The Lawyer as Stoic

In the entrepreneurial world, there is renewed interest in Stoicism, the ancient Greek school of philosophy that taught that “virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; [that] the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason … that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.”

Traditionally Stoicism, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century, is understood to be descendant from the thinking of Socrates, and is associated with the views of Seneca, Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Marcus Aurelius is often cited as the best example of the Platonic Ideal of the philosopher king. Marcus Aurelius was indeed a philosopher, one who is engaged in the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. History suggests that his philosophical views animated his actions as Emperor of Rome.

Reduced to its barest essentials – and this is an oversimplification — the Stoic strives to see the truth and do what is right.

It is important to distinguish between the classical ideal of Stoicism, as I have tried to summarize it above, and the idea the Stoics simply ignore pain or hardship without complaint and without the display of feelings. I don’t think that it is quite accurate to say that the Stoic sublimates pain and emotion. Reading Marcus Aurelius makes clear that he felt emotion intensely, but was not governed by it.

As moderns, psychology tells us that, in the words of Carl Jung, “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” A more contemporary approach is to feel your feelings, but to understand that we are not our feelings and that if we accept and watch them, they will pass, leaving us free to decide what — if anything — we choose to do about them.

What has all this to do with lawyering? A lot.

If you think about our professional obligations as lawyers, they call upon us to be Stoics. Generally, our professional obligations require that we put our client’s interests above our own. That requires discipline.

And for those of us who deal with clients whose cases involve intense emotions, it is our professional obligation not to be swept away by the emotion of the moment. Surely, we can — and we likely should — feel empathy for our clients. But we must also strive to objectively see our clients’ situations for what they are and offer detached and independent advice about what to do. We may advocate for clients from a place of passion, but before we do, we need to advise from a place of calm objectivity. This is the heart of Stoic virtue.

Most of us, particularly litigators, are in an adversarial business. We are hired to advance or defend a case, and someone — perhaps someone who is as capable and determined as we are — is hired to do precisely the opposite. Many of us find this intensely difficult and frustrating. When we do, we fail to appreciate our role in the system. Remember instead the words of Marcus Aurelius:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

It you want to be a the best lawyer you can be, you could do far worse than studying The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Rich Aquincum1



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