In a conversation on “You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes” about Martin Luther King Jr., the screenwriter and director Adam McKay talked about the distinction between two words (and concepts) that we commonly conflate:
Have you noticed the difference between dignity and respect is a big one? People that fly off the handle and get angry too much always talk about, ‘I’m not being respected.’ But respect is something you can’t control, right? Dignity is inside you, dignity is yours.
This is a brilliantly made point, and it aligns perfectly with Stoicism. Remember, to the Stoics the two big categories that everything had to be sorted into were the things that were up to us and the things that are not up to us.
Although it is nice to be respected, that really isn’t something that is up to us. But acting with dignity? Maintaining our own standards—our self-respect? That’s ours. Always. Even when we are under duress, facing adversity, or someone is attempting to humiliate us—dignity remains firmly in our control, provided we don’t give it up.
This is what made Cato such a towering figure to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and generations of Stoics. He didn’t care what other people thought about him, what they said to him, what they did to him. Sometimes public opinion lined up with his moral compass, sometimes it didn’t, but he never let that sway him from following what really mattered. Even when they showered him with curses or tried to kill him, he stuck fast. As McKay would go on to say in the interview, while we “can’t really control what they’re doing...we can control how we react.” It’s hard to describe Stoicism better than that phrase.
Because that’s what dignity is about. That’s why it’s much more important than “respect.”