Stoic advice: is it acceptable to eschew filial duty in order to make room for more positive influences in one's life?


[If you wish to submit a question for this series, please send it to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org]

J, writes: Earlier this year and after several years of consideration, I estranged from my mother. No part of me wishes any malice toward her. I simply don't want to spend any more of my life interacting with someone I see as a negative influence on my children. Over the past ten years, the only value I've derived from that relationship has been occasions to practice equanimity.

My conundrum is that I'm unsure of whether this is morally wrong. Whenever I find myself in a situation where the easier thing to do also appears to be the right course of action, I struggle with the doubt of whether I'm being rational or just rationalizing. As Richard Feynman said, "the first principle is that you must not fool yourself... and you are the easiest person to fool."

This is a really tough question, and you are certainly right that as human beings we are notorious for our ability to rationalize, more than to think rationally. That is why the Stoics advise to cultivate good friends, who can help keep on the path to virtue:

Good people are mutually helpful; for each gives practice to the other’s virtues and thus maintains wisdom at its proper level. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, CIX.1)

Indeed, this is the chief reason I keep publishing this column! That said, back to your actual question, concerning your relationship with your mother. One source you may want to check out is Liz Gloyn’s wonderful book on Seneca and the family, particularly the chapter on the relationship between mothers and sons. Unfortunately, from what you are describing, your mother is far from the sort of moral role model Seneca benefited from in his youth. Even so, Gloyn makes an interesting observation:

The parent - child relationship occupies the same circle of proximity as the child - parent relationship [in Hierocles’ famous metaphor]. Her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her parents should be the same as her reactions to the fortunes and deaths of her children, for they stand in the same relation to her. (The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, p. 45)

This implies that - from a Stoic perspective - your mother stands in the same relation to you as your own children do, from which it follows that you have the same duty to educate or endure, as Marcus would put it, her as you do your children.

If you are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong; but if you cannot, remember that indulgence is given to you for this purpose. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.11)

You don’t provide details as to what sort of negative influence your mother has been on your children, or what exactly you had to endure from her. Those details, of course, could make a big difference. Virtue ethics is a type of situational ethics, with a focus on the individual’s character. These two characteristics are important to keep in mind. Situational means that the answer to many ethical questions in Stoicism is likely to be “it depends.” It depends on what exactly your mother has been doing, how bad it has been for your children, and so on.

And the fact that the focus is on the agent’s character means that the proper question to ask yourself is: will estranging myself from my mother make me a better person? Pending the missing details, I’m inclined to answer no. At the very least, as you yourself admit, she has provided you with plenty of opportunities to exercise your virtue, which is a value in and of itself. Indeed, I believe Epictetus gives you pretty much a straight answer, if you just substitute “mother” for “brother” in the following quote:

‘My brother is unfair to me.’ Well then, keep up your side of the relationship; don’t concern yourself with his behaviour, only with what you must do to keep your will in tune with nature. Another person will not hurt you without your cooperation; you are hurt the moment you believe yourself to be. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 30)

Let me add some more personal advice, if you don’t mind, from my own life’s experience. I have seen two very close relatives of mine having arguments with each other and going through long periods of estrangement from each other throughout their lives. Until one of them ran to the other’s deathbed to apologize before it was too late. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do that with your mother.

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