The Three Meanings of Stoic Work by Piotr Stankiewicz  

“Work” is a broad term with a wide range of meanings, many of which slip out of the Stoic scope. There is, I think, no clear Stoic interpretation of “work” in physics, i.e. force acting through a distance, or of “work” understood as “labor,” which is a social and economic matter. Yet, there are at least three important senses of “work” in which we can learn much from the Stoics.

First of all, there is “work” in its “workplace” meaning. We may rightly wonder how would a Stoic perform in doing her job, earning a living and doing all else that her social obligations require her to do. I have little doubt here that a Stoic will excel in most of the possible contemporary jobs, trades and ways of life. Why is that? Let’s just consider three precepts the Stoics advance.

“You must plan your life, one action at a time,” says Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 8.32). When you seek earnestly that which is not your own, you lose that which is your own,” says Epictetus (Discourses, I.25.4-5). “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training” adds Seneca (On Providence, 2.2).

These three ideas of, respectively, paying attention only to the task at hand, focusing on what is up to us, and treating adversities as challenges have a clear and great power as ethical rules. But let’s note that on the practical level they give a very precise, down-to-earth and objective-oriented code for conduct. This code is very close to what is valued in business and in the workplace in general. After all, what boss wouldn’t love an employee that doesn’t get distracted by things above her paygrade? What business venture wouldn’t benefit if those in charge of it focused solely on what they have influence on? What manager worth her salt wouldn’t agree that obstacles should be treated as challenges which motivate us to overcome them?

In this regard, the Stoic principles shape a reliable and responsible person, who does her job expertly and efficiently. According to Lawrence Becker the fitting, modern interpretation of Stoic virtue is that it can be understood as maximized, or even perfect agency. In the workplace, this perfect agency translates the Stoic ethics into surprisingly solid work ethics.

Another way of expressing it is this. We may say – simplifying a bit – that virtue can be interpreted as the ability to take whatever not-within-our-power input materials we get, and put it to the best use possible. In the words of Epictetus:

This is the magic wand of Hermes. Touch what you will […] and it will turn into gold. (Discourses, III.20.12).

In other words, a Stoic will be able to thrive no matter what circumstances she founds herself in. If she ends up being a president of United States, then she will do her job responsibly and with dignity, employing reasonable policies, and leading by example. If she turns out to be a teacher in some forgotten Antebellum-ville, she will also do her job well, teaching the kids, leading them into the complexities of human knowledge, explaining to them what it means to be a responsible member of society. If, on the other hand, she turns out to be a professor of philosophy, she will take that opportunity to teach Stoicism to others, to the best of her ability. The idea is clear: whatever circumstances she finds herself in, she is always able and willing to apply her reason to produce the best outcome available.

And again: doesn’t it sound familiar to the business ear and workplace environment? What a Stoic sage does ethically is analogous to what the everyday business requires us to do. We have certain resources (human, budgetary, institutional etc.) and we need to utilize them expertly to turn a profit. No matter what are circumstances are, no matter which way the market is shifting – business is about profit and doing one’s job is about doing it ably and effectively. These two situations are similar and the growing popularity of Stoicism among high-level managers testifies to that.

Of course, Stoicism cannot be equaled or reduced to “being good at one’s job.” There is much more to Stoicism than that.  And yet certain analogies are undeniable. After all, don’t all the CEOs of this world dream of that “magic wand of Hermes” that turns all to gold? All of this is a  reason enough to claim that it’s hard to imagine a sloppy or slacking Stoic. She will thrive at her workplace, whatever that workplace turns out to be.

On the other hand, we may just as well expect that a Stoic will not become a workaholic. The word “work” is to be found not only in “workplace,” but also – more importantly – in the phrase “work-life balance.” After all, earning a living, doing our job, performing our social duty, these errands never comprise the entirety of our life. We usually have family life too, we have hobbies and leisure time, all that tempting things that we don’t usually count as “work.” The continuous challenge of our life is how to balance all this, how to put this in order, how to avoid one part of life taking its toll on another. Can Stoicism be of help in this matter?

Sure it can be! A Stoic life is impossible without harmony and without hammering out a compromise between multiple values and endeavors (which often contradict each other).  Stoicism isn’t about passing over the diversity of values and complexity of life. Quite the contrary! It’s about acknowledging it. A Stoic tries her best to accept the multifarious facts on the ground and the complexities of human axiology. Lawrence Becker argues that a Stoic lives her life the best she can allthings-considered.

This “all” element is vital here. It denotes that the Stoic ethics aims at over-arching, long-haul and wide-scope project of a good life. Decisions and judgments of a Stoic always need to be based on the most accurate and comprehensive information obtainable (e.g. a Stoic won’t enter partnership in business without researching her partner-to-be) and it is the whole life perspective that counts (e.g. decades of unethical conduct  adorned by a singular heroic act won’t add up to a Stoic life). But above all, in the Stoic calculus no value is written off for no reason. A Stoic consciously decides to focus on a specific and individually chosen setup of values, which includes certain values while excludes others. This exclusion is always a deliberate choice, not a random development.

Consider this: will we call someone a Stoic sage if she is great rock star, enjoys stellar success, but at the same time neglects all of her family life and spirals down into drug abuse? I presume not. On the other hand, imagine someone who is, say, a convicted criminal, always unable to stay on the legal side of life, but, for some reason, she nevertheless manages to be a reliable and supportive sister to her siblings? No, it doesn’t add up.

Or take a politician. Will we call her a Stoic, will we call her a stateswomen on a par with Marcus Aurelius if she negotiates international trade agreements well but at the same time she takes tons of bribes and bullies her aides cruelly? No, this also isn’t enough. Why isn’t it? Because these pictures lack the necessary degree of reasonable harmony of values and goals. Blind devotion to just one value and equally blind disregard of all others don’t make a Stoic.

This is exactly why just as it’s hard to imagine a sloppy Stoic, it’s also hard to imagine a Stoic that is so caught up with her job that she forgets about her family, friends and hobbies. Focus and axiological choice are necessary, because it’s impossible to cover all values in one life. But single-mindedness about just one walk of life makes neither a Stoic nor a good life. 

The third side of the coin is, as always, the most interesting one. Besides all the duties and challenges that await us with our jobs and with work-life balance, we, the Stoics, are primarily focused on the internal front, so to speak. Stoicism is mostly about our own toil of self-improvement. This is the most intimate and the most philosophical understanding of “work.” In this respect, Stoicism is one great system for care and betterment of the self. And there is no shortcut or discount here, it’s indeed all about hard work. Climbing up the Stoic curve is highly rewarding but tough and tiresome. The logic of it is akin to that of sport training: the unused muscles wither. To avoid that, regular workout is needed, the Stoic workout, crossfit for the soul, continuous challenge, perpetual effort.

Interestingly, this can shed some light on the debate between the Stoics and Epicureans. The difference between the two is often misstated and misunderstood, but juxtaposing their approach to work can help a lot. We can look at it this way: the Epicurean way of life is frugal. It’s a life of mental relaxation, spiritual leisure and cutting slack. An Epicurean craves to be not bothered (and that’s why she opts for a simple life). With a Stoic it’s quite the opposite. In Stoicism we constantly exert, we press and push ourselves, we stay sharp and vigilant. We restlessly climb the ladder of spiritual development.

Another related issue is the question of nature. In ancient Stoicism “nature” was our ethical direction and an ally. We were obliged to follow it, we were supposed to believe that whatever nature commands is by definition good and that, in short, the overall goal of human life is to find harmony with nature. From the modern point of view – as I have argued elsewhere – the situation seems much more complicated. From the today’s point of view we may consistently argue that the Stoic good life and virtue are attained not through consistence with nature, but through overcoming it. A degree of struggle against our very own human nature may be prerequisite to the Stoic development, particularly if we take “human nature” in the biological, evolutionary sense. This is the position that William Irvine suggests between the lines of his A Guide to the Good Life. I concur with it. And the argument for it is as follows.

Has the Darwinian evolution designed us for Stoic virtue, integrity and reason? It’s highly doubtful. Biologically speaking, there has never been (alas!) any evolutionary profit in development of virtue. The Stoic virtue, with all its perks, doesn’t in any obvious way contribute to our reproductive success. Above all, there has never been any evolutionary incentive for being content with little. Actually, evolution has prepared us to do just the opposite. In our evolutionary past it was a rare occurrence to have an abundant supply of all the necessities, like food, water, shelter, sexual partners, safety, social stability, etc. Thus, there has never been any real and lasting opportunity to adapt to conditions which rewarded self-restraint. There has never been evolutionary pressure to exercise it. Quite the contrary: in most cases it made the best evolutionary sense for our ancestors to always exploit every situation to the limit. Thus, we evolved to be insatiable. We evolved to be never satisfied, to always crave for more. In this sense, evolution has put us on the pointless hedonic treadmill.

This treadmill situation is, of course, the exact inverse of the Stoic picture. And hence, we are in a very particular position. We learn from the Stoics what we ought to do in order to live a happy life, but we find that our biological hardware is designed for just the opposite. So, in order to follow the Stoic principles we need to overcome these innate inclinations of our evolutionary past. In this sense, once we understood “nature” biologically, we realize that the path of Stoic progress leads not conformably to it but against it. And this perennial battle against our biological nature is exactly what makes Stoic training such a hard work.

But doesn’t it sound a bit discouraging? Doesn’t it sound pessimistic? Possibly. But let’s remember adaptation. There is the hedonic adaptation (so distasteful to us, Stoics) which tries to keep up inside the aimless hedonic treadmill and which makes us drown in the unquenchable desire for more. But, on the other hand, there is also the Stoic adaptation. Again, it’s like in sport. We can never abandon our training regimen, unless we agree to lose the gains we have gotten. We can never stop working on our self-improvement. But: this isn’t running in place! The more we push ourselves, the better our performance is. If we work hard, then we constantly move up, we enter new levels and become better and better.

This interpretation may help us ease the problems with the all-or-nothing concept of Stoic virtue. Seneca himself pointed out that this theory of virtue makes Stoic ethics so high‑standard, that we, the mere Stoic progressors, may be sure that we’ll never get there fully. However, in the light of what I said above, this doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. The Stoic training is an upward spiral and even tough it may never actually bring us to the perfect imperturbability, to the pristine bliss of the sage’s soul which is like “heavens above the moon,” our Stoic skills will still steadily grow while we march upwards.

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”).  He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

1 thought on “The Three Meanings of Stoic Work by Piotr Stankiewicz  ”

  1. I prefer not to frame the third kind of work as a fight “against our very own human nature”, but rather as a fight between our higher nature (including selflessness, reason and all our philosophical instincts) against our lower nature (including greed, lust and the generally antisocial instincts). After all, both are equally the product of Nature.

    The more we understand the tools in our higher nature’s reach and the constraints within which this struggle operates, the more we see that these too are part of Nature. In this sense we can still see Nature as still an ally, in the same way that a skilled chess player sees the game with its rules and history as an ally, even if it isn’t leaning over his shoulder whispering advice into his ear.

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