When you come into the presence of some prominent man, remember that Another looks from above on what is taking place, and that you must please Him rather than this man. He, then, who is above asks of you, “In your school what did you call exile and imprisonment and bonds and death and disrepute?” “I called them ‘things indifferent.'” “What, then, do you call them now? Have they changed at all?” “No.” “Have you, then, changed?” “No.” “Tell me, then, what things are ‘indifferent.'” “Those that are independent of the moral purpose.” Epictetus, Discourses 1.30.1-3
Many countries in the world today have what is called a consumer driven economy. People but goods and services to generate economic growth. This drives a certain percentage of the Gross Domestic Product. It is part of the engine that runs and economy.
Many advertisers have taken advantage of this by driving consumers to purchase goods they are peddling. In a way, a sense of materialism has resulted. Cars, houses and luxury items are a sense of status for many. Innovation with technology devices has created a push to improve on things like smartphones and computers.
But what would happen if this was taken away in an instant? This has come true with the current economic climate caused by the Coronavirus. Thousands are now unemployed or at risk of a layoff. Many businesses are forced to close because of social distancing and other preventive measures.
Many people are anxious about the future. Instead of getting a new phone they have to worry about paying next month’s rent. It has caused anxiety and concern over financial matters more than ever.
This is where the true power of Stoic indifference can make a difference. The sole purpose of Stoicism is to be a person of moral virtue and integrity. Everything else is an indifferent because each on their own does not lead to integrity. This includes wealth, health and success.
Materials are indifferent, but the use which we make of them is not a matter of indifference. How, therefore, shall a man maintain steadfastness and peace of mind, and at the same time the careful spirit and that which is neither reckless nor negligent? If he imitates those who play at dice. The counters are indifferent, the dice are indifferent; how am I to know what is going to fall? But to make a careful and skilful use of what has fallen, that is now my task. In like manner, therefore, the principal task in life is this: distinguish matters and weigh them one against another, and say to yourself, “Externals are not under my control; moral choice is under my control. Where am I to look for the good and the evil? Within me, in that which is my own.” But in that which is another’s never employ the words “good” or “evil,” or “benefit” or “injury,” or anything of the sort. Epictetus, Discourses 2.5.1-5
This does not mean people need to be apathetic. It means there is a quiet confidence in each individual knowing that they are not needed but can contribute to being a person of character. We will look at this in different areas.
Money and personal finance has long been a subject with different uses and considerations. People need money to pay their bills. Governments need revenue to provide services. Business needs commerce to thrive.
Many people have centered their lives around attaining wealth. Others have eschewed it in the quest of a simpler lifestyle. Stoic philosophy teaches to be wary of it but understand it as a tool.
What else is this, I said to myself, than a stirring-up of man’s cravings, which are in themselves provocative of lust? What is the meaning of all this display of money? Did we gather merely to learn what greed was? For my own part I left the place with less craving than I had when I entered. I came to despise riches, not because of their uselessness, but because of their pettiness. 16. Have you noticed how, inside a few hours, that programme, however slow-moving and carefully arranged, was over and done? Has a business filled up this whole life of ours, which could not fill up a whole day? “I had another thought also: the riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers. Seneca, Moral Letters 110.15-16
Money can help us to become people of integrity if used right. On the other hand, there may be too much dependence on money. You can have wealth one day and lose it the next. Understand that we need money to live but it is not the only thing in life.
Lifestyle is one of those words that has been thrown around the internet without a clear definition. This is because everybody’s definition of lifestyle is different. Lifestyle is forging a sense of self and to create a way of life that resonates with personal identity.
Some people do not have families so their lifestyle may center on them. Others do have families which means a broader sense of lifestyle. Many people desire different things. It may be a lifestyle based on material goods. It may be more work life balance. Some focus their lifestyle on health and well-being while others center on spiritual and religious aspects.
An issue develops when people become too dependent on their lifestyle. If someone becomes unemployed they may not be able to sustain a certain lifestyle or modify a certain lifestyle within their means.
With Stoic indifference a person understands this and knows the value of change. A lifestyle may be based on preferred indifferents that bring a person happiness. But this can be fleeting if there are issues that cause pain.
A lifestyle based on externals is a house of cards that will fall when it cannot be kept up. The purpose of having a positive lifestyle is to live a better life but that must also mean improving the moral character and integrity of the individual.
Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as these: for instance, that where a man can live, there he can also live well. But he must live in a palace; well then, he can also live well in a palace. And again, consider that for whatever purpose each thing has been constituted, for this it has been constituted, and towards this it is carried; and its end is in that towards which it is carried; and where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society; for that we are made for society has been shown above. Is it not plain that the inferior exists for the sake of the superior? But the things which have life are superior to those which have not life, and of those which have life the superior are those which have reason. Marcus Aurelius Meditations 5.16
The man who exercises himself against such external impressions is the true athlete in training. Hold, unhappy man; be not swept along with your impressions! Great is the struggle, divine the task; the prize is a kingdom, freedom, serenity, peace. Remember God; call upon Him to help you and stand by your side, just as voyagers, in a storm, call upon the Dioscuri. For what storm is greater than that stirred up by powerful impressions which unseat the reason? As for the storm itself, what else is it but an external impression? To prove this, just take away the fear of death, and then bring on as much thunder and lightning as you please, and you will realize how great is the calm, how fair the weather, in your governing principle. But if you be once defeated and say that by and by you will overcome, and then a second time do the same thing, know that at last you will be in so wretched a state and so weak that by and by you will not so much as notice that you are doing wrong, but you will even begin to offer arguments in justification of your conduct; and then you will confirm the truth of the saying of Hesiod: Forever with misfortunes dire must he who loiters cope. Epictetus, Discourses 2.18.27-31
I have had the opportunity to work with individuals developing their resume when they are making a job transition. One of the key things we look for are key accomplishments where they have made an impact in the work they do.
They have developed a reputation of being an expert at something particular or being good in some aspect of their job. It could be the engineer that has developed products for a company that makes money. It could be the auditor that has found ways to streamline operations to save money.
I have also worked with individuals in recovery from substance abuse that had a successful career but took a step back from their addiction. Both examples show the good and bad aspects of reputation. There is concern this will follow them if they become unemployed and need to find new work. But the Stoic practitioner does not worry about reputation or the opinions of others.
The Stoic does their work in line with being a person of integrity. They do not worry what others think. They do their best work possible to improve themselves and those who benefit from their work.