Category Archives: Stoic advice

Stoic advice: my friend is a jerk, what do I do?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My friend has been an avid member of the Red Pill community for the past year and it has inflated his ego to completely disproportionate levels, reaching heights of selfishness and arrogance I hadn’t seen before. We were walking down the street and an old lady walking with a frame was coming in our direction. I immediately moved aside in order to give her room. I looked at my friend and he wasn’t moving. He made the old lady stop and walk around him, after which he looked at me, a grin on his face, and said “I move for nobody.”

I didn’t say anything at the moment and haven’t brought it up since. I haven’t seen much of him since then, given that I wouldn’t reply to his messages out of sheer astonishment and a feeling of resentment into seeing what my friend has become. Seeing how unjust and disrespectful this was really got to me. This has been turning in my head ever since I witnessed his behavior, trying to figure out what the best mode of action is. I know his behavior is something external to me and it doesn’t affect me directly but it’s the idea of being associated with someone who acts this way that gets to me. I know that he has quite a lot of unresolved issues which may fuel this behavior of his, but as much as this may explain his actions, it doesn’t justify them.

So here I am, accepting that my friend is acting like a jerk but I know I can do something about it and not just accept it. I just need some advice as to what the more just way of reacting would be.

First off, thanks for educating me on Red Pill, whose existence I was unaware of until I read your letter, and about which I had to do some research (see this article, for instance). My reaction to this and similar kinds of communities (like the “Men Going Their Own Way” group) is one of sadness. On the one hand, it is clear that they are populated by a lot of lonely and angry men, with serious problems. On the other hand, their attitude is clearly toxic, sexist, and often downright misogynist. These are the same kind of people who tend to be influenced by the likes of Jordan Peterson, about whom I have written — not in a positive fashion — from a Stoic perspective.

There are two questions here, Stoically speaking: how should we think of people like your friend? How should we behave, as friends and more broadly fellow human beings, toward them?

I hope I do not have to make much of an argument that Red Pill, MGTOW, and such are not in line with Stoic values. Stoicism is inclusive and treats everyone equally (because of its cosmopolitanism), and the virtue of justice (which has to do with how to properly treat other people) seems to me to be in direct opposition to your friend’s rude behavior to the old lady.

That said, one of the most important, and at the same time really hard to internalize, concepts of Stoic-Socratic philosophy is the idea that people don’t do bad things on purpose (meaning because they want to be bad), but due to their lack of wisdom, or amathia. This is evident from your friend’s own justification for his action: “I move for nobody,” meaning that he has somehow convinced himself that it is not right for him to yield to anyone, presumably because he wants respect and is under the (misguided) impression that one way to get it is to be rude to old ladies.

I think the proper Stoic attitude toward these people is pity, not contempt. So that is what you should work toward. Here is what Epictetus says about this:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” (Discourses I, 18.3)

Also, remember that we ourselves may have erred in similar or equally inexcusable ways, and should therefore be a bit humble when we regard the mistakes made by others:

“When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like.” (Meditations, X.30)

Now, how should we treat people who lack wisdom and consequently make mistakes? The standard Stoic approach is beautifully expressed in this quote by Marcus:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

However, I do think there is a limit to the idea of teaching or simply putting up with people like your friend. For one thing, most people don’t want to be taught, and they will not be receptive to you until they themselves figure out that there is something amiss and ask spontaneously for your advice. Part of the calculation here concerns just how close of a friend the person in question is, and therefore how much friendship capital, so to speak, you are in a position to spend in your attempt to help him out of his situation.

At some point, however, there is a danger that instead of you helping him, he will be the one to drag you away from virtue, perhaps insinuating in your mind that something like Red Pill is a good idea after all. That’s the point when you may need to follow Epictetus and simply look for better company:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers [i.e., people who don’t try to improve themselves]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

This is tricky, as it sounds impossibly snobbish, even though it is hardly different from the very sensible advice your mother probably gave you when you were a kid, to be careful about which company you keep. The upshot is: do your best, don’t judge your friend harshly, and try genuinely to be helpful to him. But if he is not ready, you are under no obligation of sticking around until your own soul becomes dyed with the same dark thoughts.

Stoic advice: can a salesperson be a Stoic?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

D. writes: How should a practising Stoic ethically approach their work if it involves rhetoric, persuading others and achieving sales, e.g. salesman, copywriter, etc.? This could also apply to grant writers, lawyers and so on.

That’s a very good question, and I think there is a general answer, even though there may be significant differences in how to implement it among the professions you list, and others that may fall under the same category.

The obvious way to approach it is through Epictetus’ role ethics, as brilliantly elucidate by my friend Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, which I discussed on this blog in a 6-part series. As you may recall, Epictetus distinguishes among roles that we are given by accident or circumstances (e.g., being someone’s son), roles that we choose (e.g., our career), and our foundational role as members of the human cosmopolis. Consider:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

The “common” standard in the quote above is that which applies to all human beings qua human beings. The “specific” standard is the one that applies to our particular roles. If you are a cithara player you ought to practice your cithara, take care of your instrument, and perform to your best. If you are philosopher, you ought to work on your reasoning ability, and use it to help others live a better and more meaningful life. (Note: unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of thing you’ll learn in most modern philosophy departments, but that’s a different story.)

So a first answer to your question is that a salesman, copywriter, grant writer, lawyer and so fourth ought to do what salesmen, copywriters, grant writers, and lawyers do. That is, if you choose one of those professions, the Stoic thing to do is to practice it well.

That should be the case unless your specific role within your profession comes into conflict with your broader role as a human being. As Epictetus puts it, you don’t want to behave randomly, like a sheep, or destructively, like a wild beast. This means that if your job is demanding something from you that you know is unethical, in conflict with the wellbeing of humanity, then you ought not to do it. Your role as a member of the cosmopolis trumps every other role you may play. Why? Because:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (Discourses II.10.3-4)

In a modern sense, “divine administration” in the quote above can simply be understood as what reason and justice demand, without specific metaphysical overtones. So far, then, we have the idea that whatever one does, from a Stoic perspective the way to do it is to do it well, with integrity. Moreover, there is a limit imposed by our broader duty to humanity itself. How might we bump into such limit, in practice?

Let’s take the example of a salesman, let’s say someone who sells cars. He is within Stoic bounds in doing his best to sell as many cars as possible to potential customers, because that is what the role of a car salesman is. But consider a scenario where he is actually aware that a given used car has defects that he has been asked by his employer not to disclose, in order to make a quick sale and get rid of the lemon. That’s where his duty to humanity at large kicks in: if he followed through, he would commit an injustice toward another fellow human being, so — Stoically speaking — he should politely refuse. Even to the point of being reprimanded, or losing his job.

That’s a tall of order for most of us, but nobody said practicing Stoicism coherently was going to be easy. (I would maintain that practicing any philosophy or religion coherently — including Christianity or Buddhism — ain’t easy.) The Stoics recognized that none of us is a sage, and that we will inevitably fall short of the ideal. Here is how Epictetus puts it:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

The idea is that we should strive to do our best, while at the same time acknowledging that we have limits. For instance, going back to our hypothetical car salesman, he may not want to refuse his boss’ request because he has a family to take care of and cannot afford losing his job. That is a reasonable tradeoff to make, but perhaps he can implement an alternative strategy: he could be purposively less convincing when it comes to cars he knows are lemons, thus stealthily undermining his boss’ unethical request; and at the same time he could begin to look for another job in which he is not asked to compromise his integrity, and yet can still take care of his family.

As a final thought, note that this sort of situation calls for the application of all four cardinal virtues: the courage to stand up to your boss’ unethical demands; a sense of justice that allows you to recognize that you are not playing your cosmopolitan role to your best; temperance in your response to the boss, given that other things are at stake, like your family’s welfare; and especially practical wisdom, the knowledge that the only things that are truly bad for you are not externals, such as losing your job, but your own bad decisions, such as knowingly scamming your customer.

Stoic advice: how do I balance career and life?

M. writes: I am 28 years old, doing my PhD in evolutionary biology. I have a young family and am often struggling to combine the different aspects of my life with my own values, and as a result make mistakes on a regular basis. Now, one would think that a scientist is mostly guided by logic and rational thinking, and that this therefore makes him well suited to Stoicism. But my impression is that a lot of fellow scientists are anything but logical and rational thinking, and I know that I am often not. There are so many potential frustrations, e.g., financial insecurity, short contracts, low chance to get a permanent job, unfair judgment of success by publications, or simply that an experiment hasn’t worked for the 100th time.

All of the above should be considered non-preferred indifferents, since I do not have any control over a lot of these issues, or maybe a small portion of control. And I do try to accept the risks and potential pitfalls of my choice to pursue a PhD. At the same time, I try to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I think to myself, ‘If I am going to decide to carry on with science with a PostDoc, then I surely need to make smart decisions, so prepare yourself, network, choose the right lab. However, often enough I find myself in a place of utter frustration about the circumstances. ‘Why have I just spent ten hours in the lab working hard, without getting any scientific or personal benefit from it, and have not spent it with my child and wife?’ ‘If the chances of success are low and unfair, wouldn’t I be better off in a normal job (whatever that is…)?’

So my questions are: how would a prokopton deal with the inner discourse of scientific fascination and (potential) negative real-world consequences? and what are some steps I can take to counteract improve the odds, to continue on with my scientific career?

To begin with, know that your situation is far from unusual, and it actually is very similar to my own early career path, back in the 1990s. I came to the United States on a six-month fellowship, without assurance of further funding down the road. I got a postdoc position thanks to my PhD advisor, but it was guaranteed only for a year, which meant either obtaining more funds or getting a job in that short period. Then came the low paid tenure track position (but hey, at least it was tenure track, which is more than a lot of young colleagues are likely to obtain now). Peace of mind only came in my late ‘30s, once I secured tenure and could engage in better long term planning. Even so, my daughter grew up far from me, and a marriage that I thought would be the thing ended in part for reasons related to my career. Indeed, the first decision I made that prioritized quality of life over work came only in my mid-40s, when I decided to move to New York City without a job at a local university. All of this to say that I have a lot of sympathy for what you are going through.

That said, you seem to have a good grasp of Stoic theory: yes, career, quality of life, and even your family are all preferred indifferents, meaning — of course — not that you don’t care about them, but that they do not affect your value as a person. One can have all of that and be a shitty human being, and one can lack all of it while being virtuous and living a life worth living.

Also, as you note, those externals are outside of your control, as you do not determine any of those outcomes. Yes, you can influence the odds of succeeding at a career as a scientist, and you can work on your family relations. But ultimately only your efforts are under your control, not the actual outcomes. That is why the Stoics counsel to focus on those efforts, but then to accept whatever outcome with equanimity, as getting angry or frustrated at the lack of success only adds self-inflicted injury to the already existing one.

Understanding the above is no rocket science. Putting it into practice is very hard. Which is why Epictetus says:

“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

But he also explains what it means to practice:

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Discourses I, 4.20)

What he means is that you can’t afford to be a weekend Stoic, so to speak. You need to be mindful, in the Stoic sense, every day, every minute. That experiment failed for the 100th time? Repeat to yourself: “it was just an experiment, my worth as a human being does not depend on it.” (Then, if I may, change experiment, approach things from a different angle, there is no sense in wasting more time and resources in pursuit of something that stubbornly refuses to work.)

Did you not get that job interview or grant funded? Repeat to yourself: “it was just a job interview (or a grant proposal), my worth as a human being does not depend on it.” (Then, again, consider seriously if it is worth submitting the same proposal again, rather than writing a new one; or, more pointedly, if you are applying for the right jobs with the right resume.)

As you say, you knew going into this that the odds were low and the amount of sacrifice required high. Don’t misunderstand me: I wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world. But I got lucky, as it takes talent, effort, and luck to succeed in academia, with the latter playing by far the largest role, unfortunately. Early on, I did have to consider alternative career paths, in case my first choice stubbornly refused to work out. Lucky for me I never had to go for plan B, but it is always wise to have a plan B.

And of course this isn’t true only in academia. If you wanted to become an actor, a writer, a musician, a painter, or an athlete, you’d be facing far worse odds and an even more demanding set of sacrifices. I realize that to be told “it could be worse” is meager consolation, but Stoics are supposed to look at reality as it is, to the best of our knowledge, not as how we wished it would be.

Which brings me to the trade-offs between your career path and the rest of your life, particularly your family. There the major Stoic resource is Epictetus’ role ethics, a development of a previous version of the concept by Panaetius. I covered Brian Johnson’s brilliant book on this topic in six posts, though the book itself is well worth reading.

Basically, Epictetus thought that we have three sets of roles: the fundamental one as a human being, a member of the human polis; the roles that are assigned to us by the Logos (being a son, being born in a certain society); and the roles that we choose based on our character and preferences (our career, but also our relationships).

The primary role is that of a human, and it trumps all others. Every time you make a decision, Stoically speaking, you should ask yourself whether you are doing right by humankind. After that, each role tells you what to do by its very label (allowing, of course, for personal interpretation of each role as broadly defined by society):

“And next, if you’re sitting on the council of some city, remember that you’re a councillor; if you’re young, remember that you’re young; if an old man, remember that you’re an old man; if a father, remember that you’re a father. For each of these names, if carefully considered, indicates the actions that are appropriate to it.” (Discourses, II.10.10-11)

Neither Epictetus nor I can tell you what to do. It is up to you to navigate the complexities of your life. But Stoic principles provide a framework, a compass of sorts, to help you in that navigation. So you need to ask yourself how much are you willing to sacrifice not just personally, but also in terms of your family, in order to pursue your chosen career. What are your duties to yourself, to your partner, to your children, if you have any? While you consider this, remember:

“You’re the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you’ll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices. … Only, consider at what price you’re willing to sell your power of choice. If nothing else, make sure, man, that you don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I.2.11,33)

I truly and sincerely wish you the best of luck.

Stoic advice: is it ethical to self-promote?

self promotion[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My question has to do with “career” and what it takes to get ahead. I am 46 and have not had a traditional career but have managed to work in fields that, at least on paper, were in accordance with my values and interests. Until now. I am finding myself in a place where I need to change jobs as I feel stuck in one that does not fulfill me completely. But, in today’s job market, sending cv’s and application letters does not seem to be enough. I’ve already done that and have not been called once for an interview. My profile and work experience are — I, maybe presumptuously, believe — varied and interesting but I don’t get called, while acquaintances with a similar or less qualified profile are reaching top positions.

They seem to be able to use connections, to show their ambitions, to walk on other people’s feet in a way I am not. So apart from working on the envy I regularly, shamefully, feel, I have been reflecting on the moral aspect of it. In my view, my accomplishments, experience, dedication to my work, concrete results in the projects I have led should speak for themselves. I should not need to move heaven and earth, to get vague contacts to make recommendations for me, or to pull strings to get an interview. But these and putting yourself “out there” seem to be the only way to succeed. In any case, be it pride, fear, or a will to act in accordance with some principles, but I am very reluctant to do that. Yet the result is also frustration. What is the Stoic take on that?

I face a similar situation myself, pretty much every day. Not because I’m looking for a job, as thankfully I have a great one that I have no intention to leave, fate permitting. But because I have decided long ago that an important part of what I want to do in life is public outreach. And you ain’t gonna do much of that if you ain’t got a public.

Like you, I feel like my writings — which I consider not stellar, but nevertheless above average — should speak for themselves. People should read my blogs and my books, and come to my lectures (I’m writing this in St. Louis, MO, right before giving a talk at the Society for Ethical Culture here, and just after a stint, last night, at the local Skeptics in the Pub).

And yet my success is modest, and I see a number of writers (I could give you names, but that would be petty) who are doing much better than I am, even though their writings are — in my opinion — no better, and sometimes decidedly worse, than mine.

Moreover, whenever I get a new book contract (at the moment I’m co-writing a book of Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez) the publisher, naturally, wants to know how I am going to sell it. They send you the dreadful “author’s questionnaire,” which is a long document where you need to list every media outlet that might be interested in promoting your book, every personality that may endorse it, every newspaper or magazine that may (favorably, of course!) review it.

And then there is the social media aspect. Few people would read my blog posts, or buy my books, if I did not regularly promote them on my Twitter account (speaking of which, here it is!) or my “official” Facebook page (here!). (What the hell, I even have a Google+ page.)

All of the above just to make the point that your situation is actually fairly common, and that I have asked myself the same question, though the stakes for me are lower than for you. My answer to myself, Stoically speaking, is to apply the test of virtue: selling books, reaching a wider audience, or — in your case — getting out of a job you don’t like — are all preferred indifferents. Should we pursuit, them, then? There is a two-step procedure we can apply: first, does the pursuit of said preferred indifferents run against our own practice of virtue? Second, if the answer to the first question is no, does such pursuit allow us to be more virtuous?

The first question is more fundamental because a Stoic should never pursue, under any circumstances, a course of action that is not virtuous, i.e., not prudent, temperate, just, and courageous. Let’s apply this to your situation: asking people you barely known for recommendations, networking, and generally putting yourself “out there” is not cowardly or unjust (so long as you are not doing it by unfairly undercutting others). It is temperate if you do it up to a point, as I strive to do with respect to my publishers’ analogous demands. As for prudence (i.e., practical wisdom) again, so long as you are not acting unethically (for instance, by overselling yourself, or misrepresenting your abilities), you should be good.

The second test is more stringent, setting a higher bar. Suppose you succeed in finding a new job, starting a new career. Is this going to improve your chances of acting virtuously? Maybe, maybe not, depending on what career we are talking about, and how you would pursue it. You don’t provide any information about either your current or potential new career, so it is hard to advice in that respect. But you can use the same criteria, based on the exercise of the four virtues, to answer the question for yourself.

As I said, the second test is more stringent than the first one, but if you really think your new career would be better just for you personally, the first bar is sufficient: so long as you don’t do anything unvirtuous, and so long as your new quest does not distract you from acting virtuously, your are good. The second bar is for advanced students, so to speak.

Another way to look at your conundrum is in terms of Epictetus’ role ethics, which I have discussed in six posts. Epictetus recognized that we have three classes of roles in life: the general role we play as human beings qua members of the human cosmopolis; roles that are given to us (e.g., being someone’s son); and roles we choose (e.g., our career). His take was that the first role trumps all others, so that if in order to be a good son, say, or a good employer, you have to do something unjust, you simply don’t. Your given roles tend to carry a certain duty to perform them: you did not ask to be born, but your parents gave you life, and you owe them something just because of that (although your duties in that respect have limits). Your chosen roles also carry duties, for instance toward your employer (though, again, within limits).

It is your faculty of prohairesis, or judgment, that allows you to navigate the inevitable trade-offs among these roles, which is why its improvement is a major goal of Stoic training. Just remember Epictetus’ words:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

Stoic advice: impostor syndrome

impostor syndrome[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

A. writes: I’m a researcher in Physics and a big fan of your work in philosophy of science and, more recently, Stoicism. I would like to ask you if you have any references on Stoic responses to two struggles that are dear to us in academia: i) frustration due to working hard and not achieving the desired outcome, and ii) feeling one doesn’t deserve what one has in life (“impostor syndrome”). I understand the basic premises to counter these feelings (we are not really in control of the outcome etc.), but I would like to know if you have more specific references, not necessarily to ancient Stoic thinkers.

Yes, I’m all too familiar with the two feelings you are referring to, both because of direct personal experience, and because I’ve talked to plenty of graduate students and young colleagues who have had them at one point or another during their career. They don’t seem to affect senior faculty much, possibly because of a combination of getting older and caring less, becoming wiser, and simply getting used to it.

You are correct, of course, that the first go-to for the Stoic is the dichotomy of control as expressed by Epictetus in Enchiridion I.1, and the beautiful metaphor of the archer attempting to hit a target, in Cicero’s De Finibus III.22. But you are familiar with them, so I will not repeat those quotes here.

Instead, I would like to shift the discussion to the other pillar of Stoic philosophy (other than the dichotomy of control): the idea that virtue is the chief good, because it is the only thing that can only benefit and never hurt us, as explained by Socrates in the Euthydemus. Everything else, as you know, is a preferred or dispreffered indifferent, which Cicero tells us should be chosen (or un-chosen), but not desired.

From that perspective, being emotionally attached to a particular outcome, say a grant proposal getting funded, or a paper being accepted for publication, is a mistake, because those outcomes do not improve our virtue. What does the latter, instead, is the way we handle the situation. Every obstacle, Marcus Aurelius would say, is simply a sparring opponent the universe throws our way during that continuous training exercise that we call life.

I have learned that lesson early on in my academic career, way before I turned to Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Please indulge me to briefly recount a personal anecdote. When I was in graduate school in biology, at the University of Connecticut, my advisor and I submitted what we thought was an important paper to the premier journal in evolutionary biology. It was reviewed very positively by two anonymous referees, but a third one slammed it. We asked the editor of the journal at that time to ignore the third referee, on the grounds that she obviously had an axe to grind (later on we found out who that person was, and our hypothesis was clearly confirmed).

The editor, however, acted conservatively and rejected the paper. At the time I thought this was a major blow to my career, and for weeks I went around alternating between the two feelings you describe: (i) Why did this not work, despite literally years of efforts that went into the research, and what I thought was a first rate paper resulting from that effort? (ii) Perhaps I was really not cut out for this job after all, maybe I should just quit and do something else.

Fortunately for me, my advisor had significant experience and accumulated wisdom. We talked it over while drinking a couple of beers and decided to send the paper, as it was, to the premier journal in an allied field, ecology. It was accepted immediately with only minor changes, a rare occurrence in science.

Not only that, complete vindication came many years later, when I was a full professor at the University of Tennessee. Out of the blue I received an email from the former editor of the journal that rejected our paper. It was a heartfelt apology, explaining that he had made a serious error of judgment, and that he was glad that his mistake had not negatively affected my career.

There are several lessons here. First off, while it is always a good idea to question one’s own work, and to be open to outside criticism, if you are a professional in a given field there probably are good reasons to think you know what you are doing, especially when your work gets repeatedly validated externally.

Second, I greatly admire the editor in question. Not because he came around to see that my advisor and I were right. But because he had the intellectual honesty and humility to admit his mistake, years later, and with absolutely nothing to gain from it. That is what I call a virtuous person, regardless of whether he practices Stoicism or not.

Third, my advisor and I turned an obstacle into a new path by deciding to send the paper to an equally prestigious journal in a similar field — as opposed to the thing that is often done, sending the paper to a lesser journal within the same field. As Marcus puts it:

“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

Over the course of my career, spanning now more than three decades across two academic fields, I have had a few other episodes like the one reported above, and of course countless minor setbacks. But that particular incident did something to my psyche that has remained with me to this day: I have developed the ability of absolutely not caring an iota about what my colleagues think about the worth of my work, especially when their opinions are expressed anonymously. Again, please understand that I don’t mean to say that I refuse to learn from others, or that I think my work is always worthwhile and top notch. I just mean that I take failures as part and parcel of what an academic career, and more broadly a life, is made of. There is no sense in regretting mistakes, only in learning from them. And it isn’t very useful to second guess one’s own worth, so long as one honestly tries to do one’s best.

So take those failures, and those moments of doubt, as additional opportunities to exercise virtue and become a better human being:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)

Stoic advice: I’ve not been careful with someone else’s health


Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician

[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…]

R. writes: I recently met a woman who I like and feel attracted to. The problem is that I contracted a skin condition that is highly contagious (nothing serious, it usually goes away on its own, but is pretty unaesthetic because it causes wart-like lesions). In spite of knowing that I had one of these lesions close to my lips, I kissed her, and therefore maybe spread the infection to her skin. I’ve since confessed this to her and made it clear that I will take care of the medical expenses in case she gets a confirmed diagnosis of the condition (removal of the lesions is pretty uncomfortable and costly). Apparently, she has since forgiven me or not taken the matter as seriously as I do (I infer this because we keep seeing each other). A friend told me that since the condition is harmless I have done nothing serious.

I cannot help but think that although her health is not compromised, I have unnecessarily caused her an annoying and bothersome predicament, all because I could not contain my impulses. The fact that she has a child and may spread the infection to him only makes my guilt worse. Also, the possibility of having lost a significant romantic relationship it’s something that creeps up my mind from time to time.

Obviously, I will have to abstain from physical intimacy with other people until my immune system manages to get rid of the infection. In the worst case, these could take four years. I believe the Stoic thing to do is to accept that I have no control over how long this could take, and learn from this to prevent harming others in the future. Actually, I think I’ve learned a significant moral lesson here: I used her as a means to gain momentary pleasure and I paid for it with my integrity. So I might as well use this obstacle as a way to strengthen my moral fiber.

From now on, it seems there is not much to do besides offering her all my support and friendship. And I use here the word friendship as opposed to the romantic relationship which I wished for and which my bad luck has deprived me of (I conceive romantic relationships to be defined by physical intimacy, but maybe there’s a broader experience to them). You may think I have figured out how to proceed but I’m having trouble dealing with the anxiety of losing her (as if it would be just to ask her to wait for me to get cured) Any Stoic advice that you could add would be really helpful! 

Well, you seem to me to have, in fact, figured out exactly what happened and why, and moreover how to move forward with it. The fact that you still feel anxiety at the prospect of losing this woman is natural and probably unavoidable. Seneca acknowledges that even the wise person is bound to experience feelings, since he is still a human being:

“For natural faults of body or mind are not removed by any amount of wisdom: what is innate and implanted may be mitigated by treatment, but not overcome. … This is not cast out by any amount of wisdom; if it were, if wisdom could erase all a person’s faults, then wisdom would have nature itself in charge.” (Letter XI)

“For there are some things, dear Lucilius, that no amount of virtue can escape: nature gives the virtuous a reminder of their own mortality. So they will change expression at sad events, and shudder at sudden events, and grow dizzy when looking down from a great height. This is not fear, but a natural affect which cannot be assailed by reason.” (Letter LVII)

“I come now to the point you are expecting from me. Lest it should seem that what we call virtue strays outside the natural order, the wise person will tremble and feel pain and grow pale, for all these things are feelings of the body.” (Letter LXXI)

As I have pointed out elsewhere, philosophy is not a magic wand, it can’t cure us of all unpleasant emotions, it just provides us with good tools to deal with such emotions. But that’s far from a negligible thing!

All of the above said, let me point out a couple of things that stand out to me from your narrative. First off, don’t pay attention to your friend, the one who minimizes the import of what you did. The fact that — luckily — the condition does not have major consequences (though, as you say, it is costly and painful to take care of, which counts to me like significant consequences) is irrelevant. The point is that you have violated the trust of a person you care about because you were incapable of denying assent to certain impressions, as the Stoics would say, and because you were not sufficiently courageous to be upfront with her.

I’m not writing this to make you feel bad, nor to condemn you. I’m trying to be helpful, and it isn’t my place to pass judgment on others:

“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)

I am, rather, describing what happened from a neutral, yet Stoically-informed, perspective. While there is no point in indulging in regret and self-pity, there is a point in learning from one’s past mistakes, which in turn requires to clearly see certain actions as mistakes, resisting the temptation to minimize them, regardless of the advice of a well intentioned friend.

Second, you seem ambivalent about the future of your relationship with this woman. You fear that any chance at romance is lost, yet you say that she seems to have forgiven you. Then again, you appear to blame your condition for not being able to continue the relationship. My advice here is to practice both the (highly interrelated) virtues of courage and justice: talk openly to this woman. Ask her if she is still willing to pursue a romantic relationship with you, taking of course proper precautions about your condition (including, if need be, an abstention from physical contact for whatever time is necessary). I don’t see the point of torturing yourself with doubt, really. Her answer is outside of your control, and of course you will have to accept it, whatever it is. But asking, honestly and straightforwardly, is most definitely within your power. So what on earth are you waiting for?

Finally, I am sympathetic to your resolve to use the experience, and your endurance of the condition for an open ended period of time, as a way to practice your Stoic philosophy. Just so long as you don’t fall into the temptation of transforming this into a Christian-like exercise in self flagellation. Stoic humility and willingness to learn are a good thing, but there is no such thing as Stoic expiation of sins.

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.

Stoic advice: I’m stuck professionally and personally, how do I move forward?

Pakistan on the globe[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…]

N. writes: I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’m doing it now as my various spiritual crises seem to have come to a head and now threaten to have real life consequences, more than just the everyday. I live in Pakistan. I am 39 and single and a doctor by profession. I am not ambitious in the more traditional sense but I’ve always had a yearning for excellence, also an uneasy relationship with the heavy handed authority which is part of out culture here. For these reasons probably living with my family became much too hard a few years back. We don’t leave the family home until we are married around here. And yet I left. I had passed part of the US medical licensing exam and so I went to the US to try and finish the licensing process so I could find work there, in hope of better quality of work and better social circumstances.

That was 5 yrs ago. The exam didn’t work out. Because I was too emotionally unstable and borderline depressive, now that I think about it. So I came back. But didn’t go to live with my family. First, because I had gotten used to a bit of freedom which would have not been possible in the family home, and second because I did not expect a nice welcome. I resolved to go back and attempt the exam again once I had saved enough for another trip.

I was unemployed for a while and then I worked in a rural area for three years. I saved enough to think about trying my luck in the US again. So I booked my exam. I also moved to the city of Lahore and am now working at a teaching hospital. Now it is two months until my exam. I still struggle with depression. I have a nonexistent social support system and that hasn’t helped. I’m uprooted from my previous life and in Pakistan it is hard for a single woman living alone to lay down new roots. That would require a level of social acceptance our society does not offer to people like me. I spent months trying to toughen myself up for this exam. It is a clinical exam and requires certain logistical resources for preparation which I’ve been unable to access. So all of this has added up and I seem to be back in the dark emotional place that I was in five years ago when I failed this exam the last time. If I don’t pass it now, my previously passed exams would be void. I don’t seem to be able to handle it at all. But quitting doesn’t seem to be an option either.

I’ve left other things unfinished. And all of this has entailed such a lot of investment, personal and financial. Also I don’t see myself ever being comfortable living where I do now. And yet, the thought of letting myself go through another breakdown kind of a situation scares me. It seems to already have started, the strange process of disintegration. I don’t want to quit and lose out on the opportunity, but moving forward with it seems much too hard. I don’t really know what to do. Now I think that perhaps I should have compromised with things at home and stayed there. I seem to have painted myself into a corner. Do you have any thoughts on how I can move forward?

You are in a really tough situation, most of which is not of your doing, as it is the result of societal structures you have little or no influence (and certainly no control, in the Stoic sense) over. You did the sensible thing, trying to take things into your hands, by leaving an oppressive home environment, trying to forge a different path for yourself, and refusing to give up even when things were not turning your way.

But there is an obvious Stoic lesson here: all we are in charge of is our judgments and efforts, not the outcomes of those efforts. As I explained in a previous post, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a magic wand. You are in the position of Cicero’s archer: you trained well, you picked the best arrows and bow, and you aimed to the best of your abilities. But the arrow didn’t hit the target, unfortunately:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (De Finibus III.22)

This, however, doesn’t mean that you need to give up and accept what sounds like a dreadful life within a society, and a family, even, you feel increasingly alienated from. As Marcus puts it, the obstacle — for the wise person — becomes the way:

“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.2)

The question, then, is how to advance action, how to find a new path around the obstacle that stands in your way. I simply don’t know enough about the specifics of your life, studies, and chosen career to advice you in detail. The obvious general answer that comes to mind, however, concerns whether it would be possible for you to pursue your career in a different country. After all, the United States isn’t the only place in the world characterized by a relatively open society. Indeed, at the moment, it isn’t really a hospitable place for immigrants, and it has distinctive drawbacks — compared to almost any European country — in terms of the nature and strength of the social net.

Or perhaps there is something else you can do professionally, a different way to channel your energy and interests that may offer a path of lesser resistance at this juncture in your life. Only you can determine what that might be, obviously, but perhaps some thinking outside the box, as they say, may be in order. Even if a different career does not seem ideal to you, it may be the best option in terms of some of your other priorities, like escaping an oppressive family and society. As modern Stoic Larry Becker puts it, practical wisdom is the ability to reason “all things considered,” meaning taking into account all your priorities and projects, which may be in conflict with each other, or at the least not all achievable at the same time. Here is my summary of that part of his book, if you wish to take a look.

Alternatively, you may find a way to stay in Pakistan that is still fulfilling, maybe by way of finding new friends and human support, and devoting yourself to doing your part to change your society from within. Here I find Epictetus’ theory of multiple, conflicting roles that we all play in life to be useful, especially as reconstructed by Brian Johnson (here is a relevant post).

Whatever you end up doing, the important thing is that it is as a result of your judgment, the only thing that is truly yours and that can set you free under any circumstance:

“What is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms.” (Seneca, Letter LI. On Baiae and Morals, 9)

You, like the rest of us, have no control over Fortune. But through your considered judgment, you can compel her to enter the fight on equal terms.

Stoic advice: how do I tell my kids about their uncertain future?

Children with teacher[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…]

C. writes: I am a 54 year old Dutchman. Almost my entire life I have had jobs as commercial director for medium sized and large multinational companies. Recently I heard that I will be fired from my current job. In my opinion I will be fired for reasons beyond my control. Therefore I am fully accepting it and I am trying hard to find another job soon. Ultimately, in one way or another, I’ll find a way to make myself useful for society. I must say that I have been very fortunate with my education, career and life so far. I realize — also through studying and practicing philosophy (Taoism and Stoicism in particular) — that I don’t need the status conferred by this job, nor the finances and relative comfort that came along with it.

Some years ago my relationship of 23 years ended. We still get along pretty well, but we both know it’s better to live separately. I offered her a house that I think she deserved, taking a big extra mortgage on my house myself. The kids live with me (two boys 15 and 17 years old). They grew up in a fairly wealthy life style. Not extraordinary, but a lifestyle that was (still is) in line with my relatively high level of income: sports, vacations, music lessons…

So, now I am a man with two wonderful boys, and without a job. Soon I will be having very limited financial resources and I will be forced to sell my spacious house and move to a small apartment. So far the good news. Even though I know that I will cope with whatever nature will give me, my question is: how do I tell my kids? How do I tell them that they too will be confronted with an uncertain future? How do I tell them that we will have to move to a small apartment, and that we will have to cope with fewer financial resources?

They know (and actually appreciate) that I am a practicing philosopher (reading Stoic texts and trying to practice in my daily life). I feel that the situation I am facing right now, is an opportunity for myself (and also for them) to stand the test of applying Stoic philosophy in practice. But I wish to find the right words and actions to convey that message to my kids. In a way that they won’t be harmed too much and yet can learn from. I bought for each of them a copy of Meditations as a Christmas gift. 

I think you have exactly the right attitude, and that you are practicing what you studied. Epictetus would approve:

“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

I empathize with a father’s impulse to shield his children from bad situations. I have a daughter, and she is also familiar with my personal philosophy, and has a copy of the Meditations (though she is not a practicing Stoic). But especially since your boys are past the onset of the age of reason, you can simply talk to them more or less in the way you would to an adult. There is no guarantee they are going to understand the situation fully, and even less so that they’ll like it. But of course that is both natural and clearly outside of your control.

If I were in your shoes I would approach the conversation at three levels. First off, a factual, frank presentation of what is about to happen. Talk about the nature of your job, why you have been let go, and what this will mean in terms of your finances and their life style in the foreseeable future.

Second, put things in perspective for them. Remind them — gently, not in a preachy way — that they have actually been quite fortunate so far in their lives. And that indeed, by world standards even in the 21st century (let alone any other time in history), they are still fortunate, however much they may have a hard time realizing it at the moment.

Third, turn the new situation into a challenge to improve themselves and tackle life’s obstacles, a la Marcus:

“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

After all:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)

What is happening to your family is a sudden and unexpected onset, one you can treat as a horrible obstacle barring your way to happiness, or as an opportunity for what stands in the way to be transformed into a new way forward.

This is, of course, also the time to call upon your ex for support, which you may already have done. If not, do not let silly things like pride stand in your way. After all, not only you have acted selflessly and generously toward her, she is the mother of your children. As Epictetus reminds us, there is only one thing of which we can justifiably be proud, all the rest is nonsense:

“What quality belongs to you? The intelligent use of impressions. If you use impressions as nature prescribes, go ahead and indulge your pride, because then you will be celebrating a quality distinctly your own.” (Enchiridion 6)

The best of luck finding a new job, and may your kids learn a good life lesson from this experience.

Stoic advice: when is it time to speak up?

Don Quijote fighting windmills[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…]

L. writes: At this time of public scrutiny of those (generally) men who have engaged in conduct which placed (generally) women in situations ranging from unpleasant to heart-breaking to career-killing to self-respect shattering, I have asked myself how, if at all, I have contributed to this widespread phenomenon in my personal and professional life. 

My question is now, to the extent I can clearly see times at which I should have addressed situations with a person of authority — and/or should have taken up for my co-worker — or simply shouldn’t have looked the other way, are there any good parameters to assist with determining if it is appropriate to make statements regarding these issues? Several years ago, I helped multiple individuals who were, basically, victimized by the structure I work in, but I never addressed the foundational issues within the structure with anyone of authority. To be clear, no one under the worst that this structure can cause is subject to physical harm, but I have witnessed completely unnecessary abuses of power and I feel as though I have done nothing to address the problems with the structure as a whole.  

Where does Stoicism end and Quixotism begin?

Let me begin with the final question, about fighting windmills. The best answer from within a Stoic framework comes, I think, from modern Stoic Larry Becker (see my series on his A New Stoicism). He calls it the axiom of futility, and it is one of four axioms he uses to build his version of Stoic normative logic:

“Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” (A New Stoicism, pp. 44-45)

Now, very few things are actually logically impossible (i.e., they entail some sort of logical contradiction, or other violation of the laws of logic). Comparatively few things are even theoretically impossible (only those that violate the laws of physics, really). So the question is one of practical possibility. That one, however, is not sharply defined, as what is practically possible depends on the specific circumstances, the players involved, and even the degree of personal retribution the agent is willing to accept as a result of having acted virtuously (see the famous case of the two slaves and the chamber pot discussed by Epictetus).

Indeed, if you think about it, the Stoics recognize as one of the four cardinal virtues that of practical wisdom (phronesis in Greek, or prudence), which is precisely the ability to figure out the best way to navigate complex moral situations. Like the other virtues, it is a skill that is developed by living life in a mindful way, but that means nobody can tell you where precisely the line should be drawn in any particular instance. Just remember, whenever — by practical necessity — you compromise, these words of Epictetus:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

Let me now go back to the beginning of your letter. First off, at least you are actually asking yourself the question, and moreover you have acted in a positive fashion in the past, however much in a limited context. That puts you way ahead of many people, and there is nothing in Stoicism that precludes a good pat on the back, once in a while. Just keep doing it whenever possible: do address delicate situations with someone of authority; do stand up for your co-workers; and no, do not look the other way.

Next, however, comes the really hard question for a Stoic: it is fine to recognize, and act to ameliorate, local situations. But what about structural issues? Another way to put it is: acting locally is what any decent person would do (though it may turn out that there are fewer decent persons than we might hope); but addressing the structure itself takes a revolutionary, and we know those are rare people indeed.

But they exist, and Stoics history counts a good number of them. Cato the Younger, of course, took arms against what he saw as the tyranny of Julius Caesar (see my series on the Cato Chronicles); several Stoic senators opposed Nero and other emperors to the death (the so-called Stoic opposition); and Nelson Mandela (not a Stoic, but inspired by Marcus) took on the entire Apartheid system in South Africa.

Part of the reason to look up to these and other lofty role models is to realize that if some people can take on that sort of windmill, at times even winning, surely we could do a bit better with our place of employment, or even our political system. But, again, it comes down to your own judgment in terms of practical wisdom: to fight windmills for the sake of fighting windmills is something that would fall afoul of Becker’s axiom of futility. That said, Epictetus reminds us that sometimes even a hopeless fight is worth it because it sets an example:

“What good, you ask, did Priscus achieve, then, being just a single individual? And what does the purple achieve for the tunic? What else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest?” (Discourses I.2.22)

Priscus, in the quote above, is Helvidius Priscus, a Stoic philosopher and Senator who famously opposed the emperor Vespasian, and lost his life as a result. I really don’t think you need to go that far, and perhaps there is nothing practical you can do to change things systematically, in which case be content to act locally and help in any way you can. But do give some consideration to the example of Priscus, and the role played by the purple for the tunic.