Stoic Week 2015: Day 2: Control

What is in our Control and Wishing with Reservation


 Morning Reflection:

Early in the morning, when you are finding it hard to wake up, hold this thought in your mind: “I am getting up to do the work of a human being. Do I still resent waking up, if I am going out to do the work which I was born for and for which I was brought into the world? Or was I designed for this, to lie under the blanket and keep myself warm?” “But this is more pleasant.” So were you born for pleasure? In general, were you born for feeling or affection? Don’t you see the plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their own work and playing their part in making up an ordered world? And yet you are unwilling to do the work of a human being? Won’t you race to do what is in line with your nature?

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1)

I had the handbook pulled up on my laptop, tucked away beside my bed. My alarm went off, I opened one eye and pulled the computer out, enjoying the perfect temperature of my bed. Then I read this Meditation and immediately popped out of bed and began getting ready for work. Ever since the first time I heard this section, I’ve wanted to record it as an alarm ringtone. Wouldn’t that be effective to hear each morning? Someone should do that. They’d probably make some money off of it.


Lunchtime: What is in our Control and Wishing with Reservation

From Rusticus, I gained the idea that my character was in need of correction and cultivation; and from Rusticus I learned not to be led astray into a passion for rhetoric, and not to write treatises on purely theoretical matters, or deliver little moralizing sermons, or play the puritan or the sponsor in a manner specially calculated to impress; I learned to abstain from public speaking, and verse, and fine language, and not to walk around the house in ceremonial clothing, or indulge in other such vanities; I learned to write letters in an unaffected style, as Rusticus did when he wrote to my mother from Sinuessa; And with regard to those who have angered or wronged me, I have learned to be easily called back to my usual frame of mind, and to be reconciled as soon as they are willing to make a move in my direction; I learned to read with care and attention, and not be satisfied with a superficial impression; I learned not to agree too quickly with those who talk with a fluent tongue; and finally, it was through Rusticus that I came to know the Discourses of Epictetus, as he lent me a copy from his own library.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.7)

Marcus was largely influenced through his readings of Epictetus. (You can read a bit about Epictetus here.) Perhaps Epictetus’ largest contribution to Stoic philosophy was this idea:

On one hand, there are things that are in our power. And on the other hand, there are things that are not in our power. In our power are our opinion, intention, desire, aversion; whatever is our own doing. Things not in our power include our body, possessions, reputation, status; whatever is not our own doing.

(Epictetus, Handbook 1.1)

Epictetus expressed firmly that there are two categories of things in the entire Universe: there are things that are 100% entirely under our control, and there are things that are not 100% under our control. Stoics believe that the Values fall entirely under the first category, and remember that development of the Virtues leads to true good, or happiness? Therefore, our own happiness is 100% under our own control. So do Stoics bother actually doing anything, since they readily acknowledge that we have control over so little? And what about things that just seem natural to desire, like for good health for our loved ones? These things technically aren’t up to us, so how do Stoics wish for this stuff knowing that they have no control with it? Instead of focusing on what is not within our power, Stoics view that which is actually in our power of ultimate importance. Stoics recognize that it is natural for us to prefer things such as being healthy and financially well-off, but Stoics see these things as being less valuable than Virtue itself. Stoics also believe that it is critical to recognize the difference between what is in our power and what is not within our power in order to live a good life free from negative and destructive emotions. The key is through what I refer to as the “Stoic Clause.”

I will get hired for the new position, if nothing prevents it.

Do you see what Stoics do there? Does it seem like a cheap way out? The fact is, the “Stoic Clause” isn’t anything magical that suddenly makes everything in life work. It’s not a way to adjust Stoic philosophy so it meshes together. While we wish to move forward and accomplish goals in life, the Stoic Clause is nothing more than a reminder that not everything is under our control.

Epictetus taught that if we focused our wishes on anything that was beyond our own power, this would lead to disappointment and negative emotions. Marcus took this idea to heart, as noted in below:

Try living the life of a good person. See how you fare as someone who is pleased with what you have been allotted, and as someone who is satisfied with your own conduct and kind disposition.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.25)

Love the expertise which you have learned and take support from this. Go through the rest of your life as someone who has entrusted all he has, whole-heartedly, to the gods, and makes himself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any man.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.31)

This ties into our two “tiers” of development we discussed on Day 1. Marcus sought to further his ethical development by focusing on what was actually within his own power: trying to lead the life of a good person on an individual level. On the other hand, Marcus also recognized that he was not an isolated individual, that his life was part of a much wider pattern of events. He therefore sought to contribute to the social level. When his social ambitions did not go as planned, he turned back to his strong inner self, which was completely within his own control.

The key to remember is that Stoics to not simply resign themselves to failure or bad events. Stoics accept the simple fact that some things are beyond our own control. This is part of life. But what is within our control is how we respond to these events. This “Stoic Serenity” comes from accepting the reality of life but not giving up.

The Stoic Week Handbook mention the famous Serenity Prayer, which is closely related to this Stoic doctrine:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

At this point, the Handbook encourages us to think about this distinction between what is in our power and what is not in our power. What does this mean in your own life? If you were to make a list of the two categories, and put some things from your life into the corresponding categories, would the “In my Power” side match your Virtues, or values in life?

As you go about your week, especially if you are doing the Morning Meditation, try incorporating the “Stoic Clause,” as you rehearse your day. Imagine what would happen if your plans were thwarted, if things went wrong, and take on an attitude of acceptance of these things. Keep in mind that the only thing that matters is that you consistently strive to develop the Virtues, regardless of what life throws at you.


Evening Reflection

Try to persuade them; and act even against their will, whenever the principle of justice leads you to do so. But if someone uses force to resist you, change your approach to accepting it and not being hurt, and use the setback to express another Virtue. Remember too that your motive was formed with reservation and that you were not aiming at the impossible. At what then? A motive formed with reservation. But you have achieved this; what we proposed to ourselves is actually happening.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.50)

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