The lunchtime exercise for today focuses on a discussion of virtue(s) and value(s) in Stoic thought, including a set of questions about one’s actual values and priorities that’s meant to be the occasion for reflection. It struck me, as I read the questions in the exercise, that there’s a kind of danger to Stoic virtue in some approaches to answering these questions.
Among the queries offered for reflection are these:
- What do you want your life to ‘stand for’ or ‘be about’?
- What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you die?
Frivolously, the first thing that came to mind when I read the above was this:
For those not familiar with the film, this is a clip from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the story of a man (Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart) whose fame and career were built on a reputation that, as it happened, wasn’t really earned. That reputation made it possible for him to do considerable good in the world, the kind of good he was in the process of trying to when the myth on which his success depended was created. His character was formed around concepts of freedom, justice, honesty, and integrity — and his career was ultimately built on a lie, a lie that he could not rectify even by telling the truth because the very people to whom he owed it didn’t want to hear it.
The reason it came to mind is this: reputation (especially posthumous reputation) seems to me to be one of those things we are not absolutely able to control. One can, of course, try to control these things, but doing so can lead to any number of behaviors and attitudes that are decidedly un-Stoic (and certainly not virtuous). I can choose to stand for something, and I can assign meaning to my life as I live it, but I cannot decide what my life means for or to other people.
The questions, of course, are mostly aspirational — they seem to be intended to elicit from the one who responds to them the same sort of reflection that Marcus Aurelius engages in with regard to his role models and his character ideals. The problem lies in how one invests oneself in arriving at the answers. If I am appropriately reserved about expectations with regard to things beyond my control, then while I can certainly make it my goal to behave as the sort of person about whom others might perhaps believe x, I cannot make it my goal to cause them to believe x about me. That way trouble lies. Even my role models must be kept at arm’s length. Even my aspirations must be conditional, if I am to avoid being Rance Stoddard; perhaps I should make it my (more reasonable) aim to be the John Wayne character, Tom Doniphan, who did the actual shooting and died in relative obscurity, having made Stoddard’s success (and survival) possible. After all, “The Legend of Tom Doniphan” has a different ring to it — and was entirely a matter of indifference to Doniphan himself.
Now I really want to write a Stoic analysis of this movie…hmmm…I mean, it’s already been done well enough elsewhere, but I feel like taking a shot at it (*adds to list of incomplete blog posts*).