The Lawyerly Stoic

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I've written a book about the philosophy of the ancient Stoics (you can see reviews here and buy it here), and Eugene has kindly invited me to talk about it this week. Monday's post explained the book's general approach. Tuesday's post summarized the most practical teachings of Stoicism. Yesterday's post discussed some common misconceptions about Stoicism. Today I want to talk a bit about the Stoic view of feeling, emotion, and compassion—traditionally the most controversial feature of the philosophy. It will also be a chance to relate some features of Stoicism to the practice of law.

As yesterday's post explained, the good Stoic is a compassionate and feeling person. Yet it's also true that the Stoics sometimes speak of emotions as mistakes. There might seem to be some tension between these positions. But they can be reconciled by understanding what the Stoics really wanted: to avoid emotions or other states that interfere with the ability to see the world accurately—states of feeling, in other words, that get in the way of reason and arise from (or create) attachment to externals. Strong emotions are like that. Feelings of compassion are not.

I think it clarifies the Stoic approach to consider the way that time and experience tend to affect anybody's emotional life. Someone who has been through an experience many times might still have a lot of feeling about it, but emotional reactions usually fade. Think of a doctor who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctors of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, and compassion toward their suffering patients. There would be feeling. But emotion would be highly unlikely. They would have seen it all too many times for that. (I'm distinguishing very informally between feeling and emotion; by "emotion" I mean upheavals of feeling strong enough to push aside reason and upset your equanimity.)

The mindset just described in the good and experienced doctor is (I suggest) a state of mind about the same as what the Stoics seek toward most things. This sifting between disruptive emotion and non-disruptive feeling that comes naturally with experience resembles what the Stoic aims to achieve by the practice of philosophy.

Viewing the aims of Stoicism as similar to the effects of long experience can help to solve some conundrums. Stoics discourage anger, but what if you are the victim of some grotesque injustice? Isn't it then right to be angry—and maybe even important, since the anger will motivate efforts to stop the injustice from happening again? The idea above offers one shortcut to an answer. If you want to react to injustice like a Stoic, react like someone who knows it by long experience. By this I don't mean someone who has adapted to injustice and no longer cares about it, but rather as someone who has seen it enough not to be shaken by its unfamiliarity. React, in other words, like a good lawyer who has dealt with it a thousand times. Those sorts of people, in my own experience, tend to meet injustice with feeling but little emotion. They are resolute, tough, and active in style; and when the injustice afflicts someone else, they are compassionate. But their equilibrium isn't upset by a fresh case of wrongdoing. They deal with it too often to respond that way. They have, in this limited way, become natural Stoics.

Good lawyers often have the mindset just described, which is useful to realize because it makes Stoicism more accessible. The relationship to emotion advocated by the Stoics can seem otherworldly when described in the abstract, but most of us have that relationship to emotion already in some corners of our lives. We've earned it by experience.

And that train of thought offers one way to think about much of Stoicism generally. If the Stoic says we are fettered to externals, or vice, or emotion, it may be as accurate to say we are fettered to our inexperience. Only the novice is inflated and grasping and fearful; but we are all novices when dealing with many of the challenges of life. Stoic philosophy is a compensation—a substitute for time, or simulation of it. Stoicism means to offer the wisdom while skipping the repetition; it tries to get by contemplation some of the lessons, immunities, and other features of character we would acquire naturally if we lived long enough and had more experience. Stoicism is the philosophy of a thousand trials.

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  1. Ok still reading the book, but this is a point of confusion for me. Feeling anger, as opposed to having an angry emotional response, is offered as a good thing if it motivates you to act virtuously.

    But wouldn’t reason lead a person to act virtuously even if they didn’t feel anger?

    The best doctor is not one who feels painful sympathy but one who feels nothing. Unless there is some virtue in suffering itself, which seems a Christian concept not a Stoic one. Epictetus wrote about a guy who left town when his kid was sick because it was too painful. He asks would you rather have a Doctor who was too sympathetic too perform surgery or one who unfeelingly cut. A good Stoic is a not a compassionate and feeling person. A good Stoic is compassionate unfeeling person.

    The tension can not be reconciled. Some feelings, good and bad, are caused by mistakes in judgment about what we can control versus what we can not. A Stoic doctor would strive to have no feeling about a patient dying if saving them was beyond their control. Although I suppose they might pretend to have feelings if it comforted the patient.

    P.S. which leads to another of my fundamental questions, how is a Stoic doctor supposed to feel when they screw up and a patient dies who they could have saved? Are past mistakes now out of our control and therefore not something we should have feelings about or should we feel really really bad up unto the point of being almost emotional about it?

  2. Imagine you are a male who has just heard a jury convict you of rape in a he said/she said swearing contest. In shock, you turn to your attorney, who is stuffing papers away in his/her briefcase and doesn’t meet your eye and you stammer: “But, but, I’m innocent. . .”

    And your failed defender answers stoically, “Yes, ain’t it a crying shame.”

    On a side note, Stormy Daniels protests today that she is never going to have a normal life again. Kinda takes your breath away, sometimes, what folks say. Paper accepts any writing. Air accepts any vocal uterrance.

    1. Come to think of it, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and all those excitable hot-heads who signed the Declaration of Independence should have taken a more considered, measured approach to things.

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