There are two kinds of Stoics.
But before I get into that, I’d like you to imagine a spectrum. On one side we have an Epicurean take on life, which represents the world view that “The point of life is simply to avoid discomfort and chase pleasure”. We’ll call this the “cheese” side, for short. And on the other, we will put the Stoic stance, that “Virtue is the only good”. While the Stoics had the big four of Justice, Courage, Temperance, and Wisdom, many other virtues were shuffled in under these, like benevolence, patience, honesty, and many other admirable qualities. As you could imagine any two integers, there are infinite decimal places between these two broad categories. Each situation, each moment, you could be asking yourself if you wish to live a life of purpose, or chase moments of fleeting pleasure. You could observe with this compass those moments when what you are doing is purely self-serving, and use this cheese to contrast what behavior may be more beneficial to the wider rings of affinity, the human family outside of you, and its future.
You could imagine any would-be Stoic, nay, every moment of a would-be Stoic, on the above mentioned spectrum. Let’s call it the “Cheese Spectrum”. Now let me be clear for a moment, I don’t support the use of these terms to attack, critique, judge, or even measure, to their face (or behind their back), any person alive or dead, a practicing Prokopton or not, by these terms and this spectrum. But it’s a mighty useful tool for assessing your own motives and behavior. Are you living up to your expectations of yourself? Do you have a compass for reaching higher heights of what you can do to make the fishtank you swim in better, safer, more full of love and gratitude? This Cheese Spectrum is such a compass, a scale for weighing, and an arrow for more positive action.
In the absence of good role models in your daily surroundings, this spectrum may be supplemental, even a creative writing exercise that lets you dig deeper. But chances are good it may help you spot virtuous behavior you previously weren’t noticing in your surroundings before, because they didn’t come gift wrapped with a Stoic Momento Mori coin! Those sweet and thoughtful things others around you do, often thanklessly. In this way, this spectrum may help you spot good teachers, learn better ways of handling certain tough situations, and maybe even finding greater depths of virtue than what might be possible without such a comparative study. A brief glance at the first chapter of Meditations runs through a variety of Marcus Aurelius’s favorite and most revered teachers, and he notes them, not by clunky abstract virtues that are more suitable as profound umbrella terms (yes, I mean the Four Virtues), but in nuanced ways that describe how these role models handled themselves and especially others in the tiny moments.
Just as an example, maybe you find yourself resisting communicating with someone, because you are worried the results won’t be good for you. Suddenly the Cheese compass starts blinking or beeping at you! It alerts you that your desire for self-preservation is obstructing making a better life for that person. “But what could be more virtuous?” you ask yourself. Then you realize that your avoidance is due to neglecting something you offered to do for them, annnnd forgot. In On Benefits by Seneca, he says that it’s a great benefit to anticipate other people’s needs and fulfill them before asking, but should they begin to ask, attempt to respond as if you intended to do it all along and they just caught you just as you were about to do it. Maybe you can’t make up for forgetting before you talk to them, but you decide you can start the conversation before they have a chance to ask, apologize before they have a chance to be upset, and because it’s kindness, prepare yourself to accept any discomfort they feel about it, even if directed at you, and for even more virtue (which sometimes means granting cheese to others!) plan to sweeten the pot in some way, making it even better than your initial offer, so that you can package this delight right alongside your admittance of guilt. Missed promises are a simple, but all too common hurdle in any relationship, and failing others can make them think you are careless or negligent. But when aiming yourself back towards virtue, even in disappointing others, the “right thing” to do just popped out with a little creative imagining of “what could be more virtuous?”, and only got better when you asked yourself, “but what more can I do than that?”, which is the ultimate guide to using this compass. I hope this helps you mold your less virtuous behavior into something nobler, righting yourself, or as Marcus Aurelius says, “Strait, not straightened”. Let these things usher your way to greater fulfillment.
1. Observe an action, yours or others, and mark it on this spectrum (is this just cheese?),
2. Fill in the blanks around it, always asking “But what more can I do to make it better?” and 3. let that guide your actions.
So, there are two kinds of Stoics: those who practice virtue, who make their practice daily, or even moment by moment, and those who spend more time in the cheese.
The Cheese Compass
There are two kinds of Stoics.