Aligning Stoic Externals and Life’s Passions
Stoicism is perhaps most well known for its distinction between that which is “up to us” and that which is “not up to us”. Often coined the dichotomy of control, this is a very powerful idea and seems to be well-received by beginner Stoics. At the same time, what is not always well-received is how Stoicism deems externals — everything in the “not up to us” category — as neither inherently good nor bad. This gives many people cause for concern if they are considering Stoicism. After all, how can one say that music isn’t good? Or potato chips? Or love from another person?
As a musician myself, I can certainly understand. If I had to give up music to be a Stoic, then Stoicism would absolutely be discarded. However, a close examination of these ideas and how it applies practically in the real world will hopefully provide clarity as to why this idea is very often misunderstood. First, let us dive into Stoic externals. We will end with an examination of how Stoicism aligns with a passion such as music.
Above, I briefly described externals as being everything in the “not up to us” category, and this is a simple, yet clear way of understanding it. Another way of thinking about them is as something outside ourselves or outside of our power. In the famous words of Epictetus:
“There are things up to us and things not up to us. Things up to us are our opinions, desires, aversions, and, in short, whatever is our own doing. Things not up to us are our bodies, possessions, reputations, offices, or, in short, whatever is not our own doing.”
Epictetus, Enchiridion I
Epictetus believed that it was the detachment of such externals that provided the one and only road to happiness, given, of course, that you’ve accepted virtue as the only good.
There is only one road to happiness – let this rule be at hand every morning, noon, and night: stay detached from things that are not up to you.
Epictetus, Discourses 4.4.39
Detachment from Externals
A very important concept to understand in regards to Stoic externals is how we think about them in relation to our happiness. All externals are viewed without attachment. What this means is that the foundations of our happiness in life do not depend upon having or being around the external itself. And this is where many feel reluctant to consider Stoicism as a way of life. They misinterpret this as meaning that a Stoic must refrain from all externals, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, Stoicism quite clearly allows for preferences in regards to externals. A great example of this is wealth. Wealth is external and is, therefore, neither good nor bad inherently. However, that does not mean that having wealth would be more preferred by many people than not. What must be understood is that even though wealth is a preference it is not required to live a happy life. It even goes a step further to call for public involvement, which naturally surrounds you with seemingly limitless externals. One can still distinguish between what is up to us and not, though, in any case.
“Detachment from externals should not be confused with withdrawal from the world.”
Ward Farnsworth, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
Virtue is the Only Good
It is very important to note precisely why externals are neither inherently good nor bad in Stoicism. This mechanism only makes sense when virtue is your highest and only star. That is, when the development of your character is your goal in life then everything outside of your control is an opportunity to either positively develop your character or negatively degrade it. Hence, how can anything outside of your control be inherently good or bad?
Let’s go over an unStoic view to illustrate the point. If your highest and only star in life is to become as rich as possible then externals do, inherently, become good or bad. Money would be considered good. Interest rates on your loans would be considered bad. Your nephew’s birthday would be considered bad (assuming you buy them a gift). Anything that doesn’t allow you to become more wealthy would be considered bad. This is why it’s fundamentally important to understand that the dichotomy of control and Stoic externals simply makes no sense unless you’ve accepted that virtue is the only good.
Externals Are a Triple-Edged Sword
Externals work three ways. As has been stated several times, externals are indifferent: they are neither good nor bad. Some may be hesitant to consider Stoicism because of what they think they need to give up but understand that there is a difference between something being a virtue or a vice or simply indifferent. For example, you can have ice cream with a friend and use it as an opportunity to be pro-social and kind (which, yes, are Stoic virtues), or you could use it as a projectile while you purposely throw it in someone’s face (which would be a vice). At the same time, you can simply enjoy the ice cream. This doesn’t make it virtuous, but this also doesn’t make it a vice; it’s perfectly neutral and is aligned with Stoicism given that it is done in moderation.
There is, yet again, another clarification required in this example, though. Remember: you must be detached from the external. This means that you must not pursue it as a source of happiness in life. If you begin to note that ice cream becomes the source of all of your joy in life then eating the ice cream would then become a vice. Epictetus used the analogy of being at a dinner party to explain this concept:
Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you.
Epictetus, Enchiridion XV
Stoicism is not about refraining from all externals; it is about using the externals to cultivate a positive character (or not using externals to degrade your character). If a simple pleasure is within grasp, the Stoic will enjoy it, but they will not crave it, or work to get it, or, most importantly, use the absence of it as an excuse for their unhappiness in life.
Stoicism From A Musician’s Perspective
I mentioned earlier in this article that I’m a musician. It has been an integral part of my life since I was a child. I started learning guitar at 9 years old and I still find immense joy in both playing and listening to music. Because Stoicism, unlike many religions such as Christianity, doesn’t come with a book of songs, it can appear to not consider music a good thing. And in fact, it doesn’t: music is indifferent. It is not inherently good or bad. However, that does not mean that music can’t be good or bad. It just means that we must be careful with how we use music.
Let’s say I am listening to a song that I love and, from it, I am motivated to be a kinder human being. How could anyone say that that isn’t Stoic? Likewise, if I am listening to a song that motivates me to rob the local corner store, how could anyone tell me that that isn’t a vice? Again: music is not inherently good or bad, it all gets down to how we use it.
It’s worth diving just a little bit deeper: it’s not that some music is inherently good (like the song that encourages me to be kind) or bad (like the song that encourages me to rob a store). All music is indifferent. How can this be so? It’s rather simple: one can listen to the song about robbing the store and use it as a means to cultivate a positive character. Likewise, one could listen to the “kind” song and use it as a source of bitterness, hence making them less kind. It’s all about our perspective on the music and how we use it.
For those artsy types, of which I consider myself in some ways, I am empathetic towards your hesitation to a philosophy like Stoicism. At the same time, I think this hesitation stems from a misunderstanding of Stoicism as opposed to what the philosophy itself is. What makes this philosophy remarkable is that it can be practiced by virtually anyone: a Roman emperor, a slave, a CEO, or, yes, even a musician.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.