The Power of Stoic Indifference

The truth is, indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.

— Lary Wallace, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, Aeon

If you want to better your understanding of one of the world’s most enduring and influential philosophies, then read the rest of the article here. It dispels the myth that Stoicism is an apathetic and dispassionate mindset, and unveils the versatility of the Stoic approach to almost every circumstance. Even slaves and prisoners of war have been counted among its adherents and promoters.

The real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).

Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour. One of these is the late U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary confinement, and all other manner of torture. His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side. He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their most dire. Especially then. He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.

Of course, you do not have to be a POW or human chattel to appreciate the merits of Stoicism. No matter your lifestyle or circumstances, the Stoic response is applicable. Difficult to maintain, yes, but nonetheless beneficial and life affirming. 

Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘you are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself’. We do ourselves an immense favour when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.

It is not so much a matter of just grinning and bearing with the inevitable pains and challenges of life, but rather assessing the situation and realizing its place in the grand scheme of things. With each obstacle comes an opportunity to shine, to improve, to discover something about yourself or the world. Even if you fail, that in itself will offer valuable insight and growth. Character is shaped by the bad moments in life, and the drive to succeed in life, to aspire to greater things, is built upon previous shortcomings that must be redeemed.

Granted, it is all well and good to romanticize the merits of conflict from the fairly comfortable position in life that I know enjoy (and I am very grateful for). But I have endured many challenges in recent years, and a lifetime of anxiety and depression has contributed to a periodic pattern of existential crises and mental torment. But by embracing the Stoic perspective, alongside other philosophies and practices like Epicureanism and meditation, I have a clear and steady improvement in my social, emotional, and even physical health. I recognize now that I would not have made it this far were it not for the application of these philosophies, and their liberating ability to make me appreciate every aspect of my life: the good, the bad, and the mundane.

It is not easy to maintain such a stance, and I continue to falter to this day. But the very challenge of trying to better one’s attitude and resolve is itself a motivating and life affirming experience.

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