How to balance our short lives

Searching for resourcefulness and persistence

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

What do we do when our obligations pull in different directions?

Stoic role ethics offers an answer. The Stoics organized our roles by priority. Our human role comes first. Nothing and no one should require us to invalidate that. Then we should consider our roles given by our capabilities, relationships, and preferences. In that order. We live best when we recognize and develop our natural talents or abilities. We need to respect what we’re capable of. After that, comes our relationships. We shouldn’t place our desires above friends or family.

These rules are clear enough – but what do we do when our roles conflict within the same level? For example, how do you balance the demands of family and business relationships? Friends and city?

In The Entrepreneur's Weekly Nietzsche, Bart Lorang shares a story of this exact kind of conflict:

It was 6:30 AM on a cold, snowy day in Boulder, and overnight it had dumped a foot of snow. To my surprise, when I awoke, my next door neighbor had already finished shoveling the snow from our sidewalk. My wife Sarah needled me for allowing our neighbor to bear our burden. I tried to explain that I was busy with my CEO job, and that some things simply aren’t priorities. That was the wrong answer: she openly wondered how our neighbor, also a startup CEO, had the time to shovel his walk and ours, even while his company was scaling faster than mine.

Bart Lorang

Ouch – what looked like an insurmountable clash of social roles, wasn’t. The focus on priorities and trade-offs becomes an excuse to fail. Sometimes there’s a way through.

It’s recorded that Musonius Rufus’s students asked him if having a wife got in the way of philosophy. He responded with:

Marriage did not hinder Pythagoras or Socrates or Crates, each of whom lived with a wife, and no one could name other philosophers who were better than these.

Musonius Rufus, Lecture 14

The answer, of course, is no. The best philosophers were married. One suspects that Musonius Rufus’s students wished that other people got in the way of living well. Because if that were true, we’d always have an excuse for our mistakes.

But it is not true. For any impossible situation we face, some people face the exact same thing but manage to act well nonetheless. They summon their resourcefulness and creativity to push through.

Of course, this isn’t a complete answer to the problem of conflicting demands. We cannot always get success in every domain. Trade-offs are real. Sacrifices must be made. But perhaps we can do it more often than we believe.

Bart Lorang continues his story:

At that moment, I felt like a failure, as a CEO, as a husband, and as a man. I knew something had to change, and I needed help.

Bart Lorang

He saw that he needed help and he got it. By his own account, he improved in his business and family roles. That’s enough.

🎯 Action

Fulfill each of your roles to the best of your ability today.

🔗 Resources

🎧️ Michael Tremblay and I covered Stoic role ethics in Stoa Conversations this week. I think it is one of Stoicism’s most important ideas. It’s a decision-making framework for questions large and small. A challenge to recognize our roles and perform excellently at each. We explain what it is and how to apply it to your life.

📖 The life of the Roman Stoic Cato the Younger provides an instructive example of how to manage different obligations. He was upright in his ethical dealings, but arguably, his strong and unforgiving moral stance alienated potential allies and hastened the downfall of the Roman Republic.

💬 What do you do if you’re faced with a situation where it seems like you must break a rule you hold dear? The philosopher Jeremy Reid writes out the aspirational answer:

Virtuous agents, then, do not think of rules as mere guidelines for actions that they transcend once they attain goodness of character. Rather, they see these rules as enshrining our deepest moral commitments. These are rules that less than fully virtuous people too easily set aside when the going gets tough or in light of putative gain that amounts to ‘special pleading’. When virtuous agents are faced with a dilemma where it looks as though some rule must be broken, their response is to reason creatively and find alternative courses of action.

Jeremy Reid

✉️ A reader, Kelvin, shared advice he received from his mother on anger:

If someone gets angry because they are asked to perform a task or is annoyed in any way, those people originally had only one job to do but now have two:

1) Stop being angry.

2) Finish the task at hand.

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