[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.