In the fall of 2000, we studied The Enchiridion as part of my Social Studies/English course. After reading it, we were required to select an common problem in modern society that was also addressed in The Enchiridion and write a position paper on whether or not the solution offered by Stoicism was one that would work in today's society. This is the paper I wrote.
Throughout history, people have struggled to make sense of the problems we face, to come up with a solution to all the suffering in the world. A common problem in today's society is the problem of self-esteem. Our society places a great deal of value on appearance and circumstances in life. Many people, however, aren't fortunate enough to have the appearances and lifestyle most consider ideal, and consequently they are looked down upon. Eventually, this effects their own sense of pride, and they come to believe that they have no worth. The Stoics of ancient Greece had their own answer to this problem, but it is not a solution that would work for today's society.
According to the Enchiridion, "Women from fourteen years old are flattered by men with the title of mistress. Therfore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place all their hopes. It is worthwhile, therefore, to try that they might perceive themselves honored only so far as they appear beautiful in their demeanor and modestly virtues."
In other words, we must learn to put our values in a different place from the society around us. We must not look to appearance and circumstance to determine the value of a person, but instead to what a person does. Actions show the morals and virtues of a person, and virtue is where we should place our values. Unlike appearance, the condition of our hearts is something we have control over and something we can rightfully be held accountable for.
The question at hand is, however, whether or not this solution would work for today's society. Unfortunately, it would not.
At a first glance, that statement may not make sense. We place our value on our own virtue, and in our value we find happiness. Where is the problem?
The problem lies simply in this; what if we have no virtue?
Humans are not, never have been, and never will be perfect. That does not mean that we are all horrible creatures, but we are going to make mistakes. No matter how hard we try, we are always going to find ourselves doing things that hurt other people or ourselves. And while it is always possible to 'look on the bright side', so to speak, and remind ourselves that we are capable of many good deeds as well, some people may find that it is not enough.
A world of good deeds cannot make up for one evil deed, because with that one deed, someone is going to be hurt. Even when it is small, emotional pain is hard to alleviate. And if we are truly empathetic creatures who want to value ourselves by our virtue, then we will be affected when we cause others pain. And it will be hard to dispense with that discomfort without ignoring our own conscience and humanity.
So if we search for value in virtue, but then cannot be truly virtuous, where will we find our value? That is the problem with the Stoic solution to self-worth. We make our own choices and we are held accountable for them, but we continue to make bad use of our freewill. Where will people find happiness, then? Where will they find their worth? They will be just as depressed as if they placed their values on appearance.
This problem is not limited to today's society. Humans do not change; what works for one society should work for another. It is a problem that humans will always face, and the same problem existed in the days of Stoicism.
That is why, when another solution presented itself, so many people chose to take it, and why so many people choose to take that solution today.
Value cannot be found in appearance, because we have no control whatsoever over our looks. Value cannot be found in virtue, because humankind is not virtuous. We find value in ourselves when others value us, (value by definition has no meaning if the value only exists for one person), but why do others value us? So far, we have made the assumption that our value has something to do with us. Is this really true? Or is it possible that one person can be valued by another despite who they are or what they do?
The answer, many have found, is yes. We find this answer in a different book, the Bible, where we are promised that we are valued by God simply because He made us, not for any other reason. There is nothing else we need to do but accept Him to earn that value, and we can value ourselves because we know that we are valued.
This is a much better answer to the problem of self-esteem. There are no loopholes, and it is an answer that has worked both for our society and for the societies of the ancient times. In order to work, a philosophy must deal with reality as it is. Stoicism is too idealistic to be a working solution.