It Is What It Is: The Moral Quilt, Aristo, and Choice

It is never what it is.

When the weather is poor, or the traffic is bad, or the delivery guy is late, “it is what it is” (IIWII) is a fairly innocuous refrain. These things are out of our hands and, as Stoics, it’s important to know when something is and isn’t “up to us” or, as I prefer, “ours to choose.”

But what if we’re not mindful of the IIWII mindset? What if we become a bit too comfortable with it?

“Grandma died.” It is what it is?

“My friend was diagnosed with cancer yesterday.” It is what it is?

“A dog is walking in the median of a busy highway and I think it might get hit by a car.” It is what it is?

“But those things are different, Tanner!”

You’re right, they are — but can you articulate why they are? And can you do it from the Stoic perspective?

In this week’s edition, I’d like to talk about indifferents — those things which have no impact on our journey towards Virtue and the development of a virtuous character — and how badly many of us misunderstand the point I believe this Stoic concept is trying to communicate.

“Cannot choose” does not mean “should not care.” Nor does it mean, “should not act.”

I want you to imagine that dog from earlier — the one walking concerningly close to the flow of traffic on a busy highway.

There is no doubt that this dog’s death is an indifferent to the quality of our moral character. There is even less doubt that we lack the power to choose whether this dog lives or dies on this highway.

We might be tempted to think, “It is what it is. There’s nothing I can do. This isn’t my concern, I can’t control this.”

This dog living or dying isn’t the point, though.

The point of our Stoic practice is to develop a perfect moral character, and a handy litmus test for whether or not we’re doing that (in the moment, with every decision) is to ask ourselves, “what would the sage do in this exact situation right now, if the sage was me?”

The reason we ask this is to remind ourselves that the dog’s life (in this case) isn’t the point — the point is the choice we are about to make (in concerns to the dog and its life).

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If we have a perfect moral character, it means our Moral Quilt doesn’t come apart at the seams when it is pulled, stretched, or otherwise subjected to stress — and it is the strength of the fabric and stitchings that determine whether we survive the stress in one piece.

The dog is an example of stress; of our Moral Quilt being put to the test.

Our choice to stop and help, or ignore and pass by, exposes the quality of our fabric and stitchings.

So while we cannot control the day’s outcome for the dog, we can control whether or not we make what we reason to be a morally sound choice — and it is that choice which will fray or hold together our Moral Quilt.

Or, if you prefer an example without a cute dog hanging in the balance…

If traffic is bad, it is what it is. There’s no choice to make*.

If traffic is bad because there’s a five-car pileup and you’re in a position to call emergency services on your cell phone to get help to the scene of the accident as quick as possible… it is not what it is.

The person who chooses to call, has displayed a resilient Moral Quilt.

The person who chooses not to call, hasn’t.

The person who chooses to attempt to help a lost dog in the middle of the highway, has chosen one way. The person who chooses not to, has chosen a different way.

Context matters, no choice is 100% moral all the time (or 100% immoral all the time), but it is choice, not outcome, which is the proof of one’s character — and the only basis upon which one can judge one’s own actions.

In this way, indifferents don’t seem truly indifferent…

I cannot be sure of the reason Aristo of Chios feuded with other Ancient Stoics so much in concerns to indifferents, but I feel it may not be completely unrelated to the point I’m attempting to make in this week’s edition.

“Aristo the Bald, of Chios, who was also called the Siren, declared the end of action to be a life of perfect indifference to everything which is neither Virtue nor Vice ; recognizing no distinction whatever in things indifferent, but treating them all alike.”

— Diogenes Laeritus, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VII, Chapter 2

A preferred indifferent is (allegedly) an indifferent that your pursuit of moves you closer to a perfectly moral character (Virtue and sagehood). For example, a healthy body and diet.

A dispreferred indifferent is (allegedly) an indifferent that your pursuit of moves you close to a vicious moral character (Vice and vicehood). For example, absolute global domination (Pinky and the Brain style).

A inconsequential indifferent is (allegedly) an indifferent that cannot be pursued in a way that hurts or harms your moral character. For example, the weather. You cannot pursue the weather.

But since context matters, no indifferent which is preferred can always be preferred — sometimes it must be dispreferred. Same with indifferents which are dispreferred.

It’s almost like Schrödinger’s indifferent… it’s neither preferred, dispreferred, nor inconsequential until the context is examined — but once it is examined, it cannot be beneficial or detrimental until you choose.

Doesn’t that mean all indifferent things naturally exist in a neutered state?

And doesn’t that mean Aristo may well have been on to something?

Is it possible that there are no classes of indifferents, just choices and what they reflect about our moral character?

And, in theory, wouldn’t that make indifferents kind of superfluous?

What you should take with you this week

Being a Stoic isn’t about identifying what we can “control” and what we can’t, and then going through life repressing all feelings, and denying all concerns that relate to those things.

Being a Stoic is about holding ourselves morally accountable as individuals claiming to pursue what we are claiming to pursue as Stoics: a perfect moral character (AKA: the knowledge of how to live excellently, Virtue).

So, with that in mind, are you behaving like a Stoic?

Thanks for reading,

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*But even this is not true, because you can choose how to react to, or feel about, the traffic.

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