“That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good [ed: or an evil].”
The Stoic conception of good and evil is difficult to grok at first for many westerners. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the modern idea of evil doesn’t exist at all within Stoic thought. Let me explain. When the question of “Good and Evil” is brought up, a litany of occurrences are often offered as example: childhood cancers, famine, war, privation, and want. The modern points to these things and says, “see all this evil stuff happens, therefore the universe can’t be Providentially ordered, or else Providence is mean.”
Death, sickness, poverty, loss, exile. All of these can affect any one of us, earned or otherwise. Therefore, as they lie outside the will, they cannot be an evil. Every creature that lives must die (so far as we know, excepting maybe orchids, lobsters, and a few tiny critters, perhaps). How then can death be an evil?
For the Stoic, these things are not evil. The Greek word that we’re translating here is κακόν, the opposite of virtue. So, shoehorning the modern idea of evil into it is inappropriate at best, and misleading at worst. The only thing that can be evil are the subject’s own moral choices. Full stop.
So what about the great evils of human history? There are many to choose from. For every person who contributed to them, it was an evil that very likely defined the entirety of their existence. The Stoics would even go so far as to say it wasn’t evil even for the victims. Both ends of this are hard to wrap one’s head around, I think. And I think a hangup here is reasonable for someone learning to think in a different way about what’s moral, just, right, etc.
The Roman Stoics seems to discuss what’s admirable and honorable as indicative of the Good more so than their Greek predecessors. I think this can be a useful tool for seeing in the specific circumstances where the good and evil lie. In some human catastrophe, is it admirable to be the one following an order to harm innocents, or be the one who may die in the attempt to smuggle them out? Pretty easy question. Is it more admirable to die standing on one’s feet, facing down a murderous regime, or to acquiesce, and look the other way? Again, seems easy.
Maybe, with benefit of history, and the nearly hyperbolic nature of such great evils, the right path is clear. Maybe it’s harder when it’s small. Is it more admirable to hold one’s peace when dealing with a belligerent person, or to correct them? Is it more honorable to ignore an incendiary Facebook comment, or correct the record so a learner is not misinformed?
Ah, that seems a bit trickier. Arguments might be reasonably formed either way. Like many things, the broad stroke seem clear, and the details maybe a bit murkier. And it’s these questions that we’re likely to face regularly. Most generations don’t have to choose to participate, stand by, or resist human tragedies. We do, however, have to face down the ingrate, the belligerent, the backbiter, the gossip, the ruffian, etc. We do constantly have to look at our own motivations, and the times we fall short.
We may falsely assent to a worldly good or evil, and as a result be short with those closest to us. We may then fall short in our duties to those people, and build a habit training ourselves towards vicious ends. That’s a risk that we see every day.
Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.