Physical Health: How far should we go?

As the student of Stoicism reflects on Epictetus’ “dichotomy of control” (“what is in our power and what is not in our power”), the student seems to have stumbled across a conundrum.

Things not in our power include our body, possessions, reputation, status; whatever is not our own doing.

(Epictetus, Handbook 1.1)

We accept that we don’t have 100% control over our bodies, ever. Yet the body is absolutely necessary for life, and life is necessary in order to pursue development of our characters. Clearly, when Epictetus stated those things which are not in our power, he also knew that while we don’t have 100% control over those things, we do have some control over those things. Although we accept that we can’t ultimately control the fate or condition of our bodies, we agree that it makes practical sense to care for them. And if it makes practical sense to care for our bodies, how far should we go? Should we seek to maximize what is in our control, such as committing to exercise daily, eat only organic food, give up alcohol and sugar? Should we go even further and commit to running marathons and lifting weights and eating only raw vegetables and legumes?

At first, it does seems like a conundrum. But to consider these questions is to lose our focus. As students of Stoicism, we ultimately seek to achieve eudaimonia (happiness), and we know that the method to achieve that is to develop our characters.

Let me include a disclaimer here: Stoicism does not say that running marathons or following the paleo diet, etc. is wrong. What Stoicism is getting at is that when we take on extreme diets and exercise plans that significantly disrupt our lives and take up our time, we’ve lost the true focus of Stoicism, which is to develop one’s character. If the focus of your marathon training is to build your self-control, then by all means, go ahead. But the focus should be on your character, not on your body.

Consider this:

The ultimate focus of Stoicism is to develop one’s character.

In order to do that, your mind must be functioning in order to study and reason out the best choices.

In order to do that, your body needs to be at a functioning level. Whenever you have the opportunity in your daily life to make good choices concerning the care of your body, do it. But don’t go so far as to make that the focus of your life, for then you would be straying off the course.

Remember that the body lives to serve the mind.

Beyond losing our focus, sometimes we’re tempted to think that if we did more healthy things, then we would “increase our control” of our bodies. But think of Epictetus’ claim like this: when we consider statistics and chances, we are often misled to believe that 99/100 means that if I fail 99 times, then I will be certain to succeed on the 100th try! But the reality is that when it comes to chance, each incident is completely isolated from the rest. Think of flipping a coin: there is a 50% chance for heads and a 50% chance for tails. But it’s entirely possible that you will get heads five times in a row, because each flip is an isolated incident. Your chances are still 50/100 every. single. time. Even if you try 1,000,000 times.

Epictetus’ claim holds true. Although we might attempt to “increase our control” of our bodies, we will never gain that last percent by our own efforts, because that last percent ultimately belongs to Fate. Acknowledge that, and then move your focus onward to your character.

Below is an excerpt from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, Letter 15, “On Brawn and Brains”:

Without philosophy, the mind is sickly; and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong. This, then, is the sort of health you should primarily cultivate; the other health comes second, and will involve little effort, if you wish to be well physically.

…Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, lifting weights, and jumping…Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy. But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind.


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