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.
The position advanced here confronts this dilemma head-on and addresses both extremes. A way to put these concerns at ease is to see the present moment as a dividing line between past and future. Although the future holds much that is out of our control, there is also a great deal that vitally depends upon our will. The past, on the contrary, is fully out of our control, and it is good to begin by accepting it. On a similar front, people may think to themselves, “why should I act justly toward others if they do not treat me justly?” The answer is as simple as it is obvious: unlike the actions of others, individual’s actions are under their own control. There is ample evidence that ancient Stoicism was a kind of genetic predecessor to contemporary civil rights activism. It is also worth recalling that, unlike the Peripatetic school of Aristotle, the Stoics openly welcomed both women and slaves. In fact, Musonius Rufus, the early teacher of Epictetus, defended the practices of the Stoic schools with a paper titled, “That Women Too Should Do Philosophy ” And Epictetus maintained that, “Only the educated are free.” Admittedly, it is challenging to continuously discern between things in our power and those that are not. It is also hard to completely give up on assuming control over that which we naturally have no control while simultaneously owning fully all that falls under our jurisdiction. To strive for justice with courage, moderation, and prudence while simultaneously accepting whatever happens (i.e., to be able to do one’s best at some project and then not worry about the final product) is a demanding twin gesture. But, in being able to enact this twin gesture, the neo-Stoic hero enables a most potent disambiguation, a vital expiation, one grounded in the power of moral intention.
We can conclude these remarks on “moral intention” by considering Epictetus’ observation #27: “As a mark is not set up for men to miss it, there is nothing intrinsically evil in the world.” This passage well displays the Stoic orientation: the point is to set up a target and aim as best as you can, but never fret nor lament about the missed shot nor gloat and swell over the shots that hit the mark. Neither the miss nor the hit is ultimately within one’s control. But, on the other hand, setting up targets and aiming are both good, for they depend upon us. Evil, on this account, comes from either being indifferent to the setting up of targets or aiming, or from concerning oneself solely with whether or not one hits the target.
In passage #19 Epictetus writes: “You can be invincible, if you never enter on a contest where victory is not in your power.” As the Stoics often take athletes as their model, Epictetus is not suggesting that people should avoid competitions or games that have winners and losers. People should simply do all that is in their power. As it is beyond one’s power how another person performs—the one person whose performance one should be concerned with is one’s own. In #29 Epictetus further states,
You must submit to discipline, eat to order, touch no sweets, train under compulsion, at a fixed hour, in heat and cold, drink no cold water, nor wine, except by order; you must hand yourself over completely to your trainer as you would to a physician, and then when the contest comes you must risk getting hacked, and sometimes dislocating your hand, twist your ankle, swallow plenty of sand, sometimes get a flogging, and will after all this suffer defeat.
And after all of this, if one is defeated, it is good to see that Destiny has spoken. It is good to accept what happened. “Hard feelings” come if we take under our control what is fundamentally beyond our control (what and how the others do, even if they cheat). By doing one’s best, acting virtuously and owning all that is actually under one’s control, one can be defeated though remain unconquerable.
Adapted version, taken from Corey Anton, Sources of Significance; Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism, Purdue University Press, 2010.
More about Corey: Corey Anton (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1998) is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University. With wide research interests in communication theory, phenomenology, semiotics, media ecology, communicology, and stoicism, Anton is author of Selfhood and Authenticity (SUNY Press, 2001);Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (Purdue University Press, 2010); Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (IGS Press, 2011); and editor of Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals, and Laws (Hampton Press, 2010), and co-editor, along with Lance Strate, of Korzybski And… (IGS Press, 2012). A Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, he currently serves as the Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics and as the President of the Media Ecology Association.
Corey has a great series of Youtube videos exploring Stoic philosophy too. You can see them here. Here is one video: ‘Grateful Indifference’: