One of the most often cited, perhaps most often misunderstood (what do you think?), aspects of Stoicism is the claim that we should focus on what is up to us, and not on what is not. What did Epictetus really mean by the claim? In this piece, Corey Anton explores just that question. Next week, Anton will explore how a Stoic faces and accepts death.
On Moral Intention
So much unnecessary suffering, anguish, and evil comes from either failing to distinguish between things in our power and things that are not, or from failing to stay vigilant in how one assents to one’s impressions. Other than how we make sense of what is going on, or what we seek to avoid, or what we desire, and what we actually do, there is nothing that should be of concern to us.
All that happens outside of the spheres of our powers is neither good nor bad. To these we should be fundamentally indifferent. Of, if not indifferent, we at least can give a reserved preference, a preference with full and open acceptance of all that happens beyond one’s own doing. Whereas Stoic schools taught that some things beyond one’s own doing can be preferred even if not necessary, others taught utter indifference to everything beyond one’s own doing. Pierre Hadot, in What Ancient Philosophy?, characterizes a neo-Stoic notion of duties by suggesting, “The Stoic always acts ‘under reserve’: he tells himself, ‘I want to do X, if Fate permits.’…but he does act, taking part in social or political life…The Stoic does not act in his own material or even spiritual interest, but acts in a which is always disinterested and in the service of the human community.”
Unfortunately, most people seem to want it one way or the other: they want to care about and be attached to items outside of their control or they want to not even try or exert effort. They seem to think that indifference to outcomes or full acceptance of outcomes is de facto license to be indifferent to the effort. The dual gesture required is a kind of grateful indifference.