Stoicism and self-control

By Tim Raynor, author of:

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

When a senior politician is charged with adultery today, we expect them to issue a press release, either in self-defense or contrition. Exiled to Corsica on the charge of extra-marital relations with Julia Livilla, sister of the emperor Gaius, the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3BC – 65AD) wrote a letter to his mother, offering philosophical consolation for her grief at being parted from her son. In Stoic style, Seneca emphasized the importance of preparing oneself for sudden challenges, upsets, and changes in life, so that one is not unseated by the shock of their arrival. One must be like a sentry on guard, Seneca advised, always ready for sudden attack. For drastic change, like an enemy ambush, ‘scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict … easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent’ (Letter to Helvia, 5).

Seneca’s Stoic teaching is as relevant today as it was in Roman times. Since we never know when life will take us by surprise, we must always be prepared to meet change with a calm, balanced, philosophical response. People who are incapable of taking a Stoic response to events risk being overcome by the unruly passions that adverse situations tend to produce in us. For example, the other day a friend was driving me through town. Suddenly a car catapulted out of a side-street and cut us off. Instead of apologizing, the offending driver rolled down his window and hurled a torrent of abuse at us before speeding off. I thought that it was hilarious, but my friend was incensed. ‘Don’t let it get to you’, I advised him. But my friend could only see the injustice of it. He had been wronged, and so it made sense for him to be outraged, he insisted. When I saw him again that afternoon, he was worn out and miserable, having spent the whole day fuming about the event.

If my friend had taken a Stoic approach to the traffic incident, he would have questioned his response to the event. He would have asked himself if the incident was really worth getting upset about. Had he followed this line of reflection to the end, he would have concluded that the other driver’s behaviour really had nothing to do with him. It is true that the stranger acted unjustly. It is also true that my friend didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of such abuse. But to assume that it makes sense to feel angry in response to this kind of event is to make a judgment call. This judgment can be questioned and reversed.

We all have the ability to control our judgments and emotional responses. The ability derives from our rational nature: our power to think critically about our experiences and to alter our perspective on them. According to Stoic philosophers, the power of rational judgment is the only true power that we possess in life. All other powers that we possess – such as powers that we derive from our relationships and communities, our money and possessions, our jobs and roles in society – all of these can be taken from us. Take them away, the Stoics argued, and we still have an intrinsic power to maintain a rational state of mind. This intrinsic power is an essential feature of our human nature.

The Stoics valued the rational power within over all other things, even life itself. When the Emperor Nero sentenced Seneca to death, Seneca (who know his time was up) called his wife and children to him, embraced them, and instructed a slave to bring a knife and urn. Seneca took the knife and opened his veins. Legend has it that he spoke on Stoic ethics as he died. Seneca’s calm acceptance of death, passing away without signs of fear or suffering, is the Stoic ideal.

Control your state of mind and you can be happy on the rack, the Stoics used to say. It is a grim teaching, but effective.

The first step to taking self-control the Stoic way is to affirm one’s power of rational judgment, the rational power within. To cultivate the inner strength to maintain a calm and balanced state of mind, you need to celebrate this power over all other things. You should focus on what is within your power of control and disregard everything outside of it. Everything that you cannot control by applying your reason is ultimately out of your hands. It is fate. Don’t worry about fate, the Stoics counselled. Fate happens. Treat it with indifference.

We can reduce this Stoic teaching to three simple principles. You can think of these principles as the ‘golden rules’ of Stoic practical philosophy.

Rule 1: Focus on what you can control.

Rule 2: All you can control is your rational judgment.

Rule 3: What is beyond your control is fate. Fate is none of your business.

Tim’s Blog and details about his new book are available here: http://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com

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4 Comments

Filed under Guest Blogger, Tim Raynor

4 responses to “Stoicism and self-control

  1. Reblogged this on Tafacory Ideas and commented:
    Word to the wise.

  2. Thank you. I’ll try and remember that next time I get upset about something, especially when people are rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate and thoughtless, which is what really gets to me and makes my blood boi. Will I succeed?

    • Epictetus Stoic

      Nobody can make you fail in this. You and only you can form opinions and judgments about events around you. It is not the events that upset us but our judgments about them.

  3. Pingback: Flow and the 21st century canyon – Philosophy for change

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