A Case for Self Assessment
The four main principles of Stoicism — wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — are best used to conduct self-assessments, not to “preach” to others. Stoics should therefore not insist that Stoicism is superior to other philosophies. Instead, these principles should be employed as personal markers to improve continually.
With the hope of being helpful to others, the remainder of this writing details some things I have done and the standards that I try and hold to that help me do that. No matter where you are on your personal development, everyone is better off if we are all trying to better ourselves. Being a self-assessing Stoic will also help prevent you from becoming what may be the worst — a hypocrite.
Wisdom is not just knowing lots of information. Artificial intelligence and Google are making that ability less and less important. Instead, true wisdom is all about the ability to be creative and innovative. To be creative and innovative, you have to be able to admit when you are wrong and adjust as you receive new information.
Being adaptable is becoming a rare skill in today’s world, where people have developed immutable beliefs based on information pushed for political or self-serving reasons. If you cannot admit you are wrong, you will essentially never be innovative, especially when circumstances change. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong to someone?
Courage is knowingly deciding to act for the good of others regardless of the consequences to yourself — even if those consequences could be dire. I have seen courage in traditional settings (e.g., in the military and on the battlefield). But courageousness is found in many other capacities every day.
Do you walk past the person being bullied or attacked on the street? Do you look the other way when someone is wrongfully discriminated against or do you stand up for them — even if it means those discriminating turn on you? Do you pull someone out of a burning car on the highway or do you standby watching it burn? Every day is a test, whether you like it or not.
Look at justice and your pursuit of it. What are you doing for others? Yes, you should fight for your rights and the rights of those like you. But, that is basically righteous self-interest. The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not.
Human rights after all should be, by definition, universal. We should strive to promote human rights for others regardless of whether we personally benefit. This is what it means to be a true proponent of justice, to be a humanitarian. When is the last time you took a stand for something that did not benefit you for someone that wasn’t like you?
As an Irish-American myself, I have a theory on the Irish. During the famine and the troubles in Ireland, many families had to send some of their children to the “New World” to try and make enough to survive for the whole family.
Yet, the United States was not very receptive to the Irish. In fact, they it was in many ways hostile. Most Irish chosen to be sent across the ocean were selected based on their tenacity and boldness (there are other names I could use but I am trying to be polite). They weren’t necessarily sent abroad for their temperance.
Whether this theory is true, I have always viewed temperance as the most challenging. Aristotle may have said moderation in all things, but that is easier said than done for many people, Irish or not.
I have found that the best way to improve in this category is to well, cheat. If you eat and drink too much at night, go to bed early. If you turn hostile every time you talk politics with your parents or a certain friend, even after you tried to have a civil discussion, talk about something else. But a person’s temper may not be in their total control.
Deciding to go into situations that trigger your temper is in your control. To be blunt, if it is your choice to avoid, then the consequences of not avoiding it are your fault. When was the last time you were the one that walked away from an unproductive argument?
These principles are the building blocks that make up a more complicated whole — your integrity. Your integrity is the only thing that can’t be taken from you and is, therefore, the only thing you truly own. Self-assessment, if done honestly, is an investment in your integrity.
Like climbing a mountain, there will be hardships, there will be peaks and valleys, and there may even be some false summits, but it is worth the effort for you and everyone you know.
Whether you agree with or use what I utilize for self-assessment is not what’s important. What is important is looking carefully at yourself in the Stoic’s mirror. Many people are their own greatest fans. Be your own harshest critic.
Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, retired CIA officer, and U.S. Marine, on the board of advisors for the Plato’s Academy Centre.