Don’t allow these thoughts to upset you: “I’ll live unhonoured, and be nobody anywhere.” For if it is a bad thing to be unhonoured, you cannot be in a bad state as a result of anyone else’s actions, any more than you can be brought into shame in that way. It is no business of yours, surely, to gain a public post or be invited to a dinner party? Certainly not. So how can this still be a source of dishonor? And how will you be “nobody anywhere” if you only need to be somebody in those things that are within your own power, and in which it is possible for you to be a man of the highest worth? (Enchiridion, 24.1, Robin Hard translation)
The idea of the “loser” in contemporary culture is a shadow cast by tales of winners—of money, power, and fame. The usual biographies offered in our modern books on Stoicism lengthen this shadow, by focusing on “success” in ordinary terms accomplished by the use of Stoic methods. This misses the mark. I propose a pair of tonics: remembering the anonymous “Stoic loser”, and remembering death, not only for ourselves, but our heroes.
What is a “Loser”?
“Loser” is one of the most powerful insults deployed without using invective directed at some minority anyone would lay claim to. In modern society we commonly reject (or say we reject) insults based on race, disability, sex, sexuality, gender expression, and other bases that society has judged as unjust. “Loser” persists—it’s not polite, but it’s not impolitic.
What is this word “loser” about? What contest is lost, that we heap contempt upon the loser? A loser without qualification implies someone who loses at life: the loser fails to earn our respect because they fail on so many fronts, or enough important ones, that they can be dismissed, humiliated, subordinated, even exiled from the tribe. The loser is a drain: on patience, on resources, even on pity. The loser has lost socially. They are perhaps the ultimate out-group, wanted by no one.
Usually the loser’s ultimate loss, in short, is status. Yet, along with wealth, health, and even life, it is to the Stoic an “indifferent”: something it might be nice to have, but never to be traded for the power to make decisions first and foremost for virtue’s sake. For the Stoic there is but one contest: keeping one’s thoughts, words and deeds “in harmony with nature.” Whatever else may befall one, where integrity is preserved, the Stoic is a winner. A Stoic may lose a game, their house, their friends, their family, their health, their very life itself, and yet claim victory, and even count these sorry events as advantageous, so long as they serve as tests of virtue, to strengthen it and weaken the grasp of attachment to things outside their control.
A Stoic today or in the ancient past would recognize easily that the “loser” so-called by most is not necessarily a loser as they would understand it. With virtue as the sole good—perhaps the one non-negotiable Stoic tenet—the only loser is one who fails to maintain it because they don’t even try to.
This inversion of the usual values is not unique to Stoicism, though it does seem to be mainly the province of religion and philosophy. Christianity, until relatively recently, valorized the meek and the poor as those who would inherit its ultimate good, the kingdom of heaven. Buddhism taught a life of renunciation as the only path to escape the cycle of birth and death. The appeal of the externals and human nature, however, conspire to corrupt even their harshest critics, though, bringing us today’s “prosperity gospel” and sales of amulets that bring wealth, health, and all the rest.
Stoics have always had heroes, often shared with other philosophers, going back to Diogenes the Cynic, Socrates, Plato, and before them characters like Heracles, a paragon of courage, and Homer’s heroes, Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, and Odysseus. (The warrior-heroes of Greek myth and legend, celebrated mainly for courage, are complicated to justify as Stoic, and warrant their own treatment). In modern life we are fortunate to have accounts that are not only astonishing but well verified. James Stockdale survived eight years’ imprisonment and periodic torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. he coordinated a resistance in perilous secrecy to maintain not only his own virtue but that of his fellow-prisoners, sustaining a united front in the face of temptations to betray each other to gain some comfort, or at least a lessening of suffering.
More recently Susan Fowler exposed the rampant sexual harassment endemic to the corporate culture of Uber. Her blog post had seismic effects there, with shockwaves felt in the entire Silicon Valley and beyond. Her writing was notable for its measured, well-reasoned style, and Fowler cited Stoicism as giving her the courage and sense of duty needed to take what can be a punishing professional and personal risk.
Still, Stockdale has enjoyed a long Congressional career, and Fowler is now an editor at Stripe, with every sign pointing to a successful future in technology writing. What about the ones who didn’t make it?
Our heroes share a necessary trait: we have heard of them. “Survivor bias” refers to a mistake in thinking that comes from over-valuing reports of success. If I tell you that megadosing on vitamin C cured my cancer, and you hear many others with the same tale, it may at first blush seem believable. But when you consider that you don’t hear from all those who tried vitamin C and died of their disease anyway, skepticism is in order.
Our Stoic heroes (and all heroes) also have this problem: we are a lot less likely to hear about the unsung masses who, unlike Stockdale and Fowler, bore up or spoke out, but whose merely mortal bodies could not sustain the effort.
Of course, there is an exception: the tragic heroes. These shining paragons inspire a deep reverence, or at least, few are willing to call them “losers” out loud. These lucky ones (though not many would wish for their kind of fortune) have witnesses to their sacrifices. Although nameless, the Spartan boy who dashed his own brains out on a wall rather than be enslaved has his story preserved in legend. Who had heard of the man who threw his own life preserver to other survivors of an airplane wreck, over and over, eventually dying in the freezing water, before his noble deed? What else is he remembered for?
My concern is that, in the repeated emphasis on captains of industry, sports figures, military leaders—in short, winners at life in the conventional sense—we paint an incomplete picture of Stoicism, which excludes many from its benefits, and that attracts those who are unlikely to properly embody its most vital precepts.
A Reminder and a Memorial
To counteract the survivor bias in our heroes, we could remind each other of how they end up: ” . . . and not so long after, they died,” or “and one day, they will die, and in time, no one will even remember their name.” The instruction for memento mori isn’t “think on death sometimes,” but to bear it in mind constantly, every day.
In a sense, we’re all losers, since no amount of “winning” can ever be enough. We might also, then, remember the Stoic “loser” who “fails” even at leaving enough trace to be a known hero.
There’s no need for self-flagellation or public and pious denial of all advantages and honors. Humility is the internal manifestation of justice—measuring one’s life in correct proportion. This is why the Stoic attitude to being a “loser” in the popular sense is indifference, since the correct measure of a life is whether it has been lived in accordance with nature: did I choose wisely, understanding my circumstances accurately and valuing my options according to whether they support true flourishing? If so, it doesn’t matter what others have to say about it. If they have found some actual fault in my choices, then it’s for me to accept that correction graciously and alter my behavior accordingly.
Adopting this attitude means freedom from being assailed by opinion and circumstance—things that are outside our control. Holding a place of honour in myself for the unknown Stoic, I can have a shrine on the grounds of my inner citadel; not a battlement, but a refuge. Let us have a cenotaph, then, for the unknown Stoic, bravely cleaving to virtue with no hope of reward and not even any witness. For they must have existed, and almost certainly there are many more of them than the heroes we know of.
It isn’t wrong to want heroes and Stoics have our exemplars like many other traditions do. But in the end, virtue is its own reward, and it’s well to remember that it’s not a “life hack” to improve our access to or enjoyment of indifferents. We can soberly remind ourselves of the fleeting, changing nature of all accomplishments, even those of virtue, to keep a proper measure, and to appreciate what each moment brings, in hopes of improving the next, for those moments are all anyone may truly lay claim to.
JB Bell is an IT professional with a lifelong interest in philosophy. He also does stand-up comedy with Stand Up for Mental Health (www.smhsociety.org), and is Vice President of the British Columbia Humanist Association (which opinion he does not necessarily represent in this article).