I saw this post in a Facebook group today, and I replied to it in a short way. I suggested the author must have misunderstood the nature of Good and Evil in Stoicism. To be clear, I think that the person’s response is actually indicative of a compassionate nature. However, strictly within stoicism that response is incorrectly placed and speaks to incorrect beliefs about the nature of Good and Evil, and thus an incorrect judgment/emotion as a result. If this were just a random post on Facebook, I would not think it was a place to expand on these ideas. Since it is taking place in a group at least nominally dedicated to the topic of Stoicism, it seems useful and reasonable to discuss it within that context.
I think that the post above is referencing an incident in current events in which it appears that U.S. immigration officials have been separating parents from children after they have illegally crossed the U.S. border for some number of years. There have been questions about the quality of those detainments and the morality of doing it at all. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, this discussion is important for a nation and a people to have, especially knowing it has been going on for quite some time. (Aside: breaking news at the time of this writing, the White House has announced that this practice will be terminated).
I do not intend to weigh in on the topic at hand, since it is a little bit off topic for the blog, but I do want to reference how this sort of current event is viewed through a Stoic lens. It is also not my intention to call out the original poster for their post, which is why I have redacted their name profile picture. I really want to address the philosophical issue at hand and not muddy it in some other way, or imply some sort of ad hominem against the poster. So, with those caveats in place…
Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.
— Epictetus, Enchiridion 6.
In most people’s preliminary introduction into Stoicism, they read the Enchiridion in which we see the above quote. It is clear then from the beginning, that a Good must be solely up to us. However, the unspoken parallel there is that an Evil must also be only up to us.
We use these words, Good and Evil, casually in English and in everyday conversation but they both have clear and restricted definitions for the classical Stoics. Above all else (and I really mean all), Stoicism is concerned with virtue and an appropriately functioning προαίρεσις. There are two important axioms at play here which come to us from the ancients:
1. That virtue is the only good, and vice the only evil.
2. That the good and the evil have to be “up to us.” (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν).
The nature of Good and Evil in Stoicism runs counter to the average Westerner’s expectation. We are trained, compassionately, to see things in the world and say “what a tragedy, what an injustice!” These may very well be excellent avenues for us to form projects and attempt to influence the world for the betterment of our neighbors in the spirit of οἰκείωσις and cosmopolitanism. But Evils, they are not.
Famine, war, disease, starvation, improper handling of criminals, and children whose parents move them from one place to another and are then mistreated: all of these things seem unfortunate to us, and present themselves as inustices, as evils. Keeping in mind that we may still choose to act to influence them to some degree, they are not, however, actual Evils from the Stoic perspective.
This is the kind of statement that might make someone think “then the Stoics are wrong,” or “then this isn’t for me.” Either of which might be true, but let us look at the issue from that perspective first, and for the moment delay judgment (ἐποχή).
The left chart (click to embiggenate) shows the world divided by a couple of rules. Roughly speaking, they are things which are in accordance with nature and those not in accordance with nature, and things which are up to us and things which are not up to us. It is a bit more complicated than that, but if you will permit me to use some license here and overly simplify it, it will make it easier to highlight the substance of the division that were talking about. Most folks will draw parallels to “positive things” and “negative things,” and that might be okay for this instance, but is still a little squishy.
With that in mind, an Evil has to be both against the nature of things, and up to us. Nature is also a difficult topic in Stoicism, but in this case we are talking specifically about humankind’s social nature. So let’s shelve that issue for later, and focus on this social component. Furthermore, according to this taxonomy when we see a “negative” thing if it is done by others it is an external and therefore a dispreferred indifferent (ἀπροηγμένα), and when done by us is a moral evil. The very same action has two different moral classifications and philosophical classifications depending on the agent or actor. If we take the size of the various circles as indicative of frequency of occurrence, we see that these moral questions, while at the core and thus most important, are not the majority of impressions.
This seems nitpicky, and in a sense it is. However, when we as προκόπτωντες are attempting to make progress in our practice so philosophy, it behooves us to think of them correctly within the school that we have subscribed to.
Again, to reiterate, this does not imply passivity or that we must simply allow those things to go on as they are. If we feel a moral imperative to get involved and change the state of things, that is a prohairetic action (προαιρετικός) which contains a moral component and this is a valid avenue for us to act. “It’s wrong for me to do nothing about this.” This is fine, as long as you realize that your ability to influence it lies solely in the motivation and intent aspects. You may well be thwarted along the way, and fail. This is why the Dichotomy of Control is still a better Stoic position than the so-called Trichotomy.
Despite that, the thing which occurs is not Evil from a Stoic perspective. It could be, if and only if, you were the one making the plan/program or actively doing the thing which is repulsive to your conscience. It may be, that your action or inaction in this case, has a moral component for you. To choose a project one way of the other would have moral effects on you. In which case it would be to your own Good or Evil to act in accordance with that.
The Stoic lens can seem to be a strange one, distorting more than it focuses. But for the practiced user, its ability to finely focus a narrow field is invaluable. Part of using it appropriately and correctly is using the proper terms and connotations of the things we are observing. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to test impressions well if the measure is skewed by incorrect labels and markings. The Good and the Evil need to be accurately calibrated, and that is the point of this of discussion. In keeping those marks firm and accurate, we have benchmarks as moral actors for our intent.