This article originally appeared on Medium.
Stoic philosophy, at its core, is built around the Dichotomy of Control (“DOC”) and the idea of pursuing a virtuous life. While the DOC teaches us what is and is not within our control, it is only the first step in our journey to living virtuously. The second step, after we separate what is and is not within our control, is the application of value-judgments we place on external things we encounter. The Stoics separated value-judgments into three categories: good, bad, and indifferent. The first two are self-explanatory, the last is somewhat more difficult for individuals studying the philosophy to understand.
- Good: Something that benefits the self.
- Bad: Something which doesn’t benefit the self.
- Indifferent: It could be good or bad but is dependent upon other things.
While external things are not within our control, we still must meet them on a day-to-day basis. Each day we wake up and go throughout our day, we receive an external stimulus and then must add a value-judgment — good, bad, or indifferent — to that stimuli. Differentiating these three — good, bad, and indifferent — is a delicate balance that we as humans must face each and every day of our lives and is referred to as the Discipline of Assent.
It is what we do with our value-judgments that we live in either virtue or vice. Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, explains for us that external things are not necessarily good or bad, it is how we use them.
“For Stoics, external things are not good or bad in the strongest sense. They don’t make our souls better or worse, or affect our fulfilment (eudaimonia) in life. What matters ultimately is the use we make of them, good or bad, virtuous or vicious.” Donald Robertson
Think about this passage by Marcus Aurelius in book seven of Meditations:
“Adorn thyself with simplicity and with indifference towards the things which lie between virtue and vice.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VII.31
What Marcus is exercising within himself is the delicate balance of DOC. He knows that actions within his control can be either good or bad — between virtue and vice. There is the stimulus — our impression — then there is the judgment we apply. Without proper faculties, the judgments we apply will lead to undesirable actions. Without properly grounding our judgments, we open ourselves up to being carried away by our emotions.
As individuals, we encounter external stimuli every day. We receive the impression of the situation, apply a judgment to it based upon our moral wisdom, and then decide whether the stimulus is true or false, good or bad, virtue or vice. If we cannot determine this, we suspend judgment and categorize it as indifferent. Indifference, however, does not mean lacking interest or unimportant, rather, it is equanimity; us coming to the decision that we cannot decide whether this stimulus is good or bad and therefore must suspend our judgment of it.
While the Stoics held external things as being indifferent, they did not believe in blanketing all external things as indifferent. On the contrary, by doing so, you would lack living a virtuous life as Donald Robertson explains:
“…the Stoics argued that wisdom, and the other virtues, consist precisely in our ability to distinguish rationally between the value of different external things. Ironically, someone who discounts all externals as totally indifferent, or equally indifferent, would therefore be foolish according to the Stoics. They would lack prudence. They’d also lack the ability to exercise justice by knowing what it’s fair and benevolent to give other people or to do for them. They’d also lack the virtues of courage and moderation because they wouldn’t be able to distinguish rationally between things worth enduring or renouncing and things not.” Donald Robertson
By looking at an external event or stimulus through this binary lens, we are being anti-virtuous. When we are met with an external stimulus — an impression — we apply a value-judgment to that impression. This is where we decide whether the stimulus is good, bad, or indifferent.
Understanding what is and is not within our control (DOC) is only the first step in living a virtuous life. Next we must examine the value-judgments we are applying to situations. Our moral wisdom dictates how we interpret the events we encounter. It is through logic and understanding of the world that we are better able to understand and appropriately respond to situations we encounter.
As Epictetus reminds us in The Enchiridion:
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things…” Epictetus. The Enchiridion. V.
If we’re allowing ourselves to become upset by external things, we must examine the judgments we are placing on those things. The goal of a Stoic is not to be strongly opposed or strongly desire external things, rather, it is to either prefer or disprefer them. Therefore, when we feel ourselves becoming emotional wrapped up in an external situation, we must look inward and determine the reasoning for these strong emotions and examine 1) is this within my control? 2) Is this good, bad, or indifferent? 3) Do I prefer or disprefer this?
It is important to remember that the Stoics held virtue, or the pursuit of a good life, as the highest goal. The pursuit of living a good life, living by the Four Cardinal Virtues, are within our control. We control our actions, our responses, and how we handle the adversities we face. But living a life of virtue starts with us, not external things. We have the ability to distinguish what is and is not within our control, to live in accordance with our virtues, to properly examine and apply our value judgments to the situations we encounter. Remembering this will lead to supreme power over our future because we have taken the necessary steps to live virtuously.
As Ryan Holiday says in his book, The Obstacle is the Way:
“Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows right perspective.” Ryan Holiday. The Obstacle is the Way