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From Vol. 6, Issue 2, February 2024

Caring for yourself, caring for others

Practicing Stoicism || Harald Kavli

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What attracted me to Stoicism

I remember when I first encountered Stoicism about seven years ago. I had just happened on a blog on the subject while looking for information on philosophical therapy and hadn’t really had any, or at least not any significant, exposure to the Stoics prior to that. One of the first major things that attracted me to Stoicism was the idea that in between an action such as someone stepping on my toes in either a literal or metaphorical sense, and my anger as a consequence, there is a moment where a judgment is made. 

For a person like me – who is really reactive, and while not really susceptible to anger, still quite easily annoyed and frustrated – that was a significant first step. In hindsight, though, I think that it is perhaps better to describe it as a small but significant addition to a sort of toolbox for dealing with some of the minor and major hardships of life.

Three insights

Three additional insights took me further along the way. 

1. Don’t be a sore winner

The first was that you cannot really just focus on dealing with the bad stuff. In my native country we do not just talk about bad losers in the context of a family night of playing Monopoly, but also ‘bad [sore??] winners’, that is, a person who gets a bit puffed up and arrogant whenever something goes his or her way. Just as it is important to not be disturbed by life’s hardships, it is important to not let the purple rub off when things are going your way, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 6.30.)

2. Avoid practicing selectively

The second was the realization that you cannot just focus on your judgments once in a while when you are feeling that you are about to be pulled out of balance, but rather that we are constantly shaping our view on life and thus making ourselves more susceptible to some judgments than others. I can’t just try to convince myself that money is not a good if I happen to win in the lottery or inherit a fortune from a rich uncle in America, or if I have to pay the dentist a 1,000 dollars for a root canal, rather I need to always take care about the little judgments that I make during a day. What is needed is an ongoing effort of assessing my judgments and my ways of thinking, my habits of forming judgments, and my core beliefs about what is good and bad.

3. Know what is truly good and bad

The third insight was that I had hitherto had a very unreflected, pre-philosophical view on is what truly is good and bad and what a human being ought to value. The idea that human beings are rational, social animals, that we thrive when we live well with the people around us, and that there is fundamentally a difference between the true goods, such as the virtues, and the indifferents like status, health, and material wealth.

Caring for yourself doesn’t conflict with caring for others

I used to think of ethics as something that was other-regarding and altruistic, so I was a bit confused by the ancient ethicists who were spending so much time on talking about how we can make ourselves less miserable until I realized that care for yourself and care for others aren’t necessarily opposed to each other when you consider your own good to be becoming virtuous rather than becoming, say, rich and famous. 

We are parts of a community, and what doesn’t benefit the hive, doesn’t benefit the bee. - Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. 6.54 (Tr.  Kavli)

Recognize your own faults

When we do work on ourselves and try to rid ourselves of faulty judgments, tendencies to anger and so on, we are at the very same time making ourselves better friends, colleagues, and citizens of the cosmopolis. By recognizing our own faults, we can also become more patient with the faults of others, which in turn makes it easier to bring them into the circle of our concern. It is simply much harder to care for someone when you cannot look past their faults and thereby end up dismissing them as not worthy of your time, but the recognition of your own shortcomings makes it easier to put up with others.

These insights, or stepping stones on the path of expanding my still limited understanding of Stoicism have made it easier for me agree with Seneca who wrote 

Neither good times nor bad affect just one of us; we live in common. And no one can have a happy life if he looks only to himself, turning everything to his own advantage. If you want to live for yourself, you must live for another. - Seneca, Letters on Ethics. 48.2 (Tr. Graver & Long)

Harald L. Kavli studies informatics at the University of Oslo and has previously studied philosophy and the classics at the same place. He is also the editor of the blog Stoicism Today.