If you’ve poked around on my blog before, you’ll know that Seneca is my favorite Stoic author. He’s eloquent, and I just feel like I “get” him. However, these past several years as my life situation has taken a turn for the better, it’s been easy to put Stoicism on the back burner and just ride life out. There are a couple of problems with this, however.
At no time should Fortune be less trusted than when it is best.
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
The second reason has to do with impressions and Virtue. I’ve held a steady job for the past four years, even obtaining a promotion. Relationships seem to be going well. Life is fine and dandy, but I don’t feel satisfied. I fret more than is logical. I complain more than I should. I get frustrated over common events. There are just some things I do in daily life that I know I shouldn’t, but for some reason I simply can’t stop. Time to get back to the gym.
Not as toned as you’d like to be? Time to get back to the gym.
When I’m feeling too comfortable in life, the last thing I need is a gentle guiding voice telling me to “just keep making progress,” and “All in good time, Kirsten.” No! I need a wake-up call. A “come to Jesus” moment. Someone who has the guts to say, “Just because life is going well, you don’t need to change a thing? FALSE.” Who better than Epictetus to get the ball rolling? Then I discovered that I already had this lovely book Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes by Keith Seddon! I thoroughly enjoyed Seddon’s book Stoic Serenity and was thrilled at the prospect of him guiding me through a piece of Stoic literature. Let’s see what insights he can add to these amazing, ancient writings.
The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral
We know by now that the ancient Stoics believed Virtue was the only thing intrinsically good. (Our author Seddon also says that “virtuous activities” are good, but I myself prefer to stick to the basics because whether I’m even able to do my activity is not in my power, but my intent to be virtuous is in my power).
Stoics would also say that if you think something like money or power is good, then you’re mistaken because money and power are not actually good or evil. You could use money and power to provide a week’s worth of meals to all the impoverished people on the planet, but you could also use money and power to build a space lair and zap with a laser all the people who pissed you off earlier in life. In both situations, the person has both money and power, but the principles guiding their actions (Virtue or vice) are different. Money and power are not evil, and they’re not good–they’re neutral. Welcome to the Stoic concept of the indifferent.
But you already knew all that. I almost wish “indifferent” had been translated as “neutral.” A lot of people get hung up on this notion that “indifferent” means that I don’t care about it, therefore I actually want nothing to do with it, therefore I shun said object. But really the Stoics were just talking about the intrinsic value of said object. What’s important is how a person makes use of these indifferent/neutral things, as this indicates the progress a Stoic is making toward their goal of developing a good character.
A man is great if he uses clay dishes as if they were fine silver; but a man is equally great if he uses fine silver dishes as if they were simply made of clay.
(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic 5)
In this quote, man uses the Virtue of wisdom to understand that dishes are dishes, regardless of what they are made out of. Therefore, both clay dishes AND silver dishes = neutral, and the man has maintained his Virtue by not being phased about what material they are made from, since he knows the material of the dishes has no bearing on his moral character in any way.
Having extra crap laying around (aka ‘indifferents’) = opportunity to practice Virtue
Not having any extra crap laying around (absence of indifferents) = still another opportunity to practice Virtue
What is in Our Power
Epictetus agreed that in order to keep up our good moral character, we must understand what is “in our power.” This is basically the key to everything, because if we don’t understand this concept, then we’re just going to keep going about our lives being misguided, chasing after externals but being frustrated when we don’t get our way.
No one is master of another’s moral character…No one, therefore, can secure the good for me, or involve me in evil, but I alone have authority over myself in these matters.
Epictetus, Discourses 4.12
Aside from telling me that my inner well-being is safe from the actions of others and therefore putting the power into my own hands, I find that this quote hints at responsibility. No one can make you become a better person or eliminate frustrations for you. You are responsible for your own inner well-being.
Now that both power and responsibility have been placed into my own hands, I’ve got one heck of a job to do with however much time I’ve been given in life, so time is of the essence. I’ve definitely got some progress to make, and it’s time to get a move on things.
Tune in next time for a post about impressions as well as the three fields of study desire, action, and assent. I believe our author explains the fields in a wonderfully clear and concise manner.
Until next time. Live well.