This is a draft excerpt from my upcoming book (co-authored with Kai Whiting) “Living Well: Stoic Ideas for a Better Life” which you can pre-register for by clicking here
Inferred by the suggestion that our control in the world is limited to our individual thoughts, actions, and attitudes, seems to be an overwhelming lack of influence and power. If the limits of our control extends not one micrometer beyond the borders of our thoughts, attitudes, and actions, how can we ever hope to change the world? And if the answer is that we cannot, how can anyone accept a philosophy which seems to imply such limitations?
Today there exist many things we regard as being “bad”: slavery, sex-trafficking, human rights violations the world over, hunger, poverty, and moral corruption in our most sacred and foundational institutions. How does Stoicism tell us to think about these things—these seemingly evil things, which are outside of our control as they are neither our thoughts, actions, or attitudes?
Before we can answer that question we have to talk about the role of Virtue in Stoicism. To the Stoics Virtue was the only good. Not a good, not the highest good, but the only good. The idea being that if one is virtuous then one’s thoughts are virtuous as well; as are their attitudes and their actions. If our thoughts, attitudes, and actions are all virtuous, then everything we do will be a boon to us and the world around us. In other words: if everything springs from Virtue, then Virtue is the only true good and the rest simply results from its presence (or lack thereof). So, then, to the Stoic, the most important thing in life was to develop a virtuous character—nothing superseded this aim.
If Virtue is the only good, then it should be no surprise how Stoics defined the only bad, which they referred to as Vice. Vice is anything capable of corrupting our Virtue, or which prevents the development of a virtuous character. So, what is capable of corrupting our Virtue? What is Vice? Vice can be defined as any thought, action, or attitude which is not virtuous.
Recollecting what we learned from the previous chapter, what do we know about the limits of our control? That we can control only our thoughts, actions, and attitudes and, as a direct consequence of this, that others cannot control our thoughts, actions, or attitudes—nor can we control theirs. So, then, if Vice comes in the form of thoughts, actions, and attitudes, who is capable of corrupting our Virtue?
If Virtue is the only good, Vice the only bad, and we, ourselves, the only agents capable of corrupting our Virtue, then Good and Bad exist only internally within the individual. Good and bad are relational only to our Virtue or Vice as individual human beings; so those words (good and bad) have no relevancy outside of the self as far as the Stoics were concerned.
“Well now, wait a minute…” I can hear you saying, “What about those things you mentioned earlier? Aren’t those things bad?”
Not according to the Stoics. The Stoics called these sorts of things “indifferents.”
An indifferent is neither good nor bad because, remember, something is only good if it is beneficial to the development of a virtuous character, or bad if it is vicious (corruptive) to the development of a virtuous character. Is physical oppression corruptive to the development of a virtuous character? No. How could it be? If the only things which corrupt our Virtue are the vicious thoughts, actions, or attitudes we possess and express ourselves, and no one but ourselves can determine those thoughts, actions, or attitudes, then how can physical oppression, or any external, be “bad” as defined by the Stoics?
This is a very large and jagged pill to swallow, due in no small part to the ubiquitous and socially accepted modern definitions of “good” and “bad.” To suggest that physical oppression isn’t bad, but instead is an “indifferent,” seems like a minimizing of the evils of oppression—perhaps such a suggestion seems even to be a form of apologism—but is it?
No. Not at all. Though anyone should be forgiven for thinking otherwise at first.
The Story of Epictetus
Epictetus is one of the most celebrated philosophers of all time; he’s also the author of The Enchiridion and you may be familiar with his Discourses. You may not know, however, that before he was a renown and loved philosopher of Stoicism he was a slave in Hierapolis (modern day Turkey but, at the time, part of Greece) owned, in the physical sense, by a particularly brutal man. So brutal, it turns out, that this man regularly beat Epictetus and even, one day, broke his leg, leaving him with a life long-limp.
It is said that when this man threatened to break Epictetus’ leg, our wise and brave philosopher responded,
“You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower!
The concept of externals and indifferents (or, if you prefer, indifference to externals) is not one of apologism, it’s one of agency and empowerment. What Epictetus means is that while his “owner” may have control over his physical body, he can do nothing to corrupt his Virtue. Our goodness and our vileness, being a reflection of our character, are both within our control. No one can force us to give up on pursuing Virtue nor, indeed, force us to be Vicious. If you’d like a more modern, but equally aligned quote, look no further than Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, in the 1995 film Braveheart, when he said (of the British):
“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
Far more (literal) saber rattling going on in Braveheart than in the story of Epictetus, but the sentiment is the same: the true value of a life does not lie in the corporeal body, or even in the state of being alive. Instead, it lies in something metaphysical, something we can control but which other’s cannot so much as touch; it lies in our character.
To the Stoics a good life was a Virtuous life, and to William Wallace (who almost certainly was not a Stoic but whom, in this instance, displayed Stoic values) a Virtuous thing to do was to fight for freedom—not to abandon its cause out of a fear of death or retribution.
In the willingness to stand up to those who would seek to oppress us, in the recognition that an individual’s Virtue is something internal that no one but that individual themselves can impact, and in the acceptance of Virtue as the only good, Stoics make no apologies for tyrants. Instead, they neuter the tyrannical of their perceived power (by insisting they have none, since the only true good is Virtue and no tyrant can touch our Virtue) and live virtuously in spite of them.
Preferred Indifferents vs. Dispreferred Indifferents
The word “indifferent” very specifically refers to a thing’s ability to impact our Virtue either positively or negatively—it is not intended to suggest that external events (such as governmental corruption or human rights violations) do not matter, only that they do not matter to our individual ability to develop a virtuous character. In the previous chapter we alluded to this when we said,
”…our mothers, sisters, brothers, and fathers, are all very much outside of our control. But we still care about them, don’t we? For the Stoics, caring is natural and a core part of being human.”
Epictetus would not have thought governmental corruption was good, nor would he have thought it was bad—though he would have certainly identified it as dispreferred. Can governmental corruption destroy our character? Well, if we’re participating in it, yes, because we are then acting Viciously as individuals (since to oppress others is vicious) and this is not Virtuous, but the external outcomes of governmental corruption cannot, in and of themselves, impact our character unless we allow them too. And while this might seem a ridiculous stance to take, for it would seems to imply that we shouldn’t care about governmental corruption because it cannot actually harm us, it’s something else entirely: it’s empowering.
If we believe that Virtue is the only good, and that the only bad is the Vice that corrupts our Virtue, that means everything else is not to be feared—for why fear that which cannot hurt us? If the only good is Virtue, then to break our leg is not to hurt us it is merely to break our leg. Remember:
“You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower!”
From this position, an individual takes on an immortal characteristic: they can fight for what they believe is right without the inhibitions of fear. And what power is wielded by an individual so committed to their values, in this case, to their Virtue, that they fear nothing in pursuit of Justice? So the tyrant will kill you, so what? So the road will be hard, so what? So there will be pain in the fight, so what? All of these things are indifferents and so are indifferent in their impact on an individual’s pursuite of Justice, and they are therefore not to be feared.