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.
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.