Practice What You Fear and You Can Act Fearlessly: Ethics and Stoic Philosophy
February 7, 2023
8 min read
Ethical principles are well known and drilled into us from toddler, through school, and on up. We all know the path, but sometimes its challenging to walk it. We are tempted to compromise our principles because we are scared of what we might lose.
A well-developed sense of ethics requires a well-developed personal philosophy. And that requires a basic understanding of philosophy.
Most lapses of ethical behavior derive from fear. We fear loss of comfort and safety. We fear pain and death. Philosophy can help us better deal with these fears and the behavior they engender.
Philosophy can be an abstract and arcane field of study but there is a branch of philosophy that can provide us with a sense of a basic support structure for operating in the world. It is called Stoicism. The following is adapted from a great piece by Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss called “Stoicism 101.” Here is a link to the to the blog post.
The central teachings of Stoicism are intended to illustrate to us how best to prepare to deal with the unpredictable nature of life. So often we feel tossed and turned by events and anxious about what the future holds. Stoicism’s project is to help inoculate us from worry.
Stoicism reminds us how brief life is and teaches us how to be disciplined and free from worry. It illuminates the sources of our dissatisfaction and how to combat our impulsive dependency on our reflexive reactions.
The lessons of Stoicism are practical and meant to be practiced and applied in life. It is not simply a theoretical endeavor. It is a set of attitudes we can use to become better managers, leaders, entrepreneurs, better friends, partners, lovers, and better people.
Worry and fear are contagious; we want to learn how to control those tendencies so we nurture perspective and spread a sense of calm.
There are three main Stoic philosophers.
· Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of the Roman Empire during its golden age in the second century A.D. He was the most powerful man on earth. He was also one of the wisest ever to live. He was well aware of the potential for ethical distortions that power and wealth can produce. His writings are called the Meditations and are about restraint, compassion and humility. Get a copy.
· Epictetus grew up at the opposite end of the social spectrum. He was a Roman slave and endured the degradations of slavery and ended up founding a school where he taught and influenced many of the great Romans.
· Seneca was tutor and advisor to the Roman emperor Nero. Nero ultimately turned on him and demanded his suicide. Seneca comforted his wife and friends and obliged the emperor. His philosophy taught him how to live well and how to die well.
The writings of Marcus Aurelius are the only intimate reflections we have of someone in such a role of ultimate power and wealth. Many emperors gave into temptations and became debauched, depraved and dissipated. Marcus Aurelius was famously different. Marcus observed that: “It is difficult but not impossible, to livewelleven in a palace.” He led a life that is well worth modeling: that of a true philosopher king.
It is difficult but not impossible, to live well even in a palace.
Reading the Stoics may have similar benefits as a yoga session or listening to a coach’s pre-game speech. It’s a philosophical preparation for the life of action — and will remind you that the right state of mind is crucial to making good decisions and maintaining one’s poise and focus.
The right state of mind is crucial to making good decisions and maintaining one’s poise and focus.
Stoics practiced exercises designed to give them the psychological strength and confidence to act in the face of uncertainty. Here are three important Stoic exercises:
Practice What You Fear
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors, it is then the time to be strengthened against her rebuffs. -Seneca
Dig your well before you are thirsty. Inure yourself to hardships by preparing and renouncing luxuries now and again: fast; exercise hard; sleep outside. In Hermann Hesse’s book, when asked what he could do Siddhartha answered, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”
Seneca enjoyed wealth and prestige as the adviser of Nero. But he also knew that his cushy circumstances were tenuous and could change. To prepare for such contingency he said that we ought to take time on a regular basis to practice living in poverty. Take little food, wear crappy clothes, and remove yourself from the comforts of your home and bed. Place yourself in circumstances of want, and ask yourself “Is this what I fear?”
In this situation you may become more comfortable in the knowledge that “deprivation” isn’t so bad. In fact, you may begin to understand that luxury and excess is a distraction that can keep you from doing more important things. The message here is: Live simply and keep distractions to a minimum so that you can focus time and energy on important things you have always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time for.
Understand that for the Stoics this is a daily exercise; not a thought experiment. Seneca doesn’t instruct us to “think about” adversity, he means live it. Comfort can be the most abject kind of slavery if you are always worrying that circumstance might take it away. If you practice misfortune, then fate, chance, and circumstances lose their ability to cloud and disrupt your life.
Practice what you fear, and you can act fearlessly.
Anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty and are rarely based on our experience.
Mark Twain said: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
The solution is to become intimately familiar with the scenarios that worry you. Then you can confidently take risks in business and act ethically because you will realize that the downside is almost always reversible and transient.
Practice what you fear, and you can act fearlessly. This is a talisman to keep you from losing your poise.
Treat Obstacles as Opportunities
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” -Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics practiced their philosophy by understanding how to turn a perceived problem into an opportunity. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. Similarly, entrepreneurs and leaders have the ability to take advantage of, and even create, opportunities. Stoics don’t make judgments relative to good or bad luck. They understand it is simply a perception and you control how you perceive a situation.
From that vantage point one can make clear decisions about opportunity and the path forward. The space between something happening and your reaction to it becomes the leverage point. Developing that space is also a goal of meditation and mindfulness practice. By developing your ability to tie your initial response to dispassion, by viewing events with some emotional distance and disinterest, you will notice opportunities.
There is an interesting trope in motivational speaking that is based on a mistranslation of a Chinese character. It goes like this: “In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.” Even though it is based on a misunderstanding, it is insightful; kind of like the phenomena of mishearing lyrics to a song and the wrong lyrics being more meaningful than the true lyrics.
Instead of looking at problems as making your life more difficult, Stoic practice regards them as opportunities to direct you towards developing virtues like patience or understanding or creativity. Marcus Aurelius described it like this: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
All Things Must Pass
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.” -Marcus Aurelius
Death is the great equalizer. Alexander the Great was one of the most powerful men of all time. He conquered and ruled much of the known world. He had great cities named after him. His tutor was Aristotle. He had everything: power, glory, wealth, and knowledge. Once while intoxicated, Alexander got into an argument with his dearest friend, Cleitus. It escalated into a fight and Alexander accidentally killed Cleitus. When he came to his senses, he was inconsolable, and rightly so, he had made the kind of grave mistake for which there is no remedy.
This episode leads one to question what it means to lead a successful life. From a personal perspective, what do all riches and accomplishments matters if you lose perspective and hurt those dear to you?
Don’t lose sight of why you aspire to do great things. A false sense of pride can take control of you and make you vulnerable. Achievements are ephemeral. Practice humility and be honest and aware. Learn from Alexander the Great and his mistake.
When you study martial arts you are taught that power is a responsibility and that you should never use your skills for less than virtuous ends. Learning about business can be like learning karate. We must use our knowledge in the pursuit of beneficial ends and not for the advancement of indiscriminate personal gain and aggrandizement without regard for how our actions affect others. That, in a nutshell, characterizes ethical behavior.
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