Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Six: Handling Distressing News

The news. Whether it's delivered by a concerned friend, a gossiping co-worker, or a 24 hour television station, difficult news is never far away. Here in the United States, in a little over a week, we've seen murders, watched those deaths effect the beginnings of, at least symbolic, change. And as symbols of man's inhumanity to man come down off of flagpoles, we've also seen a real victory concerning equality under the law and human dignity. With all that going on we hear about more personal things, potential layoffs at our business, a friend who's seriously ill, your favorite player was traded to a different team.The news comes in fast and never seems to leave us alone. What's a Stoic to do?

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

How are Stoics meant to react to news, particularly the 'bad' kind?

Stoics use the term 'indifferent' a lot, what do you mean by that?

Is there anything I can do to feel more in control after receiving bad news?

[Crow Caws]

"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."

That line is from Epictetus, found in his third book of discourses, Chapter 28. I suppose I can end the episode now, since I've given you the answer. News, on any subject, never falls within the moral purpose. And our moral purpose is where Stoicism tells us to direct all our energy and action. So what do we do with that? Should we never be distressed by the cruelty of the world? Are we meant to shrug at others suffering and simply attend to ourselves? Of course not. But I think we need to unpack some stuff to see why not.

So first we'll allow Epictetus to expand on his own thoughts. After stating that news never falls within the sphere of the moral purpose, he continues, "Can anyone bring you word that you have been wrong in an assumption or in a desire? -By no means- But he can bring you word 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? That your father is making preparations? Against whom? Surely not against your moral purpose, is it? Why, how can he? But against your paltry body, against your paltry possessions; you are safe, it is not against you."

To understand this argument, we need to look at the Stoic concept of the self and also the preeminence of morality in their worldview. In Stoicism, you are very small and very powerful. What do I mean by that? Well, look at the Father in Epictetus' example. This hypothetical father is taking some sort of action against a Stoic student, perhaps disinheriting him. So this news is quite personal, it's not about a distant war or the misfortunes of a stranger, instead it's literally close to home. Yet the teacher Epictetus says, "what is that to you?" The news may concern your possessions, even your body, but it has nothing to do with YOU. This only makes sense if we understand that in Stoicism, the real you is the ability to choose.

I've avoided a lot of greek terms in these episodes, but today I'm breaking one out. Hegemonikon, the Ruling Faculty of the Mind. According to the ancient Stoics, the hegemonikon was where all higher cognitive functions and experiences happened. Most importantly, the hegemonikon is the part of us that makes decisions. Also important is that our hegemonikon is considered invincible. Not even Zeus, says Epictetus, can violate our moral will. In Stoicism, this mental complex, the part of us that allows for moral choice, is the real you, the important you, an oh so small aspect of your total humanity, but also the most preeminent and powerful aspect of yourself.

Now, I will take modern neuroscience over early Greek biology every time. The Stoics claimed the hegemonikon resides in the heart, for instance. Still, I think the concept of the hegemonikon, the ruling faculty, is still useful today. Because if you can agree with Stoicism that what really matters isn't what happens in the world, but how you respond to what happens to the world, then you can flourish personally and have a really good chance of helping the world around you flourish as well.

So look again at the student's 'bad' news concerning his father. Epictetus says, "your father is making preparations? Against whom? Surely not against your moral purpose, is it? Why, how can he? But against your paltry body, against your paltry possessions; you are safe, it is not against you." The teacher is saying, 'yes, something is happening and it could mean the loss of possessions, physical comfort, or even your health. What about this situation can force you to be less than your best? Nothing.

Later in Chapter 28, Epictetus says, "Your father has a certain function, and if he does not preform it, he has destroyed the father in him, the man who loves his offspring, the man of gentleness within him. Do not seek to make him lose anything else on this account. For it never happens that a man goes wrong in one thing, but is injured in another. Again, it is your function to defend yourself firmly, respectfully, without passion. Otherwise, you have destroyed within you the son, the respectful man, the man of honor." This part is important. The son, by Epictetus' logic, can not be harmed by his father's actions, but that does not leave him passive. It allows him to defend himself with a clear head. He remains respectful, does not get angry or depressed or seek revenge, but he does defend himself firmly.

Every episode I end with the Marcus Aurelius quote, "misfortune born nobly is good fortune." Whenever you receive distressing news, remember that line. Can you change what you just heard? No. Can you respond well, both emotionally and with action if possible? Absolutely. 

[Crow Caws]

So I just talked on and on about the Stoic concern with moral choice. Now I want to address Stoic indifference. Epictetus claims that, "all news, on any subject falls outside of the sphere of the moral purpose." In Stoic terminology, he just said that all news is indifferent. Indifference comes up a lot in Stoic writings. All those things we don't control, the things I mentioned in Episode 4, body, property, reputation, and so on...these are all indifferent. But as I say that, it's important to understand the Stoic context. Specifically, Stoic indifference means that an object or event does not affect our morality. It is not, is never, an emotional term. The unloving father in our example is morally indifferent in that nothing he does can force his son to act without virtue. Yet his son would not be acting stoically if he disengaged with his father, wrote him off, and cared nothing for him. As I already mentioned, Epictetus expects that the son will defend himself, but do so respectfully as a proper son, even though his father is not much of a father at all.

So don't fall into the trap of believing Stoic indifference has anything to do with your emotional attachment to or concern for the world at large. Lack of concern for the world is deeply unStoic. Marcus Aurelius said his only comfort was moving from one act of service for humanity to another. Epictetus defines right and good actions as those that are at the same time affectionate and consistent with reason. Stoic indifference is meant to free us for action. We can say, no matter what you do, world, I will respond through virtue; justly, wisely, with temperance and courage. No obstacle can keep me from being my best.

[Crow Caws]

Is there anything I can do to feel more in control after hearing bad news?

I often talk about Stoic engagement with the world, that we concentrate on what we control so that our actions are useful and powerful. So how are we supposed to 1. internalize the idea that news does not touch our moral center and 2. engage with that same world in a moral, community-centered way?

In Good Fortune, Episode 3, I spoke of a practice called Physical Definition. In this practice, we break down the object or situation that's vexing us into its constituent parts, until we can view it devoid of our preconceptions. Feel free to listen to or read the transcripts of that episode for more information. Today I want to suggest that we can use that same Physical Definition to view disturbing news from a Stoic perspective while also encouraging ourselves to act with purpose within our own sphere of influence.

I agree with the poet Emma Lazarus that "until we are all free, we are none of us free." And so learning of a white supremacist attack in a church, the suppression of peaceful protests in the streets of my country or any other, the denial of human dignity through the letter of the law; all of this weighs on me. It challenges my humanity and asks me 'what, Matt, are you  going to do about this?' In answer, I have to first ask, 'what CAN I do about it?' The simple answer to that question is often, 'very little.'

I usually can't fix what was broken. I can't heal the wounded or bring back the dead. I can, perhaps, rage against injustice, but I run the risk of believing my emotions are actions. They are not. I remember reading a psychological study back in college that found the simple act of washing hands could assuage guilt. Individuals can actually 'wash away' their sins. Of course, doing so does nothing to correct the damage that the guilty have done. It simply makes them feel better. Emotions can act like that washing of hands. Righteous indignation can feel important, but it very means little if it doesn't drive us to constructive, righteous actions. So what can we do?

In Marcus Aurelius' writings about Physical Definition, he says this, "What is it -- this thing that now forces itself on my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it -- tranquility, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence or what?" This is the part of the practice I think we should concentrate on. What qualities of ourselves should we bring to bear on the issue at hand? Have you learned of an injustice? What sort? What would be the proper response, if you had been part of the event? Then, is there a way, here, now, in my own town, my own sphere of influence, that I can work towards a similar justice? We can replace all our impotent despair, disgust, rage, and the like, with potent actions if we are willing to do the work of a virtuous life. So let's get to it.

[Crow Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode six. It took forever to get this done. Sorry about that, I am very much enjoying my new job as an instructor for the American Red Cross, but those first few weeks demanded a lot of my time. As always, visit for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. Thank you, those who have already written reviews.  I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Crow Caws]