What harms us, really, according to the Stoics?

Marcus Aurelius, then Caesar of the Roman Empire, wrote the following while stationed in modern-day Austria around AD170 while his troops were at war with the locals:

[4.8] Anything that doesn’t make a person worse in himself doesn’t make his life worse either, and does him no harm, external or internal.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: The Annotated Edition. Translated, introduced, and edited by Robin Waterfield.

Now, I’m writing this at the end of AD2023, and the idea that the only thing that can make us worse off is what makes our inner selves worse is laughably out-of-date. Haven’t you seen inflation or the current political climate?!

Regardless, here’s where Marcus Aurelius is coming from, so far as I can tell.

The Stoic viewpoint

For the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, a good life grows from the cultivation and practice of virtues, especially the cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. (He also liked “honesty,” see 3.6)

To be “worse in himself” would mean to betray a virtue with a vice, thereby causing the person to be at odds with the natural forces of the world and the goodness of providence. In his view, to live at odds with such things would be a miserable life.

So, what about all the circumstances that could cause material problems: Either the acute present trials (say being at war, in poverty, ill health, or having political enemies) or even the relatively worse odds for success laid upon you by your families’ low place in society or meager economic means?

Doesn’t all that, which has little to do with your inner self, make your life worse?

For a Stoic, no, bad circumstances don’t make your life worse. And if you think they do, then they would probably think you are ignorant of what it means to live well.

The circumstances of your life over which you have no control are considered “externals” and are neutral, not good nor bad. Things outside of your control are just part of reality. Your own inner goodness or badness can’t be touched by such externals. (But your response to externals matters a lot.)

Instead, in every circumstance you can live a good life through the application of virtues.

One outcome of such virtuous living, is that you are to cultivate a view that causes you to welcome any circumstance as though it is brought to you for a good purpose, and now it is yours to respond well to it.

Were your plans all lined up when something unforeseen happened and everything fell apart? Welcome it and respond as a virtuous person would.

Here’s a present day analogy to the Stoic theme of developing the character to welcome any circumstance, good or bad: Jocko Willink’s lesson on “Good.”

A current day application

So, what is an application of this old idea in today’s age, when virtually none of us understand the idea of “virtues” like the ancient Greeks and Romans?

Of the many, I’ll pose this one. For those who are hung up in their thoughts and emotions on rotten circumstances they are in, injustices they are sure are going on, or unfair or harmful things that have happened to them, stop for a moment and inventory those concerns and see if they are presently within their control.

If the circumstances in question are externals, treat them as such and instead focus on understanding, thinking, and acting on concerns that you do have control over.

I think this philosophy would say that making such a change would lead towards living a good life.

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