I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace?—Epictetus
“To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” –Seneca (Letter 7)
“…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” –Robert Frost from The Road Not Taken
By taking the Stoic path, indeed I am separating myself from a great deal of humankind. Living a philosopher’s life, particularly a Stoic one, is certainly not the latest trend. The reflective life in general, doesn’t seem to match the everyday world around us. In fact, it may seem strange to those you interact with. If you intend to pursue the virtuous life vis-à-vis the Stoics, then keep the following in mind:
- You will be misunderstood by those around you
- You could be led astray by the madness of the masses…their greed, their frivolousness, and their beastly desires
- You might be led from your path by even those closest to you
Seneca addressed this in his letter to Lucilius, from which the quote above was taken. Click here or on the quote to read the full letter. Your friends might even think you are crazy, but this is nothing new: click here, and here. The Stoics might have been ahead of their time, but maybe I can be like them and be a little crazy myself!
You could call it a lonely life, but remember it’s lonely at the top.
The full letter from Seneca to Lucilius (really good stuff in bold):
Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety. I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me. Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again. Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him; Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throatcutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!
Come now; do you/a not understand even this truth, that a bad example. reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world.
But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can, Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach. There is no reason why pride in advertising your abilities should lure you into publicity, so that you should desire to recite or harangue before the general public. Of course I should be willing for you to do so if you had a stock-in-trade that suited such a mob; as it is, there is not a man of them who can understand you. One or two individuals will perhaps come in your way, but even these will have to be molded and trained by you so that they will understand you. You may say: “For what purpose did I learn all these things?” But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.
In order, however, that I may not today have learned exclusively for myself, I shall share with you three excellent sayings, of the same general purport, which have come to my attention. This letter will give you one of them as payment of my debt; the other two you may accept as a contribution in advance. Democritus says: “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.” The following also was nobly spoken by someone or other, for it is doubtful who the author was; they asked him what was the object of all this study applied to an art that would reach but very few. He replied: “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”
Written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.
Searching for the truth is hard work. Particularly in this era, we are surrounded by conflicting theories. They are available to us at the click of a mouse, or the selection of an app. It is very difficult to ascertain what is true and what is propaganda or delusion (this includes the self-delusion of the provider of the information). Speaking of delusion and propaganda, we have our own biases to deal with as well. Delusion is all around us, but we can still seek truth, no?
We want to believe in something…something magical, or mystical even. When someone tells us “it will all be OK,” we want to believe them. For this reason, we may accept what they have to say. If someone tells us that, “all we have to do is visualize our future and it will become reality,” then we certainly want to believe that as well. The success of self-appointed and celebrity-endorsed gurus is an indication that we all want to believe something, especially if it is something positive; especially if it means that we can have more control over our destiny. I think most people choose this route…to believe. It feels better to “feel” like we are in control, even if it is only in our mind. Furthermore, we want the biggest payback with the least amount of work, toil and suffering. I think we are just wired that way.
The problem is that most of these guru-issued assurances are lies. They are pretty, they are comforting, they are delicious (like a dessert), but they are lies nonetheless.
Eventually, the sugar-high wears off and we are stuck with more hunger, and we feel lousy as well. Throughout my life, I have read a wide assortment of New-Age gurus, religious apologetics, spiritual advisors, and self-anointed prophets (maybe I should have spelled it “profits”). The most successful of these seem to be saying things like this
- Your future is yours.
- Trust in the Lord, and it will turn out all right.
- All of us have a destiny, when you are aware of yours, you can’t fail.
- Just believe and it will happen.
This advice may help us cope, but I don’t think it changes the reality around us: You win some, you lose some and sometimes you just keep losing.
This is not to say that having a positive mental attitude is not helpful. Certainly if we envision something, like a goal for instance, this can help us obtain it. It can direct our energies toward accomplishing our own betterment. But that is only the beginning, and it’s a long haul indeed. What the gurus won’t tell you is the following:
- Accomplishment requires hard work. Certainly our desires and passions drive us to work harder, but desire and wishing will not get us to where we want to be.
- Your success is not guaranteed. People fail all the time, over and over again. Some will die in poverty, depressed, alone. Some will be ill their entire lives, some will lose their life too soon, possibly the moment they think they have figured it all out. This is not their fault, it is just fate.
- You will suffer, as long as you are on Earth. It is all around us. You will face disease, death, and destruction. You cannot wish this away.
To know these truths is to be armed and ready. Ready for what we will be challenged with, and ready for when things don’t go our way. The simple fact of the matter is that a large majority of our lives are out of our control, and much of life will pummel us. This does not mean that we shouldn’t have goals, or try to make things better. Knowing these truths, while maybe brutal at first, should motivate us to do our part to serve, to excel, to care. In my view, this is what calls us to try, to accomplish, to wrestle with existence.
But you can’t be a wrestling champ if you don’t train.
“In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast.” Marcus Aurelius
“I will respect the dignity of all, but measure the character of each.” –from My Creed
People can be difficult to deal with. Here are three facts of dealing with people:
Everyone Has a Different Belief Than You.
While many may be kind, helpful, courteous, and loving, they still will have different beliefs than you. You may have a lot in common with someone, but eventually you will find something that you two will not agree upon. You must decide which of these beliefs are unacceptable, and which you can accept. For example, some people may believe that aborting a fetus is fine in the first trimester of a pregnancy, but not after. You may disagree with this belief, and it may reveal something about the person’s character that you cannot tolerate, or you may disagree but think that this is a complex matter, or you may choose to convince the person that they may be in error in their belief.
Everyone Thinks a Little Differently Than You
From the day we are born, each of us has a developing brain. When we learn something, connections are formed and memories are stored. Here is the thing…each of us stores things differently. For example, when you learned how to pronounce the letter “T” you stored it in a specific place in your brain, let’s call it neuron 4, located on the far left of your head. Another person, who learned the same sound of the same letter “T” just like you did, stores it in neuron 84, located near the center of his head. My point is that everyone literally thinks differently. The pathways are unique in each and every one of us. So, when you think that somebody thinks like they are from another planet, than that may be why. They are recalling an idea, memory, or language differently than you.
People Will Do Bad Things
All around you, every day there are people lying, cheating, and stealing. You may have done one of these today. Somewhere somebody is killing someone else. Somewhere, right now, a salesman is outright lying about the value and quality of their product. Somewhere, somebody is trying to steal your identity. Some people dedicate their lives to doing bad things. We would like to think that most people are doing what is right most of the time, but nearly everyone does something wrong at least some of the time. The character of a person is the sum total of their actions, no? The greater the ratio of bad actions to good actions, the less you would want to associate with such a person. This ratio is never zero, but we all have to decide what ratio is intolerable.