Conversations with Modern Stoicism – How Should Stoics Respond When Bad Things Happen To Other People?

Since June, Modern Stoicism has started hosting monthly online events that bring together experts in philosophy and personal development to explore the ancient wisdom of Stoicism and its relevance to modern life.

These are intended to be interactive and conversation-fostering. Each session begins with introductions and a short presentation by our expert presenter. These are followed by a short Q&A session, and then breaking the audience up into discussion groups with questions and topics.  The sessions are hosted by Phil Yanov.

The first session featured John Sellars, and the second Greg Sadler. An edited transcript of the presentation and Q&A of the second session is below. If you missed the event, but would like to watch or listen to the presentation and Q&A, you can do so here:

The Presentation (Greg Sadler)

This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for quite a long time. Part of it is spurred by group discussions in face-to-face groups or in presentations, and then comments that you get on various videos or posts or podcast episodes. I think it’s something that a lot of people get mixed up about and they end up advocating or adopting positions that we could call “quasi-stoic”. They’re drawing on Stoicism to some degree, but they’re not really Stoic. They wind up making mistakes with these important matters of what we do with other people, and the things that happen to them.

So when Phil pitched this given this opportunity to lead a conversation with Modern Stoicism, of all the different topics that came to mind, I thought . . . I don’t know if it’s the most important one, the most pressing one, but it’s definitely up there in the top five I would say. It came to mind for me because I had somebody who weighed in on a YouTube post. I was posting about something I’d written in Medium, and it was about this topic of what do we do when bad things happen to other people, and we’re looking at it from a Stoic perspective.

This person was very angry that I could say that bad things actually happened to other people. They had this view, that we’re going to explore in just a minute, that it’s really none of your business. “Who are you to call something ‘bad’? It’s not affecting you as such.” So I started thinking: Yeah, this is a good topic that we need to get into. I think it’s a perennial topic. It’s one that will come up for people over and over again, long after all of us have passed on.

So if we think about goodness and badness from a Stoic perspective, there are a lot of passages in Stoic authors and literature that, if you read them in isolation, they sound as if goodness and badness are only to be found within a person, and what’s up to them. So you may read these summaries of Stoicism, as “virtue is the only good, and vice is the only evil,” which isn’t actually technically true. There’s a lot more involved in that when we dig into the text. But some people will say that.

Epictetus even says things like that. Only virtue and the virtues are genuinely good. Only vice and the vices are genuinely bad. Everything else is indifferent. This is in Discourses 1.25. Epictetus actually talks about a “discourse that anybody could give” about goodness and badness in 2.9. “Good things are virtues and everything that participates in the virtues” – now notice that it’s not just the virtues anymore, it’s what participates in the virtues – “and evil are the opposites, indifferent are wealth, health, reputation.” I think we’re all probably familiar with these sorts of passages. Epictetus also tells us that a human being’s good and evil lie in what he calls prohairesis which is often translated as the “faculty of choice”, or “moral character,” or sometimes “will” is what people translate it as. All other things are “nothing to us”.

So when you read stuff like that, and when people put stuff out like that, I think this is one topic where it’s really important not to screw ourselves up by being the equivalent of a fundamentalist proof-texter. That’s somebody who just looks for isolated little passages (or sound bites or memes). Because Stoicism is a really rich and complex philosophical system, and practice is essential to it. Practice not just by ourselves, but in relation to other people. So is committed and continual study of Stoic texts. So if we think about this mistaken point of view, it’s drawing on things that are coming from Stoicism, but it’s turning them in in a way that goes against the rest of it.

A lot of people would say Stoicism is focusing just on what is up to you, and ignoring or putting aside what is not up to you, or is up to other people. Technically this is what is within the scope of the prohairesis, or in your own power. And so we see with things like being harmed, or being insulted, we should distinguish the reality of that from our judgments or our assumptions that we’re actually being harmed or insulted. If we do that we avoid bad emotional states (and the Stoics note of a whole bunch of these: anxiety, anger, sadness, and so on).  And why? Because these stem from wrong judgments about matters. So how do we do this? We treat everything that is an indifferent as just being completely indifferent, not making a difference, not having any genuine good or evil to it. Just being “preferred” or “rejected,” perhaps, but those are lesser terms.

Now what happens to other people when we do this? Other people, strictly speaking, and what’s going on with them, is not within the domain of our choice or prohairesis. It’s technically speaking an “indifferent” to us. So the people that we’re closest to and care most about in a way –  if you think about Stoicism this way –  if bad things happen to them, that’s their problem, right? That’s their affair. As a matter of fact, they’re not even bad things, because if they really understood matters, they would see that their job is not the calamity that they think it is.

Now is this really Stoic? Is this how the sage would act? No, it’s not even how somebody who understands Stoicism relatively well would act. One way that we can think about this is thinking about other people being mistaken. It’s not Stoic to expect other people who haven’t been studying Stoicism to be Stoics. This includes non-Stoics, and all of us “Stoic slobs” who are making progress, whose Stoic perspectives are mistaken about what they value, whether it’s genuinely good or bad. And then they’re wrong in their responses, and in how they look at them and orient themselves towards them, and what they prioritize. So they end up feeling negative emotions. And they end up making wrong choices. And they end up suffering. And they end up doing the wrong things. And they do build bad habits.

All of that is real. Whether or not they should be doing that, that’s a different matter. So you could say to them – if you’re consistent enough not to be a hypocrite yourself in doing so (which I wouldn’t claim to be!) – “Oh, I’ve got some good news for you! You’re not really suffering. You just got matters wrong. If you saw things rightly, well you wouldn’t be upset anymore. You’d see that the things that you think are harms are just indifferent matters. They don’t affect the core of who you are, unless you allow them to.”

But you know, the people that are upset over things, as Stoics call them “indifferents”. They’re actually upset. They actually do experience these negative emotions. That’s real. And they are harmed in various ways. Even a Stoic who wants to mistakenly put other people aside could recognize that, by those people getting things wrong, they are harming themselves in the core of who they are. Their responses will gradually make them what Stoics consider vicious.

Let’s take an extreme example. Some homeless person who has been taking care of an animal  – a dog, or a cat, or something like that  – has had the animal taken from them, and euthanized by the local police and animal control. You’re sitting there, and they’re telling you about it with tears coming down their face, just sobbing. Are you actually going to tell them: “Oh you know, you haven’t really been harmed, and your pet hasn’t really been harmed either. Life is an indifferent”? No! This is a genuine harm to that person. And there’s an injustice that has been imposed on them and their animal. A relationship that has been forcibly broken.

I think there’s something inhuman to expecting others to behave as Stoics when they haven’t been studying or practicing it. If you think about Epictetus’ advice – and he’s very helpful with this sort of thing  – he will say your friend has had a loss in their family. Go and grieve with them. You can actually groan with them outwardly. Just don’t groan inwardly. It’s okay, and actually it’s the right thing. It’s a duty. It’s an “office”. It’s an “appropriate act” to go and grieve with those who are sad.

So there’s that aspect, and then I think to wrap this up there’s several considerations that come straight from Stoic philosophy that we can mull over in order to become better Stoics. I’m going to give you three, but there’s many more of these that we could think of.

The Stoics think of us as rational beings, and being a rational being means having a social nature. Not being an individualist. Not being somebody who sets other people aside. But somebody who exists in a fabric of relationships with other beings, from individuals that we are in a household with or friendly relationships, all the way up to humanity as a whole. So that’s one consideration.

Another is that if we think that virtue is the most important of the goods, justice is one of those virtues. And Justice is by its very nature something that extends to others, and has to do with arrangements within society, our interactions with other people.

Another third thing is – and I see some people asking questions about this – indifferents actually do matter. They have some value. They just don’t have the same kind of value as virtue and vice do, but they’re pretty damn important from a Stoic perspective, if you actually look closely at the Stoic texts.

So let’s think about each of these for just a moment. With our social nature, I’m sure probably all of you have seen the diagrams coming from Hierocles’ Elements of Ethics with the famous circles. You’re supposed to extend the circles outward. That’s standard Stoic teaching. So we should feel affection for people, which includes compassion, care, and concern. This should extend outward to other people who we maybe don’t know, people overseas even. And it doesn’t matter whether they are wrong in their perspective on the loss of this thing or that thing. We should recognize that they are suffering. The other thing I want to point out on this is that the Stoics, if you read Arius Didymus, consider friendship to be among the good things. It’s up there with virtue. Friendship encompasses a whole range of relationships from what we normally think of as friendship, to acquaintanceship, to hospitality, to kinship, and even erotic love so that’s one thing.

Then the second thing, justice as a virtue. It’s not just an inward disposition. It’s not something that we keep to ourselves. By justice’s very nature, it extends outward to other people, and it tells us how we ought to behave in relation to them. Being kind of a uncompassionate jerk, that is not Justice, right? It’s also something that exists between us human beings and in On Duties, which is Cicero telling us what the Stoics actually think about the virtues, he points out that leaving other people to be victims of others’ injustice, that’s Injustice on our part. If my kid comes to me and says “I’m being bullied at school,” the right Stoic response is not for me to say: “Oh well, these are not things within our control. You’re going to have to toughen up” or something like that. Injustice is being done, and I actually have a duty to oppose that.

The last thing the indifferents – and I’ve actually done entire talks about why the indifferents are not things we should be indifferent to – there’s a lot more to be said here. Cicero points out again in On The Ends that with the virtues, what do they actually bear upon? They do bear upon things that are not indifferents, but much of the practice of the virtues has to do with how we deal with the indifferents.  Prudence, justice, courage, and temperance –  each of those applies to this vast range. And other people are among those, right? Our relationships with them, and what we can do for them.

Here’s where I’ll just end with Epictetus. He actually tells us that “the essence of good is a certain comportment of our prohairesis; that of the evil another kind”. So what are external things? they’re “materials for the prohairesis.”  In dealing with them it will find its proper, its idion, specific good or evil. And what is it that gets us there? Judgments, dogmata, about the materials. If we get them right, well, they make the moral purpose good. If they’re crooked and screwed up then they make it evil. And I would go so far as to say that thinking that Stoicism demands that we be indifferent to the sufferings of others, to bad things happening to them, even if we want to say “well that’s not truly a bad thing,” that would be an incorrect judgment. And that would make us bad as a result. If we want to be good Stoics, we have to recognize that care and concern for others is part of that.

The Question and Answer (moderated by Phil Yanov)

Phil: Some of us come to Stoicism because we’re trying to get our own emotions under control, right? We’re trying to flourish and not embrace everyone else’s panic. What you get is like that next level of: “Wait a second. How can I be a good human being, and do this right?” What I heard you say was a Stoic does not look at someone else and say: “Get over it.”

Greg: That’s right, and I think this is where prudence enters in. We often laud these Stoic virtues, and we don’t think about: “what does this actually demand from me?” So this would be a case in point. Somebody else is having an emotional reaction. And their emotional reaction is excessive, and it’s based on some mistaken judgments about the nature of human beings and reality, and what’s good and bad, and stuff like that. I don’t have to co-sign the whole emotional reaction, right?”

And if they’re being anxious about something, I don’t have to have an emotional contagion, and be just as anxious as they are. I don’t even have to be anxious at all in order to address the fact that they are anxious, and that it’s not good for them to feel that way, and that I can actually do something about that. If the anxiety can be allayed in part by telling them something, or even just putting your hand on somebody’s shoulder, I think that’s the right Stoic thing to do. But you know again we go to Epictetus. You can groan outwardly. Just don’t groan inwardly with that person.

There is one remark about emotions that I saw in here that I did want to address. It was something about emotions not being really good or bad. Well, from a Stoic perspective that’s not true. The Stoics actually have classifications. There are there are emotions that are bad. Why? Because they’re making us unhappy or miserable, and they often tend to lead to excessive reactions or screwed up prioritizations on our part. And then there are emotions that are good. And recognize that that’s important. So we shouldn’t pretend as if emotions don’t have any ethical value.

That said, just because you lapse into anger, or sadness, or something like that doesn’t suddenly take you off the Stoic path, so that “all is lost,” or anything like that. It’s normal.  That’s what’s going to happen to us. We want to figure out how we can progressively steer ourselves to having the better emotions. Stoicism is not about repressing emotions. It’s about understanding your emotions, and then getting better at feeling less and less of, say, anger or contempt for other people. If we want to help other people towards that kind of comportment when they’re feeling crappy, that’s not the time to say to them: “Oh, if you were just Stoic, this would all fall into place.” We can represent that to them. We can model that. You know us Stoic schmucks, we’re not sages right! Before I’m a sage, I’m just a Stoic schmuck.

Phil: I think I could embody that. I mean I get it. I always say I’m a “struggler” right? I mean I’m a struggler like the rest of you, and I want this to be good. I want to flourish, but sometimes I still feel bad, and sometimes I have inappropriate responses to other people. But I hopefully never lose the idea that I want to be a good human being, and that a lot of times this involves me bringing other peoples into my circle, bringing them closer, helping them get over what they’re doing as well.

Greg: I think we do that through concern. We do that by engaging with them, rather than being standoffish, and being like: “Hey, your problems aren’t my problems, buddy!”

Phil: You had me on the same thing, being from Milwaukee, I’m sure you’ve heard “Not my circus; not my monkeys”. It’s a very common phrase, but I think it’s how can I be a good human with you, and how can I solve for being a good human being in this spot. What does that look like, and how can I do this?  By the way somebody asked this question here. I’m going to let you come back and tap on this one last time, because there was the difference between sympathy and empathy, and I heard you adumbrated in that spot but you didn’t actually say it out loud.

Greg: This is one of those things where there is no “official difference” between sympathy, empathy, compassion, all these psychological terms. It depends on whose theory you’re using. A lot of people will say “there’s two kinds of empathy,” but others will say there’s four kinds. So we don’t want to worry too much about that. We want to think about what is the reality that we’re concerned with. I actually used a different term, “emotional contagion”, and that’s another one that’s used in the psychological and philosophical literature.

Some people think that in order to be – whatever you want to call it: compassionate, sympathetic, empathetic – I have to be feeling the same thing that you’re feeling. That’s just not the case. I can understand the situation that you’re in, even if I’m not from the same background, or haven’t experienced the same thing. That’s one cool thing about us human beings, that we’re capable of that. The emotion that should go along with that, I would say – it’s one of the Stoic good emotions – is what we often translate as caution, eulabeia. It could be translated as concern, and you know, concern for the other person, and how it is that they’re feeling.

Again the example of my kids getting bullied. Now, I can relate to them. We all can, right, because we all got bullied at one point or another. And probably some of us did some bullying as well,  and I’ll admit that I certainly did. But you know, we don’t have to have had exactly the same experience to be able to say: “Oh man! That sucks for you. What could we do? What would help you out in this situation?” Maybe I need to go in and take a stand with the authorities or something like that. Maybe nobody will do anything. Well then, I can at least express the fact that, yeah that sucks.

And I don’t have to as a Stoic say: “Well strictly from a Stoic perspective, no harm has befallen you.” I mean, that’s not the time and place to do that. Maybe that’ll happen later on. As we draw upon the connection that we formed with the person, we can guide them into that. But in the moment, we want to actually say: “Yeah, that sucks. That’s wrong. That’s unjust.”


Gregory Sadler is a member of the Modern Stoicism team, the former editor of Stoicism Today (2016-2022), and the co-editor of Stoicism Today: Selected Writings volumes 3 and 4 . He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, hosts the radio show Wisdom for Life, produces philosophy videos in his popular YouTube channel, and has recently become a volunteer at Almost Home Cat Rescue

One thought on Conversations with Modern Stoicism – How Should Stoics Respond When Bad Things Happen To Other People?

  1. […] the “Conversations with Modern Stoicism” series. The previous one was with Greg Sadler, and you can read more about it here. The first was with John Sellars and you can watch the recording of that event by following this […]

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