Playing the victim

© Dave DuBay

The word victim gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s a description. Other times it’s a criticism.

People are victims, in a technical sense, when they’re the target of a crime; and in a more colloquial sense whenever they’re treated unjustly. This is situational. But certain groups encounter injustice far more often than others, and some say they’re oppressed in a pervasive way due to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, social class, and so on.

Others collect grievances, including seemingly minor offenses, or microaggressions, such an Asian-American being asked where they’re from. This can lead to the accusation that some people think of themselves as victims in a generalized sense, though the accused usually deny this.

Whether someone is playing the victim is not for me to say. But there is a red flag I often see: the desire we’ve all experienced to blame others for our dissatisfaction in life.

Tribalism is a feature of every human culture. Even toddlers form cliques. It may be biologically hardwired. But that doesn’t mean it’s our destiny. We’re intelligent creatures, and we’re capable of taking steps to mitigate tribalism.

Still, us vs. them is a compelling narrative. It’s all too easy to find an enemy—real or imagined—whom we blame for our difficulties in life. Some ideologies even find a scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the world.

Some Christians blame atheists. Some Muslims blame infidels. Atheists often blame religion. Conservatives and progressives blame each other. Libertarians and anarchists blame the government. Feminists blame the patriarchy. Men’s rights activists blame feminists. And so on ad nauseum.

There’s a failure to realize that while someone may have done something to us, and while we did not choose this situation, how we react to it is up to us.

Epictetus observed that “an ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”

He isn’t saying that the situations we find ourselves in are our fault. Circumstances, according to Epictetus, lie outside our sphere of control. But whether circumstances lead us to become dissatisfied with life and resentful of others is up to us.

In other words, instead of thinking that they’re out to get me I can decide what action I’m going to take. It’s the difference between learned helplessness and being proactive.

But blaming others has its incentives. Being persecuted puts us at the center of attention. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority. And blaming others absolves us of any responsibility for acting to resolve things.

This phenomenon is magnified when we belong to an ideological group with a defined enemy. But we should be skeptical of all ideologies. None have it all figured out, and all have their weak points. But we should be especially distrustful of ideologies that blame a particular group or person for what’s wrong with the world.

Challenging our group’s orthodoxy is much harder than criticizing an outside group. It takes no courage for a political party to criticize its opponents, but it takes great courage for a party member to stand up and say, “You know, we’re not really morally superior to our opponents.”

I like the fact that Stoicism has no external enemy—not even Epicureanism. Though the two philosophies disagree, neither thinks the other is out to get them. Stoicism teaches that if I’m unhappy then it’s up to me to change that. The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday puts it.

To be more direct, if I have an enemy then the enemy is me. So it’s my responsibility to change my own behavior.

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Anxiety and locus of control

Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?

© Dave DuBay

In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.

I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.

Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.

This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.

Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.

So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?

Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.

I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.

Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.

Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.

Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.

And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.

But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.

Judgmentalism reveals our insecurities

And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.

© Dave DuBay

Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.

Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.

They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.

Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act on) not out of maliciousness but out of ignorance. Still, ignorance can have very destructive consequences.

Assent can only be given freely—coercion can merely appear to do so. Brainwashing can be resisted, though it may be a formidable challenge. And even if brainwashing succeeds we cannot say the asset was given freely.

Which brings me to feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame over being judged for a choice or opinion that belongs to me and not to the person rendering the judgement.

Judgment is a type of insult. It threatens social exclusion. And judgement springs from insecurities over someone else having a different viewpoint, and uncertainties over those opinions.

If I express my opinion on something—say a political issue—then someone who disagrees might judge me or even tell me what my opinion should be.

Of course, if my opinion was a judgement on something that’s none of my business, or if the facts demonstrably refute me, then they’d be right to object—but not in a way that attacks me personally.

Otherwise, they’re not entitled to judge me because my opinions don’t belong to them. I could point this out to them—but that would be defensive, and it’s likely to result in a pointless argument.

Instead, one simple statement would suffice:

“I do not assent to your judgements.”

What could they say to counter that? They could tell me I should assent. Or reiterate their judgements hoping that the repetition will overcome me. But if I remain firm there is nothing more they can do.

I can remain firm by reminding myself that they have no power over my choice to give or withhold assent. And by reminding myself that their misperceptions are probably due to ignorance rather than maliciousness.

Another scenario: Someone else expresses an opinion that I think is offensive—such as claiming that certain people are inferior.

My objections can be expressed without moralistic judgment, such as stating why I think opinions like that cause harm. I don’t need to attack the character of this person, which again are probably due to ignorance. Their opinions don’t belong to me, so I’m not entitled to judge them. But my opinions are mine, so I can express why I disagree.

Are they likely to respond to my objections with judgements and insults? There’s a good chance. I have no control over their judgements, so what would getting upset or retaliating accomplish except to show that they’ve bested me?

Besides, their judgements reveal their insecurities. That observation doesn’t need to pointed out to them—that would be petty. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is to not be like your enemy. That means responding to your enemy with kindness rather than anger. Maintaining my composure but not backing down on my viewpoint is the best approach.

Self-interest isn’t anti-social

But where we locate our self-interest matters.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona. © Dave DuBay

It’s controversial to say self-interest is our primary motivation for whatever we do.

This claim seems to advocate selfishness. And what would a society built on selfishness be like?

Besides, there are examples of people taking great risks or even sacrificing themselves for people they don’t even know. How is that self-interest?

Perhaps someone wants to be a hero, or at least not be a coward. Perhaps someone strives to live by a particular moral code. Perhaps someone is concerned about the negative impact on their loved ones if they don’t act.

The difference between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest is important, however.

Being concerned only with the immediate impact on ourselves is selfishness. Though that’s not always a bad thing. Self-defense is one example.

Broader self-interest looks at the long term implications; the effects on people we care about and people whose assistance we might need later; and the impact on society, which can in turn affect us and those we love.

In his Discourses (1.19.11-17) Epictetus writes that

Every living creature…does everything for its own sake…And in general, he [God] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot obtain any of his particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn’t anti-social to do everything for one’s own sake.

What follows, then? When people come to hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, taking them to be good or bad, it is altogether inevitable that they’ll end up paying court to tyrants…and their flunkeys too!

But isn’t it in our self-interest to give in to a tyrant if he can do us harm?

Epictetus says no. A tyrant cannot force anyone to compromise their ethics. And history is full of people who have stood up to tyranny. They can kill the body but not the soul is how Jesus put it.

Epictetus’s distinction that failure to understand what lies within and outside of our control—and how this failure can lead to failure to understand what is good—is key.

We’re self-interested in things we think are good, but what are these things? He asks, if we value possessions then what’s to stop us from stealing them? After all, if it’s the object we value most then necessarily we value respect for other people’s property less (1.22.16).

But that only leads to all manner of conflicts. What is truly good, then, cannot lie in external things. We don’t control our possessions, circumstances, even our reputations—which can be conferred on us or taken from us by others or by circumstances.

The only things that are truly ours—things no one can take from us—are our deliberate thoughts, deliberate actions, and chosen values.

That’s where Epictetus locates self-interest. And this is self-interest in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.

Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

© Dave DuBay

Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.

After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:

When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”

At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.

Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.

This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.

By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.

Marcus says we should

See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.

This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.

Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.

Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.

Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”

Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.