Finding Your Moral Compass Hurts

Finding Your Moral Compass Hurts

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker‘s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

Photo: x1klima

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Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

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This week’s selection comes from Epictetus and his Discourses. In book three, chapter 23, he suggests that ethical improvement is not a cake walk – and it isn’t supposed to be:

“The lecture-room of the philosopher is a hospital; you ought not to walk out of it in pleasure, but in pain.”

Here’s another version:

“A philosopher’s school, man, is a doctor’s surgery. You shouldn’t leave after having had an enjoyable time, but after having been subjected to pain.”

What It Means

Ethical philosophy is not meant to be fun. The study and application of virtuous thought stings. You’re being confronted with concepts that may radically oppose what you believe and what you feel, but that’s the point.

Epictetus goes on to mention that “you aren’t well” when you enter a philosopher’s lecture room. You’re there to heal, but as anyone who’s ever been seriously hurt can tell you: Healing is painful.

What to Take From It

These philosophy lessons should make you think in many different ways, but they should also strike a nerve and reveal certain unpleasant truths. After all, these are not mantras designed to empower you, but tools to break you down so that you can rebuild yourself as a better, more ethical being.

These truths should challenge your world view and the complacent comfortability your mind has settled in. It hurts to be wrong, but you have to accept it and allow yourself such failings so you can learn and grow.

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To become a better person, to engage in true ethical training, mental discomfort is necessary. As Epictetus puts it in book three, chapter two, you should not be “unfeeling like a statue” while you adjust. This pain – the pain of being previously misguided, the pain of remorse – is what stimulates your ethical growth. Like lifting a heavy weight in the gym, it takes effort and intention to grasp a concept and bring it close.

You will become tired and sore. The process should hurt. It’s the only way to get better, to be better.


  • A blanket statement of “you aren’t well” – sounds like the result of a Scientology Personality test.
    Tools that break a person down? With an assumption you will be rebuilt in a “better” form? In the wrong hands (or just incompetent ones) that can do some real damage.

    • There should be a disclaimer that philosophers are not psychologists. They don’t dwell on mental health or wellbeing. They’re primarily about questioning everything. Alot of these philosophers were also miserable gits…

      So one should exercise extreme care in applying philosophical concepts to their own life.

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