I see I have once again created as much confusion as I have understanding. I place blame squarely on myself, Deuteros, for I know you are a sincere student and a careful listener. If you do not understand, then I have not been clear. The confusion comes from multiple sources but relates to a single theme: when is it appropriate to conform, for example to our nature, and when is it necessary to rebel, for example against the superficial values the masses place on possessions?
You feel I have made the question murky in my last letter by being so critical of nonconformists. After all, haven’t I spent a great deal of time giving you reasons to think for yourself and not go along with the judgment of the crowd? “Isn’t that the very definition of what it means to be a nonconformist,” you ask? “If so, how can what is good for me as a Stoic philosopher be bad when practiced by everyone else?”
As is often the case with seeming paradoxes, the illusion dissipates when we look at the situation from another perspective. I set out a number of objections to nonconformists, true, but the faults were specific to the persons and not to the concept of nonconformity itself. “What do you mean,” you ask? Recall that I distinguished the cases of youthful confidence, willful ignorance, and blinding arrogance. The common impulse in all cases is the individual’s desire to tear down the existing system and replace it with another. The common fault in all cases is the individual’s discontent both before and after fomenting such radical change. What use is your nonconformist philosophy if you remain miserable in all circumstances? Or do you think, Deuteros, that any of those I was describing attain true happiness and peace?
On the surface, the Stoics look to be behaving similarly. They challenge the wisdom of the current system and call blind conformity to what everyone else thinks a form of voluntary insanity. The difference in effect, however, couldn’t be greater. The Stoic’s dividend is to find peace within the current system, and indeed under any conditions in any system. We achieve happiness now and in the future by putting it under the auspices of the only thing truly within our control, which is our reason.
What the Stoic rejects is conformity to the illusion that pursuing luxuries will bring satiety, that desiring more will ever bring about the condition of feeling one has enough. This is an act as heroic in effort as that of any anarchist, but the Stoic is seeking only to bring order to their own soul, not destruction to the State. Indeed, I would argue that taming your own passions and desires is a greater challenge than looking to change others. You cannot escape your own mind, though you can ignore the messages streaming constantly in the form of your thoughts. Misinterpreting the motives of others is by contrast simple. And so is seeking to subjugate them to your will.
The Stoic seeks only to subjugate their thoughts to the reason of their well-ordered mind. To place the proper value on all things, which means going beneath their surface appearance. This requires thinking for yourself and ignoring the opinion of the masses for as long and to the extent necessary for you to make your own opinion. I think you will agree that this kind of nonconformism is very different from what I was describing earlier.
There is further good news for the Stoic. Your practice here need not be as consequential as those seeking to change all of society. You only need to change yourself, and best to do so bit by tiny bit. We humans think of ourselves as all-important, but really, we are relatively insignificant in the individual. More importantly we can be moved great distances by little things, for better or worse.
My advice is to consider every day as a session in the classroom of life. I feel confident in predicting that on most days you will be confronted with inconveniences, annoyances, or irritants. The varieties are endless. By applying your reason, you will put each stimulus in its proper place, and you will not be put out of sorts against your will. Either there is some validity to the thing that irks you or there is none. In the first case, you have been given an opportunity to better yourself. In the latter case, you have been given an opportunity to practice placing the true value on things. Over time it becomes easier to distinguish false harms and, so identified, they lose their ability to hurt you. Or better said, you stop inflicting harm on yourself.
I experienced one of the more profound demonstrations of this early in my reading of the Stoics. I was still in law school, and over a period of time I had become addicted to applying Chapstick to my lips. This sounds so silly when I say it out loud, but I open myself to your frank assessment to make the point. Multiple points, actually, for another is that anything can become habit-forming if you repeat it regularly. My habit was to apply Chapstick regularly; I couldn’t go an hour before craving re-application. There was never a time when I did not have a tube on my person. “Harmless enough,” you will be thinking. “It’s not like lip balm is hard to come by.”
It was trivial, true, but I was inspired by something I read. I realized that I was placing my happiness, even to a minuscule extent, in the hands of something external. I resolved to quit the habit, in what seemed a small test of myself and the Stoic idea. I was also mindful that the attempt might also deliver a lesson in human hardiness. We are not so fragile as we think, and we can survive discomfort more than we think. We just need to embrace it knowingly and willingly, rather than shying away from it. In this way, we turn discomfort into a test of will more than a hardship. In any event, those were my thoughts as I embarked on my experiment.
I find it easier to tame vices by being absolute in banning them, Deuteros. All or nothing seems to work best for me. I think this is because I am weak, even though in applying my discipline I appear to others to be strong. To tell myself I can handle a small dose is to open the door to temptation. Whether Chapstick, chocolate, or cream soda, a modest amount is harmless. No doubt it is the same for most of us, and for most of our vices.
The harm, for me at least, comes from the insidious thoughts that slink in on the waves of satisfied pleasure. “Aahhh. That’s nice. Did you really think you wanted to go without chocolate forever? What kind of life would that be? Anyway, what kind of philosophy of life denies you all the things that make life pleasurable?” And on and on. I do not seem to have a reliable regulator to govern the thinking that if a little bit is good, then more is better. There is no natural or obvious stopping point for when more becomes too much.
This is all a long way of saying that lip balm has not touched my lips since that day. I have experienced chapped lips that would have made my old self cry, and more than once. But really the thing that amazed me most, after steeling myself to withstand all tortures, was how much I did not experience discomfort. The thing that I considered all but indispensable was no more necessary than a coffee from Starbucks instead of a home brewed cup, a leather-laden ride in a Mercedes instead of public transportation, or any of the other countless little luxuries that we tell ourselves make our lives worth living.
The same mechanisms that trick us into adopting bad habits allow us to give up those habits. If doing something regularly for a few weeks makes it habit-forming, then not doing it for a few weeks also becomes habit-forming. This sounds so trivial as to be useless, but I tell you it transformed my life. My iron willpower is nothing more than the accumulation of little habits, including refraining from things that I have targeted for extinction. I use my reason to determine the deeper value of things and to think for myself. The main thing I am trying to uncover is what makes me unhappy, so I can do it less. At the same time, I hypothesize about what will make me happy, so I can do it more.
This is my criticism of unthinking nonconformism, Deuteros. It satisfies neither of those criteria and as a result its adherents are more miserable than most. Reasoned nonconformism, however, holds all the keys to the cells within which we imprison our happiness. The doors locking us into thoughts of envy, greed, bitterness, regret, sadness, hopelessness, and more all fall open when we refuse to go along with the old habits that erected these prisons within ourselves. When I say think for yourself, it is to free yourself of all the things that are keeping you from happiness.