The Only Evil Faculty Is Your Own

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“What is evil to thee does not subsist in the ruling principle of another; nor yet in any turning and mutation of thy corporeal covering. Where is it then? It is in that part of thee in which subsists the power of forming opinions about evils. Let this power then not form such opinions, and all is well. And if that which is nearest to it, the poor body, is burnt, filled with matter and rottenness, nevertheless let the part which forms opinions about these things be quiet, that is, let it judge that nothing is either bad or good which can happen equally to the bad man and the good. For that which happens equally to him who lives contrary to nature and to him who lives according to nature, is neither according to nature nor contrary to nature.”

We’re starting out with what seems to be a simple statement: “What is evil to thee does not subsist in…” and we think Marcus is going to say “in anything external” but that’s not what he says, he says, “in the ruling principle of another.”

Okay, wait, pump the brakes, Marky baby, what are you talking about? Isn’t evil anything that does damage to our Virtue? Corrupts it or prevents it? And doesn’t that happen in the ruling principle of individuals? So if it doesn’t live there, where does it live?

Well, it actually does live there, but Marcus isn’t wrong. He’s telling you it doesn’t exist there—and you can’t see me right now but I’m pointing, vaguely, in the direction of other people—it exists here; and now I’m pointing to my own head.

You know that another person cannot make you think, act, or behave in a persisting inappropriate way, right? And I say persisting here because I can make you think about a giraffe on roller-skates, which I just did, but I can’t take over your active faculty in a persistent way. And I can push you, which will make you stumble, but I can’t take over your actions in a persistent way. I can slap you in the face, and this may alter your attitude for a moment, but I can’t take over your attitude in a persistent way.

So if another person cannot make you think, act, or possess and attitude of an inappropriate sort, how can another person’s thoughts, actions, or attitudes be evil to you. “To you” is the operative phrasing here. The evil of another is only evil because it affects them. All evil, and I’ve said this before, is relative to the person having the inappropriate thoughts, performing the inappropriate actions, or expressing the inappropriate attitudes. Evil doesn’t exist beyond the self, that’s perhaps the biggest point of Stoicism.

I can hear you, “But Hitler!” Nope. Not even that guy. His evil, according to Stoic rationale was limited to him. The effects his evil resulted in, those things we know about, were not evils, again, according to the Stoics, because those things could not harm another person’s Virtue, or prevent them from developing it, because no matter what you do to another human being, they retain the ability to be virtuous in their circumstances.

If I step in front of someone in an effort to protect them, and someone says, “move, or I’ll shoot you too!” my decision that follows is controlled not at all by the individual threatening me to get to that someone else, it has to do with me. And if that person shoots me dead, they may have killed me, but no evil occurred relative to my own Virtue, I was not, as the Stoics would say since Virtue is the only good and the only real harm is harm of the Virtue, harmed. I died unharmed.

Stoicism really is aiming to make you invulnerable in a way. If you are able to do the right thing no matter the external, you are superman, superwoman, or scrappydoo. You can’t be hurt, that’s what the Stoics are trying to get through to us, that we cannot be hurt by anyone but ourselves. Because guess what, in that same situation, if I’d stepped aside and allowed that other person to be killed, I may not have been physically impacted by the wrongdoer, but I would have been seriously hurt because I valued my living life more than my virtue, and I therefore had no Virtue.

If Stoicism is trying to teach us anything, it is trying to teach us that only our virtue matters and that acting in alignment with that belief is the best way to live a life that means something. You might die protecting one, or standing up to a tyrant, or you might contract a terribly painful disease as Nurse, EMT, or Surgeon working under unideal circumstances to save a life, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is you acted appropriately…

I know a lot of young people listen to this show, and I will promise you that as you get older your focus on becoming a good person, and discovering exactly what that means, will become more and more important to you. Life isn’t about pleasure, it never has been, and people who live it that way, if they live it that way right up until the end, they usually have a lot of regrets, and they’ve usually contributed very little to those around them—to their communities, to their countries, to their fellow earthlings, and, when you’re 90, if you’re lucky enough to reach that age, and you’re looking at the last few months or years of your life, it’s not too late to change, but it very well may feel like it by then.

There really is nothing more important in life than developing your own Virtue because, from that, springs everything you think in your head right now that the world needs in order to be the world you wish it was. Being cool, having an iPhone, getting that thing you think you want in the shop window, finding the perfect apartment, getting the best job, none of that really matters. Yes, some may be preferred indifferents, but I’d be very careful in assessing what you think is simply a preferred indifferent and what sort of thing more easily enables you to avoid the hard work of developing a Virtuous character.

I think what probably lead to the idea that Stoicism is a solitary philosophy, which it’s not, is the fact that one has to pay so much attention to oneself in order to properly assess the appropriateness of their agency in the world that yes, we do tend to turn down invites to parties, yes we do tend to be less gregarious, yes we do seem to be a bit more serious than other people, but that’s because we don’t throw our words, actions, or attitudes around like they don’t mean something important. And look at the world, look at the things that exist in it. Look at reality television, the oft-given example of totally useless entertainment, look how successful it is. It’s so successful that it’s the most common form of television entertainment next to the news and it’s people watching other people for the pure entertainment of judging their behavior, for better or worse, as the viewer’s behavior becomes that of which spends hours a day judging others behavior.

Is that not absolutely insane? But still, it’s not the reality TV that’s evil, it you wasting your life and ignoring the development of your character—that’s the only evil going on. We don’t have to let the things aimed at us inform how we live.

“But Tanner, you’re doing that, you’re trying to inform us.”

Yes, I am. And I hope to goodness that you find more value in it than Below Deck.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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