The first principle of practical Stoicism is this: we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us. We will see the Stoics develop that idea in the pages to come, but this expression of it is typical:
If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.47
The Stoic claim, in other words, is that our pleasures, griefs, desires and fears all involve three stages rather than two: not just an event and a reaction, but an event, then a judgment or opinion about it, and then a reaction (to the judgment or opinion). Our task is to notice the middle step, to understand its frequent irrationality, and to control it through the patient use of reason. This chapter starts with the noticing. Later chapters will talk about the irrationality and offer advice about control. We begin here because the point is foundational. Most of the rest of what the Stoics say depends on it. Soon we will hear from them about “externals,” desires, virtues, and much else. But it all begins with the idea that we construct our experience of the world through our beliefs, opinions, and thinking about it – in a word, through our judgments – and that they are up to us.
For many students of Stoic philosophy, this first principle starts as counterintuitive, gradually becomes convincing, and finally seems obviously true – and then the cycle may be repeated, because the mind constantly gives us an opposite impression that appears convincing in its
own right. Our reactions to whatever happens usually feel direct and spontaneous. They don’t seem to involve judgment at all, or at least no judgment that could ever be otherwise. The Stoics consider all this an illusion. The work of dispelling it is hard because the mind is an unreliable narrator of where our reactions come from. It tells us that we respond to externals – to things out there, not to the mind itself. It has to learn to see and describe its own role more accurately. Stoicism means to help us think better about our thinking, to teach the mind to understand the mind, to make the fish more aware of the water.
The truth of the Stoic claim is easiest to see when we react to an offense given strictly to the mind. Suppose someone insults you. The insult is meaningless apart from what you make of it. If you are bothered, it must be because you care: a judgment. Instead you could decide not to care, and that would be the end of the insult for you. All irritations can be viewed the same way – the noisy neighbor, the bad weather, the traffic jam. If you are riled up by these things, you are riled up by the judgments you make about them: that they are bad, that they are important, that one should get riled up about them. The events don’t force you to think any of this; only you can do it. The same then goes for bigger setbacks, and for desires, fears, and all the rest of our mental events. We always feel as though we react to things in the world; in fact we react to things in ourselves. And sometimes changing ourselves will be more effective and sensible than trying to change the world.
When we feel physical pain or pleasure, the role of the mind in forming our reaction is harder to see. Pains and pleasures seem like immovable facts that owe nothing to our thinking. But even then the Stoics insist that our judgments about those feelings produce our experience of them. Yes, pain is pain: a sensation that exists no matter what we think about it. But how much bother it causes, how much attention we pay to it, what it means
to us – these are judgments, and all ours to determine. Pains and pleasures are made bigger or smaller by the way we talk to ourselves about them, or by judgments that are too deep to articulate but are nevertheless our own. We underrate the power of these judgments because we barely notice them. Stoics notice them. (For more discussion of pain in particular, see Chapter 10, Section 11
The idea that our reactions depend on our judgments can seem especially strange if “judgments” are all imagined to be conscious and rational. But a judgment can take many forms. You conclude that spiders aren’t dangerous yet still are afraid of them; does this show that your fear is separate from any opinion you hold about spiders? No, it just means you have conflicting judgments – that spiders are safe and that they aren’t. The second will take time to uproot even after you decide it’s wrong. Put differently, some judgments are just things we say to ourselves, and those are the easier ones to fix. Others are ingrained and nonverbal. The Stoics will sometimes include under “judgments” everything that we bring to the world when we meet it – the appetite that we have or don’t have that makes a plate of food look better or worse, or a lifetime of conditioning that produces the same effect. These may not be easy to change. Here, then, is another reason why Stoicism is hard, and why nobody gets to perfection. Some reactions may belong to us and yet not quite be up to us. Or they are up to us in theory but we don’t have the psychological strength to change them.
More broadly, the Stoics didn’t distinguish in their thinking as we now might between all the forms that our judgments can take – conscious opinions, unconscious attitudes, conditioned responses, chemical predispositions, genetic tendencies, and so on – and how some of those can be changed more easily than others. They do make a few such acknowledgments. The Stoics say that some reactions have a physical basis we can’t control.
(See Chapter 9, Section 1
.) And Seneca concedes that we are born with some temperamental features that can’t be changed. (See Chapter 10, Section 10
.) But our ordinary reactions to things – our reactions at rest – are viewed mostly just as ours to control with practice. Anyone can see how difficult this idea would be to carry out in full; just think of your own strongest likes and dislikes, and how hard it would be to reverse them with any amount of thinking. But fortunately, and importantly, Stoicism doesn’t care what our tastes are, and doesn’t call for reversal of our aversions and desires. It calls for detachment from them. That isn’t easy, either, but it is far more often feasible.
We may consider it the Stoic goal, in any event, to become conscious of our judgments and take control of them as far as we can. One’s ability to do this may be limited in ways that we now understand better than the ancients did; a psychiatric patient would not be well-served by a helping of Epictetus alone. But even after making allowances of that kind, the Stoics would say that our ability to change our experience by changing our thinking about it is much greater than we usually suppose. Many of the judgments they urge us to notice and to reconsider aren’t so deeply rooted. They’re just habits and conventions.
The Stoics don’t expect these claims to be taken on faith. They support them with arguments. Sometimes they use easy examples, such as the insults already discussed – things that anyone can see are a big deal only if we decide they are. For reactions that more stubbornly seem to be inevitable, though, the Stoics often use comparisons to make their point. They look at the different ways that people react to the same events in different circumstances, times, and places. What some people fear (and can’t imagine not
fearing), others don’t; what some are ready to die for, to others is nothing. The pain or grief that seems a brute fact to us is experienced very
differently in other conditions and cultures. Evidently our reactions aren’t inevitable after all. They somehow must be our doing, and depend on judgments that we hold and thus might be able to change.
1. The general principle. Stoicism starts with the idea that our experience of the world – our reactions, fears, desires, all of it – is not produced by the world. It is produced by what the Stoics call our judgments, or opinions.
Everything depends on opinion. Ambition, luxury, greed, all look back to opinion; it is according to opinion that we suffer. Each man is as wretched as he has convinced himself he is.
Seneca, Epistles 78.13
Cicero’s expression of the Stoic thesis:
Grief, then, is a recent opinion of some present evil, about which it seems right to feel downcast and in low spirits. Joy is a recent opinion of a present good, in response to which it seems right to be elated. Fear is an opinion of an impending evil that seems unbearable. Lust is an opinion about a good to come – that it would be better if it were already here.
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.7
How Epictetus put it:
For what is weeping and wailing? Opinion. What is misfortune? Opinion. What is discord, disagreement, blame, accusation, impiety, foolishness? All these are opinions and nothing else.
Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.18–19
Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things. For example, death is nothing terrible; for if it were, it would have seemed so even to Socrates. Rather, the opinion that death is terrible – that is the terrible thing. So when we are impeded or upset or aggrieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves – that is, our opinions.
Epictetus, Enchiridion 5
The first line of this last passage from Epictetus was a favorite of Montaigne’s. He inscribed it in Greek into one of the beams in the ceiling of his study.
An ancient Greek saying holds that we are tormented not by things themselves but by the opinions that we have of them. It would be a great victory for the relief of our miserable human condition if that claim could be proven always and everywhere true. For if evils have no means of entering us except through the judgments we make of them, it would then seem to be in our power to dismiss them or turn them to good.
Montaigne, That the Taste of Good and Evil Things Depends in Large Part on the Opinion We Have of Them (1580)
Things in themselves may have their own weights, measures, and qualities; but once we take them into us, the soul forms them as she sees fit. Death is terrifying to Cicero, coveted by Cato, indifferent to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty, and their opposites all strip themselves bare...