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.