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Enemies of Tranquility [On Vice and Friendship]

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We all have vices.


They range on a spectrum, of course, from either having three packs of sugar in our coffee all the way up to mainlining heroin.

In the Stoic context and for our purposes here, there is no need to get into the extremes; we will utilize one of the definitions of “vice” as given by the Oxford Dictionary:

“Vice: A weakness of character or behavior; a bad habit.”

A vice is doing something you know is not wise, but you do it anyway, because on some level, it gives you pleasure, mentally or physically.

There are any number of factors that could lead one to taking on and maintaining a vice, but they all fall into the classic categories of nature versus nurture.

In terms of the former, some people are predisposed genetically. Having DNA and neural pathways geared towards addiction is bad luck in the cosmic lottery, for one cannot change things on that molecular level. However, once one is aware of that propensity, safeguards can be put into place, therapies introduced, or possibly even medications if severe enough.

But what about the “nurture” side of things?

There is much more you can control about your environment than you can about the chromosomes that make up who you are.

Of course, when one is a child, one is forced to experience the world as dictated by parents and other authority figures.

But now? You are your own responsibility.

You cannot completely control your environment, but you can certainly take steps to ensure fewer stumbles on the path of the good life; and one of those steps, according to the Stoics, is choosing your friends wisely, for vices are contagious.

In a similar vein, I once asked the most accomplished Buddhist meditator I have ever known if friends are important to the path.

His response?

“Your friends are the path.”

Or, as my Iowan barber Rocky once put it, “If you hang out in a barber shop long enough, you’ll eventually get a haircut, so don’t hang out with people you know ain’t good for you.”

We all have obstacles to being who we want to be and to having a good life. There is no need to have any more needlessly.

Whether it be nicotine, watching too much television, overeating, or binge shopping online (yes…I am very well aware of the dangers of one-click shopping, especially when it comes to fountain pens and books), there are actions we carry out that we know are unwise, yet continue doing anyway.

One of the most effective paths one can take to avoid vices, according to the Stoics, and based on my own personal experience, is to avoid those people with the same vices, and instead, cultivate connections and friendships with people who don’t.

The mind and heart play tricks though.

“I can’t completely quit hanging out with my buddy Bob! Yeah, I always drink too much when we hang out, but he’s my friend!”

Try hanging out with Bob after telling him you are going to pass on the firewater for a while. If he is cool with it, you will know he is a true friend. If he gets upset, maybe he is not the friend you thought he was.

Or say you are close with some neighbors, and conversation always revolves around items of status, whether it be cars, furniture, or travel, yet you know there are wiser things you could be doing with your conversation (and money.)

Try talking with them about more meaningful things or activities such as volunteering with a non-profit, or perhaps about the last amazing book on Stoicism that you read, and see what type of reaction you get.

If their eyes start to glaze over with boredom when you discuss the importance of generating a good character, or they want to go on and on about the latest smartphone, while you are okay with the model from a few years ago, you will know it might be time to seek other company.

Or, on the positive side, maybe they will join you on the path to a good life that is free of vices, useless suffering, and wasted time.

Life is short. Time is precious. Who you spend time with plays a large part in the choices you make; and to paraphrase Dumbledore, it’s not your abilities (or smartphone or car or travel plans) that define who you are, but your choices.

Acta Non Verba: Write a list of your vices. Be honest. Evaluate which friends help cultivate those vices, and which help in overcoming them. Cling to the latter, drift away from the former, and find even more that are in alignment with who you want to be. This might mean deleting half your “friends” on social media, but it’s worth it.

Ab Aeterno

“From good men you will learn good things. If you mix with bad men, you will destroy even your existing sense.” – Musonius Rufus quoting Theognis

…we adopt our habits from our associates, and as certain bodily diseases spread to others from contact, so the mind passes on its faults to those nearest. – Seneca

Just because some people are nice to you doesn’t mean you should spend time with them. – Epictetus

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. – Epictetus

He may show you constant loyalty and goodwill, but a companion who is disturbed and laments everything is an enemy to tranquility. – Seneca

…so in selecting friends we shall pay attention to their characters so that we may enlist as few as possible who suffer from impurities. – Seneca

Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Original, non-meme image from Gabriel Matula via

Categories: Reason

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Stephen Sumner

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