How to deal with insults, the Stoic way

(Groucho Marx, master of insults.)

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

There has been a lively discussion of late, in Stoic circles, about insults and how to deal with them. A discussion, I believe, that has implications far outside of Stoic philosophy, affecting pretty much anyone who has ever felt insulted at some point or another in their life. Which means almost every human being who ever lived.

The quote above from Epictetus makes it crystal clear what the Stoic advice is concerning insults: ignore them. This is a direct consequence of the fundamental Epictetean notion that there is a sharp distinction between facts and opinions. Facts are objective descriptions of things or events. Opinions are value judgments about those things or events. Facts are independent of the existence of human minds, opinions are generated exclusively by human minds.

For example: a few days ago someone told me on social media that I am a mediocre academic who wrote a piece critical of a famous female colleague out of spite and a sense of inferiority. (This is the piece, in case you were wondering.) Ouch. The utterance was clearly meant as a put down, and therefore a good candidate as an insult. So let’s parse it carefully, with a particular eye toward separating facts from values, a la Epictetus.

One fact is that someone did write those things on social media. A second fact is that they were directed at me, personally, since the guy used my handle for that particular social platform. A third fact is that I am an academic. Am I a mediocre one? While “mediocre” can be a subjective value judgment, it can also be interpreted factually. In this second sense, by the objective standards of the academy I am certainly less famous and accomplished than the colleague I had criticized. But I am an Endowed Professor (that’s an actual title) at a good public university. That probably puts me above mediocrity, though definitely not into the stellar category. Did I write the piece out of spite and a sense of inferiority? Well, my introspection says no, but of course introspection is notoriously unreliable. Certainly, though, my social media interlocutor could not possibly know my motivations or inner thought processes, so that part of his statement is not factual, it’s just a guess on his part.

Now for the value component. Did the guy insult me? That was, apparently, his intention. Did I feel insulted? Not in the least, since I feel secure in both my motivations for writing the original piece and the soundness of my arguments. Besides, if my arguments turned out to be incorrect, then the rational thing to do would be for me to correct them, not to feel insulted. So did I decide not to respond, to behave like a rock, as Epictetus suggests? No. I took a second Epictetean route, exemplified by the following quote:

“If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’” (Enchiridion 33.9)

So I tried out a bit of self-detracting humor myself. It was a fun exercise. There was no response from the other guy, and we both moved on to more pressing matters in our lives.

In general, though, I prefer the rock-approach, on the ground that it is (a) easier to implement (you literally have to do nothing, instead of racking your brain in order to come up with some clever retort), and (b) does not lend itself to misunderstandings (self-deprecating humor often borders into, or is perceived as, sarcasm, which is not a constructive response to anything).

Whit this background in mind, what, exactly, are my Stoic colleagues disagreeing about? The discussion has involved Bill Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and, most recently, of The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient; Eric O. Scott, who blogs for Euthyphroria; and Don Robertson, author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and, most recently, of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Briefly, here are their respective positions. Bill argues (here) that as Stoics we should not react to insults, just as Epictetus suggests. This applies, he says, also to the sort of high-profile on-campus situations that have recently made the rounds in the news, such as micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. Moreover, according to Bill, the world would be a better place if more people took up the Stoic attitude toward insults, because insults generate anger, and anger wastes a lot of our time and emotional energy (and leads to violence and even war; in other words, it’s a really bad idea).

Eric wrote a response to Bill (here, with Bill’s counter-response here), arguing that there is a danger in reacting to insults as rocks: we may underestimate or ignore structural injustices that need to be addressed, essentially turning Stoicism into a quietist philosophy. If a black person, say, or a woman, simply ignore racist or sexist comments directed at them, this could easily devolve into disregarding not just the insult, but the pernicious culture that generated it.

Don (here) strikes a nice balance between the two positions, reminding us that the issue is complicated. On the one hand, some people have developed legitimate and entrenched emotional reactions as a result of continued exposure to, say, racist or sexist comments. On the other hand, it is clear from the Stoic writings themselves (and from the actions of a number of Stoic practitioners) that Stoicism is very much concerned with social justice (see here), and is most definitely not a quietist philosophy.

I have simplified the opinions of all three of my friends in order to keep this essay within reasonable limits and still add a few notes of my own to the debate, but interested readers should definitely follow all four of the above links and see for themselves what Bill, Eric, and Don have been arguing about.

In addition to what has already been said, I’d like to make two points that may help us moving forward, one about the distinction between Stoic practitioners and non-Stoic practitioners, the other concerning the distinction between personal behavior and social action.

I. Stoics and non-Stoics

Don Robertson actually touched on this in his own commentary, but it is worth fleshing it out into a major point: it is one thing to advise yourself and other Stoic practitioners; it is an altogether different thing to advise people who don’t follow Stoic philosophy. Epictetus himself makes the distinction very clear, and suggests how we should behave in the two cases:

“When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, ‘What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.’ As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.” (Enchiridion 16)

The first point here is that for Stoics the only true evils are our own bad judgments, and the only true goods are our own good judgments. This is a direct consequence of the dichotomy of control, the notion that what is “up to us,” as Epictetus says in Enchiridion 1, are only our considered opinions, endorsed values, and decisions to act. Everything else, including the outcome of our actions, may be influenced by us, but is ultimately outside of our (complete) control, since they are affected by external factors.

But of course most other people, meaning people who do not practice Stoicism, don’t see it that way. For them the categories of good and evil include a lot of other things, most of which are not under their control. A Stoic would say that that is why they are not happy, because they stake their happiness on things that are not up to them. Be that as it may, they don’t buy into Stoic axioms, and therefore it makes no sense, and it is indeed callous, to tell them, essentially, “bad Stoic,” and Stoisplane to them how they should act. (I just created the neologism Stoisplaining, in analogy with the well known mansplaining. So there.) Hence Epictetus dual advice to his students: if you are in the company of non-Stoics, behave in a way that is comforting to them. But remember that you don’t share their take on things, and so you shouldn’t “groan inwardly.”

To be fair, when Bill presented his controversial talk at Stoicon in New York he was addressing an audience of Stoic practitioners, or of people interested in Stoicism. So he was in a position similar to Epictetus talking to his students, which means it was perfectly acceptable for him to advise them to follow the Stoic path. Of course even a member of the audience at Stoicon may reject any particular advice, regardless of how well grounded in Stoic philosophy it may be. But the speaker cannot reasonably be criticized for proving such advice.

II. Personal behavior vs social action

The second thing that is crucially important to keep in mind in this debate is the very clear philosophical distinction between personal behavior and social action. This distinction is foundational in Stoicism, since the philosophy is one of both self-improvement (we attempt to become excellent human beings) and social improvement (the Stoic eudaimonic life is one in which we use reason to make a better human cosmopolis).

Of course the two aspects clearly inform each other: to become an excellent human being just means to use reason to the best of our abilities in order to improve social living. And vice versa, to work toward the betterment of the human cosmopolis is to become more virtuous as individuals. But these two aspects are nevertheless logically distinct from each other, and there is a danger to confuse them, so that one then puzzles about how is it possible to focus on what is under one’s control and at the same time not slide into an inevitably quietist philosophy.

Here is how, in the specific case of insults. As far as we — Stoic proficientes (those who make progress, to use Seneca’s term) — are concerned, insults are nothing to be disturbed by. The intentions and utterances of other people are outside of our control, but our reaction to such utterances is very much under our control, and the best way to handle insults is the one that Epictetus counsels: behave like a stone would. Period.

However, according to Epictetus’ role ethics, the most important role in our lives is that of members of the human cosmopolis. Which means that we need to work, as much as it is within our possibilities, to bring about a world in which social injustice does not exist. Which includes the elimination of racism, sexism, and a lot of other pernicious “isms” that have affected humankind for millennia.

If you put the two together, you actually get a beautifully harmonious balance between not giving a crap about insults at the personal level, while at the same time working hard so that the injustices underlying the most egregious kinds of insults will be eradicated from human experience. Both are lofty goals, the first one being realized only by the sage, the second one only by a community of sages. But those remain nonetheless our goals as students of Stoicism. So let’s get back to work, shall we?

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