The three rules of Stoic Club

As is well known: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” This, of course, comes from the homonymous 1999 movie directed by David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, and based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk.

Stoicism is not Fight Club. We can talk about it. And it doesn’t have rules, per se, since it is a kind of virtue ethics, not a deontological system. Still, let me suggest three informal “rules” that may be good to adopt.

Rule #1: Don’t tell people who don’t follow Stoicism that they are not being Stoic

“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.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 16)

The first part of this quote from Epictetus reminds us of a fundamental Stoic doctrine: the distinction between objective facts (e.g., my daughter has moved overseas) and value judgments (e.g., it’s a terrible thing that my daughter has moved overseas). Judgments are not in the world as such, they are human constructs. And a crucial technique in Stoicism is to reframe things so that we may not suffer, and that we may focus on what is really important: improving our own judgments (our faculty of prohairesis).

However, as the second part of the quote makes clear, we shouldn’t act toward others assuming that they follow the same principles. Indeed, it would be callous to do so, and entirely unhelpful, from a pragmatic standpoint (analogous to telling someone who is upset to “just calm down”). Rather, we should be sympathetic toward our fellow human beings, and act (externally) in a manner that actually comforts them, while retaining the (internal) attitude we have being honing as Stoics.

Rule #2: Don’t tell other Stoics that they are not being Stoic

“There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXVIII.9)

Even when it comes to fellow Stoic practitioners, it’s really a good idea not to say anything along the lines of “hey, that’s not very Stoic of you!,” as if we were the teachers and they the pupils. It is one thing to give advice if asked; entirely another thing to use one’s own Stoicism as a stick to beat our brothers and sisters with every time we think they fail the test.

As Seneca embodies in his 68th letter to his friend Lucilius, our attitude should be one of fellow travelers, or fellow patients, not of self-appointed masters of others. After all, sages come about once every 500 years or so (Letters, XLII.1), so it’s unlikely that we have actually managed the transition from fools to sagehood.

Rule #3: Be a Stoic, don’t just talk like one

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, X.16)

Marcus was going a bit overboard here, when he told himself not to talk “at all” about the kind of person he wanted to be. Indeed, the whole Meditations is an exercise of talking himself into being a better person. But the general advice is sound: practice your philosophy of life, and be a role model to others through your actions, more than your words.

The Society for Ethical Culture, a “secular religious” group founded by Felix Adler in 1877, has adopted the motto “deed before creed.” It’s just as good for Stoics as for the followers of Adler. It does not imply that “creed” is not important, nor that one cannot do good by talking (or writing) about it. It only implies that what one does is what matters in the end. As Epictetus put it:

“If from the moment they [his students] get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here [i.e., to Epictetus’ school in Nicopolis] from home.” (Discourses I, 4.20)
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