I am a (practicing) Stoic, not a stoic

I have a good friend, Y., who thinks of herself as a "natural Stoic." I keep telling her that she is most definitely not. Rather, she is a stoic. There is a big difference. (Throughout this essay, note the use of capitalized Stoic vs lower case stoic.)

Case in point: a few days ago I hit a rough patch with another friend, H., who had suddenly behaved in a very aggressive fashion toward me. I was taken aback and, since this was not the first time that H. had done something like that, I seriously considered whether the friendship wasn't just a bit too toxic, and actually undermining my efforts at improving as a human being. As Epictetus puts it:

"Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out." (Enchiridion 33.6)

Yes, I know, this sounds insufferably self-conceited. But once you realize that "non-philosophers" doesn't refer to people who don't have a PhD, but rather to people who are not attempting to live a consciously ethical life, then Epictetus' advice sounds very much like what your mom said when you were a kid: be carefully what company you keep.

I was talking about this to Y., of course, and she said that as a Stoic I should just ignore my feelings and put up with H. That's what she, Y., would do. The problem is that that sort of behavior fits perfectly with the stereotype of Stoics going about life sporting a stiff upper lip and suppressing their own emotional reactions -- such as feeling bad at suddenly being treated roughly by a friend. What Y. was suggesting is, rather, what a stoic would do.

In fact, Y. is not a Stoic at all. Not just because she confuses endurance with a stiff upper lip, or managing with suppressing one's emotions (not at all the same thing!), but because she completely rejects some of the crucial principles of Stoic philosophy, particularly cosmopolitanism. Y. doesn't think it possible, or even desirable, to think in global terms when it comes to human affairs. She alleges that national pride is deeply rooted in our psyche, and that any talk of cosmopolitanism is just leftist liberal nonsense. I think she is radically wrong on this, but that's a discussion for another time. The point is simply that in order to consider yourself affiliated with a particular philosophy or religion you need to subscribe to the fundamental precepts of that philosophy or religion. If you don't think that the cycle of birth and rebirth is rooted in human suffering, which is in turn the result of our rapacious ego, you are not a Buddhist -- no matter how much you meditate. Similarly, if you don't think that the point of life is to apply reason to improve (cosmopolitan) social living, you are not a Stoic. But you could still be a stoic, like my friend Y.

Back to my problem with the other friend, H. In the end, I did reach out to him, and I am happy to report that things are back to normal. But the way I arrived at that decision to act, and the reasons behind it, are different from those put forth by Y., and those reasons and that decision reflect my practicing of Stoicism (not stoicism). Here is what I mean.

First, I reflected that someone whom I have considered a friend for many years couldn't possibly be that negative of an influence on my character. As Seneca says:

"Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself." (Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

So perhaps H. had simply "spoken to me boldly," and I didn't take that too well. Or maybe H. had some deep seated reasons to react so vehemently in the midst of our conversations, reasons that, even if possibly mistaken, I simply did not understand well enough. Epictetus again:

"Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?" (Enchiridion 45)

In the end, regardless of H.'s intention and underlying reasoning, I considered that there were two handles by way of which to pick up this particular situation:

"Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne." (Enchiridion 43)

The difficult handle was the one by which someone had hurt my feelings by suddenly becoming aggressive in the middle of a discussion. The easier handle was the one by which I remember that this was a long time friend, who very likely did not mean any harm, and possibly was emotionally distressed by the content of the conversation we were having.

So, contra Y.'s opinion, there is no such thing as a natural Stoic, though there certainly is such a thing as a natural stoic. Some people are, because of the way their character was shaped by their genes and their environments, capable of enduring adversity and setbacks better than others. No philosophical support needed. They truly could be described as going through life with a stiff upper lip -- if that weren't an inherently derogatory description.

The rest of us have a choice to adopt, and daily practice, a philosophy that aims at reshaping the way we are naturally inclined to think about things, and consequently the way we react to those same things. That philosophy, among other benefits, helps me cultivating my friendship with people as different from each other, and from me, as H. and Y. And I am a slightly better person for it.

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