Justin's posts discussing Stoic philosophy

Advice on how to be less reactive to insults from a stoic philosophy book:

One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me. Suppose, for example, that I am learning to play the banjo and that the person who is criticizing my playing is the skilled musician I have hired as my teacher. In this case, I am paying the person to criticize me. It would be utterly foolish, under these circumstances, for me to respond to his criticisms with hurt feelings. To the contrary, if I am serious about learning the banjo, I should thank him for criticizing me.

Suppose, however, that I don’t respect the source of an insult; indeed, suppose that I take him to be a thoroughly contemptible individual. Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved: If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is doubtless the right thing to do. What should worry me is if this contemptible person approved of what I am doing. If I say anything at all in response to his insults, the most appropriate comment would be, “I’m relieved that you feel that way about me.”

Source: William B. Irvine. “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.” Part 3, Chapter 11.


More from same chapter:

Suppose, for example, you find out that someone has been saying bad things about you. Epictetus advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his competence as an insulter; for example, you can comment that if the insulter knew you well enough to criticize you competently, he wouldn’t have pointed to the particular failings that he did but would instead have mentioned other, much worse failings.

The Stoic agree and amplify :smiley:

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On social status vs freedom, from Chapter 14 of A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine:

TO BETTER APPRECIATE the price of fame, consider the following example, offered by Epictetus. Suppose it is your goal to be a socially prominent individual, to be “famous” within your social circle, and suppose someone within your circle is giving a banquet. If this person fails to invite you, you will pay a price: You will likely be upset by the snub. But even if he does invite you, Epictetus points out, it will be because you paid a price in the past: You went out of your way to pay attention to the banquet giver and to shower him with praise. Epictetus adds that you are both greedy and stupid if you expect a place at the banquet table without having paid this price.1

You would have been much better off, Epictetus thinks, if you had been indifferent to social status. For one thing, you would not have had to spend time trying to curry favor with this person. Furthermore, you would have deprived him of the ability to upset you simply by failing to invite you to a banquet.

Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.2

If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval. Indeed, Epictetus says that when others praise us, the proper response is to laugh at them.3 (But not out loud! Although Epictetus and the other Stoics think we should be indifferent to people’s opinions of us, they would advise us to conceal our indifference. After all, to tell someone else that you don’t care what he thinks is quite possibly the worst insult you can inflict.)

Marcus agrees with Epictetus that it is foolish for us to worry about what other people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of people whose values we reject. Our goal should therefore be to become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. He adds that if we can succeed in doing this, we will improve the quality of our life.4

Notice that the advice that we ignore what other people think of us is consistent with the Stoic advice that we not concern ourselves with things we can’t control. I don’t have it in my power to stop others from sneering at me, so it is foolish for me to spend time trying to stop them. I should instead, says Marcus, spend this time on something I have complete control over, namely, not doing anything that deserves a sneer.5

I enjoyed A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine quite a lot. Irvine is someone who wants philosophy to matter. He’s very skeptical of the focus of modern philosophy on linguistic analysis, and thinks that having a philosophy of life to guide your actions so you don’t waste your life is important. He has found useful things for making life better within Stoicism. His book is pretty accessible and mainstream, so it might be good to recommend to someone when other stuff might alienate them. I disagreed with some stuff - especially when he talks about evolutionary psychology type stuff - but I didn’t find that any of the stuff I disagreed with him about majorly detracted from the positive value of the book.

I read the book because I enjoyed his talks in Sam Harris’ Waking Up app.

From Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine, Chapter 1. I thought this was an interesting example of someone applying some careful analysis to social interactions and realizing how they themselves had unconsciously automated some bad behaviors that conflict with their conscious values.

In the course of my investigation of insults, I made a disturbing discovery: I myself was the source of many insults. For one thing, I became fully aware of how many blatant, albeit benign, insults I unleash in the course of a day. It is not unusual, for example, for me to tease friends. Thus, I might playfully refer to a taciturn friend as a chatterbox, and he might respond, again playfully, by referring to me as “the absentminded professor.” But besides these playful insults, I discovered that I am the source of other, more sinister ones. I would analyze conversations I had, only to realize that some of the things I had said could best be understood as subtle attempts to put other people down.

In one such case, a student told me of his plan to pursue graduate studies and asked what I thought of the university he would attend. I replied that the university in question was a real bargain, as graduate schools go. It was only later, when I replayed the conversation in my mind, that I realized that I had, albeit obliquely, belittled his choice of schools. For one thing, my response implied that the school he would attend is where you go if you lack the money for a proper education. My response, in other words, expressed a degree of educational snobbery.

It was clear to me, in afterthought, how I should have responded to this person’s announcement—and how I would have responded if I were a better person than I am. I should have congratulated him on achieving what for him was a significant life goal. Not only that, but the congratulations in question should have been heartfelt. And what prevented me from offering sincere congratulations? I must have felt that my own status as an intellectual was somehow threatened by his going to graduate school. “How utterly foolish!” I thought, and felt more than a bit ashamed of myself.

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From Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine, Chapter 4. I liked the discussion of people’s mixed/confused motives - people want to, or feel like they should, offer praise to someone, but also feel like their social status is threatened by someone accomplishing stuff, and so they make comments that are mixed. I also think Irvine is right that people often don’t fully understand their own motives.

PEOPLE ARE OFTEN RELUCTANT to praise others. When circumstances require them to do so, they might offer genuine and sincere praise, but then, almost without realizing what they are doing, they might go on to temper the praise with insults. Suppose, for example, that the business we started in our garage goes on to become such a success that we are the subject of a glowing profile on the front page of The Wall Street Journal . A relative might call to congratulate us: “You’ve gone far in life… for someone who never even finished high school.” In the process of praising us, this relative is rubbing salt into what for us is probably an old wound—our failure to graduate from high school.

In this case, the person who is praising us seems to be experiencing a degree of ambivalence toward our accomplishments and as a result feels the need to temper his praise with a reminder of our shortcomings. Thus, his praise is different from the kind of backhanded compliments we examined earlier in this chapter: in those “compliments,” we were confident that the person sincerely intended to praise us. This sort of praise also differs from the ambush insults we have explored: in those cases, we were (eventually) confident that the person’s intention in praising us was to insult us. In the case just considered, though, the relative’s motives seem curiously mixed. Yes, he wants to praise us, but at the same time, he wants to make sure we stay in our place, socially speaking. I should add that the relative himself might not fully understand his motives for doing what he did.

People mix praise with insults in this manner, I think, because they feel vaguely threatened by the successes of others: they imagine that someone else’s success somehow diminishes their own. They know that they are expected to congratulate friends, relatives, and coworkers who succeed in some undertaking, but in the process of doing so, they feel compelled to downplay the significance of those accomplishments and thereby maintain the significance of their own. People also worry, I suspect, that if they offer someone undiluted praise, they will lose their position on the social hierarchy. By following their praise for someone with a put-down, people prevent this from happening: “You did well, but it doesn’t mean that you are better than I am.”

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I read Seneca’s essay “On the Happy Life” in Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (Translation by John Davie, Oxford University Press 2007)

It was decent. This work provides a bunch of explanatory notes to help get references as well, which is nice.

Here are some quotes I liked (some formatting and indications of explanatory notes omitted):

the happy man is the one who permits reason to evaluate every condition of his

Let a man not be corrupted by externals, let him be invincible and an admirer of himself alone, confident in spirit and for either end prepared[,] one who shapes his own life; let his assurance not lack knowledge, and his knowledge not lack resolution; let his decisions, once made, stand firm, and let there be no alteration in his decrees.

(in the original, “confident in spirit and for either end prepared”, was centered on the page on its own line)

I am satisfied if each day I make some reduction in the number of my vices and find fault with my mistakes.

This is the sign of a noble heart—to aim at high things, measuring one’s effort, not by one’s own strength, but by the strength of one’s nature, and to envisage enterprises beyond the accomplishment even of those equipped with heroic courage

Whatever I do with only myself as witness I shall regard as being done before the eyes of the people of Rome.

This brief Sam Harris talk is very much in the manner of a Stoic “reframing” type analysis

Some comments on a book inspired by stoic philosophy

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I talked about choosing to emphasize certain aspects of reality depending on your situation and how that’s not faking reality. I had some more thoughts on that.

People talk about looking at things through “rose-colored glasses” as indicating like, unwarranted optimism. But you still see the same basic scene in reality, whatever the tint of your glasses is. You’re not disconnected from reality in some significant way due to tint. Choosing a framing of some situation because it helps you serve some goal (like being happy) is kind of like choosing a tint in glasses cuz it serves some goal. You’re dealing with the same basic facts but choosing to view them from a certain light due to some purpose.

Another example I thought of is photography. Finally images you see have typically been modified or processed in some way. You’re not generally looking at a bunch of raw images (unless you’re a professional in the process of making those images usable!). You have tons of options for dealing with images, especially these days - you can play with the exposure, shadows, highlights, saturation, crop the image, adjust for issues with a particular lens, apply effects, and so on. What options you use depends on your goal re: the final image you want to produce. Lots of final images could be produced from the same raw image that would still be reasonably described as depicting some real scene out in the world, but they might look very different.

Stoicism encourages people to adopt perspectives that help with the goal of minimizing negative emotional experiences. A lot of people would like to do that - that’s a goal compatible with lots of people’s existing goals and values. And Stoicism offers with doing that.

Stoic quote I like from The Enchiridion by Epictetus:

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.

Another good quote, same source as previous post:

If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

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If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.

-Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3 (as quoted here)

I wanted more context so I got a bigger quote (as translated by Richard M. Gummere in a Loeb Classical Library edition of this Seneca work). I think the context makes it better. It’s basically about the importance of considering context, higher goals, what you’re trying to accomplish, and that kind of thing, and how a failure to do that causes problems.

As often as you wish to know what is to be avoided or what is to be sought, consider its relation
to the Supreme Good, to the purpose of your whole life. For whatever we do ought to be in harmony
with this ; no man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose of his life. The artist may have his colours all prepared, but he cannot produce a likeness unless he has already made up his mind what he wishes to paint.’’ The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole.

The archer must know what he is seeking to hit ; then he must aim and control the weapon by
his skill. Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he
is making for, no wind is the right wind.

I like the idea here. I find it easy to connect to the Objectivist theme about the importance of purpose. Atlas Shrugged:

“I don’t know what sort of motto the d‘Anconias have on their family crest,” Mrs. Taggart said once, “but I’m sure that Francisco will change it to ’What for?‘ ” It was the first question he asked about any activity proposed to him—and nothing would make him act, if he found no valid answer. He flew through the days of his summer month like a rocket, but if one stopped him in mid-flight, he could always name the purpose of his every random moment. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.

Another AS quote:

It was a strange foreshortening between sight and touch, she thought, between wish and fulfillment, between—the words clicked sharply in her mind after a startled stop—between spirit and body. First, the vision—then the physical shape to express it. First, the thought—then the purposeful motion down the straight line of a single track to a chosen goal. Could one have any meaning without the other? Wasn’t it evil to wish without moving—or to move without aim? Whose malevolence was it that crept through the world, struggling to break the two apart and set them against each other?

And another:

“Francisco, what’s the most depraved type of human being?”

“The man without a purpose.”

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Some of what I’ve been saying about goals is not original. It’s not like binary epistemology which is a major new philosophy idea. Paying more attention to goals is just important stuff that I realized people don’t do… (plus it’s useful to talk about when presenting CF stuff, e.g. IGCs). There’s quite a bit of stuff that’s useful that is well known but which most people are bad at. Self-help books have some too, including stuff about micro-habits (I’ve heard that the book Atomic Habits has decent parts).

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Do your best to acquire the habit of asking yourself, every time anyone acts: “What’s his intention in doing this?” But start with yourself and examine yourself first.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10:37 (Translator Robin Waterfield)

Today I freed myself from all the things that were afflicting me, or it would be more accurate to say that I ejected all the things that were afflicting me, because they weren’t outside me, but inside, inherent in my beliefs.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations , 9:13 (Translator Robin Waterfield)

A different translation:

Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.

Stoicism has a couple of nice ideas. One is that you can feel some loss or suffering from setbacks but you only let it bother you so much. Seneca, On the Firmness of the Wise Man:

Some other things strike the wise man, though they may not shake his principles, such as bodily pain and weakness, the loss of friends and children, and the ruin of his country in war-time. I do not say that the wise man does not feel these, for we do not ascribe to him the hardness of stone or iron; there is no virtue but is conscious of its own endurance. What then does he? He receives some blows, but when he has received them he rises superior to them, heals them, and brings them to an end; these more trivial things he does not even feel, nor does he make use of his accustomed fortitude in the endurance of evil against them, but either takes no notice of them or considers them to deserve to be laughed at.

Another stoic idea is that embodying virtues or good qualities is the fundamental thing, and while it makes sense to prefer things like e.g. having a healthy body to not having a healthy body, the fundamentally important thing is to embody virtue or excellence in what you do in the moment. (This is based on my understanding of some of the content of Chapter 4 of Matthew Van Natta’s The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism).

I connected these two ideas to the scene below from The Fountainhead, which I think illustrates both of them (note: this might be a bit spoilery):

“I want you to know. What you’re thinking is much worse than the truth. I don’t believe it matters to me—that they’re going to destroy it. Maybe it hurts so much that I don’t even know I’m hurt. But I don’t think so. If you want to carry it for my sake, don’t carry more than I do. I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain. You mustn’t look like that.”

“Where does it stop?”

“Where I can think of nothing and feel nothing except that I designed that temple. I built it. Nothing else can seem very important.”

Roark recognizes that the fundamentally important thing is that he worked to build the temple. He used his mind and his work to bring something great into existence. That’s the important thing, and what happens to the actual temple doesn’t matter too much.

But then Roark cares/reacts a lot more when he designs Cortlandt and what happens to the actual building is bad. Why does he treat the two cases so differently?

One difference is that the Cortlandt changes violated a contract while the Temple changes didn’t (Roark got screwed for some money, but altering the Temple building didn’t violate a contract).

Another difference is that with the temple, the temple he designed actually got brought into existence and then they ruined it.

With Cortlandt, it was different. The building he designed never got built. They ruined it in the design stages, before it was even built.


Yeah. The integrity of the project was really important to him:

“Peter, I love this work. I want to see it erected. I want to make it real, living, functioning, built. But every living thing is integrated. Do you know what that means? Whole, pure, complete, unbroken. Do you know what constitutes an integrating principle? A thought. The one thought, the single thought that created the thing and every part of it. The thought which no one can change or touch. I want to design Cortlandt. I want to see it built. I want to see it built exactly as I design it.”

And then later…

The first building was almost completed. It stood alone on the large, empty tract. The workers had left for the day; a small light showed in the shack of the night watchman. The building had the skeleton of what Roark had designed, with the remnants of ten different breeds piled on the lovely symmetry of the bones. He saw the economy of plan preserved, but the expense of incomprehensible features added; the variety of modeled masses gone, replaced by the monotony of brutish cubes; a new wing added, with a vaulted roof, bulging out of a wall like a tumor, containing a gymnasium; strings of balconies added, made of metal stripes painted a violent blue; corner windows without purpose; an angle cut off for a useless door, with a round metal awning supported by a pole, like a haberdashery in the Broadway district; three vertical bands of brick, leading from nowhere to nowhere; the general style of what the profession called “Bronx Modern”; a panel of bas-relief over the main entrance, representing a mass of muscle which could be discerned as either three or four bodies, one of them with an arm raised, holding a screwdriver.

There were white crosses on the fresh panes of glass in the windows, and it looked appropriate, like an error x’ed out of existence. There was a band of red in the sky, to the west, beyond Manhattan, and the buildings of the city rose straight and black against it.

Roark stood across the space of the future road before the first house of Cortlandt. He stood straight, the muscles of his throat pulled, his wrists held down and away from his body, as he would have stood before a firing squad.