How to Deal with Insults, the Stoic Way

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, Capitoline Hill, Rome.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was succeeded by his long-time student Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330-c. 230 BCE).

Originally a boxer, Cleanthes arrived in Athens with no more than four drachmas to his name. He studied first under Crates the Cynic and then under Zeno, recording their teachings on oyster shells or blade bones because he could not afford papyrus. Other students called him “the ass” on account of his sluggishness, but he took pride in this, saying that it implied that he could withstand any load that Zeno put upon him.

To support himself, Cleanthes worked all night carrying water, digging the earth, and milling grain. Because he seemed to do nothing all day other than study philosophy, he was hauled before the Areopagus [the Athenian judicial council] to account for his way of life. He called to witness the gardener for whom he worked, and the woman who sold the flour that he milled, and his diligence so impressed the judges that they voted him the sum of ten minae [a thousand drachmas]. Even as head of school, he continued, between teaching and writing, to work with his hands, earning him another, this time laudatory, nickname, “the Second Hercules.”

Cleanthes loved poetry. He used to say that, just as the strictures of a trumpet can transform our breath into music, so the constraints of verse can heighten our thoughts—thereby echoing the Stoic principle that it is life’s obstacles that enable us to soar. He held that human beings naturally incline towards virtue, and remain incomplete without it, “like half lines of iambic verse.” One day, the playwright Sositheus attacked him from the stage with the line, “Driven by Cleanthes’ folly like dumb herds,” but he simply sat there in silence, without so much as altering his countenance, so that the audience applauded him and heckled Sositheus off the stage. When Sositheus later came to apologize, he brushed it off as but a minor slight.

The physical exertion and calm demeanour paid off, and Cleanthes lived into his hundredth year. In the end, gingivitis [inflammation of the gums] compelled him to fast for two whole days, after which he never ate again, saying that he was so far down the road to death that it would be too much trouble to retrace his steps.

How might we deal with insults and put-downs as well as Cleanthes did?

Check the insult

The first step, I think, is to ascertain that the insult truly is an insult. Whenever someone insults us, we ought to consider three things: whether the substance is true, whom it came from, and why. If the substance is true or conceivably true, the person it came from is known to be fair-minded, and his or her motive is benevolent, then the insult is not an insult so much as a statement of fact, and, moreover, one that could be very helpful to us. Hence, we seldom take offence at our parents or teachers, whom we know to have our best interests at heart. More generally, if we respect the person who seems to have insulted us, we ought to give careful thought to their remarks and learn as much as we can from them. If, on the other hand, we believe the person to be beneath our consideration, we have no reason to take offence, just as we have no reason to take offence at a naughty child or a barking dog. So, whatever the case, we have no reason to take offence.

Check our anger

Having ascertained that the apparent insult is a genuine one, we might respond in one of several ways. The untutored response is, of course, to get angry. Anger is the weakest possible response, and this for three main reasons: it reveals that we take the insult, and therefore the insulter, seriously; it suggests that there may be some substance to the insult; and it upsets and destabilizes us, which, as well as being unpleasant, invites further attacks, including, sometimes, physical attacks. Do we really want to end up in hospital, or in prison, because some idiot is behaving like an idiot? People have issues of their own that are nothing to do with us. If anything, they deserve our pity rather than our anger.

Check our impulse

An impulse that may or may not go with anger is to return the insult. Even in the absence of anger, there are some dangers with returning the insult. Our riposte has to be clever and cutting, or at least apt, and it has to occur to us at just the right moment. L’esprit de l’escalier [French, “staircase wit”] refers to the common experience of thinking too late of the perfect put-down. But even if we are as sharp-witted as Cato or Cicero, the perfect put-down is rarely the best response. The fundamental problem with the put-down, however brilliant it may be, is that it equalizes us with our insulter, bringing them up to our level and us down to theirs. This gives them, their behaviour, and their insult far too much credibility or legitimacy.

Find something to laugh about

 In other words, the witty put-down should only ever be used for humour, when it is also at its most effective. Cato the Stoic was pleading a case when his adversary Lentulus spat in his face. After wiping off the spittle, Cato said, “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth. Gentle humour can be an effective response to an insult, and this for three main reasons: it undercuts the insulter and his or her insult, it brings any third parties on side, and it diffuses the tension of the situation. A similar strategy is to run with the insult and even add to it, in the genre, “Ah, if you knew me better, you would find greater fault still!”

Better still, ignore the insult

Humour, unfortunately, shares some of the same drawbacks as returning the insult. Our comeback has to be well-timed, well-judged, well delivered. All this requires precious mental energy, which we would do better to hold back for constructive purposes. Much easier, and, in fact, more powerful, is simply to ignore the insult, as Cleanthes did in the face of Sositheus. One day, a boor struck Cato while he was out at the public baths. When the boor realized that it was Cato whom he had struck, he came to apologize. Instead of getting angry or simply accepting the apology, Cato said, “I don’t remember being struck.” Subtext: “You are so insignificant to me that I don’t even care to register your apology, let alone take offence at your insult.” In ignoring our insulter we must take care not to seem haughty, which would amount to returning the insult. It can help at this point to recall the bigger picture, to remind ourself of what it was we were doing, for example, going to the baths, and to get on with it.

In summary

We need never take offence at an insult. Offence exists not in the insult but in our reaction to it, and our reactions are completely within our control. It is unreasonable to expect a boor to be anything but a boor; if we take offence at his bad behaviour, we have only ourself to blame.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

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