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From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022

The Stoic approach to failure

Feature || GREG SADLER

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“Each occasion of failing offers an opportunity to exercise those dimensions of the virtue of courage that the Stoics called perseverance and industriousness.”

The educated will blame no one

Epictetus tells us that a “person who has not been educated” will blame others, when they themselves do badly. A person making some progress in Stoicism, or “beginning one’s education” will blame themself. And a person who has been educated will blame neither others nor themselves. (Enchiridion 5)

Many of us have read this, liked the distinction he makes, and then went on to “do badly” (prattei kakos) in understanding and applying this very passage! It is easy to misinterpret it as saying something like: don’t blame, judge, or criticize anyone when things go wrong, when you make a mistake, when you fail. After all that’s the response the educated Stoic has. And isn’t that what you desire for yourself – to be a fully developed Stoic, and to enjoy the benefits of that happy condition?

Looking for someone to blame

Odds are you’re not anywhere close to that state. And telling yourself to leapfrog past all the work, learning, and practice that getting there would require isn’t doing yourself any favours. In fact, doing that is you setting yourself up to fail, and then to get upset, and start looking for who to blame. Arguably the Stoic path is not a nice, constant, upward stroll but one where you will trip yourself up, fall down into the dust, meander off the path or even backslide, and have to pick yourself back up and choose to put yourself back onto your itinerary. Learning how to deal with the failures that are almost guaranteed to come turns out to be an important experiential dimension of that very education.

Stoicism as an intentional way of living

One point I’ve found myself making many times in Stoic meeting groups, while working with individual clients and students, when giving talks or seminars – and even (perhaps all too) often to myself – is that Stoicism is like any other intentional way of living or philosophy of life. And these in their turn are like anything else that you don’t start out already knowing or with some innate talent for. Studying Stoic philosophy and deliberately incorporating Stoic practices isn’t radically different from learning how to play a musical instrument, or how to speak a language, or how to cook well. At the beginning, you are going to screw up a lot, precisely because you’re making your body and your mind do things differently, and in ways that not only they are not used to, but likely go against longingrained habits.

Expect to fail often

You should expect yourself to fail often. Just because you decide there’s something to Stoicism, and you commit yourself to learning and practicing it, that doesn’t mean that you suddenly transform into a radically different person. If you struggle with anger, you can memorize Stoic quotes (or even get a tattoo), you can engage in negative visualization, you can read and reread Seneca’s On Anger. You’re still going to lose your temper from time to time, and even if you can avoid outbursts, you’re going to experience moments of irritation, frustration, or resentment. Those are failures the person who has longstanding and deep-rooted issues with anger is going to experience. We could range over numerous other examples, but you get the point.

What you do after you fail is what matters

What you do after you fail, that’s what really matters. You might say that one of the benefits of working through failures and working oneself into Stoicism is that over time you do start shifting the attention – and the blame – from others to yourself. And as that shift takes place, you can lapse less often into the pessimism or perfectionism that leads to, as we say, “beating yourself up” for your failures. Instead, each occasion of failing offers an opportunity to exercise those dimensions of the virtue of courage that the Stoics called perseverance (karteria) and industriousness (philoponia). Failures also provide a chance to engage in some selfreflection and analysis, which involves figuring out what mistaken assumptions, judgments, or lines of reasoning led to the failure, and what one might start replacing those with, so that one might fail a bit less in the future. And then, over time, fail even less, and begin to succeed more and more, slowly transforming yourself into a better educated and happier human being.

imageGreg Sadler of ReasonIO is an educator and the editor of Stoicism Today (