Finding & Fixing Defects in Character

A dialogue about addressing moral flaws

(Quotation from Chapter 3 of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor):

What was the process of being mentored by a Stoic philosopher actually like, though? Why did it have such a profound and lasting impact on Marcus? The Stoics wrote several books describing their psychotherapy of the passions, including one by Chrysippus, the third head of the school, titled The Therapeutics. Unfortunately, these are all lost to us today. However, a treatise titled On the Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul’s Passions survives, written by Marcus’s celebrated physician, Galen. A polymath with an eclectic taste in philosophy, Galen had initially studied under a Stoic called Philopater, and he drew upon early Stoic philosophy, quoting Zeno, in his own account of diagnosing and curing unhealthy passions. This may give us some clues about the nature of the Stoic “therapy” Marcus went through with Rusticus.
As a young man, Galen wondered why the Delphic Oracle’s maxim to “know thyself” should be held in such high regard. Doesn’t everyone already know himself? He gradually came to realize, though, that only the very wisest among us ever truly know ourselves. The rest of us, as Galen observed, tend to fall into the trap of supposing either that we are completely without fault or that our flaws are few, mild, and infrequent. Indeed, those who assume that they have the fewest flaws are often the ones most deeply flawed in the eyes of others. This is illustrated by one of Aesop’s fables, which says that each of us is born with two sacks suspended from our neck: one filled with the faults of others that hangs within our view and one hidden behind our back filled with our own faults. We see the flaws of others quite clearly, in other words, but we have a blind spot for our own. The New Testament likewise asks why we look at the tiny splinter of wood in our brother’s eye yet pay no attention to the great plank of wood obscuring our own view (Matthew 7:3–5). Galen says that Plato explained this well when he said that lovers are typically blind regarding the one they love. As we, in a sense, loves [sic] ourselves most of all, we are also most blind with regard to our own faults. The majority of us therefore struggle to attain the self-awareness required to improve our lives.
Galen’s solution to this problem is for us to find a suitable mentor in whose wisdom and experience we can genuinely trust. Anyone can tell when a singer is truly dreadful, but it takes an expert to notice very subtle flaws in a performance. Likewise, it takes a person of moral wisdom to discern slight defects in another person’s character. We all know that someone is angry when their face turns red and they start yelling, but a true expert on human nature would be able to tell when someone is just on the verge of getting angry, perhaps before they even realize it themselves. We should therefore make the effort to acquire an older and wiser friend: one renowned for honesty and plain speaking, who has mastered the same passions with which we need help, who can properly identify our vices and tell us frankly where we’re going astray in life. What Galen is describing sounds somewhat like the relationship between a modern-day counselor or psychotherapist and their client. However, a better comparison would probably be with the mentoring or “sponsorship” provided by recovering drug or alcohol addicts to those who are in recovery and struggling with similar habits—the help of a more experienced fellow patient, as Seneca puts it. Of course, finding an appropriate mentor is still easier said than done.

Bob (B): What do you think of the above?

Adam (A): I thought this part was particularly interesting:

Doesn’t everyone already know himself? He gradually came to realize, though, that only the very wisest among us ever truly know ourselves. The rest of us, as Galen observed, tend to fall into the trap of supposing either that we are completely without fault or that our flaws are few, mild, and infrequent.

People often treat themselves as an expert on themselves, their psychology, their own motivations, and so on. But they’re typically the most biased about themselves, and have the most motivation to interpret things in a way flattering to themselves, and to misremember things that might clash with a flattering view.

B: Yes.

A: If you suggest that someone else might have more insight into their behaviors/actions/psychology than they themselves do, many people will react with great hostility.

B: And yet lots of those same people would happily go to a therapy session where they would expect someone other than themselves to provide them with useful advice. And what will be the basis of that advice? The information that the person tells the therapist plus whatever expertise or insight the therapist may have from their psychological study and training. And if someone isn’t open to that sort of relationship with a therapist, they might be open to it with a priest, and be relying on the priest’s spiritual training and wisdom. You can imagine various such relationships. The point is that people aren’t opposed to that sort of thing generally. They are open to it. But they very selectively become opposed to it when someone brings up some criticism or point about themselves that they don’t like, don’t want to admit, don’t want to see.

A: Right that makes sense.

B: So there is a lack of intellectual integrity and consistency in many such objections. But suppose you managed to find the person who honestly doesn’t acknowledge that anyone could offer any insight that would help him know himself - he fully trusts his own appraisal of his emotions and psychology and is deaf to claims that anyone could have expertise on such matters, and is consistent in his belief.

A: Assuming that we’re talking about a typical person and not someone very wise, this hypothetical person sounds like an arrogant fool.

B: Yes I agree.

A: So people often think they don’t have faults or only have a few mild ones. Can they also be too harsh on themselves?

B: Yes, though I don’t think those possibilities are mutually exclusive.

A: What do you mean?

B: You could have a person with a very fragile ego, who mostly thinks that they’re pretty good. But then someone points out that they did something wrong. This person then catastrophizes the situation and then decides that the criticism they received means they are literally the worst human being on earth.

A: That does not seem like a particularly reasonable reaction.

B: I agree. I think the reason someone might have that sort of reaction is because it protects their existing ideas.

A: How do you mean?

B: Suppose Charlie thinks he’s pretty good. Then he has some flaw, X, pointed out. Then Charlie decides having this flaw means he his horrible. What result?

A: Well if he’s horrible, maybe that means that he has to make changes?

B: So that’s one way to take it. You could treat it like people treat a heart attack (that they survive) in the context of their health - as a warning, as an alarm bell sounding, as something to address immediately. But suppose Charlie takes it more in the spirit of a bad stoic passion, where he decides that he’s just no good and feels overwhelmed by the situation.

A: Well, if you decide that you’re just no good, why bother improving?

B: Exactly.

A: I see. But then, can Charlie actually survive in such a state of misery?

B: No. Nobody can psychologically endure a state of profound self-loathing for long. But you see, Charlie is very forgetful, which comes in handy for him. Because after the emotion has run its course, and he has avoided making any changes, then he’ll go back to his previous view of himself as being pretty okay.

A: I see! Well, that’s “convenient” in a sense, but it does not seem like Charlie will be able to make much progress in life this way.

B: So you see the problem.

A: Indeed.

B: Another thing in the above passage I think is worth paying attention to is the point about detecting subtle defects in character, and how that requires expertise:

We all know that someone is angry when their face turns red and they start yelling, but a true expert on human nature would be able to tell when someone is just on the verge of getting angry, perhaps before they even realize it themselves.

A: That makes sense. Though I think I might feel attacked if someone was pointing out subtle defects in my character all the time!

B: Well, does that reaction make sense? Like, suppose you had a skilled doctor that used knowledge of your medical history plus their own general medical expertise to detect a subtle medical problem before it became serious. Would you feel attacked by that?

A: No.

B: So you have no problem, in general, with people using specific knowledge of your situation plus their expertise in order to detect and point out some subtle problem?

A: No. Pointing out a moral problem seems different though.

B: How so?

A: If someone points out a medical issue, then you can act on it. But if someone points out a moral problem, that just means you are bad.

B: So moral problems aren’t amenable to action?

A: You can act to fix them, but it can be very hard, and meanwhile you just have the knowledge that you are a bad person, which causes you suffering.

B: Why does the knowledge that you are a bad person in some way necessarily entail suffering?

A: If you had knowledge that you were a bad person and were indifferent to it, then I think that would mean you were evil.

B: If you had knowledge of a serious medical condition, and took steps to remedy it, but otherwise managed to not let it bother you, and just carried on with your life as best as you could otherwise, would you describe your reaction as indifference?

A: Hmm. No I guess not.

B: How would you describe it?

A: Well, if you are taking actions to address the medical problem, that means that you regard the medical condition as a bad thing and a state of good health as a good thing.

B: Right. You have a judgment that the medical condition is undesirable and a state of good health is desirable. This judgment is reflected by your course of action. And that’s separate and apart from any emotional reaction you may have about the medical condition.

A: So you’re saying that it’s possible to realize you are bad in some way, and work to fix it while at the same time not feeling bad about it?

B: Not only do I think it is possible, I think it is the best way to proceed.

A: Because the negative feelings get in the way of fixing it?

B: Yes. If you impose an emotional penalty upon yourself by lingering on negative thoughts every time you become aware of some bad trait you have, then you are not going to be realizing many of your bad traits. And the same logic applies to imposing an emotional penalty upon yourself for thinking about your bad traits in enough detail to try to fix them.

A: So the ideal approach regarding thinking about your own bad traits is to be kind of detached from them? Judge them as negative, but don’t get emotional about them, and work to fix them?

B: Yes.