Stoicism Can Help Put Criticism In Perspective

Think about who the Stoics really were—they weren’t tenured university professors debating idle questions about the universe. On the contrary, they were men (and in some cases) women of action. To borrow from Theodore Roosevelt and to make a Roman pun, they were not critics, they were in the arena. By that I mean, they were the ones getting criticized.

Take Marcus Aurelius. He’s the Emperor of Rome. He has incredible amounts of power, but also subjected, then, to incredible burden of responsibility. His job was to make decisions and part of making decisions is that they bump straight into other people’s opinions. No wonder then, that his Meditations, is filled with thoughts on how to deal with criticism and adoration alike.

For instance, about seeking adoration he writes:

“What is to be prized? An audience clapping? No. No more than the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to–a clacking of tongues.”

About the people who might be criticizing, he writes:

“How they act when they eat and sleep and mate and defecate and all the rest. Then when they order and exult or rage and thunder from on high. And yet, just consider the things they submitted to a moment ago and the reasons for it–and the things they’ll submit to again before very long.”

I think what he’s trying to remind himself of is just how silly it is to value the praise or the criticism of other people. Yet we do. Yet Marcus himself, clearly did.

Marcus wrote his Meditations as a form of private philosophy. He wasn’t preaching. He was reflecting on and trying to improve his own behavior. So it’s helpful to envision a situation where maybe someone flung a stinging bit of criticism at him. For instance, there were rumors that his wife was promiscuous. Or perhaps they said something about his leadership or one of his decision. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Emperor, these words can hurt. It’s silly, but true.

And he clearly caught himself in a situation like that more than one time, because he wrote:

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

To me, that’s the perfect logic to help us deal with criticism. To examine the criticizer, to examine ourselves and our own standards and then go: Why does this bother me again?

In my ten year old, dog-earred copy I found a line that I’d written to myself about some bit of criticism I had received, though I’ve long forgotten what I was sensitive about.

I wrote to myself: These people don’t work hard enough for their opinion to matter to you.

It is that fact that I’ve come back to many times when subjected to some lame attempt to shame or mock my work. What do I care what this person has to say? They have no idea what went into it, who I am or what is important to me. And after I remind myself of this, I get the hell back to work. Not to chase clapping or clacking as Marcus rightly warned of, but my own standards of excellence.