All There Is To Believe In

In August 1933, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a letter to his young daughter Frances who was away at camp. It’s a beautiful, personal letter from a man whose lifestyle could hardly have been described as Stoic yet would repeatedly illustrate Stoic themes in much of his writing (interesting fact: Budd Schulberg, who spent a lot of time with Fitzgerald and fictionalized him in the novel The Disenchanted, uses a quote from Marcus Aurelius to describe Fitzgerald’s last moments). In the next three emails, we’re going to look at a couple themes from that letter because each one contains its own brilliant Stoic lesson.

The first is Fitzgerald’s response to his daughter’s note that she was happy at camp. Fitzgerald writes to her that this is great but like a Stoic, he doesn’t believe much in happiness for its own sake. He doesn’t believe in misery either. These things, he said, are creations for fiction, not for life.

“I feel very strongly about you doing duty. … All I believe in in life,” he tells his daughter, are “the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly.”

This is what the Stoics believed as well, virtue and duty were all they believed in too. And they would say, as Fitzgerald said, that it’s not the resulting external rewards which follow that matter but the intrinsic ones. That’s why he emphasized that not fulfilling your duties was doubly costly. Not only does the world punish you for neglecting your obligations and your talents…but you are punishing yourself.

So if you’re going to believe in something in this life, don’t believe in happiness or misery. Believe in duty.

(You can read more of Fitzgerald’s letters and advice and private struggles to turn his life around in the wonderful book The Crack Up, which was edited and published by his friend Edmund Wilson).

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