Up and Down (and Up Again) Up and Down (and Up Again)
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“Winter Landscape with Ice-skaters and Bird-trap”, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565
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Up and Down (and Up Again)

A Stoic Approach to Progress
Piotr Stankiewicz
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Stoicism isn’t for those who have never fallen down. It’s for those who want to get back up.

Stoicism is a philosophy full of “subtle and sophisticated contradictions,” as Henryk Elzenberg once put it. And very well, too: otherwise, no one would find it worthwhile 2000 years later. One such contradiction is the issue of perfection and perseverance.

How does it work, really? Does one become a Stoic once, for good, epiphany-style, in an act of final conversion, a black-and-white metamorphosis? Or perhaps the opposite is true, and the Stoic’s path is not an ultimately transformative strike of lighting on the way to Damascus, but rather a long and winding trail, full of twists and turns, jagged with treacherous holes and dead ends.

On the one hand, Stoics write a lot about the perfection of virtue. You either have it or you don’t. There is the Stoic perspective and the lack of it. On the other hand, though, what Stoics write about even more is the need for exercise, repetition and self-improvement, as well as the unreachability of the perfection one can approach asymptotically without ever quite reaching it. Well, how is it really, then? How should we interpret setbacks on the path to Stoicism? Are we disqualified by our failures?

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Let me explain from the perspective of my own experience. A very tangible experience, too. There isn’t any good metric nor an app to precisely measure our progress in Stoicism. Still, I measure and write down plenty of things, so I have collected a decent amount of data anyway. Since the start of 2018, I have tried to do 110 push-ups a day. Do I succeed? Well, of course not – I get an average of 55.8 a day, half of my goal. Is it a failure then? The objective remains beyond my reach, but can we really call a track record of 80,000 push-ups over the course of the past four years a failure?

Those four years are not only the aforementioned average result, but also constant efforts in building a habit, finding a rhythm and meeting the consistent goal of 110 push-ups with no further hiccups. How many times did I start all over again? I have plenty of notes: my grandfather’s 99th birthday; my daughter’s fourth. Various important dates to reinforce my decision: from now on, today is the day, a fresh start, no giving up now, no setbacks, not ever. And of course, nothing has come of it, I keep failing and starting over again. Just during the pandemic, I counted more than a dozen attempts. Is it a little or a lot? Here is the truth about getting back up. It doesn’t matter how many times we try, the only thing that counts is trying again.

More than a dozen attempts, all of them failed. Sounds a bit lame, doesn’t it? Or maybe not, not at all. It would be naive to think we could start our #NewLife just like that, on the first try. It takes several attempts to successfully change one’s way. We might find the repetitive nature of our failures disheartening but… it could also turn out to be a source of strength. As the old joke goes: “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” It is more than just a joke, though. With repeated effort comes experience that makes eventual success possible.

Everything in life works that way. Stoicism is not for those who have never failed, because nature knows no perfection. Stoicism is for those who want to get back up. It works for me. Hopefully, it will work for you, too.

 

Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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By assuming that thought, language and culture are exclusive to humanity, we have shut ourselves off from non-human experience and knowledge. What if we finally broke away from the old Cartesian division of the world into us and the rest? The humanities make it clear today that we are not the pinnacle of wisdom because there are other modes of cognition, which are no better or worse than ours.

What do cephalopods do when they meet deep in the sea and briefly touch each other’s tentacles? What is the intention of an octopus squirting water on the back of a disliked scientist (as described in Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science) and what determines their social preferences? What is the content of mice songs or the choreographic messages expressed by crabs? Why would a chimpanzee mother carry a dead baby on her back for as many as 40 days? Why would she eat a little of her offspring’s body, a portion too small to have any nutritional value? We have no answers to these questions – and will probably not arrive at them any time soon. Although science – humanity’s superpower – is developing rapidly also in the sphere of ethology, the methods it has at its disposal, even the most advanced, are necessarily limited by human perception. Indeed, scientific enquiry is based on a deeply internalized system of concepts and values. In short, human cognition is invariably anthropomorphic, i.e. bound by what our minds and bodies are capable of. Does this mean, however, that the worlds of non-human beings – along with their creative and meaning-making practices – have to remain radically beyond our ken?

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