often accompanied him whenever he was doing his stealing. 

I did so many other immoral things — and they are hunting me now in the form of guilt. I stole in high school continuously, and coerced a young kid to steal his parents’ money for me. I cheated on exams in high school, was a pathological liar, and an harasser. But since March of 2015, I am developing ethically, even though I still fail sometimes, but not as badly as in my previous life. What can I do to erase all the guilt?

What do you think about reparation? Do you advice that I go ahead and set up a scholarship type of fund in my high school? The three young girls I molested, what do you think is the best way to show them that I am really sorry? How about the young boy I bullied, what do you think I can do for him? What can I do in cases where I cannot find my victim anymore? And to those I have lied to, what do you think I can do… go and apologize to them? Now, I am known as a good person, but within me, I am filled with guilt for my past. I told myself I do not deserve a wife or children because of what I made those little girls and boys go through. The term paper I bought, do you advise that I tell the professor even after she gave me an A in the class? What about the testing center I cheated at, do I have to send an apology letter to the office? I also cheated on my high school leaving certificate exam, should I return the certificate? I am confused. But I want to correct all the past mistakes as much as I can now by doing greater good and trying to live morally and practice Stoicism. Is reparation a good idea, and apology to those I have lied to?

Okay, this is a pretty big mess you made, apparently over many years. Some important details are not clear to me — despite the length of your letter. For instance, were you a minor when you abused those girls and that boy? And what sort of abuse are we talking about (that word is a bit too vague, generally speaking)? That makes a difference, both ethically and legally. It is also not clear at all what happened back in 2015. What, exactly, made you change your behavior so sharply? Finally, it sounds like you have a good reputation and some financial means now; did all of that accrue within the past couple of years?

Despite these crucial missing information, let me begin with your last question: is reparation a good idea, as well as an apology to those you have lied to? Yes, of course both apologies and reparations are a good starting point, not just to those you lied to, but those you stole from and those you abused. A Stoic would say you have a duty here to face up to your past deeds. Of course, this should not be done just to make you feel better, or assuage your guilt, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

The things you did fall into a number of categories, and they are certainly not equivalent from an ethical standpoint. Stealing change from your parents, or milk from a schoolmate (in a part of the letter not reported above) is relatively minor, especially when done at an early age when your character is not really formed. Cheating and lying on exams, over a prolonged period of time, and with major long-term consequences, is definitely worse. There is also the harassment and bullying you have perpetrated (pending the ascertaining of what, exactly, we are talking about). For those cases especially,  ask for psychological counseling first, immediately. Talk to your therapist, and then consider reporting yourself to the authorities so that justice proceedings may be initiated, as a way to keep yourself accountable. If that sounds unhelpful, then seek an “accountability buddy” to keep you on your toes. It is difficult to be a good prokopton on your own, under this sort of circumstances.

It certainly doesn’t seem right to me — Stoically or not — that you currently enjoy a good reputation and moreover are apparently taking material advantage of some of your misdeeds. The universe isn’t going to fix things for all the people you have wronged, you have to do it, if you aspire to truly overcome the person you were and become a better version of yourself.

That said, I’m not here to judge you. I am in no position to do so with anyone, really, as Epictetus colorfully reminds us:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45)

And he applies the same logic not just to minor things, like bathing and drinking, but to major crimes:

“‘So how can Medea say, I know that what I intend to do is bad , But anger is master of my plans?’ Because she regarded this very thing, the gratification of her anger and exacting of vengeance against her husband, as being more beneficial than keeping her children safe. ‘Yes, but she is mistaken.’ Show her clearly that she is mistaken and she won’t follow that course; but as long as you haven’t shown it, what else can she do than follow what seems best to her? Nothing else.” (Discourses I.28.7-8)

It sounds as you, like Medea, suffer from a profound case of amathia, the sort of lack of wisdom that causes people to commit evil out of “ignorance.” I don’t know enough about your upbringing to see who failed you, but someone certainly did. You were not provided with a good moral compass, so you ended up choosing a clearly bad role model, contra to what Seneca suggests we do:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letter XI. On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

It is painfully obvious that the friend you looked up to was neither a Cato nor a Laelius, and following him made things much worse for you, as well as for those unfortunate ones who have been affected by your behavior after that fateful choice.

Stoicism is a very forgiving, and self forgiving, philosophy. There is no point in morally condemning you for what you have done in the past, nor is there any point for you to wallow in guilt. The past is no longer under your control (or mine). But your present judgments and actions certainly are, and that means three things: (i) learn from your past and vow to be a better person, right now; (ii) see what sort of amends can be done to help the people you have harmed; and (iii) summon enough courage to face whatever legal consequences there may be from your actions. A better you does not get started by making excuses and dodging consequences, but by rising up to do your Stoic duty.

_____

Postscript: I have followed up with the author of the letter, investigating exactly what type of “abuse” he was talking about. It was rather minor, in all cases, and the writer was a child at the time. So I have strongly advised him not to go to the authorities, but still told him to seek therapy.

I am also increasingly convinced that the pushback against going to the authorities — even in far more serious cases — is actually on the right track, given that the justice system in most countries is geared toward punishment, not rehabilitation. Punishment is definitely not a Stoic goal. I do, however, remain convinced of the usefulness of an “accountability buddy,” so to speak, as it is too easy for all of us to rationalize that we’ve done good enough and just move on.

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Categories: Stoic advice

20 replies

  1. It’s clear F., for whatever reason, screwed up big time. It’s even surprising that he “came to his senses” and is now able not only to look back at it and see the awful things he did, but also to try to amend those things.

    Pardon me if this is not Stoic advice, but I would suggest that F. focuses on doing good stuff to the world in order to compensate for the bad things he did. If he can directly compensate the people he acted wrongly to, so much the better.

    I would also think long and hard before myself to the authorities, if I were in his shoes. Think about it this way: say you confess your crimes and go to jail. You will be punished for your misdeeds, but will this help the people you hurt? Maybe if you’re free to continue working and making money, you can compensate the people you hurt directly, or maybe you can try to make the world a better place. You can’t do that kind of stuff when you’re locked up.

    If you want to be harsh on yourself, you could do this: if you were a wrongdoer for 15 years, then spend 15 years of your life doing good deeds to people in general and to those you hurt specifically. If you can’t get in touch with those you hurt without incriminating yourself, I’m sure you can find ways to do it anonymously.

    All of this, of course, rests on the assumption that F. is no longer acting immorally.

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  2. I think it is bad advice. Can you give a source in stoic fundamental teachings which says that to turn oneself in to authorities is required? How would this do justice to the victims anyway? (I could understand financial compensation). The huge assumptions here are 1) a positive law outlook as opposed to a natural law outlook, 2) that prison is good or just in itself, 3) that the consequence does not outweigh the evils of the actions. What good would it do this man to now ruin his life and put himself in a position in which he can no longer be of value to anyone? I think you owe a bit more of a fundamental explanation, with sources and the logical steps of this ethical derivation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Strongly agree with Priamus. Prison is no place to repair ones past. Only in the present among people known and unknown can we do the good necessary. True, many have gone into isolation, or a monestary, to make amends or do a sort of penance. Given the world as we know it today there is so much good one can do in the way of community service that would be far more ‘reparative’ and ‘restorative’ to ones soul. Good therapy.

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  4. Seeker,

    You are, obviously, free to disagree with my advice. (And the writer is, equally obviously, free not to take it.) But the Stoics called themselves Socratic, and Socrates famously accepted the obviously unjust outcome of his trail, and refused to leave Athens when given a chance, on the basis that the laws of the land had served him well for all his life, and it wouldn’t right for him to make an exception for himself.

    Also, just to pick another example, one of the Stoic role models was Atilius Regulus (http://tinyurl.com/y7e84ulj), who famously even submitted himself to Cartagenean justice in order not to dishonor his word.

    Finally, my actual advice was to talk a therapist, and then consider reporting the facts to the authorities.

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  5. “Ask for psychological counseling first, immediately. Talk to your therapist, and then seriously consider reporting yourself to the authorities so that formal justice proceedings may be initiated.”

    It may be more to the point to pay,.if approriate, for therapy for the victims. Like the other commenters, I have no confidence in getting a useful response from the authorities (at least in the US and UK; Norway might be a different matter)

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  6. Several commenters already have objected to the idea of turning oneself in to the authorizes, which of course is fine, this is a discussion page! But I find that position interesting. First off, several people have focused on that half line out of 2000 words of text. Second, I actually advised the letter writer to talk to a psychologist and then consider contacting the authorities. Third, there are precedents for this advice in Stoic lore, consider Socrates, for instance, and how he refused to skip town in order to avoid even an unjust verdict. Fourth, there may be a temptation on the part of the writer to simply skip the hard bit and absolve himself, which would be curtailed by going to the authorities. Lastly, isn’t it a bit hypocritical of us to be glad that there are laws regulating crime, but then making exceptions for our own selves? (The last one is really a paraphrase of Socrates’ argument.)

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  7. Yes Massimo, you did recommend therapy. In my experience as a therapist many have revealed past sins and/or crimes. My approach has been to help them identify meaningful and fitting actions to repair the offense or transgression either directly or for their community. Todays prison system is no place to address ones past. Self-exile or even some time in a monastery would be far better. A time to develop and improve ones ‘soul’.
    Socrates chose to suffer the consequences of an unjust verdict, but for encouraging people to think critically. Hardly a crime except to those in power. (trump may agree) And he was nearly 80 years old at the time. Would you have felt the same way about his decision had he been 40!
    Without law there can be no freedom. But unjust laws, blind to alternatives, only fill prisons.

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  8. Massimo, Sorry for focusing on the half a line of text, but what benefit would F reporting himself to the authorities serve? As I understand it, the purpose of prison (which I assume his actions would lead to, albeit with some likely leniency, given he would be self-reporting and presumably plead guilty) is rehabilitation, protection of the public, punishment and deterrence. He seems to be making the effort to rehabilitate himself and his regret over his past actions suggests he is unlikely to repeat them (although this cannot obviously be guaranteed). So we’re left with punishment and deterrence. Surely in this case, the only deterrence likely, since he would presumably suffer some sort of sanction, would be deterring others in the same situation from coming forwards. So we’re left with punishment, and I didn’t think that was a particularly Stoic approach (although I’m willing to be wrong). Against that, I can see the value of F’s self-reporting as setting an example that we are all subject to the laws, although I’m not sure he has a Plato or Xenophon ready to spread that message.

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  9. Ted, Stewart,

    I’m inclined to agree with you. Again, the focus seems to be a bit disproportionately on a half line that was clearly tentative, but still.

    No, there is no Stoic value in punishment for its own sake. I am struck, however, by the seemingly widespread notion that the modern justice system is punitive and pays little attention to rehabilitation. That’s probably fair enough as far as the US is concerned, but not everywhere, I hope.

    Finally, my only reiterated bit of pushing back is that administering self-justice may be a bit too easy. Maybe the writer should get an accountability buddy?

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  10. I think, Massimo’ urge to say that F. would benefit from some sort of accountability buddy or structure makes sense, regardless of the exact nature of that resource. As helpful as the example of a Cato is, a living role model, or institution that acts as one, seems like a huge aid to living well as a Stoic would. So far as I can tell Massimo is advising the counselor and the consideration of legal authorities for the same reason that he advises the keeping of a daily journal where we track morally salient actions we take (or fail to.) If we don’t voluntarily choose systems, tools, or people to render ourselves accountable to, it’s hard to be a prokopton and Stoic.

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  11. Plutarch,

    Thanks, you’ve put it better than I did… Indeed, I have now amended the original post accordingly.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Well, thank you, both for your kind words, and also for keeping this excellent blog and excellent advice column.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Whether or not F can best attain virtue by reporting his crimes to the authorities, he should be prepared to face legal proceedings should he reach out to any of his past victims in order to make amends. Holding him legally accountable for what he did may be very important to the people he has harmed.

    The decision to go public with his crimes may not be his and one of the burdens he will have to bear is that his victims may come forward on their own, notwithstanding his attempts to turn his life around.

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  14. I still wonder about the context of the abuse, the age of F., and other details. These are key. F. focuses on the stealing a great deal, but I suspect the real transgressions are these assault issues–and that they may be ugly, indeed. If F. is truly remorseful, he suffers. So, the advice to follow through on actual penance (submitting oneself to the institution, punitive though it may be) is necessary for his own psychic/spiritual liberation. It is not self-punishment for guilt-ridden purposes–it is a penance that actually acknowledges and apprehends the likely vast repercussions on the children he abused. Who knows what shadow they labor under, even this very minute? Perhaps F. can achieve freedom from a sort of “self justice” practice–I suppose it’s done–but the stakes are his own being if he’s not real.

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  15. I also agree with Massimo that surrendering to the police is not necessarily a worthy option because they will simply apply the punishment befitting the crime, and not simply punishment befitting the spirit of the law. Only rarely do you find a prosecutor so steeped in character that will appeal to his understanding of the spirit of the law, and quite often, most attorneys are not even in a position to render such personal judgements. If the purpose of criminal punishment is justice, and justice at least in part entails compelling the criminal to learn from misdeeds, then that has already been accomplished. OP clearly feels responsible for his crimes and wishes to atone for them. It is not also necessary that he be caned and flogged for the sake of suffering alone. And it is not necessary that he go out of his way to be even better a person, because as a Stoic, you’re always supposed to be good. And what is more, is that even if OP is punished according to the law, prison isn’t going to make him a better person. More likely, he’ll discover far more sinister and malevolent forces there than he had ever dreamed even while committing crimes. I find Massimo’s advice to be better — to consider one’s transgressions personally a come to terms with being a good person from now on, and make amends if such amends are possible, of one’s own accord.

    Recently, I gave similar advice on a different forum. A medical doctor was applying for licensure and was asked on the form if he committed any noteworthy crimes. He apparently once, long ago, before medical school, had a drug problem but pulled himself out of it and has never looked back. He was wracked with guilt and it and so mentioned it on his application. Now he’s worried because he’s under scrutiny by the board for it and may not get his license, and was asking what to do. My response was that this is what happens when you confess crimes to agencies like this. It’s not clear that honesty becomes better than deceit. They don’t care that you’re a swell guy now and that this is ancient history. So I told the rest of the readers of that forum that this should be a lesson to all. If you were into some bad things and got over it, pat yourself on the back for having the strength and character to do so, and move on. Confessing to crimes already punished in your mind isn’t going to add any justice, and your guilt will not be helped either.

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  16. @Nancyborgasm

    ” Confessing to crimes already punished in your mind isn’t going to add any justice, and your guilt will not be helped either.”

    What about the victims of his sexual assaults? Theft and fraud may go undetected forever but sexual assault? Hard to put that in the same category as lying on an application. I’m not sure that giving the advice to “leave the past in the past” is sufficient when people have been directly and personally harmed in such a manner.

    There is a good possibility that his victims continue to suffer as a result of the things he did. Well and good that he’s trying to move past it, but what about them? I think that the virtue of justice operates in a larger circle that simply “what’s best for F”

    As I said above, F needs to be prepared for the real possibility that his past will come back to haunt him, whatever his subsequent progress.

    Public prosecution and criminal punishment might not help him progress toward virtue but might be both important and necessary to the people he’s harmed and possibly even to the community at large.

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  17. Ctygesen,

    Okay, but if the victims just want him to go to jail in order to feel better themselves, regardless of what good that does to society or whether it improves him as a person, then they are simply seeking revenge, not justice.

    Also, as I wrote in the postscript, I made further inquiries after the first letter. The perpetrator was a child, and the assaults were more akin to bullying than anything else.

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  18. I did not see the postscript, Massimo. Thanks for pointing it out to me and I agree that the additional context changes everything. I was fixated on what appeared to be much more serious behavior on F’s part.

    And, Nanocyborgasm: sorry for mangling your screen name so badly.

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  19. Massimo thank you for the postscript and the clarification. Can anyone clarify this for me, I would love if Massimo could? These great philosophers like Socrates and the great general Massimo mentioned who turned himself in to be tortured to death unjustly, how is this virtuous? Does stoicism teach us to simply surrender to authority qua authority? Ought the Jews, for example, to have surrendered to Hitler instead of fleeing? What is the stoic maxim here? Would stoics not have encouraged black slaves to flee their unjust masters as happened on the underground railroad?

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  20. Seeker,

    The Stoics were definitely not into turning themselves to the authorities for the sake of authority. When they did it (Socrates, who of course was not actually a Stoic; Atilius Regulus) it was because they thought doing so would serve the greater good.

    Otherwise, they had no qualms opposing authority, as in the case of the various Senators who opposed Nero, or when Cato the Younger took arms against Julius Caesar.

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