'On Moral Intention' by Corey Anton

One of the most often cited, perhaps most often misunderstood (what do you think?), aspects of Stoicism is the claim that we should focus on what is up to us, and not on what is not. What did Epictetus really mean by the claim? In this piece, Corey Anton explores just that question. Next week, Anton will explore how a Stoic faces and accepts death.

On Moral Intention

Corey Anton

So much unnecessary suffering, anguish, and evil comes from either failing to distinguish between things in our power and things that are not, or from failing to stay vigilant in how one assents to one’s impressions.  Other than how we make sense of what is going on, or what we seek to avoid, or what we desire, and what we actually do, there is nothing that should be of concern to us.

            All that happens outside of the spheres of our powers is neither good nor bad.  To these we should be fundamentally indifferent.  Of, if not indifferent, we at least can give a reserved preference, a preference with full and open acceptance of all that happens beyond one’s own doing.  Whereas Stoic schools taught that some things beyond one’s own doing can be preferred even if not necessary, others taught utter indifference to everything beyond one’s own doing. Pierre Hadot, in What Ancient Philosophy?, characterizes a neo-Stoic notion of duties by suggesting, “The Stoic always acts ‘under reserve’: he tells himself, ‘I want to do X, if Fate permits.’…but he does act, taking part in social or political life…The Stoic does not act in his own material or even spiritual interest, but acts in a which is always disinterested and in the service of the human community.”

            Unfortunately, most people seem to want it one way or the other: they want to care about and be attached to items outside of their control or they want to not even try or exert effort.  They seem to think that indifference to outcomes or full acceptance of outcomes is de facto license to be indifferent to the effort.  The dual gesture required is a kind of grateful indifference.

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'Being a Stoic Lawyer'

Being a Stoic Lawyer

Paul Bryson

 When I started the Stoic Lawyer blog, I didn’t realize how often those two words are used together. Unfortunately for promoting the blog, a Google search for “Stoic lawyer” produces a great number of results that have nothing to do with Stoicism in the classical or philosophical sense:

The search results suggest that being “stoic” is something typical for lawyers, at least in entertainment. But it is the wrong kind of stoic for me, both normatively and descriptively. Those lawyers are all described as being emotionless or capable of seeming so—near robotic protectors and relaters of their client’s goals. That same couldn’t be said for me and I wouldn’t want it to be. I’m a different kind of Stoic lawyer. Instead of striving to be a passionless automaton, I work to determine how the insights and teachings of the classical Stoic philosophers can improve me and my dealings, professionally and personally.

As a starting point, I start with the four qualities Zeno suggested Stoics should cultivate:

  1. Wisdom – knowledge of what is      Good, Bad, or Indifferent
  2. Courage – wisdom concerned with      endurance
  3. Temperance – wisdom concerned      with acquisition
  4. Justice – wisdom concerned with      distribution

I believe that each of those qualities has the power to improve me as a practicing attorney in one way or another. As I strive to become a Wise, Courageous, Temperate, and Just lawyer, I believe I’ll become a better lawyer.

Wisdom – In distinguishing between what is Good, Bad, or Indifferent, I find it helpful to think of Epictetus’ division of things between what is up to us and what is not up to us. As translated by Elizabeth CarterArrian recorded that Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” Notice that the first category of things are items where a person’s exercise of the will can lead to virtue (or evil, which is the absence of virtue); the second category of things are all indifferent–they do not aid or harm the search for virtue because they are beyond the power of the will.

This influences my priorities. I think reason dictates that I spend my time focusing on taking the right approach to the first category. As it relates to my profession, the first category includes my composure, treatment of clients, opponents, employees, and third parties, how I maintain the confidences of clients, how I manage my office, and how I act to uphold duties of competence, loyalty, and diligence.  By focusing on those things, instead of on things I cannot control, I believe I stand to gain not only virtue and tranquillity, but possibly a number of material “goods”:

  • Juries will not be distracted      by unprofessionalism,
  • opponents and third parties      will be more receptive to my arguments and proposals,
  • clients will feel      well-represented and will be more likely to pay on time and refrain from      making disciplinary or malpractice complaints.
  • I likely will also develop a network      of referral sources and colleagues who feel a genuine connection and      respect for me.
  • My reputation in the community      will be that of a lawyer who does both well and good.
  • As an additional benefit, I      will not be driven into unprofessional conduct by seeking money or results      at the expense of my professional integrity.

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'Death Cafés' by Laura Inman

Laura Inman, who blogs at The Living Philosopher  (Stoic and Literary Ideas as a Guide to Living), explores how the Stoic focus on death can lead to living the fullest, most meaningful kind of life….

An article on the front page of the New York Times last week discussed a new type of social gathering that the reporter found to be surprising and, evidently, newsworthy: a “death cafe”—a group of people meeting in a café or diner to discuss death from  practical and philosophical perspectives.  Meeting to discuss any single, given topic is not unusual—think about groups of new parents to discuss child raising, PTO groups,  or bible study groups. The surprise and novelty of the meetings come from the topic– death, which our society apparently does not consider discussion-worthy or the topic for passing a convivial hour or two.

As a practicing Stoic, I find a focus on death normal and advisable.  I similarly find it droll that people are intrigued by the question, “What would you do if this were your last day?” Surely you should live every day as if it were. Roman Stoicism, as I have extrapolated and adapted it from Seneca, puts death at the heart of how to live a tranquil life and teaches the value of keeping death in mind and living every day as if it could be your last.

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'Happiness for Sale – What Would Seneca Say?' by Laura Inman

Laura Inman, who blogs at The Living Philosopher (Stoic and Literary Ideas as a Guide to Living), explores, in contrast to the happiness of the hedonic treadmill, what is that leads to Stoic happiness….

On the front page of a section of The New York Times this weekend was an article about a psychologist who has studied happiness and gives advice on how to achieve it. The piece revealed very little of her secrets to happiness (I guess they might be called), but one observation of hers is that renters are happier than homeowners. Maybe that is indicative of other conclusions she might propose, like married people are happier or people in a certain region are happier. Maybe people find that kind of thing interesting, like knowing somebody’s astrological sign. However, in terms of providing the basis for a way to live life, how could such conclusions have any validity or worth? Were the renters and homeowners in question alike in all respects (even most) with regard to happiness except for their status as renters or homeowners, such that the difference in this one aspect could be the cause in a cause and effect relationship? The article also made note of “hedonistic adaptation,” which Stoics routinely recognize as a reason not to pursue pleasure per se as a route to happiness because it invariably cloys or simply wears out. Probably the article was short on details about happiness so as not to preempt the book, which should lure readers searching for happiness in their lives. They might find a couple of mildly interesting observations, and then forget all about them when confronting failure or hardship, those things that life generally has in store that tend to undermine happiness.

What is happiness? Maybe the psychologist-author defines it front and center in her guide to happiness. For Stoics, it is tranquility, which is freedom from negative and excessive emotion– or rendered poetically by John Keats in Hyperion: “To bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!” If one exalts in and strives for giddy highs and devastating lows and thinks that such a pendulum existence is desirable, then Stoicism is not the answer. The longer I live, and it has been quite a while now, the more I value emotional calm: I value it in others, I like the way it feels, and I work at obtaining it, although it does not come naturally to me.

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'The Life of a 21st Century Stoic' by Frances Lyndale

Frances Lyndale discusses the life of a 21st Century Stoic, exploring which aspects of Stoic philosophy can be particularly helpful for the fast pace of modern life. Frances’ piece raises interesting questions: how much Stoicism is enough? Should the whole of the philosophy be revived or just particular parts of it (in the which case, which parts?)…join the debate below!

The Life of a 21st Century Stoic

    The revival of any ancient philosophy must be sympathetic to the original birthplace. Whilst we must acknowledge that Stoicism originates in antiquity, we are now existing in modern times; the era of developing technology, growing knowledge and expanding minds. If we are to produce a successful revival of Stoicism, we must make it accessible and functional in modernity. However, the transition from theoretical to practical Stoicism can seem a daunting leap for some 21st Century hopefuls. This is because it is an art, a practice, a way of life. This occurs not overnight, but as an ongoing process. The modification of Stoicism allows for the life of a 21st Century Stoic to become an actuality; a realistic and practical account of the reformation of an ancient Stoic.

This introduces a key concern at the heart of 21st Stoicism. If we choose to revive only the elements that are to our liking and relevance of the philosophy, then is this still Stoicism? The idea of cherry-picking favourable aspects calls for an evaluation of the philosophy itself. Here, we can make reference to the ‘Theseus Ship Paradox’ introduced by Plutarch and discussed by both ancient and contemporary philosophers (Plutarch’s Vita Thesei, 22-23). The summary of the paradox is that Theseus’ ancient ship is in need of some serious TLC and begins the road to recovery by replacing the old, decaying planks with new timber. If all of the parts of the ship are replaced, what then remains of the original ship? This provocative metaphor has been taken a step further by Hobbes, bringing a new dimension to the paradox; if the original decaying planks were somehow restored to make an entirely new ship in addition to the revived ship, then which ship is closer to the original? Perhaps it is exactly this reassembled model of the ship which retains the most rights to the original, since it is made of the same foundations, only constructed in a different way. Does it then follow that the 21st Century Stoic is entitled to claim themselves as an original yet ‘new and improved’ version of the ancient? Whilst it could be argued that what remains of the philosophy is not Stoicism, perhaps the beneficiaries of pursuing a life of fulfilment and happiness overrides the importance of originality. To prevent the literal and metaphorical disintegration of Theseus’ ship, it must be revived to keep in tune with the changing times; the philosophy of Stoicism is kept alive through the life of a 21st Century Stoic.

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