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.