TO BETTER APPRECIATE the price of fame, consider the following example, offered by Epictetus. Suppose it is your goal to be a socially prominent individual, to be “famous” within your social circle, and suppose someone within your circle is giving a banquet. If this person fails to invite you, you will pay a price: You will likely be upset by the snub. But even if he does invite you, Epictetus points out, it will be because you paid a price in the past: You went out of your way to pay attention to the banquet giver and to shower him with praise. Epictetus adds that you are both greedy and stupid if you expect a place at the banquet table without having paid this price.1
You would have been much better off, Epictetus thinks, if you had been indifferent to social status. For one thing, you would not have had to spend time trying to curry favor with this person. Furthermore, you would have deprived him of the ability to upset you simply by failing to invite you to a banquet.
Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.2
If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval. Indeed, Epictetus says that when others praise us, the proper response is to laugh at them.3 (But not out loud! Although Epictetus and the other Stoics think we should be indifferent to people’s opinions of us, they would advise us to conceal our indifference. After all, to tell someone else that you don’t care what he thinks is quite possibly the worst insult you can inflict.)
Marcus agrees with Epictetus that it is foolish for us to worry about what other people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of people whose values we reject. Our goal should therefore be to become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. He adds that if we can succeed in doing this, we will improve the quality of our life.4
Notice that the advice that we ignore what other people think of us is consistent with the Stoic advice that we not concern ourselves with things we can’t control. I don’t have it in my power to stop others from sneering at me, so it is foolish for me to spend time trying to stop them. I should instead, says Marcus, spend this time on something I have complete control over, namely, not doing anything that deserves a sneer.5