The Discipline of Action: Building Stoic muscles

Sometimes it feels like a lot of Stoic teachings are telling us what not to do. Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Don’t get upset when someone doesn’t like you. Don’t love your fancy expensive car. Don’t become obsessed with poverty and wearing potato sacks. Don’t brag about your progress. Don’t get too comfortable with Fortune.

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In order to change our behaviors, it’s not enough to know what we shouldn’t be doing. We need to know what we’re aiming for!

I’ve been interested in training dogs since I was a little girl, and one of the key things in changing a dog’s behavior is to simply teach the dog what you specifically want it to do. This avoids a lot of confusion from the dog not knowing exactly which behavior it should be doing, and therefore grasping at straws (if dogs had thumbs) and floundering to try any behavior. (You told me I shouldn’t poop on the couch, so I pooped on the rug instead. Oops.)

Enter: the discipline of action. This is the part of Stoicism where they say “Do this!” The direction this discipline goes might also be surprising.

To be technical, we’re not talking about actual action, but rather the “impulse to act and not to act.” That response we feel when we have an experience. (From our driving example in the Desire post, your impulse to act would be between the point where the slow driver cuts in front of you and when you start bad-mouthing them and eventually flipping them off.) Whether I successfully flip off the other driver is not in my power (my hand might get cut off from another car driving by), but my inclination and my intention are in my power (Ooooh, that driver makes me so angry! I’m going to flip him off!)

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If you manage to hit the target, cool. But hitting the bullseye isn’t the entire story by any means.

The Stoics compared the concept of “right action” to an archer shooting at a target. The goal is to hit the target, but no matter how skilled the archer is, the end result of hitting the target isn’t actually in his own power. There are a lot of variables that an archer has no control over, such as wind gusts or even the bow breaking. But the archer recognizes that doing his best is the best he can do, and he’s not disappointed if he misses the target because his main interest is in shooting well. Therefore, along with focusing our desire on Virtue, we also need to focus our actions toward being virtuous.

So what actions should a person be engaged in in order to develop Virtue?

Paraphrased a bit:

The second area of study has to do with appropriate action. For I’m not a stationary statue made of rock, but I have living relationships. And I should maintain those relationships as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen, and as a man who honors the gods.

(Epictetus, Discourses 3.2)

Woah, did you see that coming? Back to the dog training analogy, instead of us bumbling around trying every behavior in the book to see if it’s the one we need to be learning and hoping we eventually arrive at Virtue, this is the trainer saying, “DO THIS!”

  • How do you develop a good character?

By fulfilling your roles and responsibilities.

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Escaping from people and all their baggage might feel good sometimes, but it’s not the “tranquility” we’re talking about.

Sorry, you can’t go home, shut the door, close the blinds, ignore everyone for a month, and then emerge as a sage. Sure, you didn’t worry about externals while you were in the comfort of your house, but that’s because there were none! You didn’t actually build any muscles while you were in there. Escaping from society in order to achieve tranquility is like trying to build muscles by skipping most of your meals. To develop all the skills to achieve Stoic tranquility, you’re going to actually have to do the work. Maybe you think I’m being extreme. Most people don’t have the ability to go home and shut the entire world out, right? I think we do this more often than we’re aware. Read this next paraphrase:

Appropriate actions can usually be determined from our relationships. “This man is your father. That means you should care for him and obey him, and you should put up with him when he’s cranky and unpleasant to be around.”

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If someone has made you angry, put your blinders on. Don’t focus on what they are doing, but focus on what your own roles and responsibilities are and what you need to do to fulfill them.

“But he’s a bad father. He doesn’t deserve those things.”

“The Universe did not give you a ‘good’ father. All it gave you was a father. Has your brother wronged you, too? Even so, keep working on your relationship with him. Don’t think about what your brother is doing, but focus on what you need to do if you want to keep your moral character on the right path.

(Epictetus, Handbook 30)

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Try not to write people off or run away from your problems, because that often means you’re running away from your responsibilities, too.

This excerpt makes me uncomfortable because I don’t always like to hear the truth. It’s often much easier to run away from everything so you don’t have to face your problems: that person you can’t stand, the mistake you’re too embarrassed to own up to, or the situation that’s just too scary to hang around for. But Stoics aren’t supposed to run away, and they’re not supposed to write people off, particularly if we have duties to fulfill.

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We have some sort of relationship to everyone around us. What are the right actions to do in order to fulfill those roles and to be a good person?

I also think this is uncomfortable because when you think about it, you have a relationship to everything around you. Think it’s ok to yell at that driver who cut you off on the way to work? They’re nothing to you, anyway. Right? Wrong. You actually have the role of being a constructive member of society. Is yelling at that driver conducive toward fulfilling your role as a constructive citizen? Or can you tone it down and remember that society shares the roads and you are one piece of this machine along with all the others? When you consciously identify your relationships to others, you will probably feel an urge to treat those individuals better or to act in a better manner with more Virtue.

What are some of the roles you have currently? Parent, significant other, child, sibling, friend, neighbor, employee, citizen? What duties and responsibilities do you have in those roles?

For a great discussion on roles and what this looks like in modern life, check out this episode of the Sunday Stoic podcast.

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