The question at the heart of my dissertation work, on the Buddhist thinker Śāntideva, is one I don’t feel I’ve resolved: the question of external goods. I took this term from Martha Nussbaum, who in turn got it from Aristotle: external goods (and bads) are things in life that lie largely beyond our control. Wealth, personal relationships, good health: we have some control over all these things, but in the end they can all be taken from us through no fault of our own. The question is: how should we react to gains and losses of external goods, to the vagaries of fortune?
Nussbaum tends to embrace the most commonsense position: our losses of external goods are real losses, and our strong reactions to such losses are expressing the truth that our lives are poorer. She contrasts this view to the Stoics, who say that we should remain calm and unshaken, confident in our own virtue.
I have a strong sympathy for the Stoic side; it’s been my experience that if one becomes unhappy whenever misfortune strikes, one will never be happy. The most extreme logical conclusion of their view seems to be a single-minded devotion to virtue and inner peace, best expressed in a monasticism like Śāntideva’s; but something does seem to me lost in such a life, a loss that could outweigh the misery from being struck by external losses.
There is a third position on the question, though, which has come to interest me more after the dissertation. Thinkers as far apart as Mencius and Nietzsche tend to support a view that losses do matter, but actually benefit us by strengthening us: “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” In some respects Śāntideva is closer to this position than he is to the Stoics; and I’m wondering whether it might be the most sensible position to take.