I want to dedicate this video to a question from one of my Patreon supporters named Juansaman, about pride and arrogance in Stoicism. It was quite a detailed question, and enough food for thought to dedicate one video on. Here’s the question:
I’m very fond of this philosophy, but I also consider humility a great value. Because of this I think, and I include myself, stoicism can be bound to arrogance. I’m sure you know what I mean: stay away from the common or vulgar topics, determining someone that insults you is out of ignorance, not getting offended by disloyalty or ill will, you are better than them.
It’s like there is a very thin line between virtuosity and arrogance, as this way of thinking often compares itself to the rest of the world encouraging feelings of superiority, and to accept ignorance or imperfections in others. Who am I to be that condescending? I feel myself often trap in these thoughts.
I often don’t consider a woman as “worthy” of me because of her beliefs, her way of thinking, her interests. And I hate doing that, it pulls me away from most of the people. So I guess the first question of mine is: how can you find a good balance between the potential arrogance hidden in stoicism and humility in the contemporary era?Juansaman
First of all, Juansaman, I want to thank you for this amazing question about a phenomenon that concerns almost every spiritual, philosophical or religious pursuit.
The question is challenging and I hope my answer can live up to the profundity of it. Now, the first thing that comes to mind when I read your question is something called ‘spiritual pride’, which we see happen very often.
It’s the classical example of someone embarking on the spiritual journey and feels superior to others as a consequence. We see a contempt ingrained within religious communities towards the non-believers, that is seen as merely lost souls to actual ‘wicked people’ that we should stay away from as far as we can.
We can see spiritual pride among practitioners towards one another too, which transforms what could be spiritual experiences into a game of one-upmanship. These people say, look: “I’m more enlightened than you. I’m more God-loving than you. I’m more grateful than you. I’m meditating more than you.” Or, “I’m more Stoic than you.”
If one lives his or her spiritual life that way, yes, I think there’s a degree of arrogance involved. It’s just the ego telling a story and makes the practice of spirituality nothing different from being, let’s say, a buffed bodybuilder that can bench taking pride in the ability to bench more in the weight room or taking pride in having a more expensive car than your neighbors.
I’m not saying that this is wrong. It’s just that I don’t think that what’s any spiritual practice is about.
Nonetheless, people tend to make everything a competition, or, at least, a way to distinguish themselves from others and feel better than others. Again, it’s the ego at work.
The ego is always competing with other egos and only looks at the world as better or worse, inferior or superior, et cetera. It’s a never-ending cycle and I think that a philosophy like Stoicism could actually be a vessel to weaken the ego and be more compassionate and humble.
Marcus Aurelius, for example, if you read the Meditations you’ll see that he is quite a humble man. Especially for an emperor. He’s selfless; sacrifices himself for the greater good, and actually warns us to not be prideful, but virtuous instead. So, I think at the core of Stoicism lies the willingness to be a virtuous person.
I’ve got this part from Daily Stoic:
This idea that humility kills dangerous pride is at the core of Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius was constantly humbling himself so the purple cloak of his emperorship didn’t go to his head. Seneca experimented with poverty so his wealth didn’t change him or become a burden. Cato would walk outside bareheaded and barefoot, an appearance far below his station so he wasn’t corrupted by success and power.Daily Stoic
As far as I understand, you say that Stoic ideas like staying away from the common or vulgar topics, determining someone that insults you are out of ignorance, not getting offended by disloyalty or ill will, somehow implies that (quote on quote) “you are better than them…”
I don’t think this is necessarily the case. It really depends on how you see it. We could stay away from common or vulgar topics because we think that people and the topics they talk about are beneath us.
I admit that when you read the Enchiridion by Epictetus, it’s almost like he indeed speaks from a superior position with contempt towards the vulgar. I don’t know if this was the case, but if it was then I’d say yes: there’s indeed a degree of arrogance involved.
However, we could also look at this situation from a place of wisdom. When you hang around long enough with people that only talk about sex, Netflix, Tinder and drink beer while they’re doing so, for example, we eventually become those people.
Now, at some point, you discover that this life is making you miserable. It could be the booze, it could be the pointless topics, it could be both.
You see that these people aren’t really going anywhere in their lives and that you don’t want to be one of those people. Instead of numbing the mind with alcohol every night, you want clarity to read, to work on a business, to do something good for society, et cetera.
You realize that life ticks away second after second, so you don’t want to spend so much time discussing Kim Kardashian or sports on TV. So, is it because you feel better than those people that you stay away from them, or because you want to live a better life because their way of living – the common way – makes you miserable?
I think these are two different things. Also, what Epictetus points out that we should stay away from vulgar topics if we want to be philosophers.
You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.Epictetus, Enchiridion, 29
Indeed, from this statement, we see that a philosopher sets himself or herself apart from the common people.
Epictetus describes the vulgar person as someone who isn’t wise; someone relies on these external things he describes at the beginning of the Enchiridion. This isn’t good because according to the Stoics we should focus on the things that are within our control and not on the things that are not in our control.
Now, here’s the thing with arrogance. Arrogance is an emotion that comes from relating to other people that aren’t within our control. Thus, when we engage in spiritual pride and focus more on feeling better than ‘the vulgar’, instead of keeping our attention to our own faculties, I think that we actually aren’t doing Stoicism the right way.
In this case, being Stoic has become just another badge of honor to elevate ourselves above other people, instead of improving our own position in the world.
So, by being arrogant we already make the mistake to measure ourselves to other people. It’s the “look at me, I’m a Stoic and therefore I’m better than you and I don’t care what you vulgar think” which is nothing more than a covert way to achieve a certain degree of reputation among other people.
‘Reputation’ is outside of our control, so this shouldn’t be the focus.
When someone insults you, saying that this person does that because of ignorance doesn’t have to mean that this person is inferior. It’s simply the observation that insulters either have an opinion about something that they don’t know enough about or that the insult is a product of not having their own faculty in order.
It doesn’t mean that you’re better than them. I just see it as a human flaw that we all have, in a more compassionate way. Such a stance is more ‘acceptance based’ instead of ‘fault finding’.
So, to answer your question:
How can you find good balance between the potential arrogance hidden in stoicism and humility in the contemporary era?Juansaman
Now we have explored potential arrogance hidden in Stoicism, I think that the solution is very simple: don’t be arrogant, be humble. In regards to judgments about other people, I’d say that there’s a difference between stating the facts in an objective manner and judging.
Indeed, I think it’s better to avoid the latter. Personally, I see that I’ve got many flaws myself; who am I to judge about the flaws of others then? It’s not up to me.
What’s up to me is my own faculty. In the contemporary era, it’s difficult to be a philosopher in the way that Epictetus describes; it’s a bit extreme. I think that most people nowadays are vulgar to a certain degree, and avoiding them all may not be the best idea.
Like you say, arrogance will only push people away. By replacing arrogance with humility, we might see that, no matter how vulgar someone is, there’s always something about them that we can admire in them. Even if it’s just the fact that they’ve been able to cope with life; especially because their lives aren’t blessed with Stoic philosophy.