Law Life: The lawyer's 'Enchiridion'

By Eric S. Giroux
The Daily Record Newswire

We casually dismiss the Stoics, those frosty Mediterraneans whose “golden wisdom” includes this tender morsel from Epictetus’ (c.55-135) “Enchiridion”:

“When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, ... don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.”

Hard stuff. The true message of the Stoics, of Epictetus in particular, is more complex, and compassionate, than either that passage or their reputation suggests.

We have no actual writings by Epictetus, a banished, crippled, former slave who operated a philosophy school in northwestern Greece in the early second century. What we do have is more from “Enchiridion,” a collection of excellent lecture notes from a student named Arrian.

Examined through a finer lens, “Enchiridion” offers profoundly good advice, of particular use to today’s overstressed lawyers.

There are tips on how to manage your temper (the blame is on you if you decide you will not):

“When ... anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.”

Confronted with a noxious e-mail, or obstruction at the deposition table, remember, too, this near-perfect gem:

“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”

Epictetus has helpful advice for happier times as well, albeit it amounts to “don’t get too happy.” At the start of a matter, as you dash off a chipper initial “memo to file” in the soft afterglow of snagging fresh business, turn a cold eye to your case’s true prospects:

“In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.”

Even two millennia later, on topic after topic, Epictetus’ insights leap from the page. On regulating pride to keep a true compass: “Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own.”

On managing expectations (your client’s and your own): “[I]f you desire any of the things which are not in your control, you must necessarily be disappointed."

More generally, there is the classic epigram that people “are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” Easier said than done, of course.

In one intriguing spot, Epictetus surprisingly is in tension with Lincoln. Famously melancholic, Lincoln himself harnessed stoicism, and humor, in service of his own stability and the nation’s greater good.

Where Lincoln cautiously advises, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt,” Epictetus instructs, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

Like it or not (as Epictetus would observe, that is just one more reality that is beyond our control), Epictetus’ advice is probably better. Putting yourself forward, taking risks — yes, appearing a fool — all are key to growth in this profession.

Wise enough to last the ages, these instructions do little to revise the prevailing frigid portrait of the Stoics. For that, turn to the last pages of “Enchiridion,” where Arrian’s lessons presumably concluded.

There, in the gender-specific language of his time, Epictetus reveals that his purpose, fundamentally humanistic, was to ease the suffering of a challenging life. In all tasks, both professional and personal, Epictetus urges courage and independence, demanding we embrace the iconoclast within:

“Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? ... You are no longer a boy, but a grown man. ... This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient.  Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law.”

To wit: Trust thyself and seize the day. Not exactly chicken soup, but a bracing “buck up” from a Stoic who cares.

 Eric S. Giroux is an associate at Hinckley, Allen & Snyder in Boston.