Change the world like a Stoic

What does it mean when someone say that they want to change the world? From a pure physical point of view, their very existence has already contributed to the change of the entropy of the universe, however insignificant that may be. What most people aspire to do, is to create positive value for the society, and to borrow this cliché: to make the world a better place. Everyone has their own definition of good and bad, this is not what I will focus on here. There is probably also a small number of people who want to change the world for the worse, I will not talk about that either.

I was prompted to think deeper about this topic, when I came across this quote in Descartes’ Discourse on Methods: “I undertook … to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world.” Descartes was an avid follower of the Stoic school of thought, so it is no surprise that this quote sounds like it was pulled out of the texts of Epictetus. While I understand where Descartes came from, I still want to explore, if there was a way to be a stoic, and still want to change the world?

The stoic way is to be impassive, to not be disturbed by external things and events. Having spent the past several years reading, and re-reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, I found this approach to life an effective way to arrive at, and maintain a level of inner calmness. One passage from the book that I especially like is “Not to be overwhelmed by anything that happens, welcome wholeheartedly whatever comes.” The idea is that, do what you believe is right, and you’ve done the job. The outcome is outside of your control, and hence you have no choice but to accept it. To quote Tacitus: “Once the choice is made … the subsequent sequence of events cannot be altered.

For example, during an election, if you feel strongly about a certain candidate, what’s within your control is to go out and vote. Heck, you may even donate to their campaign if you are ever so inclined. But this is about as much as you can do. Whether they end up winning or not is outside of your control. Hence, according to stoicism, you should be content with whomever end up in the office. Of course, this is not at all what happens, judging from the number of protests we’ve seen in just the past several years. But hear me out, what good comes out of anger and frustration? You are hurting your body by inflicting such a strong physiological response; you are wasting your precious time attending the protest and whining about it to anyone who would listen to you; you probably have a hard time focusing on work and have neglected your family, where things really matter. After all this, the winner of the election remains the winner. A strong negative response to something you have no control over can really only have a net negative result.

Following this logic, I have gotten much more mellow during political discussions among friends. But it’s also a little embarrassing when people mistake my laid-back attitude for either I don’t care, I have no sympathy, or worst yet, I’m not smart enough to follow the conversation and form my own opinions. I have this friend whom every time when I see him, he always passionately preached that he wants to “eat the rich”. I maintained an air of indifference when he did that, though I feel it annoyed him. Sure, I also don’t agree with the way our society works, one person can have billions of dollars, while tens of thousands of people can’t even afford food and shelter. But unless someone comes up with a step-by-step actionable plan to get from where we are to eating the rich, which I will of course ardently follow and advocate for, I will refrain from getting myself too emotionally involved in the futile whining about injustice.

I digress. So how can we apply this line of thinking towards changing the world? In one sentence, do what you believe will bring goodness to the world, and regulate your emotions when things don’t work out according to your plan. For instance, since I am a scientist, I envision myself changing the world by doing meaningful research, and hopefully develop that into commercial products that are better and more efficient than what’s currently available. As long as I am pursuing this line of research, I feel that I am already changing the world in my own way. But there is a chance that things won’t unfold the way I envision them to. Should I despair? No! I have paved the way for future scientists and increased their chance of success.

What if you dream of something grander, say, you want to end poverty on a global level? It is no use if all you do is to complain about the matter to your friends and family. It may appear that you care, but you don’t, you are only draining your energy and that of everyone around you. If you actually want to do something about it, you can donate, volunteer, do research on the subject and write a book to raise awareness of others. There are many ways. Once again, after you think you’ve done everything you can to help improve the situation, congratulations, you have changed the world already. No need to check the World Bank’s website to see if the poverty rate actually went down, that’s outside of your control.

It seems that Descartes did have a point. It is important to change what you desire. Instead of desiring to end poverty, which seems like an insurmountable goal and is mostly out of your control, you can instead desire to donate to a charity, which is much easier to achieve. Unlike Descartes, I would like to argue that we can still dream of changing the world, as long as we do not tie the outcome to our own well-being. Coincidentally, this is also the definition of sanity according to Marcus Aurelius: “Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying your well-being to your own actions.

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