Twenty-First Century Stoic -- Insult Pacifism


This is the second in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the first essay.)

A colleague who had been reading some of my published work told me he was going to comment on it in a book he was writing. I told him that I was delighted that he would do such a thing. Then the axe fell: "I'm trying to decide," he said, "whether, in my response to what you have written, I should characterize you as being evil or merely misguided."

There was a time when being insulted in this manner would have upset me. I would have done my best to respond with a counter-insult, and whatever I said, I would subsequently have spent time fuming about the incident and thinking about other, more caustic things I could and should have said. I probably would even have spent time plotting revenge. In other words, I would have allowed the insult to ruin my day.

In the incident described, though, I did none of these things. This is because I had come under the influence of those ancient philosophers known as the Stoics and had, as a result, decided to follow their advice regarding insults. Consequently, I responded to the insult with a question: "Why can't you," I asked, "characterize me as being both evil and misguided?"

It may surprise readers that the Stoics would give advice on how best to deal with insults. Is this, one might reasonably ask, a proper activity for a philosopher?

Not for a philosopher whose interests were primarily theoretical and who therefore spent his days contemplating esoteric theories regarding, say, truth, beauty, and justice. The Stoics, though, were wonderfully practical in their philosophy: after determining what things in life were most worth having, they devoted themselves to developing specific strategies for attaining those things.

In the previous essay in this series, I characterized the Stoics as being the victims of a bum rap. Most people think of them as being anti-emotion, as being grim, wooden figures. As it so happens, the Stoics (and in particular, the Roman Stoics, whom I take to be my primary mentors) were not opposed to emotion in general but to negative emotions such as fear, anger, and grief -- what sensible person wouldn't be? They saw nothing at all wrong, though, with the experience of positive emotions. Indeed, they strove to put themselves into a state of mind in which they could take delight in the world around them.

Because they were opposed to negative emotions, the Stoics spent time investigating them. What sorts of events cause them to arise in us? What steps can we take to prevent them from arising? And what can we do to extinguish these emotions when our attempts at prevention fail? As a result of this investigation, the Stoics came to a profound realization: most of the negative emotions we experience are caused by other people. Yes, you can get angry because your car won't start or because your computer loses one of your files, but for every thing-caused negative emotion you experience, you probably experience twenty people-caused negative emotions.

The Stoics acknowledged that other people are the source of some of the greatest delights life has to offer, meaning that it is important for us, if we wish to have a good life, to interact with other people, to befriend them, and even to fall in love with them. The Stoics also realized, though, that such interactions will inevitably give rise to conflicts. Other people fail to keep their promises to us. They leave messes for us to clean up. They fail to reciprocate our love. They also fail to accelerate promptly when the traffic light turns green.

Stoic-Shadow-Art-2 Not only that, but they periodically insult us. Sometimes the insults in question are blatant: your brother-in-law might refer to you as a fat weasel. More often, though, their insults are subtle. A friend, for example, might tell you that the dress you are wearing does a good job of hiding your bulges. Or your co-worker might greet you in the morning with the following comment: "I don't care what anyone says: you aren't incompetent."

It is also possible for people to insult you not by anything they say but by what they do. Someone might turn away from you in the middle of a conversation so she can answer a cellphone call from someone whose conversation she apparently values more than yours. And insults can get even more subtle than this: it is possible for people to insult you not by anything they say or do, but by what they fail to do. They might fail to invite you to a dinner party, for example; or if they do invite you, they might insult you by failing to try any of the tuna casserole you brought.

Let us turn our attention, though, back to blatant insults. If you are a normal person, you will likely attempt to respond to such insults with counter-insults. In other words, you will not only fight back, but you will fight fire with fire. The problem with this strategy for dealing with insults is that lots of people aren't any good at repartee. When insulted, they simply stand there, like a deer caught in the headlights. Or if they do succeed in coming up with a caustic reply, it will be hours later, when it is of no use at all.

The Stoics, after investigating the manner in which insults are used as social weapons, devised a radical defensive strategy: they advocated what I call insult pacifism. In the same way as a pacifist in the ordinary sense of the word will refuse to respond to violence with violence, an insult pacifist will refuse to respond to an insult with an insult. Instead, he will respond with no response at all: he will simply carry on as if nothing had been said. Notice that whereas an effective response to an insult requires quick thinking, insult pacifism requires zero cleverness. It is therefore a strategy that anyone -- even someone in a coma! -- can easily employ.

Insult pacifism may be easy to practice, but is it effective? When I first read about Stoic advocacy of this strategy, I had my doubts. Wouldn't my failure to defend myself against an insult unleash a storm of additional insults from my insulter? Wouldn't she try to exploit my apparent defenselessness? I nevertheless decided to give insult pacifism a try. I have subsequently found it to be a remarkably effective strategy for dealing with insults.

Fail to respond to an insult, and your insulter will at first think you didn't hear the insult. This will throw her off her stride, and she will wonder what to do next. If she repeats the insult, you can say, "I heard you the first time," and once again carry on as if nothing had been said. Realize that the person who insulted you wanted to make you upset or even angry. By doing nothing at all, you foil her plans. Indeed, you will frustrate her, and even worse, you might make her look foolish in the eyes of anyone who witnessed the insult.

If you feel that you simply must say something in response to an insult, the Stoics recommend that you respond with self-deprecation or, if you are clever, with self-deprecating humor. In other words, you should respond to an insult by insulting yourself even worse than the insulter did.

Thus, suppose someone points out what she takes to be a character flaw of mine, and points it out not as part of a sincere attempt to help me overcome it but in order to upset me. I am likely to respond as follows: "Thanks for pointing that out, but to tell the truth, that particular flaw wouldn't even make my own top-five list of the personal shortcomings I need to work on." Or, if I am in a particularly clever mood, I might say something like this: "If that is the worst thing you have to say about me, it raises serious questions about whether you know me well enough to competently criticize me."

To respond to an insult with self-deprecating humor can be devastating to the insulter. She hit us with her best shot, verbally speaking, and we responded not by crying or even wincing, but by chuckling. We turned her attack not only into a joke, but a joke at our own expense! She is likely to feel both frustrated and foolish.

Insult pacifism, though, is only one component of the Stoics' strategy for dealing with insults. It is concerned with our external response to them and is designed to prevent people from insulting us again in the future. The other, more important component of the Stoic insult strategy is concerned with our internal response to insults. For the Stoics, it isn't enough that we look like an insult doesn't upset us; what is important is that it in fact doesn't upset us. It was for this reason that the Stoics advise us, besides practicing insult pacifism, to take steps to remove ourselves from the "social hierarchy game." Allow me to explain.

If we are normal human beings, we devote much time and energy doing things calculated to improve our position on the social hierarchy. Thus, the insults we inflict on others are, whether we realize it or not, inflicted primarily because we want to diminish our rivals' social standing relative to our own.

Likewise, in many of the consumer purchases we make, what motivates us is not a desire for the thing we buy but a desire for the social prestige we will gain by acquiring it. People buy expensive watches, for example, not because they have an unusually pressing need to know the time; they buy them because it increases the chance that other people will admire them or, better still, envy them. The same can be said regarding our purchases of new cars, big houses, and fancy clothes. Indeed, if we lost our interest in our social standing -- if, that is, we stopped playing the social hierarchy game -- our material desires would change radically.

Another consequence of withdrawing from the social hierarchy game is that we will care less what other people think of us, and as a result, insults will lose much of their sting -- thus, the Stoics' recommendation that as part of our strategy for dealing with insults, we stop playing this game.

Having said this, I should add that in advocating that we withdraw from the social hierarchy game, the Stoics aren't advocating that we withdraw from society. If we want to be happy, it is important for us, say the Stoics, to form and maintain relationships with other people. Furthermore, although the Stoics think we should stop caring so much about what other people think of us, they don't advocate that we stop caring altogether. We should, for example, care very much what the people we have chosen to be our mentors think of us. We should also pay attention to what our enemies think of us. This is because our enemies will not only be on the lookout for our shortcomings but will unhesitatingly inform us of the discoveries they make. As a result, their criticism can be quite useful if we are interested, as any Stoic will be, in self-improvement.

At present, in my own Stoic practice, my primary focus is on withdrawing, to the extent possible, from the social hierarchy game. I am working to overcome my insulting tendencies. I am also working -- struggling, actually -- to overcome my self-promotional tendencies. Along these lines, I have lately made a practice of pausing, before sending e-mails, to look for and delete material that has no function in the message other than to let the reader know what a wonderful person I am. In many cases, I end up deleting so much material that there is no longer a message worth sending.

Before becoming a Stoic, I spent much time and effort trying to make other people think I was a good person; since becoming a Stoic, I have focused by energy on trying to be a good person. I am striving, in other words, to acquire traits that ancient philosophers would have regarded as virtuous -- traits such as loyalty, courageousness, kindness, and most important, self-control, the trait that makes the other traits possible.

This program of self-improvement, I hasten to add, is still in the early stages: there remains abundant room for improvement! Fortunately for me, it is an area in which rapid improvement is possible. Thus, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius commented that although you may not have it in your power to become a great scholar or great athlete, you have it in your power, at this very moment, to become, say, sincere or industrious; you need only make up your mind that this is how you are going to behave. ©2010, William B. Irvine

In my next "Twenty-first Century Stoic" essay, I will describe some of the curious side-effects of my practice of Stoicism. An example: it used to be that when I found myself in a difficult situation, I would respond with disappointment. Now I find myself looking forward to episodes in which life tests me. Such predicaments, after all, give me an opportunity to put my Stoic practice to work. And this, as I shall explain, is only one of the surprises that lay in store for me when I adopted Stoicism.


    1. But play-fighting has a long evolutionary tradition that goes well beyond humans and is spread across all animals. We enjoy it, and so we should- it keeps us in good form for the occasions where real combat are forced upon us by forces beyond our control.

      I won’t argue there; my friends and I play-insult all the time. Our usual banter wold probably get us shot if we tried it on a stranger. But as you said, it’s PLAY. There’s no actual hurtful intent. We’re just a bunch of friends with a taste for insult comedy and black humor.

      But REAL insults… I was the bullies’ favorite toy from grade school all the way through high school. That’s a long time in the past now, but the recent cluster of young gay suicides and the It Gets Better Project inspired by them have mad me thinking about it more lately.

      My mom tried to teach me not to let the bullies’ insults get to me, telling me to “consider the source”, but it never really helped. I think the intent was the same as that of the Stoics, but as an actual technique it left much to be desired. I can’t help but wonder, if we can teach kids proper Stoic insult pacifism, can we effectively make them impossible to bully?

      1. i would politely disagree, a large part of the bullying i recieved when i was younger was physical or even the threat of the physical.

        having said that, i definitely enjoyed this article and the comments after. i like to think i have been practicing a form of this insult response for some time. thank you for giving me more stuff to look up!

        (ps your father smells of elderberry)

  1. One of the simple pleasures in life is the practice of verbal judo. To get invested in insults or a war of words is foolish, certainly. Much like a real-world fist-fight, even if you win, you lose- you can’t escape a real fight unhurt.

    But play-fighting has a long evolutionary tradition that goes well beyond humans and is spread across all animals. We enjoy it, and so we should- it keeps us in good form for the occasions where real combat are forced upon us by forces beyond our control.

    1. One of the simple pleasures in life is the practice of verbal judo.

      Whereas verbal Aikido redirects the strength of an opponent’s attack against him, as illustrated by the legendary Master Herman’s “I know you are but what am I?” counterattack.

  2. Indeed, if we lost our interest in our social standing — if, that is, we stopped playing the social hierarchy game — our material desires would change radically.

    How true. Having no interest whatsoever in the social hierarchy game, nor any other competition for that matter, my spending patterns do seem to be very atypical. I’m signed up for a lot of survey companies on-line surveys but usually don’t qualify for any of their marketing surveys: don’t own the stuff and sometimes haven’t even heard of it.

  3. Excellent advice, but sometimes difficult to follow. Removing oneself from the social climbing game is difficult for an innately social animal.

  4. As someone who also identifies as a Stoic, I question the point you make near the beginning that the Stoic philosophers identified negative feelings as coming from other people. Epictetus, Aurelius, and the other Roman Stoics (well, Epictetus was a Greek slave, but in the Roman empire… meh) make very clear that our emotions come not directly from others, but from our reactions to what others say and do.

    The key distinction is that our suffering rises internally, even though we attribute it to others. This is what allows Stoics to control and rid themselves of negative emotions – we can’t stop others from doing bad things, but we can stop ourselves from becoming upset at them.

    That said, it is great to see someone writing on the topic (and I have actually written several papers on the similarities and differences between various forms of Buddhism and Stoicism!) and I applaud your efforts. I definitely enjoyed your discussion of social hierarchy, which reminds me of a quote from Aurelius to ‘cheer for neither the blue or the red in the arena’ – don’t take sides, don’t participate in these social games, but note that he is still at the arena, and still present in society.

    1. I agree entirely that the Stoics thought that we ourselves are the source of whatever pain results from being insulted. Thus, if we are hurt by an insult, we have only ourselves to blame. (My treatment of insults in this essay leaves much out; for more detail, see Chapter 11 of my Guide to the Good Life.)

  5. If one withdrew from the social heirarchy game (which btw, sounds like an ego reduction exercise as well- similar to what the Buddhist would strive for), would one even have enemies? (ie. the state of being enemies I understand to be a mutual contract- if one party decides not to give credence to the “enemy” definition, doesn’t this negate the adversarial relationship by definition?)

  6. Or, if I am in a particularly clever mood, I might say something like this: “If that is the worst thing you have to say about me, it raises serious questions about whether you know me well enough to competently criticize me.”

    This is in fact an insult, so here you are in fact responding to an insult with an insult. It’s funny–I laughed when I read it, so you definitely get points for cleverness. But I would advise you to avoid this form of response if you really care about not responding in kind.

    I would also echo Saint Tom’s clarification–negative emotions are not caused by others, although they frequently arise in response to the actions or speech of others. I have to say though that the worst negative emotions I experience in life arise without the help of others–depression, self-doubt, all that fun stuff. So a strategy that acknowledges that negative emotions are our own responsibility is more likely to produce happiness than one that misidentifies them as coming from the actions of others.

    I find it interesting that you came to Stoicism through Zen. I had pretty much the same reaction to Zen that you describe, but found myself practicing Mahayana Buddhism instead. To me, the key distinction between Stoicism and Mahayana is that as far as I can tell thus far from what you’ve said, Stoicism does not identify a cause for negative emotions, whereas Buddhism does. Is that correct, or does Stoicism in fact also identify a cause?

    1. This is in fact an insult, so here you are in fact responding to an insult with an insult. It’s funny–I laughed when I read it, so you definitely get points for cleverness. But I would advise you to avoid this form of response if you really care about not responding in kind.

      Saying that you don’t know me very well isn’t an insult, it’s just an assertion (true or not). For example, I wouldn’t expect you, mellon, who I assume I don’t know, to know me well enough to insult me adequately. If you knew me well, you’d know what my worst traits are, what I do that’s most worthy of insulting. But you don’t. And I don’t think you’d find that statement insulting.

      I like the response, because it’s both self-deprecating and disarming: “oh no, I’m actually worse than what you said. If only you knew.” It’s both saying that you’re worse than the person is suggesting, but it also takes the sting out of the insult, because you’re telling them that the insult isn’t deep enough to cut (what with how deep it could be).

      1. Saying that you don’t know me very well isn’t an insult, it’s just an assertion (true or not).

        To me there are two ways of looking at this: from the perspective of the person making the statement which could be taken as an insult, and from the perspective of the person hearing the statement that could be taken as insulting them. There are other perspectives, but I don’t think they’re important for this discussion.

        As the person potentially making the insult, the problem is that I have to have a certain frame of mind to intentionally insult someone. To use William’s vernacular, that frame of mind is one that will harm my tranquility. Hence, it is important to identify rejoinders that, while they could be called mere statements, nevertheless have some subtle or unsubtle aspect of harmful or controlling intention behind them. It’s immaterial, for my purposes, whether the target of the insult appreciates it as an insult or not.

        The point I was making here is that William’s rejoinder appears to fall into that category. While it is, as you say, overtly a just a statement, it is hard to imagine making it without some intention of causing upset in its recipient, or at least making me appear to be clever at its recipient’s expense. Hence, it will disturb my tranquility. Hence, I should avoid making such a rejoinder.

        I think William has spoken eloquently as to the point of view of being the person receiving the insult, so there’s no reason for me to expound on that here, but I hope this clarifies the sense in which I was referring to William’s statement as an insult, rather than as a mere statement of fact.

        1. When I first read that part the clever rebuttal, I saw it as an insult as well. It seemed to definitely imply a kind of subtle attack. But after reading the comments by mellon and SamSam, I started to think about what part of that statement seemed to be an attack.

          The part that seemed to be a responding insult was the implication that the person doing the insulting should know the person they were insulting well enough to know that the initial insult was foolish. That the insulter was somehow at fault or wrong or missing out by not knowing the insulted well enough.

          And then I thought, “Why is that an insult?” Why do I consider that an insult? On what grounds to I believe that the other person ought to know me? What makes me so special? Which led me to consider, once again, that I am not the center of the universe.

          All that was a long way of saying that I think SamSam is more correct. It is more a statement of fact than anything else. And if taken to be an insult, perhaps that is cause to reflect on whether or not I am taking the insult a bit too personaly.

          1. An insult is whatever the insulter considers insulting. Personally I don’t go around insulting people, so I find it quite difficult to predict what that will be.

            As a kid being bullied, I quickly learned to avoid anything that sounded like a challenge, even if self-deprecating. “Was that the best insult you could manage? That was almost polite.” — is self-deprecating, but it just encourages the attacker.

          2. Were you the recipient of that “insult,” your point would be correct. However, if you are the one expressing it, then I wonder what your intention could have been. If your intention was to correct the person, that’s as good as insulting them, as far as the battle for social dominance goes. If your intention was self-deprecating humor, why do so in a way that says anything about the person who insulted you? By doing so you are doing more than merely putting yourself down.

            From my own experience being bullied (interesting how many former bullying targets have responded to this topic, by the way), self-deprecating humor fails on two fronts. First, as shadowfirebird says, it’s self-defeating. Second, I did not have the experience shadowfirebird did that it defused the bullying. This is probably because despite my self-deprecating humor, I was hurt by the insults, and the bullies probably picked up on that.

            It’s almost impossible to completely resist responding to an insult. That is why it’s such an effective practice, if you can manage to do it.

    2. Yes, the comment that you don’t know me well enough to competently insult me could be regarded as an insult. But my completely ignoring an insult of me could also be regarded as an insult by my insulter. Perhaps you are right, and silence is preferable–but not nearly as much fun!

  7. While it’s true that a great deal of my daily agony comes from my commute, I would probably guess that probably 80% of my negative emotions are self-inflicted. I’m my own worst enemy. In fact, I am so good at being my own worst enemy, that if you needed me to, I could probably be yours as well. That’s how effective I am; there’s room for spillover for anyone who is feeling too positive.

  8. Being on the Aspergers end of the autism spectrum, I have never seen myself as being IN the social hierarchy game, I have practiced self-deprecating humour my entire life, and I like to think of tranquility as my natural state (whether I am or not.)
    So these articles have greatly interested me; the Stoic philosophy seems very attractive as a natural ‘fit’ for my bent of personality.

  9. “Because they were opposed to negative emotions, the Stoics spent time investigating them. What sorts of events cause them to arise in us? What steps can we take to prevent them from arising? And what can we do to extinguish these emotions when our attempts at prevention fail? As a result of this investigation, the Stoics came to a profound realization: most of the negative emotions we experience are caused by other people. ”

    A lesson that most internet commentators in general, and mods in particular, should take to heart.

    The succinct definition I learned from the WikiP folks (not that they’re exemplar in maintaining it) is “assume no malice.” It at once opens you to the possibility of legitimate criticism, while defusing those attacks that are designed to get you riled up.

  10. Why you’re just a lily-livered sack of sheep dip! :)

    I’m not a practicing Stoic, but the theme of your essay reads a lot like a phrase I’ve always liked, roughly stated as “You must give your consent to be insulted.”

    For a while my kids would come to me with the standard “He/she called me an X!” To which I would reply with something along the lines of, “Well are you?” They never seemed to get the point but I kept at it because it was fun to rile them up.

    Thanks for these essays, they’ve been very interesting.

  11. For many years, we’ve been told “Don’t feed the troll,” in other words, doing exactly what Irvine recommends in this essay. Internet trolls are playing a social hierarchy game just as everybody else does.

  12. Hrm. I have nearly the same response in response to insults, but I never withdrew from the social hierarchy game. I simply adopted the position years ago that I was already at the top of the social hierarchy and started acting accordingly.

    It helped that self-deprecating humor came naturally to me (I fail spectacularly and it makes for good stories). I imagine without modesty, I could have easy became a complete jackass.

    That said, I haven’t had much in the way of overt insults directed my way since I was 13. Do people really insult frequently enough that you had to come up with a strategy of dealing with it?

    1. You wrote: “Do people really insult frequently enough that you had to come up with a strategy of dealing with it?”

      It is actually pretty rare that someone directly insults me. But when it happens, there is great potential for it to cause me pain. It is for this reason that it is worth developing a defensive strategy.

      Subtle insults, by way of contrast, are fairly common. And in many cases, the person giving the insult isn’t even fully aware of what he or she is doing.

      Also, realize that there are different kinds of insults. The insults in playful teasing, for example, seem to play a socially useful role, and I therefore don’t think a Stoic would object to them.

  13. Funny, I learned a similar re. insults lesson when I was younger. I had an older friend that picked on me some, just playful stuff, and I initially responded by being mean. It just made me feel bad. After a while, I came to just chuckle in response to their teasing. Not only did it lead to me feeling better, it made their teasing more creative and enjoyable.

    Come to find out, he was just pleased that I was now the youngest and newest member in the group so the members tended to pick on me instead of him. It was his way of hazing me into the group, I guess! We’re all still friends decades later.

  14. Wow. More parallels for me in this second article.

    I can personally attest that insulting yourself as a response to someone else insulting you works very well indeed — I independently came up with this technique when I was being bullied at school (verbal only, thankfully). It served me well for four years.

    Verbal bullies are looking to make you upset and to start an argument: agreeing with them completely derails both of these objectives. They are also looking to assert their dominance over you: agree with them and they push on an open door – often falling over in the process.

    I should say, though, that I wouldn’t recommend it as a first choice in scenarios where you are likely to be frequently insulted over a long time-period. It has side-effects – putting yourself down is not good for self-confidence.

  15. Guess I’m a Stoic too. Huh.

    An accidental stoic. As a teenager I discovered, by accident, that if I responded to my older sister’s jabs and short temper with implacable calmness, she would get madder and madder, and then I’d win.

    It has served me well all my life. I had to force it at first but now its second nature. I have had people ask me how I can not be mad about things that would have made them punch someone in the nose.

    I dont’ just roll over and take it, though. If I have experienced an injustice or got ripped off somehow, I can get very mad. But in a calm way. That helps me win too.

  16. “If we are normal human beings, we devote much time and energy doing things calculated to improve our position on the social hierarchy.”

    Sometimes I’m thankful that I’m not normal. Stuff like this is one thing that reminds me of that. Like the other Aspies that have commented, I’ve never understood this crap either. I don’t know why people wear such boring clothing, for example. Apparently that’s one way of improving your position, but I think life is too short to wear ties with boring patterns on them, for example.

    As for self-deprecation: I’ve used this technique often to make myself less of a target. In that sense, it works. But I’ve genuinely come to believe the horrible things I say about myself. So this technique is helpful, but it isn’t without its dangers or damages.

    As for bullying…author Jodi Picoult’s research for her book “Nineteen Minutes” came up with this:
    “…psychologically, a single act of childhood bullying is as scarring emotionally as a single act of sexual abuse.”
    She doesn’t offer a citation and I’ve yet to find it on my own, but given what we know about bullying and the trauma that can follow (not just the recent rash of young LGBTQ people committing suicice, but also ‘straight’ people like Phoebe Prince) it doesn’t seem far-fetched.

    Last point…what about political insults? How often do you let people call you and people who share your ideology ‘communists’ or ‘Marxists’ or ‘leftists’ or ‘socialists’? Ignoring it certainly doesn’t seem to work.

    1. Hmm, sexual abuse. I wonder how much of the long term effects come from how we respond to that socially. If the wrong response can make the abused feel worse then if there had been no response at all.

      and on the topic of play-fighting i find myself thinking about how gang members may throw verbal barbs at each other, but if someone else where to use the same they will invariably find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun (or the edge of a knife).

  17. Hmm, it’s good advice, but the cynic in me is considering whether a stoic position on self-promotion is compatible with the article talking about how stoics are great, and your attempts to become more stoic.

    Then again, the stoics do sound pretty great. Hell, I figured out this trick by high school. That, and light-hearted sarcasm. “Oh, you wound me sir. I’m wounded.” is a personal favorite.

  18. Great essays– thank you!

    You’ve said that stoicism has gotten a bad rap and has long been misunderstood.

    If so, is there some intentional misrepresentation behind this? Who gave Stoicism a bad name? Asked another way, who benefits when people avoid the Stoic philosophy of life, and suffers when they embrace it?

    I blame the expensive watch people.

  19. One of my favourite movie-moments is from the 1987 movie “Roxanne”, where the large-nosed Cyrano character responds to a petty insult:

    C.D. Bales: [challenged to think of twenty jokes better than “Big Nose”] Let’s start with… Obvious: ‘scuse me, is that your nose or did a bus park on your face? Meteorological: everybody take cover, she’s going to blow! Fashionable: you know, you could de-emphasize your nose if you wore something larger, like… Wyoming. Personal: well, here we are, just the three of us. Punctual: all right, Delbman, your nose was on time but YOU were fifteen minutes late! Envious: Ooooh, I wish I were you! Gosh, to be able to smell your own ear! Naughty: uh, pardon me, sir, some of the ladies have asked if you wouldn’t mind putting that thing away. Philosophical: you know, it’s not the size of a nose that’s important, it’s what’s IN IT that matters. Humorous: laugh and the world laughs with you. Sneeze, and it’s goodbye, Seattle! Commercial: hi, I’m Earl Scheib, and I can paint that nose for $39.95! Polite: uh, would you mind not bobbing your head? The, uh, orchestra keeps changing tempo. Melodic: Everybody. He’s got…
    Everyone: [singing] The whole world in his nose!
    C.D. Bales: Sympathetic: aw, what happened? Did your parents lose a bet with God? Complimentary: you must love the little birdies to give them this to perch on. Scientific: Say, does that thing there influence the tides? Obscure: whoa! I’d hate to see the grindstone. Well, think about it. Inquiring: when you stop to smell the flowers, are they afraid? French: saihr, ze pigs have refused to find any more truffles until you leave! Pornographic: finally, a man who can satisfy two women at once! How many is that?
    Dean: Fourteen, Chief!
    C.D. Bales: Religious: the Lord giveth… and He just kept on giving, didn’t He? Disgusting: Say, who mows your nose hair? Paranoid: keep that guy away from my cocaine! Aromatic: it must wonderful to wake up in the morning and smell the coffee… in Brazil. Appreciative: Oooh, how original! Most people just have their teeth capped.
    [he pauses, pretending to be stumped, while the crowd urges him on]
    C.D. Bales: All right. Dirty: your name wouldn’t be Dick, would it?

    (Quoted via )

    1. Mind you, you missed this from the Trivia section of the movie:

      Bales is challenged to tell 20 nose jokes. After he tells 18, he asks “How many’s that?” to which he is told, “Fourteen!” He goes on to tell another six, making 24 in total.

  20. There is a parable of sorts I heard from my teacher years ago. Any mistakes or faults in it are my errors of memory or paraphrase:

    If you’re out on a lake, rowing a boat in the fog, and someone rowing another boat suddenly crashes into yours, your first reaction is likely to feel outraged. “Hey, what the f**k? Why can’t you watch where you’re going?”

    If instead you see, on taking a closer look, that the other rowboat was empty and was just drifting, having broken loose from its moorings, you’re likely to feel very differently about it. It was an accident but there wasn’t anything personal about it. It just happened.

    A good start, then, is to start trying to recognize when you are feeling insulted or personally hurt by events or words, but in fact there was no intent to hurt your feelings – in other words, giving the whole world the benefit of the doubt. When you can do that, suddenly there is a lot less to feel hurt about, and more freedom to be concerned about the well-being of other people. “Hey, are you OK?”

    The Buddhist step is to realize that even when there is someone else in that boat, it’s still completely empty. Even if someone is trying to hurt your feelings, that’s still just stuff that happens.

    The next step is to realize that your boat is empty too.

    1. I read somewhere that we have a tendency to apply intent to inert objects, especially when we are stressed. How often have we not said something like “where did those keys run of and hide this time?!” when we are late for something and fail to find the car keys?

  21. i disagree with most of this post.

    firstly you can’t remove yourself from the social heirachy ‘game’. humans are social creatures. society functions on social heirachy. by taking the stoic approach you are still participating in the ‘game’, it is just another strategy (that may move you up or down, depending on how you play it, how your enemy reacts to it, and how onlookers are impressed by the exchange). the only way to not participate, is to not interact.

    secondly, i disagree with this approach to insults. it is demeaning to yourself, you should have enough pride in who you are and the decisions you make, to justify defending yourself.

    i fight (the rare occasions of) insults with logic and empathy in combination. i take a rational and open-minded approach. as an artist/designer, i take criticism very well (helps me improve) and generally approach most insults in the same way as i would criticism (determining the validity of it, exploring options/opinions, working toward a solution).

    a good first step is to ask them to clarify their statement. many people use vague insults to give themselves room to retreat. often they are less likely to commit to the insult if you ask them to clarify what they mean.

    then try and see the interraction from their point of view, attempt to help them achieve what they want, but also explain why you have taken the position you have. logic can always triumph over an emotional (insulting) claim.

    if they say you have a certain fault, acknowledge it if you have it, or say that you disagree and offer your interpretation of their evidence. they may be right! but that doesn’t mean acknowledging faults you DON’T HAVE.

    if people are just trying to hurt you, mentally acknowledge their intent, figure out why they want to hurt you, figure out if it is something you can control; otherwise just ignore it and move on.

    i agree with what some other commenters said – that we cause our own pain. i think we can consciously choose to not let insults ‘get to us’. take the logical approach instead of the emotional one and insults lose all their power – they become either useful (if poorly expressed) criticism, or illogical groundless claims that (if handled correctly) only serve to make the claimant seem foolish.

    1. Although I agree with you that we are evolutionarily programmed to be social, it does not follow from this that we ought to spend our days actively playing what I call the social hierarchy game: doing things intended to improve our position on the hierarchy and diminish the position of others. What does follow is that we ought to form and maintain social relationships with other people in which love and kindness are the principal motivating factors.

      I also agree with a point that you might or might not be making: that by making it look like you have removed yourself from the social hierarchy game, you are really playing the game with great skill. Instead of TELLING people about all the great things you have done, you are letting them DISCOVER it for themselves, which greatly increases the impact of what you have done. (Am I myself guilty of doing this?)

      And a clarification regarding insult pacifism: it does not require that you never defend yourself. If, for example, his boss says that he failed to do a certain task and the Stoic demonstrably did it, the Stoic will certainly stand up for himself. But in this case, the boss was not insulting the Stoic. If, on the other hand, a coworker ridicules the way a Stoic is dressed or ridicules his values, he will ignore what has been said. Respond, and the insulter gets what he wanted.

      Finally, a Stoic, when insulted, WILL search the insult for a core of truth. You can learn more about yourself from your enemies than from your friends. This is because your friends, unlike your enemies, will help you hide from yourself.

  22. Wow. I think I’ve been following Stoic philosophy for much of my life (with varying degrees of success), without realising it.

    The stepping outside of the social hierarchy thing particularly resonates for me; probably because I was brought up by parents that didn’t much care for showing off themselves. What I’ve particularly noticed however is the way that other people in my social circle who I tell of the fact that I really don’t care what other people think, either choose to not believe me, or – more subtly – try to draw me back into their game of creating a social pecking order.

    In fact, my wife sometimes says of some friends that she goes to meet them perfectly happy, and comes home disqueted – not because of ‘loosing rank’ in the hierarchy, but of the constant barrage of aspirations and purchases that are presented which feels like “them trying to suck me into playing on their field rather than mine”.

    I can also see the end result of shrugging off the social conventions of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. My father resisted buying fancy cars, trinkets and suchlike that were the norm in the environment in which he worked to merely maintain status. As a result, he retired 10 years early, and laughs at the wage slaves and their choices in life.

    1. We have a name for people who have dropped out of the social hierarchy game. We call them eccentrics, and they are some of the happiest people around.

  23. In my experience, bad feelings mostly do not come from situations or other people, but the learned tendency to take things personal. Lets take this theory to a few practical examples:

    – The guy in front of me drives too slow.
    Would I take it personal, I could delve into theories about how and why he wants to hinder my forthcoming. Since I rather refrain from doing so, I can stay perfectly relaxed and use the time to reschedule the appointment that I will be detained from.

    – You tell me my grasp of the english language lacks style
    You’re right – but if I would take things personal, I would hate you for being right. Why should I? I could do better things with my time, e.g. asking you if you could suggest a few books to help me improving it.

    – The cashier at the supermarket gives me funny looks
    Hey, if you sit for 8 hours swiping stuff over a barcode reader, you would look funny at people, too. I guess you get my drift anyway.

    Greetings, LX

  24. Stoic Dozens must be quite novel:

    Insulter: “Yo’ momma’s so fat, she has her own ZIP code.”
    Stoic: “Actually, it’s two ZIP codes.”

  25. Great parable (in part because I am a rower).

    Here is a related thought. If you have dropped out of the social hierarchy game and someone insults you, it is like being “tagged” by someone who is playing the game of tag, when you are not playing. No harm is done by getting tagged in this manner, not to you, at any rate. The person who tagged you, in contrast, might be disappointed that on being tagged, you don’t start running around trying to tag other people.

  26. The effectiveness of this technique seems to depend entirely on the motivations of not just the insulter, but the community they are a part of. In many business environments, tolerating insults results in no promotions, poor pay, and abusive work conditions. If this is acceptable to you, then this approach can be considered effective.

    What if the insult is that you are inappropriate with children (not actually crossing legal lines, they emphasize, OF COURSE, just walking too close to the lines for others to be comfortable with you around their children)? And what if your job is working with children?

    “…we have a tendency to apply intent to inert objects…” I was taught that we start to grow up when we stop saying “it got lost” and start saying “I lost it”. Works well for “it broke” too.

    1. Anon #48: I think there’s a difference between an insult and an accusation. A situation like you mention is probably best dealt with as an accusation (like the author’s boss example in #45), even if it’s expressed more indirectly/subtly. This certainly wouldn’t be a situation where you’d respond by further self-deprecation! :-)

  27. How does one respond to being called a “pedo” by some acquaintances or family just because one lives alone? It’s not said in a joking manner, either.

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