The Stoics on Reason, Desire & Self-Control

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According to Maria Popova, erudite lover of letters and founder of the insanely popular Brainpickings blog, few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of Stoicism.  Today, she maintains, stoic is a word “rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy” and has rather been “warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation.”  However, at the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy is not the insistence that we ruthlessly suppress our emotions but merely the conviction that we use judgement and common sense.  If man is to ever achieve lasting contentment, the Stoics believe, he has to master his baser, more ungovernable emotions- lust, fear, terror, rage- and instead commit to a life of the mind-cultivating a steady inner calm and prioritizing rationality and reason.  

In the days of ancient Rome, Stoicism bestowed the gift of the good life to its many loyal adherents, instructing them in such practical matters as how to live with integrity, how to distinguish what you can control from what you can’t, and how to step off the hedonic treadmill and liberate yourself from desire’s perpetual prison.  Today everyone from brilliant heads of state to millionaire CEOs attributes their success to the bygone wisdom of Stoic philosophy. 

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s lovely The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, the daily stoicPerseverance, and the Art of Living resurrects this ancient school of thought from the dusty shelves of obscurity and distills its timeless wisdom so lucidly that it can now reach an even larger audience.  A daily devotional overflowing with inspiration and insight, The Daily Stoic features a quote from one of the foundational Stoic philosophers for each day of the year.  Organized into three parts, the Discipline of Perception, the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Will, and twelve themes, one for each month, Holiday and Hanselman’s illuminating volume makes accessible the central tenets of Stoic philosophy like never before.

Beginning the year is founding philosopher Epictetus who shares the bedrock of Stoic thought:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.  Where then do I look for good and evil?  Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”  

Later, we learn that for Epictetus the root of all suffering can be traced to the futile (but pathetically human) desire to control the uncontrollable:

“Some things are in our control, while others are not.  We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing.  We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing.  Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own

For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.”  

In prose characterized by unsurpassed elegance, Epictetus goes on to define the one path to happiness:

“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night-there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.”

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For the Stoics, bemoaning our fate and protesting circumstances over which we have no control is not only pointless- it’s a squandering of precious time.  The only thing man has control over, indeed, the only thing he will ever have control over, is his own psyche.  It is for this reason that the Stoics argue we spend our finite lives civilizing the most savage frontier: ourselves.  Philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca believes the most difficult thing to defeat is not exterior conditions but the interiors of the self:

“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant.  A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command.  But an uncontrolled, desire-ruled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing- a tyrant.”

Much like the Buddhists, the Stoics contend desire afflicts the greatest suffering.  In fact, it is this very aching for more, this perpetually unsatisfied sense of lack that eliminates happiness’s possibility:

“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.  Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst

Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning.  It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another…where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”

Whenever I feel myself overcome by a desperate, impatient yearning, a brattish ingratitude that what I want isn’t here yet, I finally recall the sagacious words of Epictetus:

“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet.  As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping.  Does it pass you by?  Don’t stop it.  It hasn’t yet come?  Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you.  Act this way with children, a spouse, toward a position, with wealth- one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”

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