Stoic philosophy puts a fascinating spin on how people should compare and rank goals in life. Most issues that we deal with are labeled by Stoics as "indifferents" --- lightweight questions that really don't matter. A poor decision on which shirt to wear today or what to eat for lunch won't make one a bad person; it's not something to fret about in the larger scheme (although as humans we tend to fret about many such things!). A Stoic would term "indifferent" huge categories of experience that we spend most of our lives in desperate struggle with: money, cars, schools, houses, health, what career to pursue, whom to marry, which nation to pledge allegiance to, and the like. Certain "indifferents" are preferred (e.g., physical fitness) and others are dispreferred (e.g., poverty). But at some level, "machts nichts" --- it makes no difference.

Infinitely more important, Stoics argue, are higher questions of virtue, "right living" writ large. How should we respond when someone wrongs us, when the challenges of the world become overwhelming, when evil is clearly about to triumph? What should we focus our life's energies on doing, and why? When do events, mere things, become meaningful? A classical Stoic tries to separate self from dependence on circumstances. The goal is to establish an "inner citadel" of the mind, free from passion about unworthy externalities: a rock against which waves break and are rebuffed.

But is this right? Maybe the idealized Stoic position is too extreme, too abstract and doctrinaire to be relevant in normal life. We have to survive in the real world, constantly making decisions both big and small. Other people do matter, to most of us, and some people matter a lot. Strictly cultivating one's own garden, taking no notice of outside events, seems selfish and inhumane. How about people who can't take care of themselves --- especially children? How about large-scale world events, war and peace, environmental destruction, liberty and justice? Is it wisdom to label everything outside the mind as "indifferent"?

The Inner Citadel is a powerful metaphor. Perhaps we each could use one, to retreat to in times of extreme crisis. There are moving stories of prisoners of war, of tortured slaves, of death-camp inmates who built such mental fortresses and survived. In more ordinary circumstances, we can individually find comfort in an inner study, a conservatory, a psychic room of one's own to relax within and regenerate. Having such a shelter from the storms of life can make it far easier to smile and be polite to one another.

Humans aren't by nature oysters; we don't normally live inside shells. We're extraordinary animals who thrive together, sharing and learning from each other, in ways that go far beyond the naive Stoic model. Part of growing up is learning to unify all those dimensions of our humanity --- internal and external --- intellectual, emotional, and social. Not easy!

Sunday, September 26, 1999 at 14:06:51 (EDT) = 1999-09-26


(correlates: OppositeAttractions, EsseQuamVideri, ComplexSimplicity, ...)