From the Porch with your Torch

But more importantly, as lawyers, we occupy another unique vantage point in our society: the space between what is and what ought to be. . . This position gives us no luxury, but rather a responsibility to act and lead. 

chris davis

Chris Davis
Major USMC
Trial Counsel
Legal Services Support Section – East Camp Lejeune, NC

What lessons can a modern leader draw from ancient Stoic teachings?  

Nearly 2,500 years after its origin, Stoic philosophy is undergoing a revitalization.  This is the result of the renewed appreciation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in the early 20th Century and the resulting contemporary literature, such as Viktor Frankl’s seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning, into the modern advances in clinical psychology’s cognitive behavior therapy.  

Still, very few people today truly understand the Stoic philosophy.  For many, the word “stoic” conjures in the mind images of emotional apathy and callousness.  To be fair, the old English meaning of the word “stoic” referred to one’s unemotional endurance in the face of pain.  However, even a brief examination of the men who built this philosophy demonstrates an enormous difference between the personality trait (“lowercase” stoicism) and the realities of the ancient Greek philosophy (“uppercase” Stoicism).  As a result, this misconception detracts from the deeper discussion the Stoics offer on character, spiritual wellness, and resilience – all necessary leadership traits. 

The Stoics were people who bled and died for change in ancient times.  They lived during a time when injustice permeated societies and philosophers and academics were often persecuted by a series of jealous, intemperate emperors.  In an effort to improve the lives of the common citizen, Zeno of Citium founded the first school of Stoicism around 300 B.C. – not in a classroom, but at the Stoa Poikile (a Greek term meaning “painted porch,” from which the word Stoa[cism]is derived).  

Here is the lesson, from that painted porch: 

A humble location, accessible to the public, where individuals might gather, exchange ideas, and work diligently on becoming the best version of themselves.  In the face of danger, these Stoics presented ideas, challenged those ideas, provoked discussions, and inspired one another – holding each other accountable to the philosophy they aspired to live by.

These meetings depended on close relationships cultivated by personal interactions and operated under the concept that we are the product of the company we keep.  As a result, these gatherings became an intimate accountability group.  As is still true in modern times, being a social species, we need to connect with others in these personal ways.  This is even more important during tough times.  The ancient Stoics were no different.  They were far from emotionless robots.  Even Marcus Aurelius offered in his journal, “Don’t be ashamed to need help.  Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish.  And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up?  So what?”  

Not only does a small Stoa Poikile group of our own allow us to tackle tough times, it allows us to tackle tough challenges.  Today many of us face enormous obstacles, made all the more difficult by a global pandemic.[1]  It is precisely in times like these that a text message or phone call will not suffice.  In order to thrive and continue to grow, we should coordinate a small, intimate group to gather on a porch (virtual or otherwise) at regularly scheduled times.  There is strength in numbers.  

Relationships allow space for collaboration, and from collaboration, a movement can begin.  More than at any point in my lifetime, we desperately need a collaborative movement, a movement that fosters growth, challenges injustice, and takes actionable steps for the good of our local communities (start small!).  Collaboration is key.  You should not undertake that growth, engage with those challenges, or take those steps alone.  Consider the first action that Marcus Aurelius took when he ascended to the throne as emperor: he voluntarily shared his absolute authority, appointing his adoptive brother Lucius Verus as co-emperor.  

However, this begs the question:  Why me?  Why lawyers?  

A “painted porch” on Rocky Top invokes a uniquely pleasant imagine in and of itself.  Nothing is more peaceful than the image of that familiar blue mist hanging in the crisp fall mountain air of East Tennessee.  Our country was made far better from those brave individuals who embodied the Volunteer spirit, crossed the Cumberland Gap, and endeavored to make our Nation as wonderful as the beauty they observed.  It is simply in our orange blood!  We are the Torchbearers – “for one who beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.”  

But more importantly, as lawyers, we occupy another unique vantage point in our society: the space between what is and what ought to be.  That is why, nearly 200 years ago, the French academic Alexis de Tocqueville was left in awe of the enormous responsibility and authority bestowed upon lawyers here, the “American aristocracy.”  This position gives us no luxury, but rather a responsibility to act and lead.  

“Waste no more time talking about what a good man is like,” Marcus Aurelius said, “Be one!”  

Take charge.  Organize a small group of meaningful friends in your professional and personal lives.  Create for yourselves your own “painted porch,” wherever that might be.  Hold these meetings regularly – challenge your own thoughts and opinions.  Strive to make yourself better and more useful to your community.  Embody your philosophy! 

Then, take your torch into the world.  

[1] These Stoics were similarly living through the Antonine Plague, a plague that originated in the Far East and claimed the lives of at least five million people.  

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