Category Archives: Stoic advice

Stoic advice: secret relationships

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

L. writes: I ended a long-term relationship and, about one year later, I (secretly) started dating a woman with which I have always felt a special connection. In fact, she was a friend and, most important, she was a friend of my ex partner. My Italian comrades tell me that it is ok, that most of our literature and cinema are built upon this classic situation. Yes, it looks fun for them, but I don’t feel very well. The fact is that I don’t see any way in which this action may make me a better person, and I am pretty sure about it. Hence, I only see a way out: that my (our) actions might be considered indifferent to virtue. But is it true? My new relationship, if known, would cause much suffering. And the fact itself of dating without the knowledge of others is indicative of wrong acting. Should I avoid this relationship?

Your connection between doing something in secret and the questionable ethics of whatever one is doing in secret is made also by Marcus:

“Never value anything as profitable that compels you to break your promise, to lose your self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything that needs walls and curtains.” (Meditations III.7)

But I would not be so hasty in arriving at that judgment in your specific case. You may be mistaken in your assumption that your new relationship is somehow wrong. Let’s take things one piece at a time.

To begin with, from what I understand you have not betrayed anyone. Indeed, you have done exactly the right thing: first you ended your long-term relationship; then you waiting for a suitable period of time (a year); and finally you began a new relationship with someone you had felt attracted to for a long time.

I am puzzled as to why you feel ashamed about any of this, and I don’t say that because I’m Italian and think that that’s the stuff of movies and books. I genuinely do not see the problem. You have acted ethically in the domains in which you had control. But you don’t really have control over basic feelings of attraction to another person, so there is no point in feeling guilty about that (it is not up to you, as Epictetus would say).

I do understand, of course, that you think — probably correctly — that your ex would get upset should he found out that you are now involved with a friend of his, and I respect your will not to hurt him. But, again, a year is a pretty decent amount of time, and he has no ethical grounds for complaints. His judgment of the situation, of course, will be his own, and you have no control over that, but I’m having a hard time thinking of what you have done as morally problematic. Indeed, many people would have not waited that long, or would have even started the new relationship before leaving the old one. Now that is definitely the stuff of literature and cinema, and it is also ethically more than questionable.

So the real issue, in my mind, is why you feel the need to keep your new relationship secret at this point. Assuming that you left your ex for good reasons and handled the situation properly; assuming that there was no betrayal at the time; and assuming that you love the new man in your life, then you are simply concerned with what other people (chiefly, but possibly not only, your ex) think of what you are doing. But there the Stoic advice is pretty clear:

“[I learned that] to care for all men is according to man’s nature; and man should value the opinion only of those who openly live according to nature.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations III.4)

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 25.28)

“Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.” (Seneca, Letter LXXVIII. On the Healing Power of the Mind, 13)

Other people’s opinions are outside of your control, and should not enter into your judgment about whether what you are doing is right or not. I do not mean that you can gingerly ignore other people’s advice, obviously. Nor that you should be callous with respect to others’ feelings. But once you have considered them all, you still need to arrive at your own judgment, and if you think that judgment is correct, settle the matter in your heart and act accordingly.

On one (more) thing I disagree with you: your new relationship is not exactly a preferred indifferent. Or, rather, the relationship itself is, but not the way you go about it:

“Men make a mistake, my dear Lucilius, if they hold that anything good, or evil either, is bestowed upon us by Fortune; it is simply the raw material of Goods and Ills that she gives to us — the sources of things which, in our keeping, will develop into good or ill.” (Seneca, Letter XCVIII. On the Fickleness of Fortune, 2)

“Fortune” has presented you with a man you feel attracted to. That, in and of itself, is only a preferred indifferent, not a true good. The true good is what you do with what Fortune gave you. How you manage the relationship, how you treat that person, those are all occasions for you to exercise virtue, and it is the exercise of virtue that is the chief good, according to the Stoics. In your case, part of this exercise includes not keeping your relationship secret. If you are ashamed of it for good reasons, then end it at once, to minimize everyone’s suffering. But if you are not ashamed, or have arrived at the judgment that you should not be, then bring it out in the open as a sign of respect toward your companion and toward yourself.

Stoic advice: should I contact my estranged daughter?

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S. wrote: I’m a divorced father of two (a daughter aged 14 and a son aged 8). I haven’t seen my children for 7 years as my ex-wife and I separated due to financial pressure and then got divorced. During our separation, I didn’t see either my ex or children as I was led to believe that this was in their best interests due to their domestic situation at the time and that they were waiting for me to improve my financial position before returning to me. When divorce proceedings started, it emerged that my ex had had another child and my daughter had developed a rather different view of her childhood (and my relationship with her) than had actually occurred. The judge was skeptical of my daughter’s account, and was willing to order counseling, but I did not have the funds to take it up so the arrangements ordered were that I could send the children presents and cards once per quarter. I have the right to try to change the terms of the order and, while I do not know if my ex is complying with it, I can prove easily that she is not meeting her general obligations under the law. I am keen to re-visit the issue as I believe that it is in my children’s best interests (particularly my daughter as the literature in the area is unanimous about the negative consequences for children in her situation). I presume that further court action will take at least 6 months as I expect it to be contested.

However, my daughter is approaching the age where she will start doing formal exams which will dictate her choice of university (and field of study) and I anticipate that re-opening the issue will cause her distress and may adversely impact her performance. I know I cannot control her reaction, but my “practical wisdom” suggests that there is a substantial risk of deleterious consequences, so I am considering delaying action until the exams are over (approximately 2 years). Unfortunately, this means that my son will miss out on the opportunity of contact with me (I anticipate this will be less traumatic for him as I last saw him when he was 18 months, so he has few (no?) memories of me which he may be repressing).

I’m sorry for the long-winded intro, but looking at my role of father, is it better to take action (which I believe needs to be taken in the children’s best interests) now despite the risk of negative consequences for my daughter, or to wait, thereby disadvantaging my son?

Being the son of divorced parents, having been divorced myself, and with a daughter who grew up with her mother, I can certainly sympathize with your situation. Let me make a few comments on your background description first, then get to the focal question.

You were talked into not seeing your children for seven years, right at the beginning of the whole story. I would suggest that accepting this was a mistake on your part. There is hardly any reasonable circumstance (except for threats of violence, for instance) where either parent should be kept from his children for that long period of time. As a result, your relationship with both of them is highly distorted, and will likely remain that way for a long time.

Of course, Stoics counsel not to indulge in regret over past actions, since they are not under our control:

“Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records.” (Seneca, Letter LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 34)

“What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy?” (Seneca, Letter LXXVIII. On the Healing Power of the Mind, 14)

But of course one can learn from the past and use that knowledge to improve things in the present. I should think that a good lawyer would be able to make the case that the initial decision was not good for the children, and that a compassionate judge would reassess and attempt to redress the situation.

Which brings me to the next point: if you have the right to try to change the terms of the agreement I would act on that right, immediately, before any further damage accrues in your relationship with your children. It’s already going to be really hard, taking a lot of effort and time, to repair that relationship as much as possible, and you don’t know how much time Fate has actually in store for any of you.

According to Seneca: “Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it.” (CXVII. On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties, 32)

And as Epictetus says, the time to act is now: “When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Enchiridion 51.2)

All of which finally brings me to your crucial question: what about the further issues that all of this could cause to your daughter, specifically in terms of her exams? As you explicitly say, that is a matter for your own prohairesis to assess. You need to balance the value of your relationship with your children against the possible harm that re-engaging with them — especially after a legal action — will possibly (but not certainly) cause to both of them.

But you also need to ask yourself some hard questions: is it possible that your daughter is more resilient than you are willing to admit? Is it possible that you may perhaps unconsciously be using this as an excuse for you to remain in the background, given that that would be the path of least resistance for you? In other words, in terms of the first question, is your current exercise of prudence the right one? And in terms of my second question, are you acting courageously?

I cannot answer those questions for you, obviously, but I suggest you reflect on them, ideally with the help of either a wise friend or of a CBT or similar therapist (or both). The ability of the human mind to rationalize is very strong, which is why we learn by comparing our behavior to that of others whom we admire:

“For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (XI. On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

Given my own experience, both as a child and then as a father, I would say that children are more resilient than many adults give them credit for, and that one should not wait before beginning to repair a relationship, particularly with children around the age of your own. I wish you the best of luck, it is a difficult time in your and your children’s life, but as Marcus puts it:

“Our actions may be impeded by [external circumstances], 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)

Stoic advice: am I transgender? And what do I do about it?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

G. writes: I have been suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder for a long time (since I was 12-13, or so; I’m 23 now). The topics of my obsessive thoughts changed over time, but for the last two years, I’ve been dealing with the most challenging one. Suddenly I started to be afraid of the fact that I might not be comfortable with my gender. I’m a biological man, and I really never had any problem with that. In fact, I went through puberty without feeling distressed because of the changes in my body. I was fine with that. But since this obsession came in, I’ve been reconsidering my whole life, trying to find any clue in my past that can give me an answer to the question “Am I transgender or not?” I am analyzing many facts of my early childhood and adolescence, trying to find the answer. It’s torturing me. I barely can sleep, feel an incredible amount of anxiety and feel extremely depressed sometimes.

I think recently I realized that I never actually felt the urge to change my body at all, and that gave me a little peace of mind. However, I feel mentally or intellectually more similar to women, I guess (a fact I really can’t confirm since I can’t be inside a woman’s head) and it’s really confusing me. There are times when I somehow want to be a woman, not because of the physical part, but in order to be more in accordance with my mind, so to speak. I’m not sure of this, though, because I never felt that need. I was fine with how my body and my mind are. Further, I really don’t imagine myself transitioning from man to woman, I don’t want that in my life, actually. It’s more like sometimes I wish I could’ve been born female to be more at peace with myself. I tell you that because, from a Stoic point of view, the gender assigned at birth is obviously out of our control. The only option we have to change that is transitioning, through taking hormones and all that. But it’s really not what I want at all. 

Actually, the nature vs nurture debate about gender is far from being settled, in part because we can’t (for ethical and logistical reasons) do the kind of experiments that would be necessary to settle it. (Here it’s the biologist in me talking, since gene-environment interactions is my field of research.) Consider that many transgender people describe their situation before transitioning as “being trapped in the wrong body,” which sounds like a strong endorsement of the idea that a biological component is affecting their gender. By contrast, a number of radical feminists vehemently reject that implication, because they subscribe to an equally strong notion of cultural construction of gender. (I would add a note of caution to the effect of keeping in mind the distinction among sex, gender, and sexual orientation, just not to further increase the level of confusion. Here is a good introduction.)

Luckily, from a Stoic point of view, we don’t need to settle that particular matter. Your situation, insofar as gender is concerned, seems to me to be fairly clear: you state explicitly that you do not want to transition, even though you imagine yourself being more at peace had you been born female.

Well, the way you were a born is clearly not under your control, so there is nothing to do there. Decide whether to transition (depending on the availability of medical and financial resources), by contrast, is something that is under your control, but, again, you stated clearly that you don’t want to do it. The upshot, then, is that you will remain a man, biologically and gender-wise. Internalizing this ought to give you some piece of mind.

Nevertheless, you are not happy with your situation, obsessing, as you put it, on alternative scenarios that you manifestly do not want to actually explore. Part of the problem, therefore, seems to lie into your inability to accept and thrive under your current predicament. Marcus has something to say about that:

“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as these: for instance, that where a man can live, there he can also live well.” (Meditations V.16)

Or consider Seneca: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” (Letter XXVIII. On Travel as a Cure for Discontent, 2)

While both Marcus and Seneca are talking about physical places where one lives or travels, I think the same applies to mental states. You wish you were a woman “not because of the physical part, but in order to be more in accordance with my mind.” Okay, but nothing is getting in the way of that, other then the fashion in which you “dye your thoughts,” so to speak. If you are good with the physical part of being a man, ask yourself what it is that you’d rather change, exactly: would you feel more comfortable dressing like a woman? Then do it. Yes, I know, there can be social consequences, but less so these days, at least in many Western countries; and at any rate, what other people think is outside of your control, and their opinions do not matter unless they are wise ones. Or perhaps you feel physical attraction for other men? You don’t mention anything about sexual preferences, but, again, if that’s the issue, then go for it, regardless of what others may think of your choice. Or, finally, it is simply a matter of thinking and feeling the way you imagine a woman would think and feel. But as you admitted, you don’t actually know what that is like, which means you should think and feel exactly the way you want to think and feel, without attaching a label (“manly!,” “womanly!”) to it. What good does that label do?

I suspect, though, that the real issue is the one you mention at the beginning of your letter: a tendency for obsessive compulsive thoughts. I surmise that you have actually been diagnosed with this, that it’s not just your way to describe the way you feel. You also say, interestingly, that the object of your obsession-compulsion changes over time. So one may reasonably infer that the man vs woman issue is actually just a temporary manifestation of your disorder, because you always need something to be obsessing about. It just happens to be gender at this particular moment.

Stoicism, of course, is a philosophy of life, not a therapy. But there are therapeutical approaches out there that are inspired or informed by Stoicism, particularly rational emotive behavior therapy and the family of cognitive behavioral therapies. So why not seek a professional who works within these frameworks (as opposed to, say, a Freudian psychoanalyst), and see what she advises you to do about it?

Obviously, you should not feel like a failure just because you have a medical condition, of course. As Seneca puts it: “You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise man will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body.” (LXXI. On the Supreme Good, 29)

The same goes for you: although you are a prokopton, i.e., you are striving to make progress with the theory and practice of Stoicism, you don’t have control over something like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Consider Epictetus: “Impressions (which philosophers call), striking a person’s mind as soon as he perceives something within range of his senses, are not voluntary or subject to his will, they impose themselves on people’s attention almost with a will of their own. But the act of assent (which they call) which endorses these impressions is voluntary and a function of the human will.” (Fragments 9)

In your case the impression is the result of internal, rather than external, perception, but it amounts to the same thing.

You can, however, make the decision to seek professional help, in the meantime trying to calmly and rationally interrogate your own sensations, like Epictetus invites us to do:

“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Enchiridion 1.5)

Therapy, if successful, will bring your mind back to a level of more or less normal functionality. Philosophy will pick things up from there, guiding you through life in a way that increases your chances of living eudaimonically.

Stoic advice: I decided for the wrong surgery, now I regret it

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

M. writes: I’m struggling with the notion of regret. I’ve turned to the Stoics before in difficult times because their attitude can get us through a lot. But I’m stuck with this one. I understand on an intellectual level that it doesn’t make any sense to be wrapped up in tumults about a past event. But, like worry, I find it difficult to stop. Some specifics: I opted for a surgery that half of my doctors told me wasn’t necessary and the other half thought should have been done months ago. The surgery didn’t go well, and now I may be faced with a permanent disability. Had I not opted for the surgery, I would quite likely be perfectly fine. That slays me. I can’t get over that i did this to myself. I try to keep in mind how much worse others have it, and I try to focus on the here and now, and on what I have to be grateful for, but the regret rises up to ruin everything. How were the Stoics so able to get on top of these types of thoughts so well, or were they? To what extent are our own thoughts and feelings actually within our control?

The answer to your last questions are, respectively: practice; some were able to, some less so; and it depends on what one means by “thoughts and feelings.” Let’s take a closer look.

First off, it sounds to me like you have understood all the basic precepts. You know about the dichotomy of control, so you know that the past is not up to you. Which means that indulging in regret is — as you are experiencing all too clearly — a waste of your emotional resources. That is not to say you shouldn’t learn from your experience, of course, and in this case the lessons seem to be: (i) if your doctors are equally split in their opinions, seek the advice of more doctors, until some sort of pattern emerges; (ii) medicine is as much art as it is science, hence the disparate opinions of your doctors; and (iii) given that a lot of medical research is flawed, if something like this happens again you are probably better off taking the conservative route and not do surgery, unless a clear majority of your doctors thinks it’s obviously a good idea.

In terms of having to live the rest of your life with a permanent disability, you don’t specify what sort of disability, but this is obviously not a preferred indifferent. However, you may find strength and inspiration in reading the extraordinary story of a modern Stoic, Larry Becker (the author of A New Stoicism), as it is recounted, for instance, in chapter 10 of my How to Be a Stoic. Larry has been confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, but managed to flourish anyway. As he wryly puts it, “doing without a wheelchair is not a basic life goal.” (You can listen to a four-part interview I did with him here.)

In general, what you are running into is the common problem that one thing is to understand the theory, and an altogether different challenge it is to put it into practice. 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)

And he also tells you what it means to practice:

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

Or consider this:

“If a man gets the habit of writing ungrammatically, his art is bound to be destroyed and perish. In the same way the modest man is made by modest acts and ruined by immodest acts, the man of honor keeps his character by honest acts and loses it by dishonest. … That is why philosophers enjoin upon us ‘not to be content with learning only, but to add practice as well and then training’. For we have acquired wrong habits in course of years and have adopted for our use conceptions opposite to the true, and therefore if we do not adopt true conceptions for our use we shall be nothing else but interpreters of judgements which are not our own.” (Discourses II, 9)

This is, of course, the same idea behind rational emotive behavior therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which were initially inspired by Stoic practice.

Epictetus clearly recognizes that practice is much more difficult than theory, and that it requires years, because one has to undo the sort of bad habits of mind one develops during one’s upbringing as a non-Stoic. In your case, regret is considered by most to be a natural response to that sort of situation, so you have probably regretted all sorts of other things before, from very small and inconsequential ones to the one we are talking about now.

For you, then, “practice” may mean to start small, pick some minor regret you have, then analyze it — perhaps in writing, in a personal diary, or discoursing with a close friend about the issue. At the end of each round of analysis, tell yourself — loudly if it helps — that that was “nothing to me.” Then move to consider past events that are a bit more important to you, and finally come back to the surgery issue. Should this not be enough, then you may want to consider seeing a therapist (either REBT or CBT), focusing on this specific issue, and see whether that helps.

At the same time, please remember that neither therapy nor philosophy are panaceas for all maladies. As Seneca puts it:

“You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise man will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body. … It is a mistake on our part to make the same demands upon the wise man and upon the learner. I still exhort myself to do that which I recommend; but my exhortations are not yet followed.” (LXXI. On the Supreme Good, 29-30)

Which means that the prokopton, who is not a wise person, but only a student in training, will feel regret, anger, and all the other negative human emotions. The idea, however, is that she will make progress, and will be able to shift her emotional spectrum from negative to positive. If you are struggling, you are in good company, including Seneca himself!

That’s pretty much the answer to your first two combined questions: how were the Stoics so able to get on top of these types of thoughts so well, or were they? Some of them did better than others, but all were imperfect, from the above mentioned Seneca to Marcus Aurelius (who, in the Meditations, his personal diary, keeps coming back over and over to the same topics, presumably because he had slipped in his practice and was reminding himself of where the right path was).

Let me now get to your last question: to what extent are our own thoughts and feelings actually within our control?

As I explained in this post, modern cognitive science backs up a lot of Stoic intuitions about how the human mind works. In particular, research by Joseph LeDoux (author of Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, a book you may want to check out) confirms the Stoic distinction between propathos (the pre-reflective, instinctive reactions we have) and the mature, post-reflective emotions that the ancients then subdivided into pathē (negative, disruptive) and eupatheiai (positive, nurturing).

That’s the sort of distinction the led Epictetus to advice his students in this way:

“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Enchiridion 1.5).

It takes time, mindful effort, and patience to retrain our propathos away from the path of pathē and onto that of eupatheiai. That’s arguably the most difficult part of being a practitioner of Stoicism. But the result, if you succeed, is well worth the effort:

“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (Enchiridion I.3)

Stoic advice: Stoicism and unhappy marriages

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

J. writes: What would a Stoic say to a friend in an unhappy marriage? A colleague of mine recently confided in me that she is on the receiving end of emotional abuse in her marriage. I let her know I was surprised because her demeanor at work has never changed. She told me that is on purpose, because she thinks the problem is her attitude towards the situation, therefore she thinks the solution to the problems in her marriage is to change the way she thinks about them. ‘How Stoic,’ I thought. She went on to say that her husband always takes issue with her apparent lack of emotion, which she says is not the case, but rather that she is very in control of her emotions and doesn’t let them inhibit her judgement of the situation. ‘How Stoic,’ I thought again. My question, though, is if she is doing the right thing? I admire her Stoic leanings (although she doesn’t know what Stoicism is), and she’s even gone to the point of saying she can’t control the external situation, so she can only control her thoughts. I want to convince her that while she can’t control her husband, she can most certainly control her participation in the relationship and she can and should leave him. A marriage is not slavery, or an illness, or a disability in which there is no possible way to control the situation. Surely, although she is following Stoicism to make the best of a terrible situation, shouldn’t she exhaust all the possible ways she can personally change her situation before settling on ‘attitude adjustment’ as the best option? And for a more broader question, what would a Stoic do if he or she realized the marriage was a mistake, or even a regret, a few years or even decades into it? Is there any Stoic interpretation to how binding a marriage contract is?

This is an excellent question, and one that touches me personally, since I have been divorced (and more than once, to my regret). Moreover, the Stoics did have something to say about marriage (and sex), but I think they disagreed sharply amongst themselves, along cultural lines (the Greeks vs the Romans), which means that it is up to us to update Stoic thought on the matter for 21st century living. I do think, however, that there is a broadly Stoic take on this issue, as there is about anything important in life. So let’s proceed one step at a time, beginning with your friend’s “stoic” (notice the small-s) approach.

Yes, attitudes like “the solution to the problems in my marriage is to change the way I think about them,” or “I am in control of my emotions and don’t let them inhibit my judgement of the situation” sound Stoic, but if they are unqualified and applied regardless of the situation on the ground, they are precisely the sort of “Stoicism” that many of our critics dislike. To see why, let’s go back to the classic definition of the dichotomy of control, at the beginning of Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

The phrase “whatever affairs are our own” is suitably open ended, and I interpret it to include our intentions to performs certain (right) actions. Which makes sense because Epictetus also includes “aim” in the list. This is related to Cicero’s famous example of the archer who attempts to hit a target in De Finibus, where he tells us that actually hitting the target is “to be chosen but not to be desired,” since what we control is our attempt, not the outcome (III.22).

Your friend’s “target” should be to have a positive and nurturing relationship with her husband. But to actually succeed in this is outside of her control, so she should choose that aim, not “desire” it, meaning not make her serenity dependent on it. But it sounds to me like she may not even be trying, which is not the Stoic thing to do.

Perhaps there are good reasons for her not to leave her husband, such as the presence of children, financial considerations, and the like (though often such reasons are nowhere near as good as so many people seem to think they are). In which case she is in a situation analogous to Epictetus’ famous “smoking room”:

“Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad — no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open.” (Discourses I, 25.17-18)

As is well known, Epictetus was talking about suicide, but I think the point applies more broadly to any difficult situation. It really comes down to an exercise of the virtue of practical wisdom (or phronesis, prudence), which is defined as: “a type of wisdom relevant to practical things, requiring an ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and encourage practical virtue, excellence of character, in others.” Notice the emphasis on acting. Stoicism cannot be solely an issue of changing your own attitude regardless of your willingness to actually improve things. If so, it becomes quietism, and the ancient Stoics were anything but quietists.

Let me now move to a brief discussion of marriage in ancient Stoicism. On the one hand, Diogenes Laertius paints a picture of Zeno and Chrysippus advocating something that sounds a lot like what we would today call open and polyamorous relationships:

“In the Republic he lays down community of wives … he bids men and women wear the same dress and keep no part of the body entirely covered.” (DL VII.34)

“It is also their doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government” (DL VII.131)

By contrast, here is what the II Century Roman Stoic Hierocles writes:

“The whole of our race is naturally adapted to society … cities could not exist without a household; but the household of an unmarried man is truly imperfect … a life accompanied by wedlock is to be precedaneously chosen by the wise man; but a single life is not to be chosen, except particular circumstances require it … Nature herself, prior to the wise man incites us to this, who also exhorts the wise man to marry. For she not only made us gregarious, but likewise adapted to copulation, and proposed the procreation of children and stability of life, as the one and common work of wedlock … In the first place, indeed, because it produces a truly divine fruit, the procreation of children, since they will be assistants to us in all our actions … I also think that a married life is beautiful. For what other thing can be such an ornament to a family, as is the association of husband and wife? … For there is not anything so troublesome which will not be easily borne by a husband and wife when they are concordant, and are willing to endure it in common … but when we marry those whom we ought not, and, together with this, are ourselves entirely ignorant of life, and unprepared to take a wife in such a way as a free and ingenuous woman ought to be taken, then it happens that this association with her becomes difficult and intolerable.” (Fragment V, On Wedlock)

Notice that even the rather conservative Hierocles — who argues that marriage is natural and that one should be single only under exceptional circumstances — goes on to allow, toward the end of the passage, that there can be such a thing as a bad marriage, and that it can be “difficult and intolerable.”

Combining Zeno, Chrysippus and Hierocles (or what a number of Stoics say about sexual relations) it emerges that there is no such thing as the Stoic position on marriage and morals (to use the title of a famous book by Bertrand Russell). But that doesn’t mean we cannot reason our way through the issue by applying broadly Stoic principles. Indeed, a major attraction of Stoicism (which it shares with other ancient philosophies, from Buddhism to Christianity) is precisely that its overarching principles apply universally, even though their specific interpretations do vary, of course, with times and cultures. (To be a “Christian,” or a “Buddhist” today doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant 2,000 or 2,500 years ago, respectively.)

The discipline that seems most applicable here is that of action, with its associated virtue of justice. Is your friend acting justly toward her husband? You mention the abuse she is receiving, which is certainly not just. But does he have a point that she is so withdrawn emotionally as perhaps not engaging with him, making his own experience of the relationship miserable? Is she willing to do something about that? She should, if she values the relationship (and, again, especially if there are innocent third parties, in the form of children).

But assuming she has been doing her best to work on the relationship, even up to trying couple therapy and psychological counseling, perhaps, then it is incumbent on her, and only on her, to answer the Epictetian question: is the room not really suffocating? Or is it proving to be too much? In the first case she can stay indoors, in the latter she can leave. That truly is “up to her,” and no one else.

Stoic advice: my partner drinks, gets angry, and embarrasses me

Crates and his wife Hipparchia

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

N. wrote: I am engaged to my partner and we have been together a few years. We have recently bought a house and I have moved city, leaving my previous job, family and friends behind. The relationship has been good at times but I encounter doubts about its longevity on and off. My partner can get angry at times and has difficulty handling stress. He is often most relaxed when he has had an alcoholic drink. Also, he is socially awkward and when we are in company he can say and do inappropriate things. For example, making comments out of context of the conversation, and quite outlandish. I find this embarrassing and quite immature, and often wonder whether I can continue to handle this behavior. It isn’t malicious, it is more his personality and development. This affects me to the extent that I would avoid him being around my family and friends as I fear feeling very embarrassed. Regarding the anger and stress, I often have to be careful about my responses as I don’t want to increase his behavior. He is generally kind, caring and generous so it is difficult to put it all in perspective. I also recognize that we all have our flaws and idiosyncrasies. From a Stoic angle how could I go about reconciling these issues and what should I consider?

There are two levels of analysis of this sort of situation, I think. The highest level is whether it is worth for you to stay in the relationship. The second level, assuming the answer to the first question is positive, is how to handle your partner. Let’s begin from the top, then.

I assume that, so far at least, you have arrived at the judgment that the pain is worth the gain, so to speak. You have sacrificed a lot for your partner, including living in a different city, giving up your job, and perhaps most importantly moving away from family and friends. That in and of itself can be stressful, and perhaps a source of resentment toward your partner. There is even a possibility that this makes you less tolerant of his behavior, along the lines of “look, I gave up a lot for you, and this is how you repay me?” I’m not saying you consciously think this way, but it may be worth engaging in some level of self reflection about it. (Do you keep a philosophical diary? I find it very useful to help me think more clearly about this sort of issues.)

While you have given up a lot, Stoic literature tells you that you should nevertheless be okay with your choices, and with the situation that the universe has trust upon you. For instance, Marcus says:

“The soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as these: for instance, that where a man can live, there he can also live well.” (Meditations V.16)

The quote is about “dyeing” one’s thoughts, meaning that it is up to us to decide to adopt a certain stance on things, and not simply assent to our first impressions. This, of course, is the fundamental Stoic “mind trick,” so to speak: a lot in life depends on how we decide to see what happens to us. In your case, you have voluntarily given up certain important things, so make sure you do not dwell on that, and focus instead on the positive reasons you have made such choices. Here is Marcus again:

“When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.” (Meditations, VI.48)

So remind yourself of the good qualities in your partner, of why it is that you followed him and left so much behind.

Another passage that I think is appropriate to your situation comes from Seneca, on losing one’s friends:

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

I find this to be striking on target in general. Seneca is both appreciating the crucial importance of friendship (and in your case, family), and yet is reminding us that even its loss (not necessarily through death, but also moving away) needs to be handled with equanimity, the way the Stoics seek to handle pretty much anything Fortuna does to them.

Now, my advice concerning the top-level question (do I stay within the relationship or do I not?) is to keep monitoring your thoughts and feelings, try to look at things with equanimity and “dye” your thoughts appropriately. But it is possible, of course, that at one point or another you will decide that it is not worth it, in which case:

“Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad — no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open.” (Discourses I, 25.17-18)

While Epictetus there was likely referring to suicide (see this post), I don’t see why the basic advice shouldn’t be considered more broadly: so long as it is within your power to change things, it is also within your power to decide to stay and work on them.

Let’s now focus more narrowly on your current situation, assuming your judgment about the big picture is that the smoke in the house isn’t sufficiently suffocating that you need to get out.

Recently I have been running a series on Epictetus’ role ethics, based on a very good book by Brian Johnson, which I highly recommend. Take a look, and consider what your role(s) are in the situation you find yourself in. You have the role of a partner, which carries certain responsibilities toward your companion, including the one of being tolerant of his defects and helpful to him (again, within limits, should the relationship become intolerable or abusive, then see “open door” above).

For instance, have you talked to him about his drinking, his anger, and the way he sometimes embarrasses you in front of your friends (more on the latter problem in a moment)? Has he sought counseling about the first two issues? As far as you are concerned, take a look at Seneca’s wonderful book, On Anger, about which I ran a three-part commentary on this blog. You could start with my overview, but I recommend actually reading the whole thing, it is both a philosophical analysis of anger and a very helpful how-to in anger management.

Another one of your roles is that of a friend to whoever you have decided to admit into your inner circle. That role may conflict with that of a partner, if your companion does not behave appropriately when you are both in the company of others. Epictetus’ does discuss the issue of conflicting roles, but does not provide specific guidance, except in the case of conflict between our specific roles (both chosen and “assigned” by life) and the more fundamental role we all have as human beings. In the case of that sort of conflict, the more fundamental role always wins, overriding all our other commitments. But your case is one of conflict between roles that are at about the same level, and are both chosen by you (as opposed to trust upon you by events, like your role as a daughter to your parents, for instance).

This may sound like a limitation of virtue ethics, and perhaps it is. But the fact is, life is too complicated and varied for there to be easy, universal solutions, to our problems. The Stoics would say that how to handle the conflict between being a good partner and a good friend provides you with an excellent opportunity to practice one of the four cardinal virtues, that of practical wisdom. And perhaps that of temperance as well, as you will need to exercise some self control.

Finally, let me get back to your issue of embarrassment with your friends. While I understand your feelings, and as I said above, you should gently talk to your partner about it, I am reminded of the famous story told by Diogenes Laertius about the training of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, by his teacher, Crates the Cynic:

“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.’” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

The point of the story being that shame is hardly appropriate for the philosopher (meaning the student of philosophy, including you), especially if it is triggered by someone else’s behavior. The only thing you ought to be ashamed of is if you do something unethical, to your partner, your friends, or anyone else. But your partner’s behavior is not unethical, simply socially awkward. And of course you have no control over either his behavior or your friends’ reactions. So my advice is simply to ignore both. I know, it’s not that easy, but nobody said that practicing Stoicism was going to be easy, right?

Stoic advice: giving to the homeless

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

S. wrote: I have a question I’ve been asking myself for quite a few years now, even prior to getting into Stoicism. We’ve all probably had instances where, for example, we are unsure about whether we are giving aid to the homeless out of true virtue, or whether we simply enjoy thinking ourselves as such (and for some people more importantly, that others see us as such).

So my wife and I budget ourselves $30/week of personal spending money but I typically don’t use it because I try not to eat out or buy things that I don’t feel I need. One thing I like to do is give the random grocery bagger, cashier, or whomever I may encounter that has engaged in small talk with me a $5, $10, or $20 bill. Whatever is in my pocket at the time or what I deem reasonable for the situation. Even as I’m writing this I realize it makes me feel good just thinking that people are reading it and seeing it as a nice thing to do, and therefore I don’t usually tell anyone about these things. I don’t even tell my wife, because I feel like by telling her I am giving into that will for recognition of my act. What are your thoughts on this? Would you find it any less virtuous by telling your wife?

I see the man that I want to be, but I know I’m nowhere near that goal. I have that self-deprecating personality that makes it hard for me to feel justified in recognition where it isn’t deserved.

This is somewhat related to the issue we just discussed recently, concerning the ethical advisability of engaging in so-called effective altruism, although what you are referring to here is on a much smaller, and more personal (because it concerns people you actually meet) scale.

I don’t think there is anything objectionable in giving small amounts of money to homeless people you encounter, or to the others in need you mention in your letter. I also don’t think it is wrong to donate to charity in larger amounts. I do both, so it would be hypocritical of me to advice others not to do it. In my case, I keep small bills in my pocket to give out to homeless people I encounter in my neighborhood, and I budget a certain amount every few months to give to charities or other organizations whose mission I believe in (mostly, the International Rescue Committee, for disaster relief; and the ACLU, for increasingly needed protection of civil rights; also some news organizations, since a more or less free press is vital to maintain a somewhat functional democracy).

I do this because I want to contribute to a world were human beings help each other and relate to each other as members of a cosmopolis, as Marcus says here:

“The universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another.” (Meditations, IX.1)

“Where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society.” (Meditations V.16)

You also raise the issue of whether one does this sort of things in order to feel good about oneself, and whether that is in itself ethical. So long as feeling good isn’t the main reason one engages in a virtuous act, I don’t think there is a problem. Kant thought that feeling good about doing good somehow makes the act not good, but he was a bit of a rigid moralist, who also incidentally said that the moral law ought to be upheld even at the cost of the destruction of the world (one could reasonably wonder what the point of being ethical would be, if the world came to an end as a result of it). Here is what Seneca has to say instead, which I find to be a much wiser discussion of the issue:

“We Stoics … take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labour, provided that they lighten the labours of others.” (On Benefits, IV.13)

And more to the point:

“‘But,’ says our adversary [the Epicurean], ‘you yourself only practise virtue because you hope to obtain some pleasure from it.’ In the first place, even though virtue may afford us pleasure, still we do not seek after her on that account: for she does not bestow this, but bestows this to boot, nor is this the end for which she labours, but her labour wins this also, although it be directed to another end. … Pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her.” (On the Happy Life, IX)

So, you may still not want to boast about your actions to your wife, but taking pleasure in doing something good is human, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for it.

The broader issue, however, is the same that I brought up in my criticism of effective altruism: we need to be careful not to use charity as a palliative that clears our conscience and distracts us from the underlying issues. We live in a rich society with plenty of resources, we have no excuse for having homeless people in the streets, or for so many in our society to have to work two or three jobs just to pay their rent.

That is why I only give little directly to the person I encounter in the street, but reserve some of my budget to give money to organizations that advocate for the homeless, or that fight for a more just society. And of course I also engage whoever will listen in conversations about social justice, and I vote for political candidates who support more just policies. Naturally, ultimately I do not control the outcomes of these actions, only my judgments and my own actions following from those judgments. Accordingly, I don’t expect the world to magically become a better place, but try to follow Marcus when he says:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Stoic advice: effective altruism

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

J. wrote: Should a Stoic prokopton be an effective altruist? Effective altruism is a utilitarian-inspired movement which advocates that well-off people from rich countries ought to make significant altruistic efforts, through their time and/or money, and that their efforts ought to be directed in whatever way they expect to have the most beneficial marginal impact on the world. Stoics are clearly not utilitarians, but can it ever be virtuous to choose a less effective cause over a more effective one? Can it ever be virtuous for a well-off person in a rich country to not put substantial efforts towards altruism (i.e. donating at least 10% of one’s income as advocated by Giving What We Can’s pledge)? From a virtue ethics perspective, are eight hours volunteering at a local soup kitchen equally meritorious to eight hours spend earning money at a high wage to then donate 100% to the same soup kitchen, even when the latter is certain to have more consequential benefits to others? If so, what are some conditions under which Stoic virtue would depart from a more consequentialist effective altruism stance?

This is an excellent, and difficult question. But I broadly think the answer is no, there is no ethical obligation for a Stoic to be an effective altruist. To begin with, as you note, Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, not a utilitarian philosophy. Even more to the point, its entire framework is fundamentally incompatible with modern ethical approaches, not just utilitarianism, but Kantian-style deontology as well. As I pointed out in a previous post, modern ethics attempts to be universal, seeking a point of view from nowhere, as Thomas Nagel famously put it. Virtue ethics, by contrast, is focused on individual character development, its fundamental question — how should we live our lives? — being much broader than the specific issue of whether a particular behavior is right or wrong.

Moreover, there seems to be a certain degree of inconsistency in the effective altruism approach, which would probably not go unnoticed when scrutinized from the point of view of one of the three Stoic fields, logic. As you mentioned, organizations such as Giving What We Can usually suggest about 10% of one’s income, and so does famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. But, very obviously, we can give much, much more than 10%, or 20%, or even 50%, and still survive. (I’m not talking about a simple sliding scale where the ultra-rich give more, which EA supporters already acknowledge. I’m talking about the fact that all of us could give away almost our entire wealth, if we really wanted to.) Where, then, is the stopping point? I suspect the answer is that even supporters of effective altruism concede that one’s life cannot be reduced to just being a source of resources to improve other people’s predicaments. There must be room for pursuing one’s own goals as well, which by definition takes away from charitable activities. But then any particular percentage becomes an entirely arbitrary cutoff point, the underlying principle being not to give what we can, but what we feel comfortable with. Which is certainly something no Stoic would object to.

Similar reasoning applies to the other component of effective altruism that you mention: the choice of one’s career. Sure, in narrow utilitarian terms it would be far better to choose a highly lucrative job that we may hate and then give away money to help others, rather than volunteer at the local soup kitchen.

But the Stoic is concerned with her own character first and foremost, and writing a check that doesn’t really hurt our material conditions to benefit anonymous human beings on the other side of the planet is very different from giving up the only resource that cannot be replenished (time) in favor of our our neighbors, people with whom we actually interact in the streets.

Yes, justice is one of the Stoic virtues, so there is a Stoic imperative to care about other people. But setting aside that material wellbeing (anyone’s material wellbeing) is only a preferred indifferent, it would seem to me that the focus ought to be on changing the structural conditions that allow for an advanced technological civilization such as ours, with plenty of resources to feed everyone in the world, to still experience massive poverty and even starvation. Simply giving money away not only does not address those structural problems, it arguably reinforces them by failing to question them and taking them for granted. Unless one attempts to change society one is in fact complicit in reinforcing its inherent injustice, and giving money away is a stop-gap measure that can be indulged in by those of us who are privileged by that very unjust system. It heals our conscience, but ultimately does little to really change things.

It is of curse true that the ancient Stoics did not themselves address social injustice. There were occasional exceptions, like Marcus passing legislation that improved the conditions of women and slaves, and Seneca saying this about slavery:

“They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. … Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.” (XLVII. On Master and Slave, 1, 10)

But generally speaking when the Stoics took arms against tyranny, as in the case of Cato the Younger against Julius Caesar, they did not have anything like the modern concept of social justice in mind.

Then again, neither did pretty much anyone else at the time. It’s not like Christian or Buddhist texts brim with calls for upending the social status quo, so it is rather hide to raise that criticism against the Stoics in particular, a classic example of ethical presentism.

However, we are modern Stoics, and our goal is to apply the broad principles of Stoicism — which we feel are just as relevant today as two millennia ago — to modern life, filtering them through modern ideas about justice and human welfare.

None of the above implies that effective altruism isn’t a morally worthy and valiant effort to address the world’s problems. But I don’t see a Stoic imperative to follow it, and I honestly don’t think the movement will have more than an ephemeral impact, because of the twin problems of being difficult to sustain for most human beings as well as of failing to address the structural problems lurking just below the surface.

If anything, a modern Stoic should take a look at the way the world works and put her efforts into doing her best to change things at a deeper level. While charity can certainly be a part of this, as a stop-gap measure, working on one’s own character, leading others by example to work on their own ethical mindfulness, supporting political causes and individuals who want to change things (including running for office oneself), talking about injustice as loudly as possible, and minimizing her own complicity in the current system, are all components of a virtuous approach.

This, of course, may result in a bit less pleasurable life for ourselves, in agreement with Marcus:

“I see no virtue that is opposed to justice; but I see a virtue that is opposed to love of pleasure, and that is temperance.” (Meditations, VIII.39)

The emperor-philosopher also said this, which seems awfully pertinent to the matter at hand:

“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)

Stoicism, if practiced well, can be just as demanding, perhaps more so, than effective altruism, precisely because it responds to what it perceives as an imperative imposed by the nature of things on the way human beings ought to act. That is one way of interpreting the maxim that we should live according to nature.

Stoic advice: gender pronouns

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

D. asks: What should a Modern Stoic think of the requirement to use gender-neutral pronouns and the refusal by some people to use them?

Ah, a simple question fraught with lots of potential complications! Let’s start with the second part, concerned with the refusal by some to use gender-neutral pronouns when asked by others to do so, presumably in social situations.

The obvious Stoic answer is, of course, that other people’s judgments and actions are not up to you, only your own. Marcus said:

“To care for all men is according to man’s nature; and man should value the opinion only of those who openly live according to nature.” (Meditations III.4)

Which in this context can be put into practice in the following fashion: you should care for other people, so if they think they have good reasons to ask you to address them with whatever pronoun they prefer, you should do it. It costs you nothing, and it makes for better human relations.

By the same token, however, if you encounter people who stubbornly refuse to oblige, because they think it is “silly,” or because they “don’t get it,” then they fall into the category of those who do not live “according to nature,” and their opinion should therefore be irrelevant to you.

That said, it is within your power to influence other people’s opinions (as distinct from determining them), and you do have a social imperative to do so, according to Stoic philosophy. Here is Marcus again:

“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)

Teaching people, in this case persuading them that the request for a gender neutral pronoun is reasonable and not costly for the person who obliges, is both possible and, in fact, a Stoic duty, because we want to apply (our) reason to improve social living — that’s one good way to interpret what it means to be living according to nature. Always bearing in mind, of course, that your goal should be to do your best to reach people, it cannot be for them to actually agree with you, because the latter is outside of your control.

According to Seneca: “At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected” (Letter XLIX. On the Shortness of Life, 11), so we can perfect both ourselves and others.

The first part of your question, however, concerns a different aspect of the issue, if I understood you correctly: what should we think, as Stoics, when a particular language usage is required, and not simply requested? That is, is it okay for institutions, like the government, or my school, or any employer, to mandate a particular use of language, or to prohibit other usages?

The beauty of virtue ethics is that the answer to these questions is almost always “it depends.” This endlessly frustrates those who would rather go by a simple set of rigid rules (deontologists) or by the optimization of simple utility functions (utilitarians), but unqualified answers, or answers given in the absence of details on the specific circumstances, simply won’t do in most real life situations.

For instance, it is perfectly okay for an employer to establish parameters for a reasonable speech code that aims at making everyone comfortable in the workplace — within limits, and those limits are up to the practical wisdom (one of the Stoic virtues) of whoever drafts the policy. It is, however, far less reasonable for a government to intrude in how people talk to each other across all social circumstances. That is the way of totalitarian states, not of open societies. And yet, even in the latter case there certainly are limits to free speech that can, and even should, be the business of government, the most obvious example is when someone shouts “fire!” in a crowded place just for the fun of it, thereby possibly leading to a stampede that may injure or even kill people.

So the Stoic should have no problem following rules, either imposed by private employers or by the state, so long as those rules are justified by the specific situation on the ground. If the imposed rules become evidently burdensome or patently unjust, then I think the Stoic should exercises the virtues of justice and especially courage, taking a stand against arbitrary impositions that will make social living worse, rather than better.

My personal opinion about the use of gender pronouns, then, is that their use should not be mandated by institutions, as this may actually cause resentment in some, which in turn may lead to incomprehension and hostility. But if you are asked by someone to address them in a particular way, that is the reasonable, and hence the Stoic, thing to do.

Stoic advice: family strife

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

T. wrote: I live in Romania, I am 30, my father is 68, my mother is 60 and my sister is 36. My sister and I moved out from the village in which we lived with our parents, and here is where my predicament starts. Our parents put us both through college but my sister dropped out. She lied about it and in the meantime had a couple of jobs but still struggles financially. She lied because she was afraid of what our father would say and this made things worse. My father is churning things in his mind and is not able to let things go, constantly reminding himself about the money he wasted (50.000 Euros), and the fact that she has nothing to show for it. My sister also constantly struggles with being overweight — and she is constantly reminded of that by my father. My mother still lives with him and his tantrums, trying to help my sister financially, which brings about more conflict. Coming back to my sister, I think she likes the role of the victim — seemingly using her weight issues and having received little affection from her father as an excuse. Then again, she did lose some weight, but not enough for my father.

Now, in this triangle of suffering among my mother, my father and my sister, I am trying to cope by way of mental fortitude and Stoic philosophy. Anything I say to them is not being acknowledged, they ignore me. I worry about the wellbeing of my family, but it is hard for me to see how money (and in part the indifference of my sister) can possibly cause such torment. I know that it is not in my power to change things if the people I talk to are not willing to change — but if you would have any advise for a “prokopton”, it would be great.

You end your letter with a reference to the dichotomy of control, but it sounds like you have understood the concept but not really internalized it as practice. Don’t worry, you are not alone! But first and foremost you need to work on yourself, by repeating over and over, or re-reading often, or writing about in your philosophical diary, this specific advice from Epictetus:

“‘Do we have that many masters?’ We do. Because over and above the rest we have masters in the form of circumstances, which are legion. And anyone who controls any one of them controls us as well.” (Discourses IV, 1.59)

Here Epictetus is telling his students that so long as they do not practice the discipline of desire — i.e., so long as they keep desiring things that are not under their control — they will have many masters, those masters being the circumstances and people that are not “up to us.” It sounds like you are allowing your father, your mother and your sister to be your “masters” in this sense. Remind yourself that this is futile, as the only thing you get out of it — as you very clearly state — is pain.

Of course, the counsel isn’t not to care about your family, but to look at things differently, as in these two passages:

“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)

“If your parents were poor, or if they made others their heirs instead of you, if they give you no help while they are alive, is this any disgrace to you? Is this what you learnt with the philosophers? Did you never hear that what is disgraceful is blameable, and the blameable is what deserves blame, and it is absurd to blame a man for what is not his own act, done by himself? Well, did you make your father what he is, or is it in your power to mend his character? Is this given you? What follows?” (Discourses III, 26)

Indeed, both passages apply to all the characters in your family’s tale: your sister, your father, and your mother. As the second quote says, you did not make them, and you are very unlikely to change them (especially your parents, people become less and less flexible when they get older). But as the first quote suggests, you need to “change the handle” by which you pick up the current situation. Don’t look at it from the point of view of irrational people struggling about things that are not important, but rather from your own point of view as a compassionate person who also plays the double role of brother and son to these people.

If you’ve missed it, take a look at my ongoing series on Epictetus’ role ethics (three installments are out: here, here, and here; three more to come in the next few weeks), and reflect on your natural (meaning that you didn’t choose them) roles and how to play them at your best.

Seems to me that your course of action should be to accept your father for who he is, since he is unlikely to change; to support and comfort your mother in her worries about your sister; and to support and yet try to influence your sister for the best, because — being younger — and closer to you in age, she is more likely to listen.

But you need to approach especially the last bit from the point of view of the dichotomy of control: your goal should not be to actually change your sister’s behavior for the best, since that is up to her, outside of your control. Rather, it should be to try your best to persuade her that she can do better in her life. In other words, the goal should be an internal, not an external one, because only the first truly is under your control.

Here is how modern Stoic Bill Irvine puts it, using the example of an aspiring novelist:

“It is especially important, I think, for us to internalize our goals [since] ‘external failure’ is commonplace. Think, for example, about an aspiring novelist. To succeed in her chosen profession, she must fight and win two battles: She must master her craft, and she must deal with rejection of her work — most novelists hear ‘No’ many, many times before hearing ‘Yes.’ … How can the aspiring novelist reduce the psychological cost of rejection and thereby increase her chances of success? By internalizing her goals with respect to novel writing. She should have as her goal not something external over which she has little control, such as getting her novel published, but something internal over which she has considerable control, such as how hard she works on the manuscript or how many times she submits it in a given period of time.” (A Guide to the Good Life, 97)

He goes on to say:

“Readers might complain that the process of internalizing our goals is really little more than a mind game. The would-be novelist’s real goal is obviously to get her novel published — something she knows full well — and in advising her to internalize her goals with respect to the novel, I am doing little more than advising her to pretend as if getting published weren’t her goal. In response to this complaint, I would point out, to begin with, that it might be possible for someone, by spending enough time practicing goal internalization, to develop the ability not to look beyond her internalized goals — in which case they would become her ‘real’ goals. Furthermore, even if the internalization process is a mind game, it is a useful mind game. Fear of failure is a psychological trait, so it is hardly surprising that by altering our psychological attitude toward ‘failure’ (by carefully choosing our goals), we can affect the degree to which we fear it.” (A Guide to the Good Life, 98)

Indeed, I would go further than Bill and argue that Stoicism (and many other philosophies of life, like Buddhism) are, in part, mind games. In the positive sense that their goal is to make us look at life in general, and our life in particular, from a different perspective. That is, to change how our mind perceives, and reacts to, whatever the universe happens to throw at us. But of course even if we do not practice a philosophy of life, we still perceive and judge things by filtering objective facts about the world (“my sister has financial difficulties”; “my father is lamenting the loss of 50,000 Euros”) into judgments (“my sister is incapable of handling finances”; “my father is being selfish”). That is, even everyday, philosophically unfiltered life is a “mind game.” If it’s not working for you, then change the way you play it.