Category Archives: Stoic advice

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.

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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.

Stoic advice: I work at a place whose values I find morally objectionable

Roman chamber pot from Pompeii

Roman chamber pot from Pompeii

L. wrote: I work at a Christian university, the policies of which I disagree with more and more. I find the institution’s stance on homosexuality especially repugnant. I consider it to be harmful to the LGBTQ students who are here and to those who are alumni. I have really struggled in the past year or so trying to reconcile working here with my beliefs about the harm the institution does with its views and its proselytizing. It seems to me that I am condoning and approving of their stance, or at least making others think that I do, when I claim this place as a workplace. Sometimes I think seriously of leaving. Sometimes I think I should let them pay me all that they will and work for causes that fight against those like my institution.

I know that I cannot control what the institution does.  I have used the opportunities I have to speak for LGBTQ students on campus. I have voted with the rest of the faculty, futilely, to change the current climate here. And of course this is how I make my living. It’s hard to give up a job that pays well. So, my question is this — am I behaving immorally by continuing to work here? Is working here unvirtuous? By consenting to work here, am I truly in the moral quandary that I feel I am?

There is a famous section of Epictetus’ Discourses that directly addresses your problem, even though, of course, the specific situation that Epictetus uses as an example is completely different from yours. The context is what Brian Johnson calls the role ethics of Epictetus (see complete series of commentaries here), the idea developed by the Stoic philosopher that we all “play,” so to speak, different roles in society. Our most fundamental role is that of a human being, a member of the human polis at large. But then we also play a number of additional roles, some that we choose (e.g., our careers, whether to become parents), and others that are given to us by our circumstances (e.g., being the son of certain parents, or a sister).

In Discourses I.2, Epictetus tackles the case of two slaves who are faced with the unpleasant and demeaning task of holding their master’s chamber pot. One obliges, one refuses. The first one is playing the straightforward role of a slave, while the latter seems to choose instead to put his more fundamental role as a human being, and the dignity that comes with it, ahead of the role of slave. As Epictetus colorfully puts it, the second slave wears “the purple stripe in the white toga,” meaning that he stands out from the crowd.

The way the conflict is resolved hinges on each individual’s assessment of his own character, which in turns leads to the choice of whether to accept or refuse to hold the chamber pot. It’s a matter of what a person thinks is reasonable for her to do. (Incidentally, this is one case in which a Stoic philosopher encouraged slave rebellion, though at the individual, not systemic level.)

As Johnson summarizes Epictetus’ advice: “It is for the slave himself to determine if the role of a slave genuinely belongs to him or if, for example, he is a figure like Diogenes the Cynic who can be bought as a slave and yet insist that his role is to govern humanity (Diogenes Laertius VI.29–30). Under one role, the slave should obey; under another, he should resist.” (p. 116)

Johnson continues: “A lowly slave can not choose to do the work of an extraordinary individual because he does not have the power to bear it any more than the extraordinary individual can bear to hold the chamber pot. … It is up to our own initiative for each of us to introspect and identify what our own self-worth is since that is the operative and necessary capacity in these two conflicting roles.” (p. 125) Or as Epictetus summarizes the concept:

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

That, seems to me, is the same question you are facing, but nobody can tell you what the price of your soul is, so to speak. You are the only judge of that. At one extreme, as you say, you could quit your job out of principle, maybe even try to make a splash with your decision, say by writing to a local paper to publicly explain why you left and openly criticizing your former employer.

But that isn’t the only possibility, and you yourself have highlighted a number of others. You can keep fighting from within, provide support to students who need it, donate money to organizations that work against the principles of your university. Or all of the above.

One thing I would like to make clear: Stoicism is not about judging other people, and it is a very self forgiving philosophy as well. So if your assessment is that, all things considered, you cannot afford to leave your job (maybe because you have family responsibilities, for instance), then the virtuous thing to do is to seek the next best available option. Besides, it’s very possible that you may be able to do more good from the inside, over a long period of time, than with a one time noisy protest.

Look, we all compromise, and none of us is perfectly virtuous. I try to do my best, for instance, to fight against what I see as overwhelming corporate power and corrupting political interests, but I’m not going to leave the country to do so. The cost would be too high for me, my family, and my friends. But I am trying to oppose those interests and that corruption, by writing, talking to people (especially my students, the next generation of voters), and by donating money to organizations that are aligned with my political and social beliefs. Could I do more? Certainly. But I’m doing something, which is better than what most people do. You could say that the two of us are in a privileged position compared to Epictetus’ two slaves: we don’t have only two options, so we can act somewhat virtuously without losing our neck, or our job and country.

Stoic advice: chronic pain

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

K. wrote: I read your response with interest to the person who regretted their back surgery. I have a similar situation, though my first surgery (that messed up my back) was seven years ago, and although I do have regret, and have had it for years (I really think we should be allowed one “undo” in life!) my question is about how much to try and change a particular situation and how much to accept.

Since my first back operation, I have been left with constant, chronic pain which is made worse by sitting, standing or walking. I have gotten a bit better over the past few years, but many things I have tried haven’t helped (or made things worse) and my progress is incredibly slow. I am in a better place than I was a few years ago, but I still can’t do basic things, like go on public transport, work, see a film, or even sit in a taxi (I have to lie down). My question is, how much of this do I accept and how much do I try and change? People are constantly suggesting things for me to try, or recommending practitioners to see, and there are more treatments out there than people in the world, it seems. So how do I work out the subtle line between accepting my ability and pain as it is, and trying new things in the hope of it getting better? I should say that medically, it is impossible to say whether I will or will not get better, but there is the possibility, elusive as it is!

So, in a situation where one doesn’t know whether it can get better or not, is it better to keep trying (for many years) or to just accept what is? 

To begin with, I’m sorry you are having such a tough time. You are right, if life were intelligently designed we would all get at least one do-over. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works, apparently.

Your situation is actually very similar to that of a famous ancient Stoic who quit the school and went Cyrenaic because he suffered from chronic pain. Diogenes Laertius tells us the story:

“Dionysius, who became a renegade to the doctrine of pleasure, for owing to the severity of his ophthalmia he had no longer the nerve to call pain a thing indifferent.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.37)

Of course, Dionysius [of Heraclea, ever since known as the Renegade…] apparently seriously misunderstood in what sense pain is an “indifferent” for the Stoics: it does not mean that one shouldn’t care or be bothered by it, but rather that one should not allow the pain to define who he is a person, especially in moral terms. Apparently, the confusion between Stoicism and stoicism was alive and well already at that time, in Zeno’s generation!

Pain, even chronic one, is for the Stoic yet another obstacle thrown at us by life, and hence an occasion to test our character, according to Epictetus:

“Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.” (Enchiridion 10)

But it is, as usual, Seneca who is capable of seeing things from the most humane perspective:

“‘What then,’ you say; ‘is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?’ None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed.” (Letter LXVI. On Various Aspects of Virtue, 14)

And moreover:

“There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of the virtue involved, the virtue in each case is the same, whether it comes through joy or through sorrow.” (LXVI. On Various Aspects of Virtue, 19)

Marcus, on his part, strikes what sounds to me like an intermediate note between the stern Epictetus and the more approachable Seneca:

“Death and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure — all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” (Meditations II.11)

The message in all three cases, however, is clear: pain is a highly dispreferred condition, and naturally so. But it isn’t something that should lead us to do unvirtuous things, and indeed should be approached as any another exercise in Stoic endurance.

So far the general philosophy. Let me get now to your specific question: where, exactly, is the line between acceptance and continued hope? To begin with, I’m going to remind you of one of the precepts of modern Stoicism, the so-called axiom of futility as articulated by Larry Becker in A New Stoicism (and I remind you that Larry knows something himself about crippling conditions, so he ain’t kidding):

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

Let’s apply the axiom to your specific problem. Clearly, it is not logically impossible to find a remedy for chronic pain. The existence of such a remedy would not violate any principle of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction, for instance. As a biologist (though certainly no expert on pain), I would imagine that countering chronic pain is also not theoretically impossible, meaning that there is nothing in human biology that excludes the possibility a priori (as opposed to, say, human powered flight, which is, in fact, biologically impossible).

That leaves us with practical possibility. Some things may be both logically and theoretically possible, and yet a wise person ought not to pursue them because the practicalities of the situation put them squarely outside of one’s reach. For instance, there are neither logical nor theoretical obstacles to me becoming a Wall Street magnate, but — quite apart from the fact that I have no interest whatsoever in such venture — it would be practically impossible. I am past middle age, not sufficiently smart and educated in the pertinent fields (finance, math), and probably not endowed with the sort of aggressive character traits that are required to succeed.

I am not going to insult your intelligence by giving you advice on yet more treatments or approaches you could try. It is not my field of expertise, and I assume you have read plenty on the matter, and talked to more than enough doctors. But it is empirically the case that some people do manage to improve significantly from conditions similar to the one you describe, so the possibility is, indeed, out there.

Should you pursue it or accept your current state of things? The question is often framed, as you did, as a sharp dichotomy: either X or not-X. But the two are not logically antithetical, and the dichotomy is not, in my mind, quite that obvious. I think that, after years of trying and achieving comparatively little improvement, it is indeed time for you to accept the possibility that you may need to live with this condition for the rest of your life. In that sense, Stoic philosophy may be a powerful tool not just to lead you to such acceptance, but also to help you deal with the situation day by day. (That said, remember that Stoicism is a philosophy, not a magic wand.)

But it certainly will not hurt you to keep exploring further possibilities of improvement, so long as they appear to be both theoretically valuable, scientifically speaking (no pseudoscience, please!), and practical (in terms of expected effort-to-results ratio and financially). The best person to decide whether a potential new approach fits these criteria is you, on the basis of your experience, your readings, and in consultation with reputable doctors.

The key thing to keep in mind, however, and what will allow you to balance acceptance and hope, is the dichotomy of control, especially as explained by Cicero in book III of De Finibus:

“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.’” (III.22)

You are the archer, the pain is the target. You know the rest.

Stoic advice: I’m single and don’t want to be

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

B. writes: I am 27 years old, already successful, workwise, healthy, well-thought-of and outgoing guy. I have been practicing Stoicism for around a year and it helps me a lot to limit my anger, disdain for many people, sadness, and in general to enjoy my quite exciting, comfortable life. However, there is one thing I can’t get over with and this is my loneliness. I know that as a Stoic I should be pursuing only purity of my character and virtue, the only things over which I have true control, but I don’t enjoy my life just by myself. No matter what I do, from improving my job-related skills to expanding my knowledge, getting fitter, traveling for months only with my backpack to whatever that is considered healthy for mind and body, I have this thought in the back of my mind that I am mostly doing this to attract someone I would consider as worthy of my trust, attractive enough and, most important, smart enough. I know I am very young, nonetheless my few previous, comparatively long and very serious relationships were a huge disappointment for me as I felt alone with all my interests, drive to knowledge and perception of the world. Now, because I don’t want to make such a mistake ever again, I am very picky about my dates, and, well, as you can figure out from this letter, it’s not going well in the course of the normal dating process — always one of us is not “good enough” for the another. It has been like this for around a year.

I just don’t see a point to be skillful and wise just for my own benefit, I have strong urge to share it with someone I trust, and I trust very few people, none of whom are sexually or romantically attractive to me. It happens even though people in general like me and respect me for my integrity and charisma. What should I do? 

Take a break, my friend, you are trying too hard. And I say this as someone about twice your age, reasonably successful and well liked (within limits), and with several long term relationships behind me (and a very good one that has been unfolding for the past six years). I’m saying this, in other words, not as much as a Stoic practitioner, but as a fellow man with a bit more experience in this domain. Just slow down, take it easy. It will come when it will come. Meanwhile, though, you have a life to live, so let’s get back to Stoicism.

To begin with, and forgive me for noting this, you seem to be a bit too much into external validation. You write that you are successful, healthy, well thought of; you add that your life is comfortable and exciting, that you travel a lot and do what it is thought to be good for your body and mind. This is all very nice, but of course it falls under the category of preferred indifferents. As Epictetus reminds us:

“Most of us dread the deadening of the body and will do anything to avoid it. About the deadening of the soul, however, we don’t care one iota.” (Discourses I, 5.4)

You only mention in passing that you “should” work on improving your character, which truly is the only thing that matters in Stoicism (and it doesn’t have to do with “purity,” which is not really a Stoic concept). You say that Stoic practice has helped you with your anger and disdain for people, but perhaps you should ask yourself why are you so angry and disdainful? Since you are healthy, young, and successful, what is there, exactly, to be angry about? And why disdain for those less fortunate than you, rather then pity, or — better yet — a positive will to help them? Please consider engaging in some long term self-reflection, for instance by beginning an evening philosophical diary, if you have not done so already, and possibly talking to good (i.e., virtuous) friends, or even a professional, about why you feel this way.

You say that you are doing what you are doing mostly to attract a mate. Needless to say, that is precisely the wrong way to go about it, from a Stoic perspective. You should be nurturing your “soul,” as Epictetus puts it, because it is the most precious part of you, not as a bait to get a date. Again, from the Discourses:

“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.” (I.4.20)

Seems to me, Stoically speaking, that you are focused on exactly the wrong things. Which may in turn explain why you are unsuccessful at finding someone. Perhaps other people see through your priorities and come to the conclusion that you think of them just as something to accomplish, and they don’t wish to be used as mere means to your own ends?

You write that you have had “comparatively” long relationships that were disappointing. I’m not sure what you are comparing them to, but given your age, they couldn’t possibly have been that long. Are you sure you gave those fellow humans a real chance? Or did you get off the train as soon as a problem arose? Or perhaps when the natural high of initial romance wore off? (Studies show that that period can last to up to two years.) In other words, did you try to do the Stoic thing, i.e., use a problem as a way to practice virtue, turning the obstacle into a new way forward?

“For everything that stands in the way of its activity is adapted and transmuted by the mind into a furtherance of it, and that which is a check on this action is converted into a help to it, and that which is a hindrance in our path goes but to make it easier.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.20)

You say that you trust very few people, to none of whom you are attracted sexually. Certainly, Seneca does advise us to be picky with our friends, but also to trust them once we select them:

“When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment.” (III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

That is why I think you should ask for honest advice from a close friend or two, the kind of friend who is not afraid of looking you in the eyes and tell you that you may not be pursuing things in the best way, or that you do not have your priorities straight. If nobody you meet is “good enough” then perhaps you should reassess your criteria, or the way you go about meeting people. When something is not working it seems unwise to insist in going about it the same way. Ask yourself the crucial questions that Seneca says we should pose to ourselves every single night:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.” (On Anger, III.36)

Notice, incidentally, his mentioning anger, a problem from which apparently you do suffer, and which may be at least a partial root of the situation you are experiencing (together with disdain, which is also very unhelpful when dealing with other people).

I realize that the above may come across as harsh, but my intention is to help, if possible, not to make you feel better. From the little you write it sounds to me like the problem lies inside you, not in the dearth of sufficiently worthy mates out there (I don’t know where you live, but there are currently 7.6 billion people on this planet. Surely…).

So, in practice I suggest the following: (i) forget for now about your quest for a mate; (ii) turn your analysis inward and reflect — better with the help of virtuous friends, or even a therapist — why you feel the way you do; (iii) begin or resume regular Stoic practices, particularly the evening diary, but also simple meditations like the view from above; (iv) re-orient your activities in order not to impress others, but to improve yourself; (v) wait, someone will (likely) come along; (vi) repeat, over and over. Remember that an honest and virtuous attempt to find a good relationship is up to you, actually succeeding at it is not.

Stoic advice: what about small pleasures?

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

C. writes: What would be the Stoic position on the benign but pleasurable things I’m sure many of us do to pass time when we’re bored (or while avoiding something else)? Things like playing video games, fantasizing, surfing the Internet, reading popular magazines, shopping online for things we have no real intention of buying but enjoy looking at (e.g., a new Lamborghini), etc. It seems to me that all of these activities are concerned with “indifferents,” and “preferred” to the degree that they make us feel better (up to the point when they don’t) and “dispreferred” when they interfere with more important things.

I’m particularly interested in how you’d analyze this with your Stoic decision-making algorithm (which I’m just starting to use and finding very helpful). With this topic, I’d say (1) Yes, passing my time this way is in my control, but I then get stuck on (2) “Does it concern virtue?,” because these appear to be largely “indifferent” pastimes, and yet I can also see that they might interfere with virtue.

Very good question, and I have come to think that there are two answers, one for “strict” Stoics and one for “lay” Stoics, so to speak. The distinction I’m drawing here is between those of us who practice Stoicism in the manner in which, say, most Christians or Buddhists practice their religion or philosophy, and those who engage with them more rigorously, like Christian ordained ministers, priests, nuns, and cardinals, or Buddhist (and Christian) monks.

Lay practice is more directly reflected in my Stoic decision making algorithm. Let’s take a closer look, particularly at the branch I highlight here:

Stoic decision making algorithm - annotated

The things you are referring to are clearly under your control, because they stem from decisions you made following your judgment that, for instance, it is worth your while to spend some time engaging in online window shopping. As you point out, the answer to the next question in the flow chart, “does it concern virtue?” is clearly negative, so we are talking about a preferred / dispreferred indifferent.

The next question, then, is whether it “conflicts with” virtue. There the answer depends on whether you are a lay or a strict Stoic. For the lay Stoic (i.e., most of us) the answer is no, unless you indulge in so much of the leisurely activity that it begins to interfere with your duties as a human being. If, say, you play video games so much that you neglect your family, friends, and profession, then your video gaming is interfering with your virtue, and it ought to be curtailed. But if you are simply using the activity as a past time to relax, then there is no harm, and indeed, relaxation is something that is both necessary for human beings and probably helpful in the practice of virtue. Seneca agreed. At the end of On Tranquillity of Mind he writes:

“Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.”

However, if your goal is to practice Stoicism in the strict sense, i.e., to approach the level of “virtuosity” about your agency that Larry Becker talks about in his A New Stoicism, then you may want to be very cautious about how you spend your limited time on earth, focusing as much as possible on “indifferents” that are preferred not merely because they are not in conflict with virtue, but because they positively help us to practice virtue. Seneca has something to say here too. In his first letter to his friend Lucilius he writes:

“Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.” (I.1)

To which, shortly thereafter, he adds:

“Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” (I.22)

And finally:

“For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.” (I.5)

So far, I have articulated the answer to your question as if it were dichotomous: you are either a lay or a strict Stoic. But, more sensibly, this is really a continuum, unlike the cases I referred to above, of lay Christians and Buddhists contrasted with monks. While there is a somewhat sharp distinction there — you either are a monk, in which case you are supposed to follow certain strict practices and rules of conduct, or you are not — there is no monkhood in Stoicism (thank Zeus!). Indeed, Zeno of Citium apparently explicitly wrote in his Republic that there would be no temples in the ideal Stoic society (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.33).

This means that we should really think of preferred / dispreferred indifferents as a gradient: at a minimum, an indifferent is preferred if it doesn’t positively get in the way of practicing virtue; at the opposite extreme, indifferents are preferred only insofar they directly help us to practice virtue. And here is a bonus: we can use this idea of a continuum as a metric to assess progress in our practice. The closer we get to the “strict” end of the spectrum, the more advanced we are as prokoptontes and prokoptousai (male and female for “those who make progress”).