Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Patience: A (Tentative) Definition

I'm working on a paper about patience and Stoicism, and here's a crack at a definition (or sketch, if you prefer) of patience:
Patience is the virtue of bearing unavoidable and wisely assumed burdens with equanimity.
I hope to post a draft in the coming days, so I'll not defend this at length here. My reservation was with the term "wisely," because I worried that this would seem to overintellectualize matters. I suppose this isn't as much of a problem if "wisely" is construed in fallible terms--wisely, given one's current information and understanding of things, for example. Or if one said something like the information one could be reasonably expected to have, then matters wouldn't be overly subjective. (One might object that "burden" might seem too negative since things like raising and teaching children take patience, and it might seem awkward to regard children as burdens...but I have a response in the paper: roughly, "burden" should be understood in a neutral, technical sense here.) Thoughts?

In other news (and I couldn't bring myself to do a separate post about this), I'm not sure what to make of's new Viagra commercial song and video entitled "The Hardest Ever." It's either (nearly?) brilliant or trash. Maybe both. He's going hard, but where is he going in that spaceship? It's hard--for me at least--not to be a little tickled by the line, "Imma go hard like a motherfuckin' boner." But maybe that just shows that I need to grow up (and/or refine my tastes in wordplay). The end (if you haven't seen it) will either reaffirm or destroy your love for Mick Jagger (or reaffirm your disdain for him). Unfortunately, perhaps, the song is (ahem) growing on me. But I have a soft spot for a catchy (er, hard) beat, so be patient with me.


  1. A possible problem with the "wisely assumed" part of your tentative definition is that it seems to rule out patient forbearance of burdens one hasn't chosen to take on, such as illness or injury. But maybe patience isn't exactly what's involved in these cases. Patiently waiting for a disease to pass sounds a bit odd to me (although perhaps too much philosophical attention to the word is throwing my ear for ordinary usage off). But couldn't one patiently wait for an elevator in which one is trapped to be repaired? And then the burden is not chosen, unless the burden in question is that of waiting patiently rather than some other way.

    The song is catchy, which is a trashy kind of brilliance, I suppose. I don't mean that as an insult. One way to be alive is to (still) like pop music, and all pop music is somewhat trashy. It's meant to be ephemeral. Although then I need to find another word for pop music that has lasting appeal. Maybe just 'music.' The Mick Jagger bit is surprisingly good, but I wish it was someone else doing it.

  2. I see. "Unavoidable and wisely assumed" are separate modifiers of "burdens," so illnesses and stalled elevators would be "unavoidable" (once you're ill/stuck).

  3. I guess you'll answer this in your paper, but why would avoidable burdens be excluded from the definition? Some avoidable burdens, no doubt, can be excluded on moral grounds (it isn't virtuous to be able to stand self-inflicted pains), but is it obviously wrong to say of someone that she carries all the burdens (in your neutral sense) of, say, a freely chosen primitive lifestyle with patience?

    A second point, which ties in to DR's comment on "wisely assumed". I often say of my oldest daughter that she is patient like a saint with her younger sister -- a burden that she hasn't assumed in any sense, but rather has been laid on her by her parents.

    (Describing my daughters relationship like this is meant somewhat humorous, though not as a joke. But perhaps it sounds less awkward in Norwegian than it does in English?)

  4. Thanks, vh. Good examples. If I stick with the formulation I have, then avoidable burdens fall under "wisely assumed." It might seem strange about talking about standing in a checkout line as a wisely assumed burden, but if you're out of diapers, then...better than poop on the floor!

    But I like the example of your daughter; children are "hard" cases for virtue ethicists in terms of (full?) attribution of virtues because there are questions about development and acquisition of stable states (and "rational choice" if you're Aristotelian about your virtues, though I guess that applies to Stoics, too). So, maybe this definition over-rationalizes patience. It certainly doesn't make (much) sense to insist that your daughter has assumed the burden of enduring the younger sister's business, since she could always, as it were, move out (false) or commit suicide (viz. the Sartrean/Stoic point). But then maybe that just makes this an unavoidable burden of being a big sister. (This response would actually fit in nicely with the connections I'm making with Stoicism in that Epictetus, for example, discusses how many of our obligations flow from the roles and relations we have to other people. Some of these--especially as we get older--are assumed, but others are, as it were, intrinsic or constitutive parts of those relationships.)

    (I see the non-joke humor; I guess there's a kind of dark humor in the idea of the responsibilities of child-rearing as burdens. Of course, when there's poop on the floor, we often don't feel like laughing about it. But maybe the more patient we are, the more we can laugh about it...)

  5. And the more we can laugh about it, the more patient we may be too... (As I write this, it strikes me that some sense of humor -- as well as not having too high opinions about ones own importance -- perhaps are central ingredients of certain kinds of patience. But this isn't something I have thought very hard about.)

    Your paper sounds very interesting, by the way, and I think I see where you are planning to go with it too.