Learning From Bad Examples

Sometimes readers of the DailyStoic.com (practicing Stoics!) get upset when a politically incorrect or controversial example is used in these emails. Why did you tell that story about Winston Churchill? He was an imperialist! Lincoln was a racist! Rockefeller polluted the environment! Jesus wasn’t real! Peter Thiel’s not a Stoic! What does Hillary Clinton have to do with ancient philosophy?

The outrage isn’t actually the problem here, it’s the close-mindedness. It’s a mistaken focus on the who over the what. This is something the Stoics were opposed to in word and practice.

In fact, if there is one thing you see across the works of all the Stoics, it is a repeated reliance on examples from across history as well as fiction—particularly of ambitious, successful, powerful, and tragic heroes. Alexander the Great, Crassus, Hadrian, Hercules, Socrates, Caesar. This was never done to endorse the entirety of that figure’s life but to make a specific point in a specific situation (and to make use of the reader’s familiarity with that famous name). Seneca went out of his way to use the work of and make positive examples out of people he disagreed with. It’s almost a running joke how often he quotes Epicurus in his letters—and Epicurus was the head of a rival philosophical school! Seneca’s explanation: “I’ll quote a bad author if the line is good.”

Remember that: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth when it comes to wisdom. Take it wherever you can get it. Just because a certain athlete has a messed up personal life doesn’t mean their poise on the court isn’t worthy of study and emulation. Just because a person in a different era with different standards did some bad things (or believe bad things) doesn’t mean they didn’t do many good things and we should feel no guilt being inspired by the latter. Even if someone actively disagrees with what you believe, their actions in one situation or another may well confirm the very belief you hold dear. There is always something to learn and we should always be open to that.

And for god sakes, if you get angry because someone else tried to teach a lesson you like through an example you don’t…well, you’re doing this philosophy wrong.

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