Category Archives: Stoic advice

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”).

Stoic advice: my wife cheated on me, now what?

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

C. wrote: I have recently learned that my wife committed adultery and I am having trouble figuring out how to proceed. I have been married for 15 years (she is 40 and I am 35 years old), and we have four beautiful children that we love very much. Three years ago my wife had a sort of existential crisis. She started questioning whether it makes sense to be in a couple for a full life time nowadays. She also wondered whether monogamy actually worked. Suffice to say that in a less than Stoic way I told her that if she had these problems concerning marriage she should go consult a psychologist. I still regret not suggesting couple therapy, but since I was happy on my end I jumped to the conclusion that she must get help to figure out what she required to be happy.

It came to a point where she wanted no more physical affection on my part and she started getting back in touch with an old boyfriend. This greatly perturbed me because she used to be happy to stay home with me and the kids. Eventually, after seeing a psychologist a handful of times, she came back to me and told me all was resolved and that she had just been lost and that we could resume our marriage as it was before. She also told me she wanted another child (we had three at that moment). After a bit of back and forth I eventually relented, which I do not regret since I love my children very much.

While she was pregnant things started going badly again. A few months after giving birth to our daughter she started hanging out with her ex-boyfriend again. I started snooping on her, of which I am not proud, but I wanted some answers which I felt she was not giving me. After having found messages I found inappropriate to her ex-boyfriend I confronted her only for the tables to be turned on me and being told it was not okay to look into her things, that I should trust her, and that I was horrible for having looked into her private conversations. She then proceeded to lock me out of her phone and emails.

After some more time, a friend of mine once again awoke me to the issues in my marriage, which I brought to my wife’s attention, which in turn made her tell me she was unhappy that she did not know if she wanted to be with me anymore and that perhaps we could co-parent the kids but not be lovers anymore. During that phase I tried very hard to be a better husband, but she was getting increasingly hostile towards me. This continued until I found out that she had been unfaithful through my brother, who was told by a third party that spoke to my wife (this was very recently). When I brought this information to my wife she started by denying everything and telling me I should trust her. The next day, however, she came to me and confessed that she kissed him but nothing more. Since then she has shown very little remorse, she has apologized but by rationalizing to me that things weren’t going well anyways so it was not completely her fault that she did what she did.

After great reflection I understand how she may have tired of me, I have no ambition outside of my children and living a simple life. On my end I tried to make her happy by ensuring her ambitions were met, like having four kids, getting married, and buying a house, but then once that was all done suddenly she was not happy anymore. Now I am stuck not being able to answer questions like: should I stay or leave? Should I give her another chance and trust her again?What do you think a Stoic would do?

Wow, this is one complicated situation, it will require much practical wisdom for you to disentangle it, and there aren’t going to be any easy answers. Reading your letter (which was longer and more detailed in the original), it seems to me that three themes clearly emerge, and I suggest you focus your attention on them: first and foremost, your children, who are the innocent bystanders to your and your wife’s issues. They ought to be your priority, regardless of any other consideration. And that in turn will require you to exercise the virtues of justice (toward them) and courage (to possibly make difficult or unpleasant decisions in order to prioritize their welfare).

Second, your wife seems to be going through a midlife crisis. This is pretty normal, and so is her behavior, as distressing as it may be from your perspective. Here, of course, Marcus’ famous reminder to himself about how other people behave is very appropriate:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

Your wife, according to your description, has been ungrateful, arrogant, and deceitful. But she has done these things because of her lack of wisdom (the word translated above as “ignorance”), so she needs to be pitied and helped, not condemned. Moreover, as Marcus says immediately after, you should not allow yourself to be negatively affected — as difficult as it may be — precisely because you are trying to develop Stoic compassion for the failures of others, beginning with the people closest to you.

All of the above said, I actually think your initial suggestion for your wife to see a therapist was on the mark. She clearly does seem to need help, and a few sessions aren’t going to do it. (I recommend a REBT or CBT practitioner, of course, whose approaches are evidence-based and in line with Stoic philosophy.) That said, as you acknowledge, you should have also suggested couple therapy, as this is inevitably a couple issue, not just your wife’s.

Which leads me to the third theme: your lack of trust in her. Perhaps she does not deserve your trust, but your own account of things makes it clear that you have issues in that department. She is right that snooping around her things is not acceptable, regardless of your suspicions. Also, you appear to be a little too prone to listen to gossip, for instance from a third party you don’t even know, and who appears to have greatly exaggerated what actually happened. Trust within a couple is based on a feedback loop: the less you trust her, the more she will feel justified in distancing herself, possibly fulfilling your own prophecies of betrayal, which will in turn lead you to trust her even less, and so forth. If you love this woman, and if you really want to try to improve things, you need to break the cycle. As Seneca put it with regard to friendship, and as it applies just as much (indeed, even more) within a relationship:

“If you consider any man a friend [or partner] whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship [or partnership] means.” (III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Look, I’m with you on the crucial importance of not cheating, as I have explained here in response to some contemporary authors who seem to take a bit too much of a casual approach to the matter. Indeed, my first marriage ended because my wife betrayed me with my alleged best friend at the time. But not all betrayals are created equal, and neither are all couple dynamics. Your wife may be genuinely dissatisfied with her present life — perhaps along the lines you yourself have sketched near the end of your letter. Perhaps she is right that for some people, maybe including her, a lifelong commitment to the same person is untenable and leads to misery for all involved. In that case, your strong conviction that marriage has to last to the end of one’s existence may have to yield to the reality of the situation. The Stoics were nothing if pragmatic, and one of their main tenets was the necessity to willingly accept how reality is, instead of clinging to wishful thinking:

“If we try to adapt our mind to the regular sequence of changes and accept the inevitable with good grace, our life will proceed quite smoothly and harmoniously.” (Epictetus, Fragments 8)

Now, it is not, at the moment, inevitable that your relationship will end. Much is still under your control: you can try a fresh start with your wife, beginning by admitting your own limitations, your insecurities and somewhat unethical behavior; you can suggest couple therapy; and you can do your best (without trying to generate guilt!) to remind her of the importance of your four children. This may or may not work. You are like Cicero’s famous archer, who will do his best to shoot the arrow on target, but who will also accept with equanimity whatever outcome the universe has decided will occur. As Cicero would put it, to keep your marriage working is to be chosen, but not to be desired — meaning that you should try your best, but that you should also be ready to move on if the attempt turns out to be futile. Best luck to you and your wife, and especially your kids.

Stoic advice: I can’t get my ex-girlfriend out of my mind

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

G. writes: About two years ago (I’m 21 now), I got into a serious long-term relationship with a girl in college that ended quite bitterly. Since then, neither of us has spoken a word to the other. My close friends and parents tell me that this was just a phase in my life and that it is okay to move on to create new memories. However, even two years later, without wanting to get back with her, I sometimes feel guilt and melancholy thinking back at our relationship.

I know the Stoic thing to do would be to leave the past as it is and live hic and nunc. However, I am finding this tremendously difficult to do. I will go months without thinking of her and suddenly fall into sadness. This has been a barrier in my wanting new romantic relationships and I am not finding a Stoic way to accept my past without feeling emotional and hindered by it. I don’t want to ignore my memories of my relationship as I feel that this would be unhealthy, but I feel like getting back in touch with her would be equally unhealthy (given the two-year hiatus and the way we left things).

How would a seasoned Stoic maintain a healthy relationship with a troubled past, while remaining virtuous hic and nunc and all things considered? I know you mentioned a few weeks ago that Stoicism was a very forgiving philosophy. I’m curious to hear what you meant by that. 

As someone in his early 50s with his share of relationships that have come and gone, I’m tempted to simply tell you that you are young and that it will pass, a process facilitated by the likely fact that you will soon encounter someone else you will fall in love with. That sounds dismissive of your problem, but it isn’t meant to be. It is just a reminder to you that from time to time we need to step back and look at the broader picture, engage in a healthy Stoic “view from above” exercise, as Marcus often did:

“Consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events that go before are soon covered by those that come after.” (Meditations, VII.34)

But I also want to get more specific than that. To begin with, you say that you met this woman two years ago (when you were 19), and that “even two years later” you feel guilty about how it ended, or that it ended. If I got the chronology straight, it doesn’t sound like you were with her for a long time. And even if I did not understand the chronology exactly, it could not have been that long anyway. This means, again, that you need to engage in some meditation focused on regaining the broad picture. I use a personalized variant of this one, for instance:

Try to do it initially several times a week, it takes only a few minutes. Accompany it with the keeping of an evening philosophical diary where you write down your impressions, thoughts, and reactions to how you feel and what happens to you. All of this should help you regain perspective on things.

That said — and here I speak from experience, not just as a Stoic practitioner — you will often, in your life, be tempted to go back to an earlier relationship. That’s because of a variety of reasons, including guilt toward what happened, the familiarity with the person in question, a natural tendency to re-interpret our past with rose-tinted filters, or simply the fact that we are currently alone and wish for companionship. Don’t do it. In very few cases it works. There were presumably good reasons why you broke up, and those reasons are likely going to be there still if you resume things, with the situation made worse by reciprocal resentment, anger, and so forth. So my advice is to stay away from it and move on.

Guilt and melancholy, of course, are not Stoic values. We think that whatever we did in the past is not under our control, it cannot be undone, and dwelling on it is therefore entirely unproductive, a waste of precious time and emotional resources. That said, you do want to learn from your past, in order to hopefully decrease the chances of making similar mistakes in the future. That’s why a philosophical diary, perhaps coupled with some heart to heart talk with a “friend of virtue,” as Aristotle would put it, is very helpful. (A friend of virtue is someone wise and honestly interested in your wellbeing, who has the guts to tell you that something you are doing is not the way to go, instead of simply reassuring you that you are doing fine.)

You say you go months without thinking of her, but occasionally slip back. That’s human, don’t fret about it. Hopefully these slips will become less frequent and less intense as time goes by. (And as I said, they’ll probably entirely disappear once you find someone else.) Stoicism isn’t about trying to be superhuman, but rather about coping in the best possible way with human foibles and frailties. In that sense it is an other- and self-forgiving philosophy, as Epictetus says:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion 5)

You say you do not want to ignore your memories of that relationship, but perhaps — as an intermediate step — that’s precisely what you should do. Stoicism, as well as modern cognitive behavioral therapy — teach us that our cognitive analysis of a problem can lead to change our behavior, which in turn, eventually, alters the way we feel about things, something like this simplified diagram:

So do try to gently push unproductive thoughts away from you, and focus instead on positive endeavors you care about. Let’s see if we can apply the concept of the cognitive triangle to how to move forward in your case:

Current feeling: guilt, lack of interest to move on >>

>> Cognitive analysis: there is no reason, and no use, in me feeling guilty; it is normal in life, especially at my young age, to move forward and seek a new relationship >>

>> Behavior: actively seek new people to meet. This will feel awkward and unnatural at first, but will get easier quickly, I think >>

>> Revised feeling: guilt decreases, fades into background; interest in developing a new relationship increases >> (back to step 2)

Try it out, exercise your agentic power, as Larry Becker would put it, take control of your emotions by way of your reason and your actions. And remember: you are not a Sage, but only a prokopton, one who (hopefully) makes progress. But progress is not linear, you will slide back. It’s okay, pick yourself up and keep going. Fate permitting, you have a long life ahead of you, rich in new and positive thoughts and emotions. In part, that’s up to you.

Stoic advice: I suffer from addiction, and I hate myself because I’m a bad Stoic

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

E. writes: Before I discovered Stoicism, many years ago, I struggled with an addiction. At the time I tried to implement what I now understand to be the dichotomy of control: that I can’t control external events but that it was within my power to work and change my addictive behavior. Yet no amount of realization seemed to make the situation better. If anything it made it worse.

But once I entered a 12 step program they taught me that the first step was to realize my powerlessness over the addiction. That was transformative, and the program is what brought me relief and “sobriety” from the addiction. Of course, there is more to it, but admitting my powerlessness over the direct addiction, whilst simultaneously strengthening my resolve to work around the addiction, made the difference. Some actions I could control: working the steps, making amends, talking to my sponsor, reporting on progress, daily journaling, going to meetings, helping others, etc.

Now that I face other (less destructive, but emotionally turbulent all the same) addictions, and after losing my belief in a higher power and trying to act according to Stoic virtue, I find myself in a state of not progressing again. Mostly I just really hate myself for how badly I’m failing to live up to Stoic ideals and a virtuous life. Is there any room in the dichotomy of control for finding utility in recognizing that some people seem powerless to change their bad behaviors directly, but have power to alter their environment, thoughts, etc. such that eventually their behaviors change as a consequence? I can’t say unequivocally this is the case, but it almost seems, paradoxically, that for me attempting to exert control over the addictive behavior is counterproductive and makes it worse. 

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a cure for addiction. The latter requires professional intervention, in forms that may vary from support groups like the one that helped you originally, to psychotherapy, to medication. Nevertheless, as you know, many 12-step organizations adopt the so-called Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Prayer is, in fact, a modern Christian version of a sentiment found in different cultures (e.g., in the writings of 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva, as well as those of 11-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol), but is also found in Stoic writings, especially Epictetus:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion I.1)

The tricky part is that the standard interpretation of Epictetus assumes that he seems to be assuming that people having complete control of their inner workings, a notion that modern psychology most certainly does not support. But the Stoics, despite living in a pre-scientific era, where keen observers of the human psyche, and they realized very well that there are plenty of aspects of the human mind that we do not control. That’s why they famously distinguished between proto-passions and fully formed passions. Consider what Seneca says, for instance, about anger:

“A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings.” (On Anger, II.3)

We cannot help being affected by external events, or internal turmoil. It is human, and to even attempt to control those is a path toward misery and possibly destruction. What we can control is our cognitive attitude toward what is going on, the very same principle that informs modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance. Interestingly, early CBT was based on the assumption that changing maladaptive thinking (the “cognitive” part) eventually leads to changes in behavior and affect (the “behavioral” part). Some more recent varieties of the approach maintain, more modestly, that the focus should be on one’s attitude toward the maladaptive thinking, rather than on the thinking itself, though I think both approaches are valid, depending on what, exactly, “the thinking” is about.

As is well known, the basic steps of CBT are:

I — Identify critical behaviors;
II — Determine whether critical behaviors are excesses or deficits;
III — Evaluate critical behaviors for frequency, duration, or intensity (obtain a baseline);
IV — If excess, attempt to decrease frequency, duration, or intensity of behaviors; if deficits, attempt to increase behaviors.

You can see even from this short summary that CBT is very practically oriented, it doesn’t provide, and is not meant to provide, a general philosophical framework for life. That is why I suggest engaging in both: therapy for the immediate problem, philosophy (what my colleague Lou Marinoff calls “therapy for the sane”) for a broader outlook.

You do not provide, in your letter, any details about which specific addictions you are battling, but if they are indeed addictions, then you need counsel and therapy, not just philosophy. That said, a philosophy, especially Stoicism, should be helpful in putting things into perspective, providing you with a compass for your entire life, not just this particular aspect of it.

Moreover, I keep stressing that Stoicism is inherently forgiving and, especially, self-forgiving:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion, V)

So long as you earnestly try to be a better person for yourself, your loved ones, and the rest of humanity, you are a prokopton, literally someone who makes progress. And progress isn’t linear either. Sometimes we slip back a bit, and that’s okay, it is human. Of course the danger is that we may rationalize our failures and actually give up a positive path to eudaimonia. That is why the Stoics suggested three fundamental types of exercise:

* Engage in self-reflection, for instance by way of keeping an evening diary;

* Summon the mental image of a role model (the “Sage on the shoulder” exercise) and ask yourself what he or she would do;

* Confront yourself with peers and like minded people, either directly, if possible (a local Stoic group, for instance) or indirectly (via our increasingly large Facebook community), to keep yourself from making up excuses and stop progressing.

You need to apply to yourself the very same attitude of non-judgment that Epictetus counsels us to apply to 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 XCV)

The advantage, when applying this attitude to ourselves, is that we actually have a decent understanding of what we are going through, as well as, more generally, of the limits imposed on human agency by addiction. Forgive, then, yourself and simply do your best to cope with the situation the universe has handed you.

Stoic advice: how do I learn to speak up for myself?

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

A. wrote: I have been a practicing Stoic for several years now and it is thanks to Stoicism and other factors that I was able to turn my life around. I spent the majority of my life in a state of moral wrong. Now I believe I have eradicated those evils. There is one aspect of myself that I have yet to change, however.

Growing up in my house as a child I loved and respected my father and had the opposite feeling toward my mother. My father was passive and never stood up for himself. My mother spoke her mind and raised her voice when need be. So in essence, I grew up unable to speak up for myself and as someone who gets anxious and tense when others yell or raise their voice.

I have gotten better over the years practicing Stoicism to find the courage to speak up for myself, but there are issues. I hesitate to speak and I don’t say what I want to say and how I feel, even though I know and feel that I am in the right. Because of this, people have taken advantage of me.

I am asking you for Stoic advice regarding primarily the virtue of Courage and secondarily that of Justice. How can I incorporate these virtues in a practical sense so that I may be able to speak when it is the right thing to do? How can I overcome my internalized faults and become the Stoic that I and my loved ones can be proud of?

Let us begin with your acknowledgment that Stoicism has already helped you becoming a better person. I don’t know which moral evils you have overcome, but it is clear you feel that practicing and reflecting has improved your life. Since Stoicism isn’t a magic wand that will make all our problems go away, we need to be thankful for what the philosophy can do for us before turning our attention to any remaining issue. Indeed, I suggest you incorporate a practice of thanks similar to the one implemented by Marcus at the beginning of his Meditations, where, for instance, he writes:

“From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” (Meditations I.3)

From time to time, write down what you are thankful for and to whom, and try to incorporate your mother in that list. Despite your discomfort with her while you were growing up, surely she has taught you some things, and expressing your gratitude to her, even simply to yourself, may help you overcome lingering negative feelings towards her.

You say that you hesitate to speak even though you feel you are in the right. Well, that should make it easier for you to follow Epictetus’ advice:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Enchiridion 33.2)

“In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.14)

In other words, talking a lot, especially about oneself, is completely unnecessary, and this dovetails well with your current issue. You should reject the pressure to speak, unless it is necessary and you feel you are contributing to a meaningful conversation. This will in turn allow you to focus on, and prepare for, those moments when you have to speak on your own behalf, to avoid being taken advantage of.

I do, however, get a sense that you may be a bit overconfident that what you think or feel is, indeed, right. What if it isn’t? Do you pause and reflect on other people’s criticisms, to see whether they may, in fact, have a point? Epictetus has more to say on this specific issue:

“Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right. They cannot be guided by your views, only their own; so if their views are wrong, they are the ones who suffer insofar as they are misguided. I mean, if someone declares a true conjunctive proposition to be false, the proposition is unaffected, it is they who come off worse for having their ignorance exposed.” (Enchiridion 42)

That is, whenever someone says something critical of you, there are two possibilities: (i) they may be right, even in part. In which case, you should not get upset, but accept the criticism and vow to yourself to do better. Or (ii) they are wrong, which does not hurt you, and really ought to embarrass them. Whether it actually does, or whether they are oblivious to their own bad judgment is their problem, not yours.

Let us get to the bits about other people taking advantage of you. It is not clear, from your letter, how exactly that happens. If it is simply that they think they bested you at a social gathering, coming off as smarter or more articulate, who cares? It is nothing to you, because it is not under your control, and does not affect your moral worth, your character. If we are talking about actual damage, however, such as, for instance, financial transactions, then you have to summon the courage to stand your ground, including threatening to go by legal ways. There is nothing in Stoicism that says that we should take injustice by laying down, or endure it with a stiff upper lip. Cato the Younger summoned the courage to start a revolution against Julius Caesar, surely you can manage to stand up to so-called friends or acquaintances who are doing something wrong to you.

Before you do take action, however, ponder this other bit of advice from Epictetus:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43)

I have experienced this myself very recently. I had been picking up things from the wrong handle, so to speak, with one of my brothers for a couple of years, and that had led us nowhere. Indeed, I was risking a permanent crack in our relationship. One day I re-read what Epictetus says in Enchiridion 43, pondered it for a few minutes, and called my brother, having decided to lift the cup from the other handle. Our relationship is still not perfect, but it has improved immensely. Similarly, before taking a stance with your friends or family about perceived injustice, ask yourself if that is worth possibly losing those friends and family.

You ask about the virtues of courage and justice. Here is how Cicero defines them, in On Invention, II.53-54:

“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [i.e., courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labor.”

Let’s start with the latter, courage. How do you become courageous? By willfully practicing exposure to uncomfortable situations. Remember the episode of Crates teaching Zeno not to be ashamed of things one has no reason to be ashamed of:

“From that day [Zeno] became Crates’s pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy, though with too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that he was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, with a blow of his staff he broke the pot. As Zeno took to flight with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, ‘Why run away, my little Phoenician?’ quoth Crates, ‘nothing terrible has befallen you.’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

This is a technique still used in modern Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, both of which have been in part inspired by Stoicism. Instead of lentil soup, a typical exercise might go like this: enter a pharmacy, approach the counter, and — in a fairly loud voice — ask: “Where do you keep the condoms? I need the small size!” The idea is to force yourself into situations that are not comfortable, which takes courage. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

In your case, prepare ahead when the next social occasion is looming on the horizon, rehearse saying something uncomfortable, in a version of the premeditatio malorum, and then do it. Start small, and work your way up to more difficult propositions. You will become more courageous by the day.

Now, about justice. In modern parlance that word indicates a universal concept articulating how people ought to be treated, a concept that — ideally — should be reflected both in our own actions and codified into law, for instance in the case of universal human rights as charted by the United Nations. That’s very good, but the Stoic focus is always on one’s own virtue, not on whatever failures others may have — because, of course, our moral choices are under our control, those of others are not.

Re-read Cicero’s definition above. He is talking about two aspects of justice, from a virtue ethical perspective: attributing the proper dignity to things, and preserving the general welfare. So whenever you are under the impression that an injustice has been done to you, ask yourself these two questions: first, is the thing itself worthy of your consideration? Many things will turn out just not to be important enough to get worked up about, or sufficiently important to pick up the cup from the difficult handle. In other words, choose your battles wisely. Second, is the injustice in question a matter of general welfare, or is it perhaps simply something that wounds your pride? If the former, by all means take action; if the latter, don’t bother, and focus on things that are truly worth fighting about.

One more note. Near the end of your letter you say that you want to become the kind of prokopton that you and your loved ones can be proud of. This is an understandable sentiment, but not really in line with Stoic teaching. We don’t practice Stoicism so that we can proudly display it to others; we practice Stoicism in order to become better persons, whether others appreciate it or not. Focus on improving your character and practicing the virtues. Everything else will follow, or not, just as the universe decrees that it may.

Stoic advice: my wife did something horrible, should I divorce her?

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

D. writes: I’m 30 years old and have been married (mostly happily) for eight years. I’ve been practicing Stoicism for about 5 years now. Two weeks ago, my wife caught my 4-year old son choking our several month old kitten. The cat survived, but only barely. I don’t believe this is a case of him not understanding that the cat could die or that death is permanent and bad. He agreed with me that choking the cat could lead to it dying.

Over the last two years, he had experienced three deaths in the family. His little brother died shortly before his due date at the hospital, where he was only able to see him a single time. This was the first time my Stoicism was truly tested. Later that year both my uncle, and my grandmother passed away. I’ve scheduled child and family therapy as a result of this incident.

This terrible event prompted my wife to admit to me that she herself had previously killed a kitten (mine). This occurred after we married, but about two years before my son was born. She strangled it to death and soaked its body in the sink after it had died. She later told me that it had fallen asleep in the empty washing machine and she ran it not knowing the cat was inside. I didn’t examine the story closely, because I simply couldn’t believe that my own wife would kill my pet.

My wife claims that she was under a lot of stress from her job at the time and felt an irrational anger at the cat at the moment she killed it. She also claims that she has struggled with guilt for years and that she has felt that God wanted her to confess to me and ask for forgiveness. Also, she worried our son had somehow inherited this behavior from her (either genetically or some other way), so she would have to tell me for me to be able to help.

My wife has no criminal record as far as I know, has never been violent towards me or my son, nor have I witnessed her abuse animals before. Prior to this admission, I considered ours to be a moderately to happy marriage (not taking into account the grief we suffered at the loss of our second son, but I don’t blame her for that). There have been times where she seemed to lack empathy, but in what I considered (at the time) to be within a normal (not psychopathic) range.

I am almost certain that I would not have brought children into the world with her had I known what she had done to my innocent pet. In that sense, I feel I have been tricked and trapped in this life under false pretenses. I am incredibly saddened and sickened by what she did. However, I love my son dearly and care about him more than anything else in the world, including my own happiness and comfort. I also still love my wife and feel responsible for her, despite the harm she has caused me. I realize now that I lack the wisdom to make decisions of this kind completely on my own, given my apparently poor judgment and gullibility. Would a Sage divorce under these circumstances? Should I?

I am terribly sorry for what you and your family are going through. This is a really difficult time, and you are right to think of it in terms of a test of your stoic attitude. As 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)

Let me begin by making a couple of hopefully reassuring comments, as a scientist, not a philosopher. First, despite what you state, I seriously doubt that your 4-year old son truly understands the consequences of his actions. Yes, he may agree, when prompted, that the kitten may have died, and that is a bad thing; but children do not have a sophisticated conception of their actions in the world, especially in a moral sense, until they reach the so-called age of reason, usually around 7 or 8 years. You are certainly right to explain to your son that what he did is wrong, but do not expect any serious reflection or meaningful agreement on his part. Which also means, obviously, that he is not really responsible for his actions yet.

Second, I also very seriously doubt that there is some kind of genetic inheritance at play here, or a direct environmental influence coming from your wife (unless your son saw her doing something terrible, but you said the incident with your cat happened well before your son was born). I cannot guarantee that my analysis is correct, of course, but if I were you I would put my mind at ease and understand your son’s behavior as one of those things that occasionally children do, not as a sign of a dark soul in the making. Nonetheless, that still means you need to keep modeling moral behavior for him, and correct him whenever he strays.

Now let me get to your wife. What she did was certainly very disturbing in and of itself, as well as of course a betrayal of your trust in her. However, the Stoics also repeatedly tell us to try to abstain from judging other people, even when they do obviously terrible things:

“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?” (Epictetus, Discourses I.18.3)

Epictetus goes so far as pity, rather than condemn, Medea, the mythical character that in Euripides’ play ends up killing her own children as a spiteful gesture toward her companion, Theseus, who is about to marry another woman:

“‘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)

Your wife seems to be in a situation very similar to Medea: she killed a kitten rather than a child (thank the Cosmos), but she was driven, like Medea, by stress and anger. She was not thinking straight because she was affected by negative passions, which are strong and — once unleashed — do not submit to reason. About anger in particular, Seneca says:

“The eager and self-destructive violence of anger does not grow up by slow degrees, but reaches its full height as soon as it begins. Nor does it, like other vices, merely disturb men’s minds, but it takes them away, and torments them till they are incapable of restraining themselves and eager for the common ruin of all people, nor does it rage merely against its object, but against every obstacle which it encounters on its way. … Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but people’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. … Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.” (On Anger, III)

Does that not sound like a very apt description of what likely happened to your wife? The point here isn’t to justify a terrible action, but rather to understand it and to display compassion towards the person that carried it out. Stoicism is a very forgiving and self-forgiving philosophy.

You say that your wife has carried a terrible burden of guilt for years about this, and that there is no other evidence of criminal or violent behavior on her part. Those are both strong reasons to try to help her, rather than abandon her, particularly because you two have a son that depends on your love. Brian Johnson’s book on Epictetus’ role ethics (discussed in several posts on this blog, last installment here) may help. You play a role as a husband as well as one as a father. It follows from those roles that you have an ethical duty to help your wife, since she clearly needs help, and to protect and love your son. This does not mean that one should stay in a marriage no matter what. It just means that the bar should be set very high before one gives up. You do state that you still love your wife, so act lovingly toward her, forgive her, talk to her, and engage in couple therapy with her (better if of the CBT kind, which is most closely allied with Stoicism).

You also say that you would not have brought children into this life had you known of the events that would have transpired. That’s idle talk, man. The past is outside of our control, presumably you did what you did because that reflected your best judgment at the time. It serves no purpose, other than to make yourself miserable, to ruminate over it:

“Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel.” (Seneca, Letter LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 34)

Finally, you feel you have been trapped into your current life under false pretense. False pretense on whose part? I doubt your wife was planning on making you miserable, or to kill your pet at the first sign of stress in her life. Much more likely, she married you because she fell in love with you, and she now feels the burden of guilt at what she has done, and moreover that of the uncertainty she probably senses about her future as a wife and mother, which will be greatly affected by your decision to divorce, if that is the path you will take.

No, it was Fortuna and your own judgment that brought you were you are now. It is entirely unhelpful to second guess Fortuna, or your judgment, for that matter, since they are both outside of your control. What is very much under your control, however, is to be compassionate and loving toward both your wife and your son; to do your best to help them out; to play your role as husband and father to your utter best. It may still not work out, of course, because the outcome of our actions is not entirely under our control. But virtue lies in our judgments and intentions, not in outcomes.

Stoic advice: my brother in law needs help but won’t seek it

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

M. writes: I’m a beginner in stoicism — I read your book (in Dutch) and try to do the spiritual exercises as best as possible. This works rather well, except in the case of one particular person: my brother-in-law. The problem with him is that he is mentally very unstable. He’s about 51 (I’m 53), he has a very paranoid personality. For example, he’s convinced that other people and/or ‘the regime” are overhearing him, that the people from the French-speaking part of our country (Belgium) want to take over the Dutch-speaking part (Flanders), that we’ll soon all lose our houses and that we’ll be “on the street,” etc.. Furthermore, he’s obsessed with food, but in a very unhealthy manner: his “diet” is extremely one-sided because, first, he thinks that a lot of foods (even healthy ones) are bad for his health, and, second, because he firmly believes in the theory that you may not combine certain foods (which science says is a myth). At other times, he devours lots of unhealthy foods. The result is that he’s very skinny, and that he has an unhealthy, pale appearance. It’s completely impossible to convince him that his beliefs and behavior are illogical and unrealistic. And that’s not all: in his life, he has only worked for a few years (long time ago), but he quit his job (as a teacher) because he was convinced pupils were laughing at him. He still lives with his 87-year old mother, who takes care of him (also financially), but whom he blames for the fact that his life is a failure. Also, he’s extremely nervous, he can’t sit still for five minutes (which, unfortunately, does not imply doing household chores — he’s extremely lazy in that respect), he talks to himself, etc.. He also has suicidal tendencies. And finally, and this is the worst problem, he obstinately refuses to undergo psychological/psychiatric therapy. He is, however, very intelligent (university degree), and was very skilled at painting, but unfortunately stopped doing this many years ago, and we have not succeeded in convincing him to start painting again (which, maybe, would be a good therapy).

You’ll understand he’s really a burden, in the first place, of course, for his mother, in the second place for his only sister (my wife; there are no other relatives). To a lesser degree for me too, although I have to admit that it’s very difficult to keep my (beginner’s) Stoic calm when he stays with us, during some weekends (for example: I’m the cook at home, but whatever I cook (and I’m not a bad cook, if I may say so), he’s never satisfied.

So my question is: how would an experienced Stoic deal with this situation? Not only with respect to keeping calm when such a person is around, but also with respect to this person himself, who refuses to see that he’s mentally ill and that he needs help? And how to help him anyway?

From the situation you have described, it sounds to me like you and your family are already trying to do whatever is possible to convince your brother-in-law that he needs help, as well as to prod him toward more productive activities, such as painting. If he is not responding, than this is a classic case of succeeding at doing your best, while Stoically letting go of the idea that it is up to you to actually achieve the goal. Remember how Cicero summarizes the general case, using the metaphor of the archer:

“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.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

I’m sure this isn’t going to be satisfactory, but that is simply the way it is. The universe has thrown you and your family a difficult situation in the form of your brother-in-law’s behavior and obvious mental problems. It is not in your power to resolve the issue, what is in your power is to do your best to put up with it and to keep trying to provide him with the tools to help himself. Remember, Stoicism isn’t a magic wand, capable of making life problems going away. It is rather a “mind trick,” if you will, to allow you to look at those problems in a different fashion.

I take it the really difficult time will come when his mother will pass away. At that point he will no longer have financial or logistical support, and will have to face the situation he is in. I suggest you begin to talk now about this with your wife, who presumably will need to make some hard decisions about what to do with her brother at that point, decisions in which you need to be involved, both because they will at least indirectly concern you, and because it is your duty to be helpful to her in your ethical role of husband. As Seneca reminds us:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Letter CVII. On Obedience to the Universal Will, 3)

In practical terms, I suggest you consult a lawyer on how to handle the situation, including asking questions about what your wife’s legal rights and duties are according to Dutch law in similar circumstances.

As far as how to regard your brother-in-law, you may want to re-read chapter 8 of my book, devoted to the Greek concept of amathia, or unwisdom, which the ancients considered to be the common root of much human malady. That chapter begins with a quote from Epictetus that applies just as well to your case:

“For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right.” (Discourses II.6)

You have tried to show your brother-in-law where he is going wrong, but if he persists it isn’t because he is evil, it’s because he is convinced that he is right. The proper attitude, therefore, is one of pithy and compassion, not anger or resentment.

One more thing, you mention twice that you feel like your status as a beginner at Stoicism makes it difficult to keep calm whenever your brother-in-law visits. But you may be confusing Stoicism (the philosophy) with stoicism (the attitude of getting through life with a stiff upper lip). Consider:

“For there are certain emotions, my dear Lucilius, which no courage can avoid; nature reminds courage how perishable a thing it is. And so he will contract his brow when the prospect is forbidding, will shudder at sudden apparitions, and will become dizzy when he stands at the edge of a high precipice and looks down. This is not fear; it is a natural feeling which reason cannot rout.” (Seneca, Letter LVII. On the Trials of Travel, 4)

Or again:

“A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings: for whoever imagines that paleness, bursting into tears, lustful feelings, deep sighs, sudden flashes of the eyes, and so forth, are signs of passion and betray the state of the mind, is mistaken, and does not understand that these are merely impulses of the body. Consequently, the bravest of men often turns pale while he is putting on his armor; when the signal for battle is given, the knees of the boldest soldier shake for a moment; the heart even of a great general leaps into his mouth just before the lines clash together, and the hands and feet even of the most eloquent orator grow stiff and cold while he is preparing to begin his speech. Anger must not merely move, but break out of bounds, being an impulse: now, no impulse can take place without the consent of the mind: for it cannot be that we should deal with revenge and punishment without the mind being cognizant of them.” (On Anger, III)

Whether it is fear, anger, or your sense of resentment against your brother-in-law that we are talking about, Seneca is making the standard Stoic distinction between proto-passions (propatheiai), which are instinctive and unavoidable, and full blown negative passions (pathos), which in order to take hold require an assent of your rational mind. This distinction, as it turns out, is upheld by modern research in cognitive science.

What this means specifically for you is that there is no sense in feeling bad because you feel your mind agitated (as opposed to calm) whenever your brother-in-law is around. Given the situation, it would be inhuman for you to feel otherwise. What marks the Stoic student, however, is the ability not to act on one’s negative emotions. Inwardly, you are agitated; outwardly, you still need to show compassion to him and be helpful to your wife. This can be taxing, so if you need a break, take it. Excuse yourself and go for a short walk, or retire to the bathroom and take a few deep breaths, ready to come out again and do your job as a human being. With time, it is even possible that you will achieve inner calm, and that the disturbing propatheiai will simply not manifest themselves. Regardless, the challenge is to do the right thing when the situation is demanding, not just when it’s easy:

“You can judge of a pilot in a storm, of a soldier in a battle.” (Seneca, On Providence, IV)

Of a husband, during the visits of his paranoid brother-in-law.