The ancient philosophers suggested the best goal of human life was a state of ataraxia, or not caring. It may have been a trick to get beyond the fear of death — if you don’t care about anything you have no reason to be afraid of death. To which the response — if you don’t care about death then kill yourself and you’ll get what you want — a state where you don’t care — soon enough, is not unfair. If the pain is fear of death and the medicine is ataraxia and ataraxia is to be as unfeeling and uncaring as a corpse, the cure is not just no better than the disease, it is just is the disease.
Another worry is that ataraxia is a philosophy for slaves, viz. those who can’t adjust their fate and therefore had better adjust themselves to accepting it. One of the philosophers who embraced it was a literal slave — Epictetus. His student, Marcus Aurelius, was politically an emperor, but probably saw himself as a slave to circumstance. Ataraxia on this view is lemonade from political lemons, which is not so bad, unless you think it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Decide not to care about making your life better and be sure that you will not make it better. A classical critic of the Epicureans said they were eunuchs, and asked what can you do with such people? Once you’ve decided nothing matters, you certainly will never be convinced otherwise, because to be convinced requires that something matter to you. A master who wants no trouble would be wise to teach his slaves to be philosophers.
A proverb says whoever wins in the fight is the one who cares less. Not entirely true — the person who cares the least doesn’t actually participate in the fight, but lets the other person take whatever he wants without contesting it. The other proverb is that whoever wins in the fight is the one who cares more. Not entirely true — if you care too much the other person has no incentive to compromise. He can use your care against you. On the internet the troll excites his caring peers with outrageous statements and then withdraws to enjoy the damage and eat another hot-pocket. It may be that these questions are only discussed by those who care about them, as those who don’t wouldn’t bother to discuss them.
One excellent point of the ancient philosophers is that we should not care about stupid things, or allow the psychologically damaged parts of ourselves to concoct fantasies that mislead us. Faced with histrionic, attention-grabbing evil it is a wise counsel to find it not so interesting. The evil narcissist feeds off our interest after all and becomes strong when we care to take his issues as our own. Better to view the narcissist as a part of nature, like a thunderstorm or a colony of ants, and not to let him trick us into caring. “He’s on t.v. all the time!” we complain, but who says we need to watch t.v.?
“What kind of life is worth living?” and “Who or what is worth loving?” are questions worthy of a free man or woman’s passionate engagement. In contrast the personality of particular villains who force themselves onto our news feeds is not worthy of deep inquiry. What gives with this particular selfish villain? is not a question beneath contempt exactly, but it corresponds in the house to the bathroom — an out-of-the-way space for the elimination of harmful waste — and not to the more noble living quarters, bedroom, library, and study.
Ataraxia is not a good goal, but it is a great tool. The notion that nothing is worth caring about shines a bright light on the important question — what is worth caring about? That’s important and the advice of the ancients helps us see that. The sooner we detach the important questions from the unimportant questions, the quicker we learn to care about what’s important. It lets us flush the villains in the detached businesslike uncaring fashion that they deserve, and get on with focussing on what’s worth it.