To Care or Not To Care?

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.


8 thoughts on “To Care or Not To Care?

  1. Aron Gamman says:

    Hum, I’ve read modern Stoics parallel these kind of thoughts with impermanence in Buddhist traditions. If so It seems more about being in the moment with equanimity, opposed to not caring. I’m not familiar the term with ataraxia, though, so can’t speak of it. The distinction between not caring and distance — nonattachment and detachment.

    • You make a good point! I am being fast and loose. However I would push the point. If you are in the moment with equanimity, do you care about the result or not? For example, you are by the bedside of a child with a serious illness. It seems to me if you want the child to get better, you are not experiencing equanimity. If you are okay with the child dying and okay with the child getting better, then you have equanimity, but don’t care. The non-attachment versus detachment distinction doesn’t shed light on this for me. Does it for you? How does it work exactly?

      • Aron Gamman says:

        I suppose it depends on what equanimity means to you. I see it as balance between values, left and right, inner and outer. Passion and reason. I don’t think you have one without the other. or death and life. That means you can have sadness for a suffering child, but still learn go on if they die and accept it. Not attaching your ego to the process of life, opposed to just detaching yourself from emotions completely.

        These represent concepts I value and trying to present another view on such things.
        I disagree with the dilemma you’ve presented of either caring or not caring.

      • Aron Gamman says:

        I was expressing my perspective on equanimity here, not those of Buddhism or Stoicism, though.. I’ve been influenced a lot by Buddhism, though and have encountered several people recently who call themselves spiritual naturalists who follow Stoicism. Just throwing out a possibility. 😉

  2. I’d fear that to flush without attachment those detached villains would be to become like them, while become all the more a zealot for the few cares that remain.

  3. In regards to Aron Gamman, Buddhism and Stoicism, and Mr. Kaplan’s response to this, I could describe the sick dying child scenario as this. The more Buddhist part opens up our perceptions to understand everything in reality as much as we can, which invariably opens up the reality that people live, get sick, get better, or die. We openly understand the patient, the disease, and the open possibility of both recovery or death. The Buddhist part tells us that our perception may get int he way of understanding, so we must work around it, and the Stoic says that if we love the child and want what is best for the child, we must determine what is best for the child, which requires clear rational thought, which requires either detachment or for us to put our emotions aside, or the most stoic thing, to overcome emotions in situ and work in spite of them, as if they weren’t there.

    In the end, this person does not show much emotion either way. The more Buddhist tradition part means we have openly accepted either possibility, meaning we are not surprised if the child lives or dies. In fact, by accepting the bad as a possibility from the outcome, it is possible to mourn something before it happens. The absolute Stoic part does everything he can for the good of the child, and if child lives, he takes satisfaction that he did the right thing, if the child dies, he comes to terms with the fact that no more could be done. His calm peace in either outcome might not be from detachment, but rather through cold understanding. Mourning will not bring the dead child back, so what good does it do. Celebration could be in order in the case of victory, but the Stoic is more focused on the next problem then enjoying the moment of victory.

    In either outcome, the Stoic accepted both outcomes as the child hit the hospital, while many others who are blinded by passion and emotion do not come to terms well after the end of the outcome. We are calm throughout the journey, while others are losing themselves in their emotions of the moment. Perhaps some Stoics try to be detached from very important things, but for the rest of us, it is a naturally cold nature, or simply serenity from accepting what is. I did what I could, and I could not do more, let’s move on. Or, I did not do enough, I should feel guilt which I will turn into self improvement to help others in the future. My reason does more good than my emotions.

    I may have no heart, but I have a deep soul. I care about the child, and will do what is best for the child. But I cannot care about things beyond my control, otherwise there is no serenity. Thus, we live in the moment of each part, as it comes, rather than in the possibility of what might come, even if we have accepted and understand those possibilities well. While the patient is dying, we should not be too upset with the negative outcome, or even the positive one, because it will interfere with us dealing with the reality fo the child in the bed that is, and what we can do for him. Make good decisions, make good and pleasant conversation and interaction. The end is inevitable, so we’ll do the best we can waiting for it to arrive, regardless of what it is.

    Being a Stoic talking to a dying stoic is a peaceful, if boring, experience. The conversation is absolutely normal, as if everything were a normal day and the one person not facing death. But, that is because of the cool acceptance of both parties. You are dying, but not dead, so just live normally. Death comes for you if you like it or not. Don’t get upset, it will just ruin the time you have. You cannot live in the future of death. So, you might as well live till the moment you die.

    As for the main article, I’ll say that Marcus Aurelius did not so much see himself as a slave of circumstance, but rather describes much of the classic view of classicism, from of course, I’m part of. The classic view of the nobility is that power is not for personal use or abuse, but rather your station in life was a duty, it was servitude. So the peasant serves the king, the king also serves the peasant. The wife serves her husband, but the husband also serves the wife. The ox serves the farmer, but the farmer must also take care of his ox. The master is in a place of responsibility, as well as power. The manoral contract wasn’t just giving free stuff to the guy running things, like the kinds of lies modern teachings tell us, the serf gave to the manor, and the manor also took care of the serf, feeding him in dire times, making sure he had work and security, protecting him and his property, it was a system of mutual servitude. The evil man sees power as opportunity for himself, the good and noble man sees it as a heavy burden of servitude to his charges. This is why the modern machine makes me sick. Self absorption and self servitude are abhorrent in places of power, and it, like it has always been in centralized government, become the new norm.

    Also, you are dead right on ataraxia itself, nothing to improve upon there. Caring about nothing is living death, but a life filled with passion over trivial things is a life of almost no values, either. The trivial things become spiritual cancer, as they grow in number and importance, they push aside the important and healthy things. Soon, our passions and concerns are eaten up by nothings, and the important things die. If a man is not careful, he will become a ball of raging emotion, a tempest in a teapot, all about things that, deep inside of his own heart, he does not really care about. We can find people enraged by everything, but passionate about nothing. They care so much about so many things, but love or really care about few things to nothing. Beyond Stoicism and rationalism, there is a good case that too much care about nothings eventually hollow out the man who does like to feel.

    And, perhaps i should eventually try to exceed simply being a hermit living in a cabin in the peaceful woods. But, I’ve observed those how have worked hard and accomplished great things materially.. I have become disgusted with some of this notion, because I’ve met far too many who have not been made happy by this “success”. Worst of all, I sometimes see the sick hunger in their eyes, as the more they get, the more they desire, they feed the fire that only burns and tortures them. There is something to be said of making peace with where you are, and also for improvement.

    Sorry if I once again prattled on too long.

    • These are good points! Don’t worry about talking too much — it is all on point and interesting! Your manorial point reminds me of Confucius, who, as the Taoists used to say, was the best Taoist — cause he didn’t know he was a Taoist. Or maybe knew but didn’t say.

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