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Posts from — August 2019

Divine Indifference

Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, “You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.” Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one—whether the impression relates to those things that are within your power, or those that aren’t within your power; and if it relates to anything not within your power, be ready to reply, “That is nothing to me.”
| Epictetus, Enchiridion

Divine Indifference

Philosophy is all about wisdom, and not wisdom in some esoteric sense removed from everyday life but practical wisdom—common sense, good judgment, discernment, self-possession, reasonableness, and other such qualities worth admiring and emulating. The Greeks called such wisdom “phronesis,” a term that summarized living so skillfully that one’s life becomes like a work of art. About a century after Socrates, the Stoics added courage, justice, and temperance to wisdom, but as Marcus Aurelius noted, wisdom in the sense of phronesis really implies the other three, for if we are wise in this practical sense, then it follows that we will demonstrate the courage to be truthful even when doing so may cost us personally, the justice that responds to situations and others in appropriate measure, and the temperance that allows us to remain steady even in times of adversity—especially and centrally in Stoic thought, in the face of forces and conditions beyond our control.

Simply remembering to ask ourselves whether or not a situation involves forces that lie within our power or not can be saving, provided that we’re willing, as Epictetus advises, to make the only sane choice in those cases where effort on our part will be futile or worse, counterproductive—that is, to disengage and divest ourselves of all further concern over it. The Stoic declaration of “nothing to me” doesn’t mean that we don’t care, only that our caring is tempered by the wisdom to recognize when there is nothing more for us to do, and to refrain from blind reaction. Put another way, continuing to exert our will in situations that are, as the Stoics put it, “indifferent” to us is a kind of insanity, a denial of reality, and a failure method that can only leave us frustrated and spent. If we wish to be sane, to be wise, we will do what we can, then stop doing. In this release of the will, we leave room for unexpected solutions to make an appearance, and in any event, spare ourselves the punishing consequences of excessive, self-defeating effort. The “impression” presenting itself may convey a sense of urgency—but it makes no sense to undertake urgently what it lies beyond our power to undertake at all. In such cases, choosing to remain indifferent is inspired by wisdom and in this sense, divine. This is why Epictetus counsels us to repudiate such impressions, to deny any claim that believing in them would place upon us, and to respond to them with appropriate indifference.

Many clients come to philosophical counseling sessions suffering for no other reason than that they have unwittingly strayed across this boundary and become caught up in vain attempts to control what they cannot control—another person’s choices, circumstances that need more time to resolve, or conditions otherwise indifferent to their will. The more they try to force solutions, the more the situation resists them. It hardly occurs to them that they can step back, disengage, and ask the fundamental Stoic question, the truthful answer to which not only can restore us to sanity but also to the wisdom that recognizes when effort is misplaced. Even if we care greatly about a particular outcome, there is something liberating about shaking off the sleepwalk of willfulness and coming home to the simple truth that we have reached a limit, and now must leave the matter in the hands of life to work out.

If you find yourself facing a “disagreeable impression,” you may benefit greatly by asking yourself before taking action whether or not the thing lies within your power to control or influence. If it does not, the wise course is to turn away from it. It is not a matter of letting go, for if a situation lies beyond the reach of your will, it is not in your hands even to release. Circumstances as a rule unfold, and are rarely what they seem to be in the heat of the moment. By refraining from acting that is forced, precipitous, premature, or inappropriate, you not only will spare yourself and others considerable suffering, but also, by getting out of they way, will make room for a greater agency than human will to operate, and in a moment innocent of will and effort, when you have forgotten all about the matter, you may discover that an ingeniously favorable outcome has arrived unbidden.

August 27, 2019   Comments Off on Divine Indifference