I am not a stoic. For me, the way the stoic philosophy typically is spun, it too easily lends itself to fatalism. While I am aware that stoicism does not necessarily preach fatalism, clearly fatalism easily can be predicated on stoic philosophy. In this respect, I have, in fact, encountered many fatalistic interpretations of stoicism that are articulated by it’s adherents.
Regardless of the fact that I am not a stoic, two quotes that resonate with me deeply from within populations of Greek philosophers are proffered by stoics, one by Seneca, the other by Marcus Aurelius. The quote by Seneca goes as follows.
“Philosophy moulds and constructs the soul, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone.”
My focus in this post is on the following quote from Marcus Aurelius. The quote reads as follows (verbatim).
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. Meditations.
The key here, which for me, mediates the tendency for fatalism to be built into stoicism is the qualification that the distress is, in entirety, external to a person, that is, induced in entirety by actions of another.
For illustration, the U.S. Senate just acquitted Donald Trump of charges that led to his impeachment in the House. While some people are overjoyed, some others feel let down, that is, distressed.
The Republicans likely will say that it was the constitution’s specification of only two options — guilty, or not guilty — that necessitated an acquittal. To this, someone who feels let down may respond that, they as yet could have accompanied the acquittal with a ‘statement of censure’ that puts on record their agreement that the President’s actions were less than honorable.
Suppose then that you are, on basis of acquittal of Donald Trump, feeling disgusted with the political machinery of the United States of America. Well, if you are not a Republican or Democratic Senator, the outcome of the trial in the Senate was, in entirety, external to your person, is an outcome over which you did not really have any influence or control.
The advice from Marcus Aurelius?
Change your estimate of the outcome of the trial in the Senate, as such, let go of your distress, and welcome joy into your heart.
How exactly can such a response be deemed rational? Well, by asking yourself what best deserves your efforts going forwards, you are able to focus your energies on the future, and for harnessing of your energies, simultaneously have to alter your estimate of outcome of the trial in the Senate.
In the focus of your energies on the future, there perhaps exists the possibility that the source of the initial distress can be remedied.
The kicker that was recognized by Marcus Aurelius? The longer you allow your estimate of the totally external thing to induce distress in your person, the longer the external agent can delight in the action that induces your distress.
If you, however, make visible that you will not allow the external action induce any distress in your person, you, at the very least, take away any satisfaction derived from maintenance of the negative external action, because it is known that it induces distress in your person.
If those who feel disappointed by the outcome of the trial in the U.S. Senate arrive at an estimate of the outcome that induces distress, what exactly will happen in the future, except deliberate rub-ins whose objective are accentuation of the distress?
Using the same argument, while they may not wish to alter their estimate of outcome of the trial in the Senate, were they interested, those who are overjoyed at acquittal of Donald Trump also can alter their estimate of the outcome, for killing off of their joy.
You bet, however, that they are like, “Seriously, Dude, you a killjoy, or what?”
But then, I respond, “if you do not kill off the overjoy, it just may not survive beyond November 2020.”
Clearly, even in presence of joy, Marcus Aurelius continues to have a point.
When it comes to dealing with decisions, actions, or events that are totally external to your person, but which seem to affect you adversely, Marcus Aurelius provides a stoic philosophy that is lacking in any fatalism; advises, rather wisely and sagely, that if the external action causes you distress, that all you have to do is alter your estimate of it’s value.
In the freeing of your heart from distress occasioned by the external event, you provide yourself with a clear mind for determining exactly how best to proceed in respect of feasibility of alteration of the external event from an adverse event to a beneficial outcome.
There, perhaps, are few advises for life more sage and wise than, “if it is totally external and causes you pain, change your estimate of it.”