The Stoic News Cycle

Whenever some disturbing news is reported to you, you ought to have ready at hand the following principle: News, on any subject, never falls within the sphere of the moral purpose.
-Epictetus' Discourses 3.18.1

Urgency fuels so much of modern life. We need to know that, have that, or respond to that now. Alerts vibrate phones 24/7 and it's unlikely any of us make it through the day without someone saying, "did you hear about..." Without the right response to this environment, it's easy to get our blood pressure rising.

Epictetus's quote up top is pretty definitive. News, by its very nature, does not concern our moral purpose. From a stoic point of view that's rather obvious. I still found it striking. I guess the constant bombardment of modern media has left me a bit blind to my habituated response. It's very easy to play along with the narrative of urgency and concern that is spouted every day. To the stoic mind, however, all news is indifferent news.

Epictetus continues, "can anyone bring you word that you have been wrong in an assumption or in a desire? -By no means." No one can see into your inner thoughts. They can't tell you if you're acting through virtue or vice. For us Stoics, virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, so where's that leave news? News is indifferent, firmly in the camp of thing we can not control. 

And Epictetus doesn't pull punches. He goes on to say, "but he can bring you news that someone is dead. Very well, what is that to you? That someone is speaking ill of you. Very well, what is that to you?" His point is that no news, however personal, can dictate your judgments for you. In the case of news like the death of a friend, only you can decide how to respond. In the case of someone else disparaging you, that vicious act is on them. It's their evil, why would it affect you? The stoic viewpoint doesn't extinguish the significance of such events, it simply frees us to respond appropriately to the news.

I've had a lot of time to think about my daughter, who's arriving in a few short weeks. My wife and I have dealt with some rough news from doctors, received more information than was really helpful, and lived with the constant joy that at each check-up the little girl has been doing the best we can hope for. I could easily feel weighed down right now, if I had been constantly inflating the weight of what I know with my images of the worst outcomes. Why would I do that? I can instead find joy in all the moments we've had knowing our daughter even in the womb. I can take information and prepare for the future in a reasonable way. I can love my daughter, knowing that love doesn't require me to protect her from an imagined future. In fact, such an approach deprives my daughter and wife of my presence. I'd be spending my thoughts on a dream life. Neither dreams nor nightmares deserve my investment. Love asks me to be fully present now.

I think there's more here than I can find time to say. I suppose I'll return to it later. In any case, Discourses 3.18 is worth a read. It's definitely modern advice, even if it's from around 60 C.E.