'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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"Stoicism & Star Trek: Think like Spock – Act like Kirk" by Jen Farren

Stoicism Star Trek 

Jen Farren

 Kirk (left) & Spock (right)

The original Star Trek of 1966 was a TV show with big philosophical ideas. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a humanist who wanted to show characters co-operating with reason and humanity. The show explored ethics, philosophy and politics, had a multi-racial cast and the first televised inter-racial kiss.

But the show also had its own take on Stoicism. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry said that he intentionally created a Stoic character, ‘Spock,’ asone of the three main characters alongside Dr McCoy and Kirk.

For us fans of Stoicism and (perhaps) of Star Trek, this raises an interesting question: how ‘Stoic’ is Spock exactly? Is he your genuine ‘Stoic sage’ or is he more of a ‘stereotypical stoic’, ignoring emotions and governed purely by reason?

In this article, I set out to find the answer, by exploring the philosophical underpinnings of Star Trek.

 Spock: Stereotypical ‘stoic’ or ‘Stoic’ sage?

Before we consider this question, let’s first look at what makes the ideal Stoic, in the words of Seneca:

‘The pilot’s art is never made worse by the storm nor the application of his art either. The pilot has promised you not a prosperous voyage, but a serviceable performance of his task – that is, an expert knowledge of steering a ship. And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent. The storm does not interfere with the pilot’s work, but only with his success. “What then,” you say, “is not a pilot harmed by any circumstance which does not permit him to make port, frustrates all his efforts, and either carries him out to sea, or holds the ship in irons, or strips her masts?” It is indeed so far from hindering the pilot’s art that it even exhibits the art; for anyone, in the words of the proverb, is a pilot on a calm sea…But the wise man is always in action, greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom.’

Moral Letters, 85.

To summarize, the ideal Stoic must show resilience in crisis, know what he can and can’t control and show this by action.  As Seneca writes elsewhere: ‘No fortune, no external circumstance can shut off the wise man from action.’So which of the main characters in Star Trek can live up to this ideal?

On the face of it, there are two ways in which Spock might seem a genuine Stoic.

Firstly, he accepts reality, noting if something is in his control or not. He says: ‘What is necessary is never unwise.’ The Stoic belief is that if we fight what is necessary we will suffer conflict, whilst if we accept it, we can remain calm. Logic like this can simplify life greatly. Marcus Aurelius noted that much of what we say and do is unnecessary. Indeed, he often asked himself: ‘Is this one of the necessary things?’

Secondly, Spock observes without adding extra opinion: ‘Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.’ To follow the Stoic rule to only judge things in your control as good or bad, and all else as “fascinating” brings mental calm. It links with the Stoic idea that it is our judgements that upset us more than events. This is about simply stating facts and removing the opinion associated with them.

But both of these aspects are misleading and actually belie Spock’s ruthlessly logical character, something which pushes him towards being a small ‘s’, stereotypical ‘stoic.’

This is clear in his concern with emotional control: ‘Our principles of logic offer a serenity that humans rarely experience in full. We have emotions. But we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us.’ This isn’t easy for Spock at all. In the episode “The Crying Time”, for example, Spock is seen repeating ‘I’m in control of my emotions’, before bursting into tears. Most crucially of all though, from the point of view of the ideal Stoic being a man of action, Spock’s over-reliance on logic sometimes leads him to a kind of ‘logic-induced’ paralysis. He says: ‘I have insufficient information’ and ‘insufficient facts always invite danger.’ Therefore, logic tells him the least risk is best or that more facts will create better decisions, but this is a cognitive distortion as modern science tells us there is often no correlationbetween more information and accuracy. Indeed, Spock’s logic makes him defeatist when there is no identifiable logical option or chance of success: ‘In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over, checkmate.’ For Spock, logic, and nothing else, is the most important thing.

All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.

So if Spock is not your genuine Stoic, then what about McCoy?

McCoy is the polar opposite of Spock: emotion without reason, and as such he is even further away from the Stoic sage. He takes risks which put himself and others in danger.McCoy and Spock are at a stalemate and it’s no surprise that most episodes find Spock and McCoy arguing – should reason or emotion be their guide? Consider this exchange:

McCoy: ‘I’m sick and tired of your logic.’

Spock: ‘That is most illogical, it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.’


Interestingly, this dichotomy is echoed in modern neuroscience. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow says the brain makes use of two systems: System 1 makes rapid decisions based on emotion, while System 2 makes complex decisions based on analysis and logic. Nevertheless, both systems can deliver the Stoic goal of acting for the common welfare. System 1 (McCoy) does this by automatic emotional responses that trigger actions to protect those in danger. He will risk his life for what he feels is right. System 2 (Spock) does this by deliberate analysis. He will risk his life if it is logical. To him it is illogical to kill without reason, but sometimes it is logical to kill – as such he is ready to sacrifice his life to protect the crew.This dichotomy is echoed in Koenig’sstudy of moral dilemmas about hypothetically harming one person to save many more. Three groups were tested, one of which had impaired emotional function. It found removing the conflict of emotion and reason saved more people as 40% of the group with impaired emotional function agreed to harm one person to save many compared to only 20% in the others.

But what about the last of the trio, Kirk? Is he in any way closer to the Stoic ideal? Kirksays that he doesn’t play chess – he plays poker: a game of great skill and risk, all about playing the cards which have been dealt well. Similarly, Epictetus talks about the ‘roll of life’s dice’, and making careful use of the dice that has been thrown: ‘Imitate those who play dice. Counters and dice are indifferent: how do I know what is going to turn up? My business is to use what does turn up with diligence and skill’ (Discourses 2.5).

In this way, Kirk tries to balance emotion and reason, but he never loses sight of taking action. His choices and actions make him take risks for the common welfare, even when the purely logical thing might be to do nothing. Perhaps he, as the perfect mixture of good emotions and ethical imperatives, a mixture, as it were, of the best of Spock and McCoy, is Star Trek’s real Stoic: the man of both action and contemplation. In the words of Captain Kirk himself: ‘Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.’

But, of course, from the point of view of good cinema, it doesn’t matter that the real Stoic in Star Trek wasn’t the ‘stoic’ character. For that Spock should have been portrayed in such a way at all was actually crucial for the dynamics between the main characters in the show. Indeed, each episode explores the conflict of reason and emotion through Spock’s relationships with the other characters. Gene Roddenberry (in Edward Gross, 1995) says that he deliberately:

‘Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy).’

It is in Star Trek, then, that this perennial source of inner conflict between reason and emotion plays out so clearly. Stephen Fry captures perfectly how Star Trek dramatized this clash of reason and emotion:

‘You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution. And not only that, the planets they visit usually make the mistake of being either over-ordered and over-reasonable and over-logical (so they kill those who dissent, and they do it calmly and reasonably), and they have to learn to be a bit human. Or, they are just a savage race that needs reason and order.’

And if Spock had to be made the ‘stereotypical Stoic’, rather than the Stoic sage, to bring that perennial human conflict to the big screen sage, then so much the better for generations of Star Trek fans.



Central Intelligence Agency. ‘Do you really need more intelligence?’: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/psychology-of-intelligence-analysis/art8.html

Fry, S., ‘How Star Trek Ties into Nietzsche and Ancient Greece’: http://trekmovie.com/2011/07/04/video-of-the-day-stephen-fry-explains-how-star-trek-ties-into-nietzsche-and-ancient-greece/

Gross, E., Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages. Little Brown & Co., 1995.

Kahneman D., Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin, 2011.

Koenigs, Young et al., “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgement”, in Nature, 446, pp. 908-911, 2007.


Stoicism – The Key to Modern Living?

Stoicism: The Key to Modern Living?

In this guest article, Bocca di Stella, who followed Stoic Week 2013 offers a powerful and personal reflection on the values of Stoicism for modern life….

During the throes of modern life, it is easy to lose ourselves in our daily chores, occupations and moments of liberty.  The demand for our time as we get older becomes ever more engrossed by what we are expected to do but these expectations are usually projected onto the situation itself.  We fret, we become stressed, we consume excessively to sate this internal turmoil and recover, repeating the cycle time and again to ease any discomfort.  It is understandable why we become upset at times, based on so many factors being out of our control.  Yet to be mindful of this and to manage any possible outcome with detachment is perhaps the key to maintaining a consistent and positive disposition.

Which leads me to my voluntary involvement in Stoic Week 2013, an online event (with offline study and activity) organised by academics and psychotherapists  running for its 2nd year.  The main purpose was to encourage members of the public to engage in Stoic teachings and reflections with the view to explore its potential benefits within modern life.  It was perhaps not the most practical week to abide by Stoic standards due to social occasions as well as work-related gatherings however much like the philosophy itself, that which is out of our control is not something to concern oneself with so I could at least focus on what was within my control and be mindful of my approach instead.

The Stoics central focus in life was simply to be virtuous, of ‘good’ character.  As stated in the gratis handbook I was provided with, it is a vision of maintaining a ‘rational’ persona, ensuring an excellent mental state.  This mental state is the only thing that really matters in order to survive well as a human being and without making a conscious effort to preserve it could mean never being truly happy.  The focus must be inwards rather than outwards. Seems logical, but how truly mindful are we?  We are led into a false belief that by owning material possessions we gain more peer approval and therefore exercise a consumerist attitude stemming from luxury rather than need, directly feeding the media that we daily criticise.  So for 7 days I looked to monitor aspects of my day and ensure I continue to practice a more mindful attitude, exploring a more inward viewpoint prior to application, looking to benefit the community of humankind and increase interconnectedness.

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Making the Most of Life after a Traumatic Injury

Helen Rudd, who has used Stoicism to cope and flourish with the effects of a traumatic brain injury, reflects further on her experience of Stoicism. She had not originally intended for this piece to be published on the blog, but having received messages of support from the blog’s readers yesterday, wanted to share the next stage of her journey today. 

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about stoicism over the Christmas period, largely due to the really encouraging emails I’ve had from Christopher Gill and Patrick Ussher. 

Just before I went down to Somerset with my Dad, I tried to think how a ‘normal’ person could employ stoicism in order to feel happier and to gain a sense of achievement.  I then remembered the feeling I had when singing in a concert with people who have Parkinson’s earlier in 2013.  It was the first concert I’d sung in since my accident, and halfway through I suddenly had an amazing feeling of yes, I love doing this, it’s just where I want to be and I feel so proud to be singing with these really brave and friendly people.

So at the end of the year I found myself remembering this intense feeling, and I thought that the way to employ stoicism is to think of how I COULD have felt.  This could have included why do I now have to sing with unwell people, some of whom were sitting down, why do I have to sing using words only instead of words and music which is what I was used to, nobody in this choir can read music like I can, I used to have Jane the conductor and soloist for singing lessons and I could be doing a much more highbrow concert than this…

When I write these things now I feel horrible for expressing them, but it’s a good example I think of realising that you can feel good about something that otherwise could be terrible.  My plan would then be to notice how you feel about a situation, and then if it’s positive think about how it could otherwise be negative and thereby know that you’re employing stoicism.  Similarly, if you feel negative you could think about a positive way of looking at it and try to feel the way you’ve thought of.

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Coming to Terms with a Traumatic Brain Injury – Using Stoic Philosophy

Helen Rudd suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2006. In this powerful piece she recounts how she developed the internal strength to come to terms with the effects of the accident and to find new meaning in her life. Helen heard about Stoic Week on the BBC 4 Today programme, and found that Stoicism’s focus on developing a resilient attitude to meet whatever the circumstances as best as possible was just what she herself, in drawing on her own internal resources, had done. 

My Experiences of Stoicism

Helen Rudd

I suffered a traumatic brain injury in May 2006.

Before my accident I was on the go all the time.  I’d run in the Hastings Half Marathon 5 times, did aerobics every week, went swimming 3 times a week, sang in an opera group and a light operatic society, acted in plays and volunteered at the local theatre, tried to walk everywhere etc etc.  At the age of 43, I’d been an executive officer in the Inland Revenue for 21 years and one of my jobs had been the manager of the local enquiry centre.

One day in 2006 I’d just been swimming on my way to work when I was hit in the side of the head by a van, probably at 30 mph and rolled under a parked car.  I was in a coma for 3 weeks, and then went to a brain injury rehab centre for a year, of which I remember nothing.  Now my memory of about a year before the accident and back are fine but I remember nothing until about 3 years ago.  I think it took me some time to fully realise what had happened to me.  My Dad had to teach me how to read and write again, of which I remember nothing.  My symptoms now are a slight loss of co-ordination, a loss of memory of about 5 years and a pretty bad loss of mobility.  I don’t use a wheelchair, I can walk outside as long as I have my stick and somebody is with me, and my balance is poor.  I am medically retired from work.

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Of Skunks, Sauerkraut and Stoicism: by Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne

My wife and I are “urban homesteaders” — that is to say, low-tech, low-rent Martha Stewarts. Urban homesteading is a DIY, self-reliance movement consisting of a wide constellation of activities, from edible gardening to home brewing, from keeping chickens to bread baking, from frugal living to community building. It’s an eminently practical lifestyle.

That practicality is why stoicism works so well as the philosophical operating system of urban homesteading. While Foucault and Hegel might help me navigate the epistemological frontier, when I’m staring at a carefully tended vegetable bed that just got destroyed by a skunk, you can bet I’ll reach for the Seneca.

Peaches in Erik’s and Kelly’s Garden

When you spend much of your time, as we do, rummaging around on the Island of Forgotten Skills, trying to teach yourself crafts long forgotten by your grandparents, you’re certain to run into setbacks, frustrations, and plenty of outright failure. The skunks, so to speak, are everywhere.

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Stoic Week 2012: The Student View

Christopher Thompsett, first year undergraduate student of Classics at Exeter University, offers his view of the Live like a Stoic trial, 2012. This report will be published in the forthcoming journal Pegasus, published by the Classics Dept. here at Exeter.

Stoic Week: The Student View

Christopher Thompsett

 From the 26th November to the 2nd of December 2012, volunteers worldwide participated in the first ‘Stoic Week’, an endeavour which would put to the test the philosophical school of Stoicism in applying its ethical theories to contemporary life. ‘Stoic Week’ was set up as a satellite of the Classics and Ancient History Department’s recent work on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, which is considering what may be learned from the Ancient World’s practices in psychotherapy and diet for modern day living. The team which organised it included Professor Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought here at Exeter and Dr. John Sellars, lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck in London. Making the work truly interdisciplinary, however, was the involvement of leading psychotherapeutic professionals, such as Dr. Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which examines the Stoic roots of this therapy), and Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, who, among other things, provided wellbeing surveys and questionnaires for the measurement of any psychological benefits. What started as a project for students taking Roman Philosophy here ended up attracting interest from all parts of the world, with 130 officially taking part. In this report, I hope to give some personal reactions to the events of the week in which we followed Stoic principles, reactions from fellow students, and also those who shared their experiences online through the blogosphere and in the press.

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