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Stoicism and the Modern Lawyer

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

Marcus Aurelius seemed to know the modern lawyer (though he died centuries ago). See if you can identify with the following sentiment:

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…

Marcus would have been an excellent litigator (or at least a healthy one).

Every day this year, I have started the day off with a selection of Ryan Holliday’s The Daily Stoic. If you haven’t considered ancient stoicism, you should check it out. If there is a system of philosophy out there more ready-made for lawyers, I am not sure what it is.

What Stoicism Isn’t

Forget what the dictionary or common usage tells you about stoicism. Stoicism is not a generalized ability to resist pain, and it is certainly not systemized indifference to the world around you. Such is the popularized caricature of stoicism. Stoics are engaged with the world around them in a particular way. Nor is stoicism a singular philosophy. Just as there are sects of Christianity, there are sects of stoicism. But there are some commonalities among the schools of stoicism. And none are like the popularized notion of it.

What Stoicism Is

I will not be able to explain anywhere near fully in a short blog post. I’d refer you elsewhere for more reading. Ryan Holliday’s blog is a good starting point. So are some of the blog posts on the topic by Tim Ferriss. My introduction to stoicism came from a novel that I read by Tom Wolfe titled A Man in Full. I first picked up this book because of its setting in Atlanta. But I read to the end for its introduction to stoicism. And when I finished the novel, I wanted to know more.

So, what is stoicism? As much as I implore my students to stay away from wikipedia in their assignments, the entry on stoicism is a good starting point:

Stoicism is predominately a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.

Students of Buddhism or devotees to Christianity might see some commonalities here. For Buddhists, suffering comes from uncontrolled desires or the inability to see and accept the reality of change arounds us. From the Judeo-Christian context, sin lies in placing idols before God, which are worshipped as if God. These things ultimately fall short on providing happiness. St. Augustine wrote “our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.”

For stoics, the natural world operates in a logical system. And our minds should work within that plan. However, we can get caught up in our own dramas of desire for pleasure or fear of pain. All of which disturbs our sense of tranquility.

I am aware that I have grossly oversimplified the philosophy and may be committing an error by trying to describe stoicism as a unified philosophy. And perhaps you are thinking, “who cares?” Let me try to bring this to the level of the relevant by describing a few stoic exercises.

Stoicism is infinitely practical. Holliday writes, “stoic writing is much closer Yoga session or a pre-game warm up than to a book of philosophy a university professor might write. It’s preparation for the philosophic life – an action – where the right state of mind is the most critical part.”

Stoic Practices

  • Is This What I So Feared? Seneca advised his students to simulate misfortune or to live out, if only for a brief time, what they fear most. He advised spending a period of time in practiced poverty, wearing course clothes are the sparest of food. He notes that the reaction to practicing poverty or to simulating misfortune is that you will find that it wasn’t the big deal you imagined it to be. In simulating what might happen if you failed at something, which is likely more transitory and more reversible than you might imagine, you free yourself up to act on bigger thoughts with higher risks.
  • Training Perception to Avoid Good or Bad. Again, from Holliday:

There is no good or bad to the practicing Stoic. There is only perception. You control perception. You can choose to extrapolate past your first impression (‘X happened.’ –> ‘X happened and now my life is over.’). If you tie your first response to dispassion, you’ll find that everything is simply an opportunity.

Want to see suffering in action? Open up your Facebook feed and look at the posts you find there — nothing but vitriolic emotional reaction from objective reality, whether it be some interpersonal issue, an event in sports, or an event from the news. You can train yourself to view things as they are then to take the opportunity that the event creates.

Application to Law

The law is richly rewarding to attorneys. However, neither judges, clients, nor opposing counsel hand out lollipops to us on a daily basis. And I commend a study of stoic philosophy to lawyers. Open up the bar journal and look at last month’s list of lawyers who were disciplines. Many of them acted to avoid something that would have been far easier to handle than the consequence of the choice they made. What if they had regularly engaged in the practice of what they feared the most? And the number of lawyers who suffer mental health issues or substance abuse? What if we trained ourselves to look first at objective reality to see what opportunity is presented?

I’ll close by saying that I’m no stoic. But I enjoy reading about stoic teachings. And I have extrapolated from it some practices that are helping me.