Part 2 of An Introduction to Stoicism: Why Other People Cannot Harm Us.

In Part 1 of An Introduction to Stoicism, we discussed the Dichotomy of Control, which tells us two important things:

1) That anything outside of our power is indifferent

2) That the only thing within our power is our choices.

This means that anything besides our actions and choices are without value to us and do not benefit or harm us. Be it money, pain, fame, or a successful career, the Stoics considered all of these things to be outside of our power, and thus indifferent to us.

At first glance, this may seem to be naïve or wishful thinking on the part of the Stoics. Sure, it would be nice if all the things I do not control did not matter to me, but they really seem to matter. If I get punched in the face, that was not my choice, but it still seemed to harm me. If I am let go from my job for something that was not my fault, and go hungry, I seem to have been harmed by something outside of my power. At its worst, Stoicism seems to be just an anesthetic, a means to rationalize away or numb the pain of the harms I cannot control, in order to give me the energy to focus on the things that I can control. In other words, Stoicism can appear to be helpful but false.

Fortunately for us, Stoicism has arguments about why a punch to the face is not harmful to us. But to understand them, we must examine what Stoicism thinks a person is.

Our essential self as our free choice:

            Stoicism argues that what we fundamentally are is our hegemonikon or ruling-faculty. The ruling-faculty considers information, and then makes a decision about how to act based on that information. As such, it can be roughly understood as our faculty of choice. We are just this choice and nothing else. We are not our possessions, our reputation, or even our body, but just this capacity to reflect upon information, and make a decision.

This faculty of choice is understood to be free. This means that it cannot be forced by anyone to make any kind of decision. Choices then are within the power of the individual. But the Stoics believe that this is the extent of our freedom. These choices are the only thing we have power over. I can choose to do something, but I have no control over whether or not I succeed. That is determined by other factors, by things external to me. So I can choose to try and apply for a job, or catch the next bus, or ask someone out on a date. But whether or not that goal is successful is not within my power. It depends on things beyond my choice, such as the biases of the hiring committee, or whether or not that bus is late or early.

However, since we are our choice, and not our bodies nor our reputations, if our choice is free then we are free. Nothing can force me to do anything but my own choice. Someone can kidnap my body or burn down my house, but they cannot make me choose to do anything unless I agree.

This conception of identity helps to explain why externals objects are indifferent. If I get a nice car, how has this benefited me as I essentially am? This may help my reputation, but that is not what I am. If someone hits me, how am I harmed? This may hurt my body, but I am not my body, I am my choice.

The only things that can harm the individual are bad choices. Likewise, the only things that benefit the individual are good choices. What good and bad choices consist of will be the topic of another article, but generally bad choices are ones based on ignorance, and good choices are those based on truth. So to be cowardly in the face of physical danger is a bad choice, because I am ignorantly considering physical threats to be harmful, when they are in fact indifferent. Similarly, to not be offended by an insult would be a good choice, because it demonstrates your understanding that this insult is indifferent to you.

Why other people cannot harm us:

A major benefit of understanding the self as our free choice is that other people cannot harm us with their actions. This is because other people only have the ability to act upon and influence things external to us. So someone can threaten my body with violence, but they cannot control, determine, or shape my choice. They can follow through with that threat, and harm my body, but they still have not influenced my choice, and thus not harmed me as I fundamentally am.

This can seem very counter-intuitive at first. One would think there is a direct cause and effect between someone’s actions, and them harming me. If they insult me, I am angry. If they threaten me, I am afraid. If the steal from me, I have less. How can we claim the other person is not the cause of this harm?

The Stoic response to this is that in the above examples we ourselves are the cause of the harm. Specifically, we harm ourselves through our poor choice to view this person’s actions as harmful. We are harmed when someone steals from us, only when we think these possessions are beneficial to us and we desire to have them. If we remove that incorrect view, the suffering is removed as well.

The Stoics had a simple but profound analogy to explain this. Imagine a rectangle and a sphere. If I push both, the rectangle barely moves, but the sphere will roll. What is the cause then of the sphere rolling? Most people would say the push, but this is a mistake say the Stoics. The cause is the shape of the sphere. Change the shape, and the same input has an entirely different output. So we, as humans, must recognize that we have control over our shape. We cannot blame the push for our suffering when we are choosing to be spheres. We must look instead to transform ourselves.

Consider one of my favorite quotes by the Stoic Epictetus who aptly summarizes how important it is to remember in moments of struggle that we are just our choice:

“What then should a man have in readiness in such circumstances? What else than this? What is mine, and what is not mine; and what is permitted to me, and what is not permitted to me. I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment? Tell me the secret which you possess. I will not, for this is in my power. But I will put you in chains. Man, what are you talking about? Me in chains? You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower. I will throw you into prison. My poor body, you mean. I will cut your head off. When then have I told you that my head alone cannot be cut off? These are the things which philosophers should meditate on, which they should write daily, in which they should exercise themselves.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1)

In conclusion, Stoicism asks us to remember ourselves as we essentially are. And to examine what is good or bad for this essential self. This is a helpful exercise for everyone. Even if you disagree with the Stoic conclusion of what we are, we can agree that we often extend our concern too far. All too often we put our identity into our possessions, into our reputation, into our professional aspirations, and of course into our body. We think we do well when these things do well, and we are harmed when these things are harmed. But Stoicism tells us that we are not these things. We are only our capacity to make choices. So the only thing that can harm us is bad choices, and the only thing that can benefit us is good ones. And, fortunately for us, no one has power over the choices we make but ourselves.

4 thoughts on “Part 2 of An Introduction to Stoicism: Why Other People Cannot Harm Us.

  1. One helpful addendum would be to briefly clarify the metaphysical foundation of this freedom of choice. At face value, it might seem that Stoic freedom of choice is indeterminate, that is there is no definitive cause that makes one choose to judge a state of affairs one way rather than another. Under this conception of freedom, one’s faculty of choice really can express itself in any number of ways, equally. If one’s potential judgments weren’t all equally realizable, then there would be some deterministic factor involved, and this kind of freedom would then be curtailed or absent. This conception of freedom has intuitive appeal, because we tend to conceive of our ability to make choices as entirely uncaused, and stressing this flexible power of judgment could be inspiring and empowering.

    However, the mainstream interpretation of Stoicism does not conceive of freedom in this way. The Stoics are determinists, who argue that God immanently and providentially orders all of the cosmos in general, and all natural phenomena in particular. Every state of affairs occurs necessarily by virtue of God (although there may be a certain sense in which God has indeterminate freedom of choice, if God strictly-speaking could have chosen to order things differently), including the choices individuals make and the quality of those choices, Because everything within nature has definitive causes, one’s choices cannot be undetermined, and so the abovementioned conception of freedom is impossible (except potentially for God as the ultimate providential force). Freedom for the Stoics in this deterministic context pertains to what effects follow from one’s nature in itself (which, again, is necessarily the way it is) versus what effects follow from the nature of something else. One’s body is unfree precisely because its state of being is subject to effects that partly follow from the nature of other things, rather than from one’s nature alone. Choices, or the faculty of judgment, however follows entirely from one’s nature. If a choice or judgment feels compelled, then that choice or judgment is derived from an underlying judgment that falsely asserts that one’s choices do not entirely follow from their own nature. Because of divine providence, the rational and irrational choices or judgments that one makes will be necessary, and thus could not have been different, because God ultimately dictates every choice that will follow from one’s faculty.

    The Stoics are however proposing something meaningful here still, even if choices aren’t undetermined, because they emphasize that external factors (that is anything outside the faculties of the mind) do not actually dictate any of our choices, and so we are free or unconstrained in that our choices or judgments are truly up to our own reasoning (based on the nature and experiences God determines each and every one of us to have). This conception of freedom coheres with, and in fact supports, the DOC and can explain how Stoic metaphysical determinism can be reconciled with their ethical focus on freedom of choice (i.e. Stoic compatibilism). We can, of course, criticize the validity of Stoic compatibilism, but it is important to stress nonetheless that (at least the mainstream) Stoics were not arguing that one’s choices are free because they are undetermined, but rather that they are free because choices follow entirely from the resources of one’s own (namely rational) nature. The inspiration here is that, even in a deterministic world, we can be empowered in our pursuit of the good life.

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    1. Hey Brandon! I very much agree with your perspective and find it insightful.

      The reason I do not go into detail about this right away is that the aim of this blog is to balance accuracy with accessibility. While I think you are dead on the money about the importance of Stoic metaphysics and determinism when it comes to understanding the nature of our choric, I also find these topics can be difficult to engage with meaningfully for people learning about philosophy for the first time. With that in mind, I was hoping to discuss the issues you raise further on in the series.

      That being said you are absolutely right that the important distinction between externals and our choice is not that one is causally determined and one is not, but rather that choice is determined by our nature where as externals are not. So thank you for the helpful comment!

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      1. I very much look forward to it, because I’m still making sense of Stoic compatibilism. I am really enjoying your blog so far, though!

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