Live Like a Stoic
Hold in view how quickly everything is forgotten and the abyss of infinite time in the past and the future, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and lack of judgment of those who seem to praise you, and the narrowness of the scope in which this fame is confined. The whole earth is a mere point, and how very small a part of it is this corner in which we have our home, and here how many and what sort of people will sing your praises?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3
The flip side to regarding virtue as our only good is that everything else we call good by convention—such as health, pleasure, material prosperity, and the respect of others—has no real value. But the Stoics go even further: unlike Aristotle, they hold that living a good life requires nothing other than virtue. Now, again, in identifying virtue with wisdom, what the Stoics really have in mind is a state of focusing on what’s under our control and choosing well. Still, a consequence of their theory is that they believe we can live well even in conditions of impoverishment, social isolation, and physical pain. Since all of these things are outside our ultimate control, none of them can really harm us, and so (if we come to suffer them) we should form an attitude of indifference toward them.
Of course, this does not mean we should actively seek out poverty and pain. While the Stoics did believe we should train ourselves to bear such misfortune in the event that it should befall us, they had a subtle way of distinguishing between what they called “preferred indifferents” and “dispreferred indifferents.” Virtue will always be the good that enables us to make proper use of any indifferent, such as health or sickness, but since we are naturally constituted to pursue various physical needs and desires, some indifferents are naturally preferred by us (such as health) while others are naturally dispreferred (such as sickness). This means that in the general course of our lives we can and should seek out things like health and pleasure, though always with the proviso that they don’t contribute to our genuine good and on the understanding that if they happen to conflict with the good of virtue, we should give them up.
It’s easy to suppose that the Stoics are playing with words here. To call something a “preferred indifferent,” after all, sounds like a contradiction in terms. But it might be helpful in this regard to examine how we think about matters of value in other domains. Consider, for instance, the common idea that some things in our lives possess a value that makes them unsuited for any monetary exchange. We view these things as priceless in the sense that their worth can’t be measured with the currency of money. Similarly, we can think of virtue as having an incomparable worth in relation to all other goods for the Stoics, in the sense that its value can’t be measured with the currency of convention.
Today’s morning quote reveals one way the Stoics tried to remind themselves of the ultimate insignificance of conventional goods. Marcus recalls in this passage the vastness of the universe and his role in nature as a whole in order to form an attitude of indifference to fame and popular approval. This is similar to the shift in perspective that we’ve seen recommended by Daoists, though in this case Marcus attempts to appeal to the widest perspective of all to reduce his attachment to his own narrow concerns and the illusion that they’re everything that matters in the grand scheme of things.
The shift in cognitive awareness recommended by Marcus in today’s morning quote is very similar to the “overview effect” described by astronauts in looking down on the earth from above. To replicate this exercise, watch the following video called “The Pale Blue Dot” narrated by the astronomer Carl Sagan:
The aim here is to provide you with a sense for the “bigger picture” and a wider perspective on your place in nature. Consider as you go about your day today how such a shift in perspective affects your sense of the significance of things in your life and the meaning you find in your life as a whole. And to learn more about the overview effect, see here.