If your serenity can be dispelled by the loss of a bit of money, then your mind is just another commodity. You have turned yourself in the psychological equivalent of a prostitute.
We don’t control money. We control our efforts to get it and keep it. But these efforts are not guaranteed to produce the desired result, and unforeseen circumstances such as an economic depression can destroy what we’ve accumulated.
It may sound harsh to compare the selling of our peace of mind to prostitution, but if our happiness is dependent on external things then our peace of mind is not really ours to begin with.
The question then becomes, How do I jettison my unhealthy attachment to money?
And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.
Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.
Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.
They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.
Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act on) not out of maliciousness but out of ignorance. Still, ignorance can have very destructive consequences.
Assent can only be given freely—coercion can merely appear to do so. Brainwashing can be resisted, though it may be a formidable challenge. And even if brainwashing succeeds we cannot say the asset was given freely.
Which brings me to feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame over being judged for a choice or opinion that belongs to me and not to the person rendering the judgement.
Judgment is a type of insult. It threatens social exclusion. And judgement springs from insecurities over someone else having a different viewpoint, and uncertainties over those opinions.
If I express my opinion on something—say a political issue—then someone who disagrees might judge me or even tell me what my opinion should be.
Of course, if my opinion was a judgement on something that’s none of my business, or if the facts demonstrably refute me, then they’d be right to object—but not in a way that attacks me personally.
Otherwise, they’re not entitled to judge me because my opinions don’t belong to them. I could point this out to them—but that would be defensive, and it’s likely to result in a pointless argument.
Instead, one simple statement would suffice:
“I do not assent to your judgements.”
What could they say to counter that? They could tell me I should assent. Or reiterate their judgements hoping that the repetition will overcome me. But if I remain firm there is nothing more they can do.
I can remain firm by reminding myself that they have no power over my choice to give or withhold assent. And by reminding myself that their misperceptions are probably due to ignorance rather than maliciousness.
Another scenario: Someone else expresses an opinion that I think is offensive—such as claiming that certain people are inferior.
My objections can be expressed without moralistic judgment, such as stating why I think opinions like that cause harm. I don’t need to attack the character of this person, which again are probably due to ignorance. Their opinions don’t belong to me, so I’m not entitled to judge them. But my opinions are mine, so I can express why I disagree.
Are they likely to respond to my objections with judgements and insults? There’s a good chance. I have no control over their judgements, so what would getting upset or retaliating accomplish except to show that they’ve bested me?
Besides, their judgements reveal their insecurities. That observation doesn’t need to pointed out to them—that would be petty. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is to not be like your enemy. That means responding to your enemy with kindness rather than anger. Maintaining my composure but not backing down on my viewpoint is the best approach.
It’s controversial to say self-interest is our primary motivation for whatever we do.
This claim seems to advocate selfishness. And what would a society built on selfishness be like?
Besides, there are examples of people taking great risks or even sacrificing themselves for people they don’t even know. How is that self-interest?
Perhaps someone wants to be a hero, or at least not be a coward. Perhaps someone strives to live by a particular moral code. Perhaps someone is concerned about the negative impact on their loved ones if they don’t act.
The difference between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest is important, however.
Being concerned only with the immediate impact on ourselves is selfishness. Though that’s not always a bad thing. Self-defense is one example.
Broader self-interest looks at the long term implications; the effects on people we care about and people whose assistance we might need later; and the impact on society, which can in turn affect us and those we love.
In his Discourses (1.19.11-17) Epictetus writes that
Every living creature…does everything for its own sake…And in general, he [God] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot obtain any of his particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn’t anti-social to do everything for one’s own sake.
What follows, then? When people come to hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, taking them to be good or bad, it is altogether inevitable that they’ll end up paying court to tyrants…and their flunkeys too!
But isn’t it in our self-interest to give in to a tyrant if he can do us harm?
Epictetus says no. A tyrant cannot force anyone to compromise their ethics. And history is full of people who have stood up to tyranny. They can kill the body but not the soul is how Jesus put it.
Epictetus’s distinction that failure to understand what lies within and outside of our control—and how this failure can lead to failure to understand what is good—is key.
We’re self-interested in things we think are good, but what are these things? He asks, if we value possessions then what’s to stop us from stealing them? After all, if it’s the object we value most then necessarily we value respect for other people’s property less (1.22.16).
But that only leads to all manner of conflicts. What is truly good, then, cannot lie in external things. We don’t control our possessions, circumstances, even our reputations—which can be conferred on us or taken from us by others or by circumstances.
The only things that are truly ours—things no one can take from us—are our deliberate thoughts, deliberate actions, and chosen values.
That’s where Epictetus locates self-interest. And this is self-interest in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.
Only we are responsible for our actions. That’s where sexual assault prevention starts.
What started with the downfall of one Hollywood mogul has become an avalanche of revelations of what we’ve known all along but have avoided acknowledging—sexual assault is rampant, especially by powerful men. Sexual harassment is even more widespread.
Epictetus opens his handbook (Enchiridion) by stating that nothing external is under our control. Only our chosen values and deliberate thoughts and actions are up to us. This can easily be misconstrued as an endorsement of passivity, but that’s not what he meant. Epictetus was a former slave who gained his freedom.
He gives an Olympian as an example. It is within the athlete’s control to train as hard as possible, make every sacrifice, and to seek every advantage. But there’s no guarantee the athlete will bring home the gold—circumstances could intervene, or the competitors could be more talented.
This does not mean the athlete shouldn’t try. In fact, the athlete should try as hard as possible. But the athlete must curb any sense of entitlement that the gold is theirs.
One interpretation of this is that pursuing something or someone is fine so long as we respect the boundaries. Another interpretation is that we can and should do everything in our power to change the current culture. And that’s up to every individual.
What we control
A Stoic perspective starts with the perpetrator. This is because sexual assault is within the perpetrator’s control, not the victim’s control. Related to this is the distinction between what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. We must protect what is ours while keeping our hands off of things that are not ours.
Stoicism is first and foremost about cultivating wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Domesticating (not suppressing) our emotions is a means to this end. And it is obvious to any rational person that sexual assault is ignorant, unjust, cowardly, and shameless.
Refusing to assent
An important Stoic focus is nipping our baser desires in the bud. Learning to recognize when a desire first arises and refusing to assent to it is a skill gained only from practice.
Sexual assault is usually motivated by a desire for power, and lust. Were it only about men gaining power over women then Kevin Spacey would have targeted women rather than men. Were lust not a factor then younger women and men would not be targeted more frequently.
Further, while all the news stories are about powerful men, we mustn’t forget the unpublicized stories of ordinary men and women who also commit sexual assault. People don’t need to have power in order to desire power.
The study found that those who are insecure in their power (regardless of how much power they actually have) are more likely to harass or assault people with less power. The study also found “that the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women.”
The issue always circles back to the problem of power. Stoicism recognizes that power over people and externals things is a delusion. And power, sex, money, and so on are indifferent not because people don’t desire these things but because these things add nothing to positive values. Instead, it’s about how we conduct ourselves with regard to these things.
But perhaps the most important Stoic observation is that who we are is defined by our actions, not our beliefs or our stated values. This includes our actions even when no one is looking. A key question I, like you, must ask myself is what kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to be?