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What Is Important in Life? Day 5 – Episode 21


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A Contented Mind and Pure Hands What is most important? Refusing to let bad intentions enter your mind; raising pure hands to heaven; not seeking any good thing if someone else must give it or must lose it so that it may pass to you; wishing for a sound mind (something that can be wished for without competition); regarding the other things rated highly by mortals, even if some chance brings them into your home, as likely to exit by the door they entered. (Natural Questions  III, praef. 14) This passage strikes at the core of human conflict. Seneca instructs us not to seek “any good thing if someone else must give it or must lose it so that it may pass to you.” Competition for possessions, money, power, prestige, and position is incompatible with the development of moral excellence (virtue) and well-being. Stoicism teaches us that whether we are rich or poor, powerful or powerless, famous or unknown, we should be content with our present circumstances. Moreover, when things are not to our liking, Stoicism teaches us to use those circumstances as an opportunity to develop our moral character. However, we live in a time when the predominant message is quite the opposite. If we are dissatisfied with our circumstances, we are encouraged to complain, sue, petition, protest, picket, march, riot, and even cause civil disturbance and property damage until we get what we want. We are led to believe that if someone has more money, education, power, better health care or housing than we do, an injustice must have occurred. Meanwhile, Marcus Aurelius poignantly reminded himself: But perhaps you are discontented with what is allotted to you from the whole? Then call to mind the alternative, ‘either providence or atoms’ and all the proofs that the universe should be regarded as a kind of constitutional state. (Meditations 4.3) I believe this is one of the primary reasons many moderns reject the Stoic conception of a providential cosmos. To accept this Stoic doctrine entails that the cosmos and our current circumstances are as they should be. In other words, we currently have what the cosmos allotted to us, and our current circumstances provide the perfect place from which to begin development of our moral character. That is a message many of us moderns simply do not want to hear because it makes us accountable for our lives. It is so much easier to blame others for our circumstances than it is to look in the mirror and accept responsibility. Two common misconceptions are used to excuse our righteous indignation at perceived injustices. First, we mistakenly believe that our circumstances dictate or largely influence our well-being. However, circumstances are neither good nor bad; it is only our judgments of those events that can affect our well-being. According to the dichotomy of control, externals do not present a barrier to the development of our moral character or our well-being. Instead, the Stoics teach that our life circumstances are grist for the mill. Epictetus makes this point quite clear in his Discourse titled On providence when he asks: What kind of a man do you suppose Heracles would have become if it hadn’t been for the famous lion, and the hydra, the stag, the boar, and the wicked and brutal men whom he drove away and cleared from the earth? (Discourses 1.6.32) In other words, those dis-preferred external circumstances allowed Heracles to become who he truly was. Without them, he would not have become Heracles; he could not have lived up to his potential without those challenges. The second common misunderstanding comes from the assumption that being content with and loving our present circumstances leads to a form of quietism and thereby subdues any desire to effect change in our personal or social circumstances. On the contrary, Stoicism does not teach us to remain quiet and passive in the face of real injustice. Likewise, it does not teach us to be passive toward dis-preferred circumstances.

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