Marcus on the Dichotomy of Value and Response by Chris Gill

This post is based on a talk given on April 25 2021 as part of the Modern Stoicism birthday celebration for Marcus Aurelius. I discuss two important features of Stoic thought which are potentially valuable for developing Stoic practice, and which Marcus’ Meditations illustrate powerfully. I call these features ‘the dichotomy of value and response’.

Part One: the Dichotomy of Value

One of the exercises most widely used in modern, applied Stoicism is what we call ‘the dichotomy of control’, that is, distinguishing between what is and is not within our control, and focusing on doing what we can control and not wasting effort and emotional involvement on what we cannot control. It is an exercise that Epictetus refers to repeatedly and that Marcus often recommends to himself. However, Marcus also explains, more clearly than Epictetus, the Stoic rationale for this distinction.

What underlies the dichotomy of control is the idea of a dichotomy of value: between virtue, and happiness based on virtue, and what the Stoics call ‘indifferents’. One of the most important ideas in Stoic ethics is that our happiness in life depends not so much on health, success or celebrity but on developing the virtues, notably the four cardinal virtues, seen as a unified set. As the Stoics put it, virtue and virtue-based happiness are really good whereas these other things are ‘indifferents’.

This does not mean that they have no value; things such as health, property, and success are normally seen by Stoics as having positive value. But their value is on a different (lower) level than virtue, and that is why they are described as ‘indifferents’. They do not make the difference between happiness and its absence, whereas virtue does. This dichotomy explains why we should focus on what we can control. Working towards developing virtue and happiness based on virtue is something we can all do (it falls within our control) whereas gaining ‘indifferents’ such as success and celebrity does not. We should not focus on ‘indifferents’, not just because we may not get them, but because they do not have the same value as virtue in helping us to live a truly valuable (and happy) life. They are thus not ‘good’ in the way that virtue and virtue-based happiness are.

Here is an illuminating statement of this dichotomy in the Meditations (key terms are given in bold):

If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage … if you can see anything better than this, turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with this, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures. All of these, even if they seem to suit our nature for a little while, suddenly take control of us and carry us away. But in your case simply and freely choose what is better and hold on to that. ‘But what is better is what benefits me’. If it benefits you as a rational creature, then maintain this. But if it does so as an animal, reject it and hold to your decision without a big fuss. Only take care that your enquiry is conducted securely. (3.6)

Marcus brings out very clearly that, in shaping our lives, we should focus, overall, on developing the virtues (the virtues listed here are the four Stoic cardinal virtues, though with ‘truthfulness’ in place of the normal ‘wisdom’). These virtues, and the kind of life they make possible, count as ‘the supreme good’, and as ‘the rational and social’ good (a phrase discussed shortly). These are what is ‘properly good’, and what ‘benefits’ us, consistently and throughout our lives, in our actions, relationships and feelings.

By contrast, we should not focus in this way on ‘indifferents’ such as ‘the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures’. Marcus, in line with mainstream Stoic theory, recognises that such things have a natural appeal for us (‘they seem to suit our nature’). But if we treat obtaining them as our overall aim in life, the emotions this generates can ‘take control of us and carry us away’. The benefit provided by indifferents is at a different level from virtue, which benefits us by enabling us to express our nature at its best, ‘as a rational creature’. As rational animals, human beings have the capacity to work towards virtue (it lies ‘within our control’) and thus to shape our lives in the best possible way. The contrast Marcus draws here is fully in line with standard Stoic thinking on virtue and indifferents and also gives a strong statement of this dichotomy.

This Stoic dichotomy involves not just the distinction between virtue and indifferents but also the relationship of both ideas to happiness. Happiness, according to the Stoics, depends on virtue; it does not depend on indifferents (this is partly why they are ‘indifferent’), even though things such as health, property and social status have positive value and can form part of a happy life, if they are correctly used. But what is happiness (eudaimonia), for the Stoics? ‘Happiness’, in modern English, suggests feeling good or enjoyment – and that is all. In fact, Stoic happiness also includes feeling good. But for the Stoics, happiness is primarily conceived as a form of life, not a feeling; virtue, on the other hand, is seen as a form of understanding and character, while ‘indifferents’ make up the circumstances and conditions of the life.

The Stoics often present happiness as ‘the life according to nature’. What does this phrase mean? It implies a life according to human nature and according to nature as a whole (the world or universe). Thus, a happy life is one that fulfils the best qualities of human nature, which are, typically, presented as a combination of rationality and sociability. A happy life is also one that expresses the best qualities of nature as a whole. These are seen as a combination of structure, order and wholeness, and (for human beings following nature) the exercise of the best possible care for oneself and others of one’s kind.

The happy life is sometimes described as ‘the life according to virtue’; and these qualities of happiness are also presented as characteristic of the virtues. The virtues also express human nature at its best, marked by a combination of rationality and sociability. They are also seen by Stoics as marked by inner order and coherence or consistency, and by taking the best possible care of oneself and other human beings. This explains why happiness is presented as depending on virtue, rather than indifferents. The virtuous and happy life is one in which these shared good qualities are expressed, and in which the virtuous person makes the best possible use of the circumstances and conditions of her life (the indifferents), whatever these happen to be. So this is another aspect of the Stoic dichotomy of value.

Marcus conveys, powerfully, different aspects of this, rather complex, set of ideas. Although he does not often use the term ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia), he refers frequently to the idea of the life according to nature, presenting it in Book 1 as the goal he has adopted in life (1.9.3, 1.17.11). He also refers regularly to the idea that both the virtues and the happy life reflect the combination of rationality and sociability (e.g. 6.14.2, 6.44.5, 7.55.3, 7.72, 10.24).

In 3.6, for instance, the term ‘the rational and social good’ may refer equally to the virtues and happiness (that is, the best possible ‘human life’); both virtues and happiness can properly be seen as the main focus of one’s life. Marcus also evokes very often the thought that the best human life is one that reflects the order and coherence belonging to nature as a whole. The virtuous person is one whose actions express the order and coherence of nature as a whole and who accepts that her own life forms part of a larger natural order which has its own goodness. For instance (3.4.5): ‘[a virtuous person] gives his sole attention to how he might carry out his own activities, and attends continually to his own strand in the web; he makes sure his own activities are done rightly [that is, virtuously] and he is convinced that his own strand in the web is good’. (See also 2.9, 5.10.6-7, 5.21, 6.58.)

Marcus also conveys powerfully the idea that a life of this kind (a life ‘according to nature’ in these senses) brings with it the (Stoic) ‘good emotions’ including joy and serenity (2.17.4, 3.16.3, 4.23, 5.4). He thus brings out how the life according to nature includes feeling good, as a by-product of its main features. The close linkage between the qualities of happiness and virtue mean that the happy life depends solely on the possession and exercise of the virtues. A happy life can include indifferents such as health and property; but it does not depend on their presence, an idea that Marcus conveys frequently and vividly (e.g. 3.7.4, 5.29, 7.68, 12.26). Thus, this second dimension of the dichotomy of value is communicated strongly by the Meditations.

Part Two: the Dichotomy of Response

The second type of Stoic dichotomy is connected with the first, because it involves the relationship between virtue and indifferents. However, it is more immediately linked with Stoic ideas about ethical development, typically conceived as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis). The Stoics see ethical development as a life-long process, not just a function of childhood and youth; and a key element in this process is coming to understand the special value of virtue and happiness based on virtue, as compared with ‘indifferents’.

This process also brings about a transformation in other aspects of your life, including your relations with other people and your pattern of emotions. It leads you towards exercising the virtues in your expression of care for other people, and also towards recognising the fundamental kinship of all human beings, as rational and sociable animals. It is also a process that carries with it the experience of ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai), such as goodwill and joy, which are in line with the possession and exercise of the virtues. This brings with it freedom from misguided, bad emotions or ‘passions’, such as anger, hatred and jealousy. ‘Passions’, typically, express mistaken beliefs, such as the belief that happiness depends on gaining indifferents, such as wealth and celebrity, or that our happiness and misery depends on the actions of others, rather than on whether we ourselves develop the virtues.

The dichotomy of response comes out very clearly in a well-known passage (2.1):

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognised the nature of the good and see that it is the right, and the nature of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.

Meditations 2.1

At first glance, this passage might suggest that Marcus is someone who finds it difficult to put up with other people or is prone to anger and irritation, and there are other places too in the Meditations that might seem to suggest this. However, I think that is a misleading impression. This passage is one of several on this theme, and there are parallels in Epictetus’ Discourses, which exhibit the same pattern. (See Meditations 5.25, 5.28, 5.31.3, 6.26-27, 11.18, 12.26; Discourses 1.18.3-16, 1.28.8-10, 2.22.36, 4.1.147.)

These passages describe an exercise, which we can call the dichotomy of response, like the well-known exercise of the dichotomy of control. The broader context is that of Stoic thought about ethical development, especially its implications for relations to other people and for emotions. The people whom Marcus prepares himself to meet (like most people) are presented as not having gone very far in the process of ethical development that all human beings are capable of. They do not understand that the only things that are really good are virtue and virtue-based happiness, rather than ‘indifferents’ like money and fame. This explains the way these people treat others, including Marcus, and it explains their attitudes and emotions (their being ‘meddling, ungrateful … envious and unsociable’).

The conventional way for someone to respond would be to show similar negative reactions in turn to the other people. But Marcus reminds himself that he has good Stoic reasons for not reacting in this way, reasons which are the result of his having made some progress in ethical understanding and development (‘I have recognised the nature of the good and see that it is the right…’). He is not angered by their wish to do him harm because he knows that, in Stoic ethics, the only real harm we can experience is that of doing what is wrong and thus damaging our own character and understanding.

He also reminds himself that these people, like himself and everyone else, form part of the brotherhood of human beings, as rational, sociable animals, an idea vividly conveyed in the images in the last part of the passage (‘like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth …’). Forming relationships with others in the light of this idea is one of the features elsewhere associated with ethical development, that is, progress towards virtue and virtue-based happiness.

Thus, overall, passages of this type have a two-part structure. First, they present typical (morally undeveloped) ways of relating to other people and responding emotionally. Second, they recommend a way of treating other people and responding emotionally to them that reflects ethical development, as conceived in Stoicism. Hence, my suggestion that we have here an exercise in the dichotomy of response, part of training oneself how to relate to others, and a highly memorable one.

 In this passage, and some others, Marcus focuses on avoiding bad or misguided emotional reactions, or passions, such as anger and resentment. However, in other examples of this theme, Marcus uses the Stoic terminology for ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai), which are in line with virtue. Here, for instance, Marcus imagines being surrounded on his death-bed by negative critics of his behaviour and reminds himself how he should react in that situation: ‘You must not, however on that account, depart thinking less kindly of them, but preserve your true character as one who is friendly, well-intentioned, and gracious’ (10.36.4). 

Again, in a passage similar to 2.1, he reminds himself: ‘If you can, show them the error of their ways. But, if you cannot, remember that kindness (or ‘goodwill’, eumeneia) was granted to you even for this’ (9.24.4-5, also 9.11). So here and elsewhere, the second leg of the dichotomy of response centres on reacting to negative criticism and attitudes by other people with constructive actions and warm, generous feelings.

The second response in the dichotomy matches an ideal that is firmly embedded in the Meditations and in Stoic thinking more generally. It is worth stressing this point since Stoicism is sometimes presented (especially by its critics) as marked by ‘detachment’ towards other people. Here, for instance, are two passages which match closely the second leg in the dichotomy of response.

You have not yet learnt to love your fellows with all your heart, nor yet do you have a complete understanding of the fact that doing good is a source of enjoyment. You are still doing it simply as a duty, and not yet with the idea that you are doing good to yourself.

Meditations 7.13

Different people find their enjoyment in different things: what gives me enjoyment is to keep my mind unimpaired, and not turn my back on any human being or on anything that happens to the human race, but to look on all things with kindly eyes (eumeneis) and welcome and make us of each thing according to its worth.

Meditations 8.43

Both passages reflect the Stoic view that ethical development (movement towards virtue) brings it an improved understanding of how to express care for other people as well as bringing emotional attitudes (such as love or goodwill) which reflect that understanding. It is also worth noting a marked feature of Book 1 of the Meditations, where Marcus lists the good qualities that his relationships with other people throughout his life have enabled him to appreciate, and which have helped him to carry forward his own ethical development. Many of these features consist of humane, tactful or generous-minded ways of treating other people. A second feature, often coupled with the first, is that of warm and positive, as well as stable, emotional responses to other people. This extract, on the Stoic teacher Sextus, illustrates both points:

… perceptiveness in gauging his friends’ needs; patience with ordinary people and those whose opinions are not based on reflection; the ability to fit in with everyone, so that his company was more pleasant than any kind of flattery, while at the same time he aroused the greatest respect from those who were with him … never to give the impression of anger or any other passion but to be at once completely free of passion and yet full of affection for other people.

Meditations 1.9.5-7, 9; see also 1.8, 1.10-12, 1.14-15

Thirdly, here is an illustration of similar features that form part of the picture of the ideal Stoic wise person in one of the standard ancient summaries of Stoic ethics:

Since the virtuous person is affable in conversation and charming and encouraging and prone to pursue good will and friendship through his conversation, he fits in as well as possible with the majority of people; and that is why he is lovable and graceful and persuasive, and again flattering and shrewd and opportune and quick-witted and easy-going and unfussy and straightforward and un-deceptive … he is also gentle (praos) … and does not get angry in any circumstances.

Arius Didymus 11m, 11s, trans. B. Inwood and L. Gerson, The Stoics Reader, 2008, pp. 147, 151

These parallels show that the ideas found in Marcus’ presentation of the dichotomy of response are firmly embedded in Stoic thinking about the best kind of human life.

The translations used in this post are those of Gill (2013) and Hard (2011).

Suggestions for Further Reading

On virtue, happiness, and indifferents in Stoic ethics, see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987), sections 58, 61, 63; on ethical development (oikeiosis) and emotions, see sections 57 and 65. For an overview of Stoic ethics, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (2006), ch. 5.

On Marcus’ Meditations, on these topics, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (2013), esp. xxiv-xlix (also, more briefly, the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics translation (2011) by Robin Hard, pp. xv-xx. See also J. Sellars, Marcus Aurelius (2021), ch. 8; R. Waterfield, translation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, The Annotated Edition (2021), introduction, pp. xl-lvii.

See also M. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (2007), chs. 2 and 8; C. Gill, ‘Positive Emotions in Stoicism: Are They Enough?’, in R. Caston and R. Kaster (eds.), Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World, ch. 7; C. Gill, ‘Stoic Detachment – is this a Myth?’, Philosophia (journal published in Athens), vol. 49 (2019), 271-86.

See also the two-part dialogue between C. Gill and T. LeBon on virtue and indifferents in the Stoicism Today blog archive.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

2 thoughts on Marcus on the Dichotomy of Value and Response by Chris Gill

  1. Morton Hurt says:

    Morning Greg,
    At 75 I am a late arrival to Stoicism Better late than never. I simply want to thank you for your insights to a world I believe could be created given a chance. Please keep it up.

  2. […] and discussion, see, for instance, past versions of Stoic Week, a recent blog post of mine on ‘Marcus on the dichotomy of value and response’, and a two-part dialogue between Tim LeBon and myself on […]

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