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From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022

On following our idols


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“Small things form habits, habits shape our character and our character, well, is who we truly are. This is the place to grow.”

We all have idols

We all have them. Or at least we used to have them at some point in our life. Heroes. Idols. Role models. Who hasn’t had a poster of a back-then famous sport star on the wall of their early teenage bedroom?

One may make the point that throughout the years the urge to look up to someone persists, yet the idol’s occupation usually changes. As mentioned, in our early years we may worship a sportsperson, then maybe a musician or another artist, then in our twenties maybe a stellar-successful businessmen, and so on. Our attitudes change accordingly. Early on we may be wholeheartedly in love with a songwriter who shaped the music taste of our adolescence, yet over time we gradually learn to appreciate our idols in a more reasoned fashion. Or do we?

The need for a role model is embedded in us

The need for a role model seems embedded deeply in human nature. The ancient Stoics assent to that. We find a number of passages and quotes in their writing testifying to it. A teacher of philosophy, a hero Stoic role model from a bygone era, a person who did something extraordinarily brave or simply didn’t lose their Stoic resolve in the face of adversity – in the texts of Epictetus and Seneca we find plenty of such examples. Obviously they were aware of that inherent human need to have someone to follow.

Stoicism is a philosophy of life so there is no surprise we need someone we can learn it from. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius thanks his own teachers at length in Book One of his Meditations. Yet, surely role models, idols and trailblazers of all sorts are not limited to philosophy. We need them – and we embrace them – in all walks of life. Is it always Stoic though?

What should we beware of?

Can be, assuming that we have the right attitude. What would it be? What should we beware of? A lot has been said on this topic yet the most vital point from a purely Stoic point of view is that we need to focus on the everyday actions and habits of that person, not on the person as such (nor, Zeus forbid, on their “success”).

Don’t get me wrong here. Surely, it’s essential that we feel this weirdly intimate, irrational connection that this person is in a sense ‘ours’ and that it is them that we look up to. There is no inspiration without this kind of sentiment. And yet, if we intend to keep our Stoic gyroscopes right, we need to think in terms of specific habits we may learn from them, not in terms of some transcendental connection.

Not idolizing someone overtly is the number one principle. In Stoicism we’ve known this from the beginning. It was Seneca who emphasized over and over again that a true sage is extremely rare to come by. No one is perfect, that’s common knowledge. Particularly, no one is perfect when judged from the Stoic perspective. The Stoic standards of virtue are elevated and all-or-nothing after all. We are all merely Stoics in training.

Just important as that is principle number two. It stems from the simple question – what do we actually want to achieve by admiring our role models? They inspire us, sure. But where does it get us?

A young boy or girl gapes at their favourite sport star and openly they tell their parents they actually want to be like them. They’d love to pursue a similar career and of course enjoy a similar success. Usually an early teenager honestly means that and thinks it’s genuinely possible. With the passage of time this changes and the realization sinks in that straight up copying someone’s path to stardom is impossible. Sounds bitter. Can we still learn something here, as not-so-naive adults?

Emulating our role models

Yes we can. As grown persons – and as aspiring Stoics – we may understand that it has never really been about the glory and fame. What it’s really about is the small things. I’m awed by a sport champion. I know already that I will never be them or like them. What keeps me, though, from learning about their fitness regime and healthy lifestyle? Why don’t I try it myself? Surely not in full, since I am no professional athlete, but why not adapt small things into my own life to make it better? Small things form habits, habits shape our character, and our character, well, is who we truly are. This is the place to grow.

Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer and philosopher, promoter of reformed Stoicism. He authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism, and Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?