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.

Part 1 of an Introduction to Stoicism: The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

Stoicism, like most other ancient Greek philosophies, is about living a good life. It is concerned with the individual doing good things, having good things, and avoiding bad things. So a natural starting point for understanding Stoicism is to explore what it means for something to be good or bad. After all, how can we choose to do good if we do not know what is good?

The Stoics had one of the most exciting and controversial theories of value. Take a moment to consider the kinds of things most people consider to be good in life: money, health, a family, love, a successful career, beauty, fame, pleasure.

Likewise, we can form a list of intuitively bad things out of their opposites: poverty, sickness, social isolation, hatred, failure, ugliness, being unpopular, suffering. While not an exhaustive list, most people today would consider these things to make up the main components of a good or bad life.

However, the Stoics consider none of the things listed above to be good or bad. They consider all of them to be indifferent, or without value. In fact, anything external to us is indifferent. To understand how this makes sense, we must understand the Stoic definition of good, bad, and indifferent.

The Stoic Conception of Good: Something is good for an individual if, and only if, it benefits the individual regardless of circumstance.

The Stoic Conception of Bad: Something is bad for an individual if, and only if, it harms the individual regardless of circumstance.

The Stoic Conception of Indifferent: Something is indifferent if, and only if, its benefit or harm is conditional upon something else.

So in order for something to be good by the Stoic definition, it must always be beneficial for the individual to possess it. In other words, if I give it to somebody, their life must always go better, no questions asked, no additional information needed.

This understanding of good still exists today. Many people consider money to be neither good nor bad for this exact reason. Money can improve the individual’s life by alleviating suffering and poverty, and by giving them the means to be charitable and helpful to others. But we have also seen that money can harm the individual. Many people feel pressured to maintain their wealth at the expense of other aspects of their life, and wealth seems to attract greed and selfishness. It is also commonplace to hear stories of people who win the lottery, only to be worse off and alienated from their families just a few years later.

So because we cannot know if money will harm or benefit the individual, as it depends on other factors in the individual’s life, money is indifferent. It is not a good or bad thing, although it can be used well or poorly. This may seem like a reasonable argument for money, but how can the Stoics justify their position that all of these things are indifferent? How can they say that health is not good for the individual?

Once again, health and sickness are indifferent because we require more information to know if they are good or bad for the individual.  Is it better to be healthy rather than sick when there is a draft for a war? In this case one’s health seems to harm them. Or what if being sick when you were a child inspired you to become a doctor and help others. Would it of been better for you then to have been healthy? These examples may seem contrived but they are important to the Stoics. Something that is good must necessarily be good for the individual to possess, regardless of circumstances.

As it turns out, there is only going to be one kind of thing that meets this criterion: virtue. According to the Stoics, it is always beneficial for the individual to possess virtue, and possessing virtue can never harm us. Likewise, the only thing that is bad is vice, as it is necessarily harmful to possess.

Virtue and vice are the missing piece of information we needed that tells us if something else is going to be good or bad for us. Money will benefit when used virtuously, and it will harm us when used viciously. This applies to anything. Any object or circumstance handled virtuously will be beneficial for the individual and handled viciously it will harm the individual.

Vice and virtue also share a unique characteristic. They are both certain ways of acting. Specifically, virtue is acting in accordance with nature and vice is acting otherwise. What is important about this is that, as types of action, virtue and vice are determined by the individual. They are an internal feature of that person’s character. Everything discussed previously, which was deemed to be indifferent by the Stoics, was external to the individual and thus not within the power of the individual to determine.

This is the famous Dichotomy of Control (DOC) of the Stoics. The DOC tells us that anything good or bad is within our power, because the only thing good or bad for us is the kinds of choices we make. Likewise, anything outside of our control and external to us is indifferent. As such, the DOC tells us that we should be focusing our attention and effort towards mastering that which is in our control, and focusing less on that which is outside of our control.

Here is a graph to help summarize up to this point:

Value of Object: Good/Bad Indifferent
Type of Object: Internal Choices External
Up to the individual: Yes No
Examples: Virtue and Vice Money, health, sickness, death, fame, other people’s behavior, traffic, weather, pleasure, pain.

This radical theory forms the foundation of Stoic ethics. Most people are aware of the pragmatic benefits of focusing on what is in our control. Typically this is a less stressful way to live. But the Stoics do not justify the DOC on pragmatic grounds. They actually argue that anything external to you has no value compared to the choices you make. It is not just helpful to focus on what is in your control, but rather what is in your control is the only thing worth focusing on. A good life then consists just of good choices, and a bad life just of poor ones.

Virtue and vice are placed within a fundamentally different category of value than indifferent objects. This also means that no possible amount of money, pleasure, or fame could ever be worth acting viciously for. Nor could any amount of suffering, poverty, or illness ever make the virtuous individuals life any worse. The Stoics were famously committed to, and criticized for, their position that the virtuous individual would be perfectly happy even while being tortured.

Benefits of the Dichotomy of Control:

The Stoics intelligently ask us to consider what matters in life: Is what we have, or is it who we are? The Stoics argue that the choices we make are more important to developing a good or bad life than any possible combination of external objects.

This has a major benefit. This means that in any circumstance, we can rise to the occasion and live well. No matter the struggle, we are always in a position to live a good life and do the right thing. It also brings a warning. We can live poorly and harm ourselves with poor choices regardless of our degree of wealth and success. A good life is actively and constantly formed by each choice we make. We can neither count ourselves out because of previous failures, nor rely on previous successes.

Such a position however is not without its potential criticisms. While it may be easy to dismiss luxuries as indifferent, some external things seem intuitively necessary for a good life, such as family. There seems to be more at stake to when a loved one is sick than just how we respond to the situation. The actual result of them dying or living seems to matter to whether our life goes well or not, and not just as an opportunity to showcase our virtue.

Second, it seems wrong to classify the suffering of another person as indifferent just because it is external to me. Shouldn’t I care about injustices and suffering, even if it is taking place across the world and I could never possibly help? There is something off putting about disregarding the importance of some events just because they are outside of my control.

Finally, while it is empowering to say that someone can live a good life regardless of their circumstances, it might also be patronizing. It does not seem that all people have access to the same quality of life, nor does it seem appropriate to blame their unhappiness of some sort of failure of choice or virtue. While I am confident that Stoicism has answers to these criticisms, they are still worth considering.

Despite this, Stoicism’s theory of value is still beneficial because it shifts control of the quality of our lives back into the hands of the individual. Stoicism tells us that we have the incredible power to make a good life for ourselves solely through our choices and actions. But with this power comes the responsibility to take focus away from external circumstances, and towards that which we have control over: how we choose to act in response to these circumstances.