“Seventh, that it is not men’s acts which disturb us, for those acts have their foundation in men’s ruling principles, but it is our own opinions which disturb us.” Marcus Aurelius Meditations Chapter 11
Well, this brings us full circle. As Marcus speaks to himself it is inevitable that he returns to a fundamental tenet of Stoicism: that events in and of themselves are neither good nor bad, and it is our evaluation and impression of the event that labels it so. Think about this for a moment. Think of its implications. Take any event that occurs, and let’s start with a “bad” one: a murder, suicide, a war, hurricane, earthquake, fire, a rude gesture, someone cuts you off in traffic. If you see that it is your mind that places a judgment on these things, then you gain serenity, equanimity about the matter. These events bring pain, indeed, to humans all the time, but since the beginning of existence have any of these things ceased? Like the seasons, these events are as they should be. The very fact that reality exists at all guarantees that each of these annoying to tragic things will continue to happen. To others and possibly to you.
“Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss thy judgement about an act as if it were something grievous, and thy anger is gone.”
There are advantages in this viewpoint. The first of which is relative happiness, in other words it could be worse. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, you might become angry. That is, until you realize that someone will be gunned down today in cold blood. All things considered, being cut off in traffic is a relatively minor annoyance compared to that! As a former Air Force guy, I like to call this Air Force morale. When things would get bad, some of my supervisors would sometimes say, “It could be worse, at least you are not in the Army” (sorry, Army folks). You could take this logic to its extremes of course. What if I were shot, and on my last breath? A true Stoic sage, might say (and note that I did NOT say it would be easy to do this), “I made it to 40, thank goodness this didn’t happen at 20…I’ve had quite a run.” So again, it could always be worse.
Also, weaved into this viewpoint is the matter of control. Over what do I have control? In the end, complete control is theoretically possible only in my judgment of those things external. Can I stop an earthquake? Can I stop war? Murder? Will I ever be able to make people drive with sanity? All of these things that bring suffering or that could agitate you…all of these things will never be stopped. Were you paying attention? ALL OF THESE THINGS WILL NEVER BE STOPPED! <–Truth smacking you upside the head
Now, it is true that you may be able to intervene in one attempted murder. You may get that opportunity someday (Maybe you already have. If so, please tell me your story.). However, your intervention does not guarantee a “positive” outcome. You may fail in stopping the act. You may become a victim yourself. You may succeed, and then come to find that the saved was a tyrant about to get his due justice. Your saved individual may become so grateful as to become an unwanted stalker. You may be unjustly accused of murder of the attacker, should your intervention result in the attacker’s death. Moreover, you may be completely successful today and then your saved victim is struck by a bus tomorrow. My point is not that you shouldn’t intervene. Rather, it is that outcomes are not guaranteed, and that, of course, the result happens according to nature. Control.
“How then shall I take away these opinions? By reflecting that no wrongful act of another brings shame on thee: for unless that which is shameful is alone bad, thou also must of necessity do many things wrong, and become a robber and everything else.”
Knowing that all of these events, these happenings that we continuously judge to be bad or good all happen according to nature, wouldn’t I just throw up my hands and say “why bother?” Hardly. The Stoic hero attempts to do what is right and just despite the flak around him. She does what is right because she innately knows it to be so. The question for the philosopher is “what side of nature shall I be on?” Continuously, I make the effort to be on the just, loving, life-giving, happiness-sharing side because my rational mind tells me that this is the life of virtue.
In short, envisioning a life free of suffering is an illusion (See Four Noble Truths). Moreover, it is our attachment to this illusion of a good or bad world, that brings frustration (see Dukkha). Many of us cling to alternating views: that the state of the world is permanently good or bad or that it is possible for it to be completely good or bad. The philosopher knows that all that is, is existence, always changing, neither good nor bad, but both at the same time now and always. The philosopher hero, knowing this, still pursues virtue with passionate equanimity.