Stoic advice not to value people’s praise or criticism doesn’t mean disdaining others.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
What other people think is not your problem
Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake — not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).
When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27). What are their minds like? What evokes their love and admiration? Imagine their souls stripped bare. And their vanity. It’s their conceit to suppose their disdain could harm anyone, or their praise help them (9.34). But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).
Do you want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, or the approval of people who can’t please themselves? Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do? (8.53)
Listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are — both at home and abroad, by night as well as day, and who they spend their time with. Care nothing for the praise of men who don’t even live up to their own standards (3.4).
Take the high road
Take Antoninus as your model: his steadiness in any situation, his sense of reverence, his calm expression, his gentleness, his modesty, the way he put up with unfair criticism without returning it; how he would not listen to gossip, was slow to criticize, immune to rumor and suspicion, devoid of pretense, and not prone to backbiting, cowardice, jealousy, or empty rhetoric (6.30).
Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).
Our motivations to act or not act (and whether we’re organized or careless);
And what we assent to, including whether that assent is based on reason and reality, or if our judgments are hasty and based on false beliefs.
But as Mick Jagger famously put, you can’t always get what you want. When our desires are frustrated it’s easy to get upset and act irrationally. And then we fall into undesirable situations. That is, we unwittingly assent to things we’d rather avoid.
We can go too far in the other direction, though, becoming numb and detached. Epictetus warns against being “unfeeling like a statue.” This advice contradicts the stereotype that Stoics are emotionless – but the stereotype is wrong. Instead, he reminds us that we are social creatures and we should honor our natural desire to connect with others.
Life is like a banquet.
Epictetus says life is like a banquet. If something we want is offered to us, accept it – but don’t be greedy. If we don’t want it then decline it. If something we want isn’t offered to us then let it go.
We must remember that the entire world is interconnected. Virtue increases connection, but beliefs and actions that create disconnection can lead us to behave destructively. And anger (wanting to strike out against someone) and wanting to prove superior status through attachment to external things like money and power (which we can never really control anyway), all lead to disconnection.
Gimme three steps, mister.
The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we truly desire, and what we wish to avoid. Otherwise, we’ll go about things in a backhanded way and end up where we don’t want to be.
The second step is to understand what’s up to us and what’s not up to us. Or put another way, what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
The only things that are up to us are our values, motivations, and choices. Other people, events, and so on don’t belong to us. So if we desire something we must be willing to let go of it because realistically we know it might not come our way.
Finally, consistency is important – take note of moments when we’re not at our best and what lead up to it. Then we can be on guard in the future.
Is it paradoxical to say that we should combine confidence with caution? Doesn’t caution seem like the opposite of confidence?
In book two of his Discourses, Epictetus says it’s a matter of knowing what to be confident about and what to be cautious about. And most of us get it backwards.
He says there’s no point in stressing over what might happen or what has happened because we can’t change the past and we don’t control the future.
But we should be cautious about things that are within our control – namely, our values, motivations, and choices. Yet, it’s far too easy to deceive ourselves about our selfish motivations.
Most of us, however, fear things that are not up to us. What if my flight is delayed? What if the stock market crashes?
But at the same time we can be overconfident, insisting we’re right and that our motivations are pure. Epictetus says this can lead to recklessness disguised as self-confidence.
To be deceived, then, or 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 reasons that outside events are neither good nor bad. But how we respond to them can be good or bad.
And when thinking about the best way to respond to these events we should second guess our true motivations. We must first make sure we’re not lying to ourselves about our true intentions. And we must make sure we’re not examining the situation with distorted thinking.
Epictetus even says we shouldn’t fear death. We’re all going to die one day anyway. Whether we lived a good life is what matters. But that can’t be decided on our deathbeds because the past is gone and there is no future.
Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. From his students’ notes we have four discourses, a handbook, and a few fragments.
In the Enchiridion (or handbook) Epictetus wrote that external events are not up to us. And though we can exert varying degrees of influence, our desired outcome isn’t guaranteed. But our goals, values, and actions are up to us. It’s important to know the difference, and what to do about it.
If that sounds familiar it’s because someone cribbed it and called it the Serenity Prayer.
Epictetus’s discourses have a different flavor, though. The same themes are repeated. But Epictetus talks a lot about God in his discourses – to the point where it almost reads like a religious text.
Ancient Stoics (like almost everyone in the ancient world) believed in deities. Other Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were not atheists but didn’t place as much emphasis on God.
Stoicism today is neither explicitly theist nor atheist. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion, and it can accommodate almost any personal faith or lack thereof.
Knowing what is and isn’t ours.
Epictetus advises us to turn unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Lust is an opportunity to cultivate temperance. Pain can help us improve our endurance. And verbal abuse is a chance to develop a thick skin and learn patience.
The key, Epictetus says, is knowing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Things that don’t belong to us are other people, wealth, power, and even our reputations. The danger is that wanting what someone else has means letting that person control us.
But how we think about our impressions of the world and what we choose to do about it are ours.
What can really harm us.
Most of us expect harm or benefit from external things, but wise people expect harm or benefit from themselves. The Stoic virtues of being just, temperate, and self-controlled are central to human excellence.
When people criticize us it’s often because they think they have a moral responsibility to do so – but usually they’re just projecting an internal psychodrama. But don’t confront them. Instead, we should remind ourselves that their opinion has no value.
Progress means less blaming and praising of others, being less defensive, and not being so swayed by flattery.
On the other hand, anxiety is caused by wanting something that’s not within our control. Nothing lasts forever. If we lose something, we should willfully surrender it.
Epictetus adds that life is like a banquet. If something is offered, accept it – but don’t be greedy. And it’s okay to refuse what is offered. But if it doesn’t come our way, forget about it.
Reason is a skill. Cultivate it.
Tying all this together is the Stoic view that reason separates humans from lower animals. As such, Epictetus advises us to learn to desire what we have, not what we don’t have. Expect the unexpected, even if it’s undesirable, so we can be prepared. Focus on our sphere of control – our values, choices, and actions.
He says life are like dice, which indifferently fall where they will. But making skillful use of where they fall isn’t indifferent. We should train ourselves to avoid vice and endure the things that peeve us the most.
Erik Erikson is less well known than Freud, but Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development in my opinion is more relevant to us today.
Briefly, Erikson says that each phase of life from infancy to the elder years has a unique challenge or crisis. Each culture offers unique challenges, but there are similarities cross culturally.
Kids these days
Identity is the adolescent challenge. And that’s interesting because these days identity is a challenge for all ages.
Erikson wrote Identity: Youth & Crisis in 1968. He says that identity formation is a process where you judge yourself based on how you think others judge you and compare that to how you think they judge themselves.
My own two cents is that the hypocrisies we see in others give us clues to our own blind spots. That is, observing other people’s lack of self-awareness clues us into our own lack of self-awareness.
Erikson adds that this is mostly an unconscious process – except when outside events cause a crisis because self-perception and our real actions are seriously misaligned. It’s those times when we protest, “I’m not usually like that.”
Your identity is relative to the social context
Social roles used to be rigid. You had your place, and options were limited. My view is that capitalism increases personal wealth such that reliance on others diminishes. And this opens up more options. Penalties for nonconformity no longer carry the same weight because you don’t need those bastards anyway.
But the flipside to that coin is that we’re less anchored to society as a whole. Our circumstances can change, and our identity can float away unmoored.
Women in the 1950s had clearly defined roles. Feminism created undreamt of opportunities for the daughter of a 1950s housewife. But what happens to a 1950s housewife when the children are grown and she finds herself divorced? Her pre-fab identity is gone and she’s faced with the hard work of forging a new identity in an uncertain and ever-changing world.
And it’s not just the housewife. It’s all of us. Young men today seem to be facing an identity crisis now that the traditional male role is no longer an automatic go to.
It doesn’t end here
Identity is a lifelong question. Erikson says that identity formation begins in infancy as the infant learns that she is separate from her parents and then actively pursues that differentiation.
This identity crisis comes to a head in adolescence. And it can’t be separated from our family history and social context.
Erikson spoke German, and he notes that the English language implies that the social context is external. But the German word umwelt is about the environment being both around and within us.
As such, identity is dynamic. It’s never established as an achievement.
But American society today still views identity as something that should be permanently established. And an identity with a higher social status is an achievement.
To shift your identity later in life is to admit failure to a certain extent. Or maybe you never really grew up. That’s why a midlife crisis is often seen as pathetic.
These preconceptions are questionable. But at the same time, what other people think does matter. After all, identity is relational.
But that escalates things. And you lose the moral high ground. Trading insult for insult is about winning, not resolving.
Calling the person out is a bit better. But that makes the other person defensive and more entrenched in their position.
One woman in a Facebook conversation I participated in offered a great solution:
Ask, “What did you mean by that?”
There’s no counter insult here. There’s no accusation. But it does require the person to explain and justify their insult.
Maybe you were at fault – though the person could have been nicer about it. But maybe you weren’t at fault. And further questioning along the lines of “Did you mean such-and-such or something different?” could result in the person’s justifications falling apart.
Of course, some people never admit when they’re wrong.
Meditations is a disjointed book. It’s the personal journal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), which he called “To Himself.” He didn’t intend for it to be published, so he didn’t bother to do much polishing.
Aurelius’s journal rambles a bit. But his perspective comes down to the notion that, “All is as thinking makes it – and you control your thinking. Remove your judgments and there is calm” (12.22).
Life is Like a River
Many of his musings are metaphysical speculation. Today’s scientific knowledge renders some of it moot. The rest parallels Buddhism in some ways. The Buddha lived many centuries before Aurelius. So who knows, maybe some Buddhist ideas had already made their way West by the second century A.D.
Aurelius likes the analogy of a river (5.23-24 & 6.15). The universe is a constant succession of change. Things that exist or which are coming into existence are quickly swept away in the ceaseless flow of time. Even some aspects of what is still coming into being have already been extinguished.
All things vanish into the past. We cannot gain a foothold but must go with the flow and not worry when some things race past us. So ambition or indignation at our lot in life is folly. Considering all of existence, we are but the tiniest part. And we’ve been assigned only a brief and fleeting moment of it.
Everything is Connected
Depressing? Not really. Everything in the universe is interwoven, so we are all connected and stand in relation to all things. We can think of others as part of a large extended family. And that’s the common spirit, the unity of all being (6.38).
Being in relationship to the whole, we should not resent any part of it or do anything anti-social. We should be happy with whatever happens to us because the whole contains nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6). All is right in the world in the sense of being just (4.10).
I find that last part hard to swallow. Being tortured or catching a nasty disease and dying a painful death are things I should be happy about because it benefits the whole? How does it benefit the whole? Certainly it sucks for me.
Aurelius’s psychology says nothing external can touch the mind. If something external causes us distress then it’s not the thing itself but rather our internal judgments of it. Reducing anxiety is a matter of correcting our misjudgments (4.4 & 8.47).
And we shouldn’t be concerned about other people slighting us because this mostly stems from ignorance, not maliciousness. Identifying someone’s flawed sense of what good or bad, right or wrong, can help us put other people’s negative judgments of us into perspective without getting angry (6.20 & 7.26).
Besides, why should we desire praise from someone who has a negative view of life? (8.53)
Dangers of Hedonism
Negativity is often the result of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Bad people often enjoy pleasure while good people suffer. Nature is indifferent, so expecting the world to be different only leads to resentment. And avoiding pain leads to fear of what might happen in the future, while pursuing pleasure can lead to taking advantage of others for one’s personal gain (9.3-4).
It’s better for us, like Nature, to be indifferent – in the sense of impartial to cause and effect, which is the inevitable result of fate (9.4-5). After all, healthy eyes don’t want to see only one color. A healthy nose can handle any odor, not just pleasant ones. So a healthy mind is ready for anything life might throw at it (10.35).
Aurelius repeatedly says that the ultimate is to be indifferent even to death. We’re all going to die one day anyway.
His determinism is also a hard to swallow. Is it really possible to be indifferent? It seems that would require having no sensation at all. Maybe accepting external events (even if it’s a bummer) is a more realistic goal.
Reason is Humanity’s Strength
But Aurelius is right that we control nothing outside of ourselves (though we can have degrees of influence in some situations). Aurelius says that reason – which we all possess – is like sunlight: a steady, inexhaustible stream that flows in all directions. Its path is straight. Sunlight settles on an object and doesn’t slip off. But it doesn’t do so forcefully. Sunlight isn’t violent. Rather, it illuminates whatever it settles on (8.57).
Anger, however, is not reasonable. Anger just causes more grief. And anger is a sign of weakness and pain. There’s strength in keeping your cool (11.18.8).
Kindness is invincible if it’s without pretence or fawning. Kindness can diffuse aggression because in the face of kindness the other person will have no cause for further aggression. This doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather correcting his vice by living rather than preaching virtue (11.18.9).