Confucius was once asked for advice by a student, and in replying essentially urged him to wait and be patient. Later he was asked for advice by another student, and advised that student to not be patient and to solve the problem immediately. An observant third student noticed the seemingly contradictory nature of Confucius’ responses and asked him to explain.
Confucius replied, “Ran Qiu is over cautious and so I wished to urge him on. Zilu, on the other hand, is too impetuous, and so I sought to hold him back.” This seems like a fairly obvious insight that different situations call for different, even potentially opposite solutions. Beyond Confucius, just consider Epictetus: He was not writing things down, but rather speaking aloud to his students. In many cases, what survives of his teachings is in similar form to what we have of Confucius advice to particular people in particular situations. Same with Seneca’s letters, which were addressed to specific people and specific scenarios, and with Marcus Aurelius who was speaking about his own personal issues. Think of Walt Whitman, a lifelong student of Epictetus, who reminded us that even individuals contradict themselves because they are complicated and contain multitudes.
Because everybody is different, and different strokes for different folks. Different advice for people depending on who they are, what they want, and where they are one day to the next. If there is anything that is consistently and systematically true about the practice of Stoic philosophy, it’s this.
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