From Vol. 4, Issue 2, February 2022
What does boasting say about our character?
Feature || KAI WHITING, SANTARA GONZALES
“As a follower of Stoicism, we are not immune from the urge to boast or from placing too much importance on our reputation.”
We value other people’s opinions more than we do our own
In Meditations 12.4, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote “it never ceases to amaze me that we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” He was reflecting on the Stoic teaching that the opinions of others have no bearing on our moral character, the only thing that the ancient Stoics believed would guarantee our happiness. In other words, if somebody has a poor opinion of us, it does not mean that we are a bad person. Likewise, hearing a glowing opinion of us does not make us a good one.
We boast of our accomplishments
Sometimes, we boast of our accomplishments hoping that we may be rewarded with favourable opinions (our own and those of others). We do this to feel better about ourselves or what we have done. If we seek approval to help us feel more secure, we have given other people too much power over our mental state and our sense of self-worth. We might, consequently, soon come to believe that we are having a “bad day” simply because we did not get the hoped-for reaction. Alternatively, if we are praised often enough, we might soon become unsatisfied and seek ever higher levels, effectively moving the goal posts of our own sense of happiness.
Placing too much importance on what others think of us distracts us from cultivating the kind of character that acts justly, courageously, with self-control and wisdom. This is because we act inappropriately when we are worried that our actions may prove unpopular. Boasting is not always about increasing our popularity. Sometimes, we engage in such an activity to put others down or garner envy, again to make us feel better or look good. This speaks volumes about our values and our lack of understanding as to what truly make us happy.
As the Stoics themselves recognised, it is difficult for human beings to completely avoid seeking approval from others because we are prosocial animals, who prefer to live in community. Historically, unpopularity could have led us to being ostracised, which substantially reduced our chances of survival. Boasting was one mechanism which could help counteract that possibility. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why we continue, in modern times, to strive for validation and willingly sacrifice our character to be liked. However, from the Stoic perspective, sacrificing our character means sacrificing the only thing that offers us true happiness. Under such circumstances, we may remain alive, but we will also be miserable.
Stoicism offers no immunity
As a follower of Stoicism, we are not immune from the urge to boast or from placing too much importance on our reputation. However, as we progress on our Stoic journey it helps if we remind ourselves that the opinions of others are as changing as the direction of the wind. Therefore, the need to impress others should always be secondary to being a better person.
Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and is a co-founder of the WalledGarden.com, a place for Stoic community, discussions and debates!
Santara Gonzales is the Executive Director and co-founder of Wisdom Unlocked, a non-profit organisation that uses Stoic principles to help people cultivate good character in difficult circumstances.