Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No Whining

Q:“A friend recently told me he was growing tired of my 'negativity.' I guess I do complain a lot, but most of the time I can't muster a more positive response. Life's inherent unfairness and difficulty leave me little choice. There's an old saying: ‘If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.’ How can anyone who's paying attention also not spend much of his time grumbling?”
A:

“[W]hen the weather does not happen to be fair for sailing, we sit in distress and gaze out perpetually.

‘Which way is the wind?’

North.

‘What good will that do us? When will the west wind blow?’

When it pleases, friend, or when Aeolus pleases; for God has not made you the dispenser of the winds, but Aeolus.

‘What, then, is to be done?’

To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.

...[I must] distinguish between what is mine and what is not mine—what I can and what I cannot do. I must die. Must I die groaning, too? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must be exiled; does anyone keep me from going smiling, and cheerful, and serene?


-Epictetus, AD c 55-135, Discourses, 1.1, translation by Higginson, Matheson

As maxims go, this may be one of the most helpful left to us by the great first-century Stoic teacher Epictetus: “Make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.” It is of a piece with two other foundational bits of Stoic wisdom, also from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things” and “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” The logic is undeniable, but the next step—I may as well stop whining about things I can’t control—can be a hurdle.

It is dismaying, at this late date, to reflect on how much of my life has been given over to complaining about problems that cannot be solved by the mere act of complaining. It’s not just me; whining as a coping strategy has been a favorite dodge of the beleaguered human psyche for millennia, from Achilles moping in his tent to today’s disappointed voters at any given point of the political compass. Whining’s staying power as a human response is, in some ways, a mystery: Not only is it utterly ineffective as a problem-solving strategy, it is also deeply unappealing (think of a long car trip with a chronic complainer). Few character traits are more weakly self-indulgent or more tiresome to endure in others. And for the complainer himself, to the extent that his whining (or its more bitter and entrenched cousin, cynicism) becomes a habitual response, it colors everything, effectively blocking his path to a happy, flourishing life, or even the simple enjoyment of life’s smaller pleasures. It is also a substantial impediment to taking effective, constructive action in the world.

Whining does offer at least one psychological payoff, though it’s not an attractive one. Seneca, writing in the first century A.D., counsels a grief-stricken friend that it’s time, at long last, to put aside her sorrowing: “...this state of unhappiness and misery, with its self-inflicted anguish, feeds finally on its own bitterness, and the pain felt by an unhappy mind becomes an unhealthy pleasure.” Some 1900 year later, Katharine Angell, New Yorker fiction editor and wife of essayist, hypochondriac, and occasional whiner E.B. White, wrote to her husband in a similar vein: “The frustration motif continued for a lifetime doesn’t give anyone much happiness. There’s a certain satisfaction in it, but not the best kind.” We are all familiar with that “unhealthy pleasure,” the “certain satisfaction” derived from self-inflicted misery; it lives in the same psychological cul-de-sac as self-pity and the martyr complex. And as many times as we resort to it—and we all have—we recognize it as an unworthy attitude even as we’re stoking it.

The impulse to moan about our circumstances is one of those twists of human psychology that, like procrastination or blame-shifting, might temporarily help us feel better about ourselves in relation to the things, people, and situations that vex us, but that ultimately impede our progress toward equanimity and self-mastery. It’s just one of the many ways passion can overshadow reason when we’re not paying attention. A key Stoic precept is “making correct use of impressions“—in other words, doing our best to see things as they are and respond rationally. Gaining an accurate view of any challenging situation, a view not colored by emotional overreaction or fogged by one of our many reflexive psychological ploys, is the first step toward setting things right.

That can be a tough step to take, because while whining is ineffective, annoying, emotionally immature, and all the rest, it does at least have one thing going for it: It’s easy. Easier, often, than facing a difficult situation squarely and working to change things for the better. “Making the best of what is in our power” can be a tall order, calling for a certain amount of grit that may be lacking in our character or that may have atrophied through lack of use. But when we do manage to insert a small wedge between an inciting event and a whining response, that brief pause can allow for a more clear-eyed, rational reaction that will keep our complaining in check and, often, reveal a solution to the original problem. It’s surprising how much ends up being “in our power” when we are able to keep a cool head. We won’t always remember to insert that wedge in time, but by paying attention and making a conscious effort, we can improve our percentage.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Who Is My Brother?

Q:“Granted, ancient philosophy offers useful insights into human psychology and good, practical advice that can help us put life’s difficulties into perspective. I also appreciate its emphasis on the pursuit of wisdom and virtue as essential to human flourishing. The old philosophers were good on the subject of self-care: necessary medicine in a world as capricious and troublesome as this one. But what about our duties to others? Our responsibilities to family, friends, neighbors? For that matter, what do we owe, as fellow human beings, to strangers on the other side of the world?”
A:“Each of us is as it were entirely encompassed by many circles.... The first and closest circle is the one which a person has drawn as though around a centre, his own mind.... Next, the second one...contains parents, siblings, wife, and children. The third one has in it uncles and aunts, grandparents, nephews, nieces, and cousins.... that is followed by the circle of local residents...fellow-citizens...people from neighboring towns, and the circle of fellow-countrymen. The outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race. Once these have all been surveyed, it is the task of a well tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to draw the circles together somehow towards the centre, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones.... The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”

-Hierocles, second century A.D., translation by Long and Sedley

Hierocles was a Stoic philosopher who lived in the first half of the second century A.D. Little is known of his life, and his work has survived only in fragments, most of which focus on ethics. His Elements of Ethics was based on the Greek concept of oikeiôsis, an important technical term from Stoic ethics. I’m no linguist, much less a scholar of Greek, but as I understand it, oikeiôsis is derived from oikos, the word for house or home, and conveys, among other shades of meaning, the idea of feeling “at home,” the sense of belonging or appropriateness and of those things which are one’s own by virtue of one's nature (in our case, our human nature). It’s not a static concept; the -sis suffix signals that oikeiôsis is a process, something that changes and matures along with our physical, intellectual, and moral development. Oikeiôsis is, in the words of historian Richard Sorabji, “the process of coming to treat things as belonging.” Sorabji goes on to explain: “One may come to treat one’s own person or one’s own nearest and dearest as belonging. The Stoics came to be interested in the possibility of extending this sense of belonging more widely to one’s fellow humans in general.” (Animal Minds & Human Morals, 1995, Cornell University Press). In the context of oikeiôsis, then, Hierocles wrote, in Elements of Ethics, about self-perception (the first thing that “belongs” to us is our understanding that we exist) and the awareness of the self in relation to others—fundamental concepts in any scheme of ethics.

Another of Hierocles’ works, On Appropriate Acts, is the source of the extended quotation above. His image of the concentric circles of connection and “belonging” that ripple outward from each individual self, and our duty to persistently work at drawing the outer circles inward, is a famous one. It’s also a handy verbal and visual reminder of our shared humanity, our interconnectedness, and, as our understanding grows, our duties and responsibilities in regard to the common good. Hierocles’ circles are also an apt representation of the Stoic ideal of the cosmopolitan, or “citizen of the world.” As Marcus Aurelius describes it, we all carry within us a spark of the divine “fire” of reason (the logos) that pervades the universe. This common coin of humanity, the gift of reason, establishes our kinship and draws us together as fellow citizens and members of the world community. “Universal brotherhood,” is, of course, a hope and a vision that was as thoroughly trounced by political realities in Marcus and Hierocles’s day as it is in our own. But while the final goal may lie beyond our reach, commitment to incremental progress is standard operating procedure for the philosophical/spiritual life, and our fundamental orientation is the important point: We must care for ourselves and our loved ones, and then we must do our best to broaden our sympathies and, as Hierocles says, “reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Speaking of Virtue

Q:“What makes you philosophers so smart? Aren't the people who yammer on about morality and ethics usually the very ones who prove to be the worst kind of hypocrites?”
A:"I am not a wise man, nor, to feed your spite, shall I ever be. So require from me not that I should be equal to the best, but that I should be better than the wicked. It is enough for me if every day I reduce the number of my vices and recognize my mistakes.... I have not attained to perfect health, nor indeed shall I attain it; I contrive to alleviate my gout rather than to cure, content if it comes more rarely and gives less pain. It is of virtue, not of myself, that I am speaking, and my quarrel is against all vices, more especially against my own."

-Lucius Annaeus Seneca, circa 58 AD, De Vita Beata (On the Happy Life)

This is a slippery business. Moralists are notoriously easy targets. And when they fall, which they do with dismaying frequency, they do it with such graceless, comic clamor, usually tripping over one of their own precepts like a loose skate at the top of the stairs and hurtling downward, out of control, hitting every newel post and finial on their way to the bottom. But it is a mistake to nitpick the lives of these famous old moral philosophers, who, like any of us, had their share of character flaws and personal failings. In ancient philosophy, the sage—the philosopher who had attained perfect virtue and wisdom—was an aspirational, even semi-mythical figure. For the rest of us, progress in the philosophical life was understood to be incremental and imperfect—a vital pursuit to be sure, but one fraught with difficulties and dismaying setbacks. Try as we might, none of us fully lives up to his highest aspirations. In that spirit, we should resist the temptation to dismiss the ideas of these old thinkers simply because the whole of their lives didn't comport with their philosophies. The charge of hypocrisy can also be a convenient dodge, a too-easy deflection, saving us the trouble of giving their often uncomfortable ideas a fair hearing.

Seneca had it right: the discussion is not about him, it's about virtue—about the attempt, at least, to become better versions of ourselves. And if we can't even discuss the possibility of living virtuously, where does that leave us? If we're reluctant to envision and describe the goal we're aiming at, how can we ever hope to hit the target? Wouldn't it be wiser, safer, certainly easier, to avoid entirely any talk of goals, aims, or virtues? Of course not. There are worse fates than being accused of hypocrisy—for example, facing life with no hope or expectation of ever becoming a better person than I am right now. We are none of us sages, but we aim to stay on the path and improve, understanding the philosophical life as an orientation and a commitment, not an accomplishment. No, the question is not how well the moralizing philosophers lived out their own maxims. The question is whether their ideas about the pursuit of virtue and wisdom make sense to us. If they do, our business then is simply to do our best to put those ideas to good use.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Gratitude and Wonder

Q:“When I was young, I was interested in everything, and the world was full of wonder. But adulthood has worn me down. With each passing day I feel more like Oscar Wilde’s paradigmatic cynic: ‘A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ This change in attitude happened while I wasn’t looking, and I’m not happy about it. The only people I know who seem unjaded and reasonably content with their lot are religious believers, but the faith of my youth seems to have flown the coop. I’m bone-weary of the snark and cynicism that pass for social intercourse these days, especially on the internet. How can I take a step back, get a fresh view, and rekindle wonder in my life?”
A:“Any one thing in the creation is sufficient to demonstrate a Providence, to a humble and grateful mind. Not to instance great things, the mere possibility of producing milk from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from skins—who formed and planned this? ‘No one,’ say you. O surprising irreverence and dullness!”

-Epictetus (AD c. 55-135), Discourses 1.16

Epictetus raises so many currently unfashionable ideas here—God (Providence), humility, reverence—that it's hard to know where to begin. For secular moderns, his expression of wonder at the seemingly miraculous origins of milk, cheese, and wool can easily provoke a smile of condescension, perhaps even a sneer. The primitive naïveté! What can such a worldview—bound by the limits of first-century cosmology, ignorant of today's materialist, scientistic gospel and the “blind” inexorability of natural selection—have to offer that could be of any use to iPhone-Age Man?

We can’t read far in Epictetus without recognizing his belief in God. It’s also impossible to imagine a topic in current culture that has been so thoroughly mangled, misrepresented, and misunderstood. “The God question,” mankind's inherent itch to grapple with the ultimate mystery of existence, has, in recent years, played out on the internet, and in the publishing world, with all the subtleness and intellectual acuity of a Three Stooges pie fight. In the process, humanity’s most complex, fertile, culture-shaping force—rich in wisdom traditions, creative arts, ethical thought, and psychological insight, and, for many, positively crackling with intimations of the transcendent—has been reduced to a tiresome shouting match, with doctrinaire literalists on one side and scorched-earth anti-theists on the other. To call this state of affairs regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it.

I’m happy with Epictetus’s theistic leanings. But whether or not we believe in God, it’s important to guard against the occasional impulse, when we’re sifting these ancient ideas, to toss out both baby and bathwater. History is replete with philosophies and belief systems that, despite arguable doctrinal details, have provided wisdom and ethical guidance to men and women in every era and culture and at every point along the IQ bell curve. If you’re one who finds God talk troubling, all you need to muster, in order to benefit from Epictetus’s advice, is some level of appreciation for finding yourself alive in a cosmos you did not create and in which you are given, along with your share of trouble and strife, bountiful opportunities for wonder and joy. If Epictetus, a crippled former slave who lived under some of Imperial Rome’s most treacherous rulers, found cause for, and wisdom in, adopting a fundamental position of humility and gratitude toward the universe, there is every chance that we, too, can benefit by embracing these attitudes.

Humility is a tricky subject, if only because it’s impossible not to sound laughably pompous when recommending it. Look here, you: Be humble! But that’s not it. We're not talking about personal humility of the kind that can be so treacherous if pursued head-on, the sort that easily warps into conspicuous, Uriah Heepish self-abasement that’s the opposite of what it pretends to be. No, we're after a broader, more foundational humility, a mindset that grasps our status as utterly dependent beings and that has absorbed, fully, the fact of our mortality. We want a humility not of groveling self-negation, but a clear-eyed recognition that every moment of our existence, as well as everything we have and are, is a gift. The mortality-humility connection is a natural one, and it is even reflected etymologically: Our word humility derives from the Latin humus, meaning soil or earth—the ground from which humankind arose, from which we draw our sustenance, and that will ultimately reclaim our bodies. We needn’t take it to morbid lengths, but occasional reflection on life’s contingency and brevity can provide a humbling perspective, one that can be both calming and a spur to greater engagement with life in the time left to us:

“Pass then through this tiny span of time in accordance with Nature, and come to your journey’s end with a good grace, just as an olive falls when it is fully ripe, praising the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48. C. R. Haines, translator

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.56. Gregory Hays, translator

Through humility then—the acceptance of life as an unearned gift—we arrive at gratitude. One of the simplest and most ready-to-hand balms for a muddled life is the age-old remedy of counting our blessings. Granted, life’s bright spots can sometimes be hard to recognize, obscured as they often are by our day-to-day difficulties, by the usual dire headlines, and by the ongoing challenge of keeping our minds clear and our thinking straight. But when we can manage it, when the clouds part long enough to give us an objective glimpse of all we have to be thankful for, our gratitude can prove a strong antidote to the corrosive effects of cynicism, anger, sadness, and life’s accruing jumble of petty disappointments. And by reminding us of the often-unrecognized abundance in our lives, it can help to temper the grasping acquisitiveness that sometimes seems to drive us, even against our will. Finally, as Epictetus suggests, gratitude can help us regain our lost sense of wonder.

This is not just Epictetus’s idea. Gratitude is a virtue that enjoys high standing among the Stoics generally. Seneca, in On Benefits, says, “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” The first book of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a poignant and grateful accounting of his indebtedness to family, friends, teachers, and others. Cicero called gratitude the greatest of the virtues, and “the mother of all the others.”

If you’re like the rest of us, bringing gratitude to the fore in your life will likely require a conscious effort. If you regularly pray, meditate, or practice some form of reflection focused on self-improvement, an easy step might be to add a minute or two to explicitly acknowledge those things, people, and events from your day for which you are particularly thankful. It’s not difficult, and once you get started, the number of good things happening in your life, even within the space of a single unremarkable day, may surprise you; they will certainly encourage you. In addition to recalling specific moments—the pleasant encounter with the shop clerk, the encouraging email from a friend, the old car that started and ran smoothly despite the bad weather—you might also remember those broader circumstances of your life that apply:

  • the presence, or the happy memory, of loved ones
  • a rational nature, a mind built for learning
  • the ability, and the will, to rise above challenging circumstances
  • good health
  • meaningful work
  • kindness from unexpected quarters
  • the capacity for doing good
  • nature: its power, beauty, and endless variety
  • ...and so on

Regular practice with this exercise can grow on you. If you’re the journaling type, you can keep a written record of your reflections. You might even choose to follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and write about the people in your life to whom you are most grateful for help in shaping your character, providing for your education, and encouraging your spiritual/philosophical growth. Keep these notes and reflections to yourself, though; blasting them out to the world via social media can be a species of ego-stroking and will only sap their power. Marcus's Meditations were not written for publication; they were a tool for self-improvement and a form of spiritual exercise.

Once you’re established on the gratitude wavelength, you can begin to notice its impact on your daily life—lengthening your patience, recalling your attention to life’s smaller pleasures, and generally improving your resilience in challenging times. Humility and gratitude may or may not lead us to faith in God, but they can go a long way toward reawakening wonder and hope in even the most jaded adult.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

How Happiness Finds Us

Q:“By many objective standards, my life is going well. I have a family that loves me; I have a roof over my head, good friends, a decent job, a big television, a ridiculously over-qualified telephone in my pocket. Viewed from inside, though, my life could be better. I am, in a fundamental and seemingly intractable way, unhappy. My outward circumstances and material success notwithstanding, this gnawing dissatisfaction keeps me off balance and unfulfilled, too often leaving me cynical, anxious, angry, or sad. Why is simple, lasting happiness so hard to find?”
A:“Happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue.”

Aristotle (384-322 BC), The Nicomachean Ethics 1.13

Aristotle’s little nugget, dry and semi-opaque as it may appear, is a conceptual cornerstone of western thought and is deserving of careful consideration by anyone seeking a happier, more fulfilling life.

To begin, some linguistic housekeeping:

1) Aristotle’s word found here as “happiness” is the Greek eudaimonia. I don’t know Greek, but most sources on the subject take pains to tell us that “happiness,” though a common English translation of eudaimonia, is insufficient. “Human flourishing” is said to be a better rendering. However translated, eudaimonia was considered by Aristotle to be the answer to the question “What is the aim of human life?”

2) What about “soul”? Simply put, for Aristotle, soul is the life principle. Things that are alive have this “life stuff,” everything else doesn’t.

3) “Virtue” is a translation of the Greek arete. Virtue is a fine word, but arete can also be helpfully understood as “excellence.” Specific to the present context, virtue can be read as “excellence at being human.”

With this understanding, let’s try a clarifying revision of Aristotle’s thought: A happy life—a flourishing life—is one lived in pursuit of virtue, i.e., human excellence.

So far so good. The next move, and you’ll have seen it coming, is to define human excellence. What does it mean to excel at being human? It is to nurture and make good use of those capacities that are uniquely ours as human beings. Here is Aristotle’s reasoning: Things in this world have specific functions—knives cut, plants bear fruit, homes protect us from the elements, etc. We judge a thing as excellent when it performs its particular function well. An excellent knife cuts easily and reliably, an excellent plant bears high-quality fruit, an excellent house is sturdy and comfortable and provides good shelter.

As human beings, we, too, have a function that is specifically our own: We can reason. We share a lot with the beasts—we are physical creatures, with all the biological operations and limitations that implies—but mankind is also endowed with the power of abstract thought and higher reason. Since reason is our uniquely human function, then, just as an excellent knife is one that cuts well, an excellent human is one who reasons well. And the highest aim of man (and the source of our happiness and flourishing) is to live a life in accord with reason.

Next step: What does living in accord with reason entail? As a species, we apply our reasoning power to all sorts of things, from choosing our breakfast to solving obscure problems of quantum physics to fulfilling our responsibilities as friends, neighbors, and members of society. Aristotle proposed that this broad variety of thoughts, decisions, and activities that make up our day-to-day lives can be categorized based on the types of excellence (virtue) at which they aim and that, fundamentally, they can all be slotted into one of two main categories: intellectual virtue and moral virtue.

Among the intellectual virtues, the virtues of thought, Aristotle named scientific (empirical) knowledge, wisdom (both theoretical and practical), and craft know-how (such as skill employed in the arts). Our rationality gives us the capacity to develop these kinds of virtues, and they are imparted to us mainly through instruction.

The moral virtues are those concerned with our character. They help us fulfill our role as a well-functioning member of the human community, and they include courage, friendliness, justice, prudence, self-discipline, and others. We are not born with these virtues, but, as Aristotle says, “we are adapted by nature to receive them” (i.e., our rational nature helps us recognize their wisdom and utility), and they develop in us only by conscious habit. We must foster them.

Happiness, then, consists in steering our lives toward intellectual and moral excellence. (It’s not a question of having to attain perfection; the fundamental orientation is the important thing.) Our minds are powerful, and we will find our fulfillment only in using them to the best of our abilities. To settle for less—to live, like less rationally gifted creatures, only at the level of appetite and physical pleasure—is to stop short of claiming our full inheritance as Homo sapiens (“wise man”), which is why our species’ stubbornly brutish penchant for clawing after happiness in the form of wealth, fame, pleasure, or power, while it might make for absorbing television, is notoriously unsatisfying and, ultimately, destructive.

Also note that Aristotle says happiness is an activity. It’s not a prize to go in search of, something we can discover and thereafter carry around with us or have stuffed and mounted to display above the mantle. Eudaimonia is, rather, something we do with our lives, a way of living that recognizes and works to fulfill the conditions for human flourishing. In other words, while we may not be able to pursue happiness directly, we can live in such a way that happiness may well find us.

Monday, December 3, 2018

We Are Not Out of Control

Q:“Nothing goes my way. My job sucks—our customers are as annoying as my co-workers, and my boss is a moron. Things aren't any better at home. My spouse doesn’t trust me; my children don’t respect me. And the wider world is barreling hellward like a runaway train. The cesspool of popular culture is an affront on every level. Corporations and governments have the system rigged; only the rich get ahead. Politicians gorge themselves at the public trough and pander to every demographic but mine. I’m the wrong gender. I’m the wrong race. I’m the wrong age. I am powerless and I am angry. How am I supposed to shape a meaningful and free life when so much of reality is clearly beyond my control?”

A:“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

“The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you.”

Epictetus (AD c 55-135), Enchiridion 1

Epictetus’s point is a simple one: Our influence in the world extends only so far. We cannot, except in sharply limited ways, control our health, others’ opinions of us, the weather, the culture, the actions of our family members and neighbors, etc. A fundamental error of human perception—one that can take decades to correct—is the belief that the world should conform to my will. Demanding that life go entirely my way, and whining or wallowing in self-pity when it doesn’t, is the essence of immaturity. It is also the surest path to a lifetime of misery, dissatisfaction, and lazy cynicism, killing any hope of achieving reasonable levels of happiness and equanimity in life, to say nothing of wisdom.

But there is good news: We are freer than we know. Where it really matters, we do enjoy control, power, and freedom: in our attitudes, our thoughts, our beliefs, and our actions. However roughly we may be visited by those elements of reality that lie beyond our control, our response will always be up to us.

Stoicism, the philosophy that Epictetus practiced and taught, places supreme value on living in accord with reason and virtue, the pursuit of which lies entirely within our own power. The French historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot draws the threads together nicely: “… it is not up to us to be beautiful, strong, healthy, or rich, or to escape suffering. All these things depend on causes which are external to us … . There is one thing, and only one, which does depend on us and which nothing can tear away from us: the will to do good and to act in conformity with reason … . The will to do good is an unbreachable fortress which everyone can construct within themselves. It is there that we can find freedom, independence, invulnerability, and that eminently Stoic value: coherence with ourselves.” (What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 2002)

But if I cannot control anything beyond the end of my own nose, is there any point to pursuing positive change in the world? Is this a call to apathy and capitulation? Far from it. First, our influence may extend farther than we know. Second, by the Stoics’ own teaching, we are all charged with doing our best, bounded by our reason and our abilities, to care for others and devote ourselves to the common good. The world, or fate, may thwart our efforts, but such a result is beyond our control and—per Epictetus and the Stoics—is not our concern.