I explore disappointment we may feel towards degeneracy in the modern age and how we can best respond by working to better ourselves; lower our desires; and exercise virtues of acceptance, gratitude, and prudence.
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You’re listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast – practical wisdom for everyday life. I’m your host, Justin Vacula with episode 83 – Disappointment With Society. I explore disappointment we may feel towards degeneracy in the modern age and how we can best respond by working to better ourselves; lower our desires; and exercise virtues of acceptance, gratitude, and prudence.
Upon receiving and applying wisdom from Stoic Philosophy or other life-affirming paths, we can be more acutely notice others’ behaviors which widely diverge from a worthwhile path, we can groan and shake our heads at the masses and even society as others seem to squander their time, resources, and energy engaging in destructive and self-destructive behaviors. We can feel like we don’t fit in, unconcerned with the priories others seem to have, those who lead much different lives than us, and even feel great disappointment and loneliness. We wonder why others won’t change their ways, stop making excuses, and stop creating problems for themselves.
Seneca, in his letter titled ‘On the Degeneracy of the Age,’ observes that all eras of humankind are filled with vice and ruin, degeneracy as he calls it – while the actors and the vices may change, vice remains and degeneracy continues. He writes, to his friend, “You are mistaken, my dear Lucilius, if you think that luxury, neglect of good manners, and other vices of which each man accuses the age in which he lives, are especially characteristic of our own epoch; no, they are the vices of mankind and not the times. No era in history has ever been free from blame. […] We degenerate easily, because we lack neither guides nor associates in our wickedness, and the wickedness goes on of itself even without guides or associates. The road to vice is not only downhill, but steep; and many men are rendered incorrigible by the fact that, while in all other crafts errors bring shame to good craftsman and cause vexation to those who go astray, the errors of life are a positive source of pleasure.”
Seneca talks here about how people can find pleasure in vice and can easily, without moderation and prudence, important virtues within Stoicism, fall into bad actions and habits compromising their character. Consider, though, the long-term impacts of short-term pleasure without moderation and prudence. Sure, that fried chicken might taste good, but when reconsidering the word ‘good’ and thinking about participation in harm to animals, the environment, your health, and your financial welfare, more ‘good’ can be had in more ethical action of sustainable eating, a more frugal life, and less temptation.
It’s surely something deserving of scorn, companies pushing unhealthy food and continuing a cycle of excessive cruelty, amidst a societal narrative of ‘If it feels good, do it’ and worry not about higher ideals where consumerism and pleasure is king. Stoicism calls for us to question the ways of the crowds and live to higher standards. We can try to influence others’ behavior, and that won’t always be successful, but we can surely work to make good choices about our behavior and priorities – that’s in our control.
We can also work to, as Stoic authors frequently mention, surround ourselves with the best – being careful about who we let into our social circles and have the courage to walk away from people whose values dramatically differ from ours. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to find someone whose values are 100% in line with ours, but we can settle for some differences. Rather than continuing to persuade or influence others, especially when they do not want to participate in their own recovery, we can retreat into ourselves and those who mesh well with our values, working to better ourselves and the common good. We can come to accept that others will continue in wretched ways and will, because of lack of wisdom as the Stoics insist, fall away from a path of virtue.
We can also be in the crowds, but not of them. Stoics aren’t calling for a complete retreat from society, but rather a participant in it, utilizing our strengths to improve humanity at large. We can survey our strengths and find a fitting role to help others, continue the journey of self-improvement, and even fight back against degeneracy. Perhaps we won’t want to defend a society we deem corrupt, we won’t fix everything, but we can work to shine a light of virtue on some areas with those who are eager to change, participate in our personal journey, and help others. We can find reasons to press on in a world which is not overall matching our liking. We may experience a desire to see the world in a certain way knowing the potential is there, but then experience sadness because corruption persists in society. We can come to accept a fallen nature about things, this common symbolism in many traditions religious and not, and thrive in spite of suffering lowering our desires or expectations. Can we see tragedy as motivation to act in the world with renewed purpose? We can work to find meaning in a fallen world the best we can observing small victories, adding humour, treating others well, and cherishing moments which go well in life.
We can experience a sense of gratitude for being able to identify emptiness in popular ways of living; we can be happy that we’ve broken away from others’ habits and values that we lament. We shall prefer an examined life although it may come with disappointment, but that’s better than being unaware or in a state of self-destructive ignorance. I talk about, in fuller detail, why ignorance is not bliss back in episode 43. Others may seem happy, but ultimately they suffer mostly in silence, out of view, at within as their vices often catch up with them.
There’s admitedly some joy in taking money from the foolish arrogant gambler who treats others poorly. Bullies from high school end up in legal trouble and don’t seem to have amounted to much in life. Those who mock my frugal ways suffer stress following their irresponsible spending habits. Male feminists receive the ire of metoo. Those who preach against homosexuality are revealed to be self-loathing gay men who are publicly embarrassed. Even if others aren’t publicly exposed, they will suffer within – the Stoics alert us to the fact that one cannot truly escape their injustice. I would prefer people not suffer, that they would recover living in a more fitting way, but this will often not be the case. Sometimes, too, a rock bottom moment will motivate a person to change. All hope is not lost.
We can even work to turn the tables on a corrupt society in many ways. In a recent episode, I mentioned profitting from lucrative offers credit card companies put forth in order to profit from customers who fail to make payments on their debt as they rake in late fees, interest rates around 20%, and money gained from lack of moderation. Many have talked about how they lack so much discipline that they won’t even own a credit card, but they miss out on so much in the process. I’ve been really focused on the world of credit cards, points, and deals paying nothing to credit card companies and making good money while having a good amount of fun and sharing the wealth. Similarly, as mentioned in a previous episode, I played poker and made a significant amount of money turning the tables on casinos and players who, with their excessive greed and lack of wisdom, were defeated. My aim of increasing my financial health should allow me to have more contentment, exact a small degree of justice, and benefit others in the process through sharing resources and education.
We can also benefit from that which others missuse. Stoics talk about how about things themselves aren’t good or bad, but rather it is how we use things which determines their worth. While many will use technology to squander their time and treat others poorly, we can use technology to benefit our lives and be grateful for having it. We can use our money for good ends. We can eat responsibly. We can use credit cards to profit as I mentioned. What about other new, good things about society? While we may not do enough to address mental health challenges, there is more awareness and resources than ever before – we’re surely moved away from institutionalizing people thinking they were possessed by demons. Education and information is so widely available, for little or no cost, through the internet. Boredom is unconscionable given all of the low-cost or free entertainment opportunities avilable to us.
One person cannot fix all of society, but we can try to help some areas of it and exercise most influence on bettering ourselves. We can rise above malaise to follow the Stoic path and overcome adversity to discover a life worth living rather than allowing ourselves to be dragged down by the wretchedness of the world. The journey, of course, may be difficult, but self recovery and contentment is possible. Stoic authors insist that contentment does not depend on external factors, but rather is from within. We can exercise virtue to make due with situations we find difficult and thrive the best we can without falling victim to and being guided by emotions like resentment, want for vengenance, and hatred.
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Podcast music, used with permission, is brought to you by Phil Giordana’s symphonic metal group Fairyland from their album ‘Score to a New Beginning.’ John Bartmann offered free consultation and audio edits for episodes 51-63. Thanks to generous patrons and fans of this podcast who help support my work. Have a great day.