January 10th: On Posture
Today we’ll continue looking at the tenets of ancient Stoicism in tandem with The Daily Stoic. I will include yesterday and today’s quotes from that book and comment on them. In the commentary I will explain why “On Posture” is the title of today’s reflection.
Quote#1: “Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is [entirely] our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, things that are not [entirely] caused by our own actions. The things that are our own doing are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those do not depend entirely on our own actions are weak, slavish, can be hindered by other forces, and are not our own.” — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1–2
Quote #2: “The essence of true good is a certain kind of reasoned choice; just as the essence of evil is another kind. But what about externals events and factors? Externals are only the “raw material” for our reasoned choice, which finds its own good and evil through working with those externals. How will our reason find the good in them? Certainly not by simply by gazing at that raw material! If our judgments about the material are right, they make our choices good, but if those judgments are twisted, our choices turn bad.” — Epictetus, Discources, 1.29.1–3
What follows are my comments on the quotes. As usual, it is certainly not the “final answer,” and I look forward to seeing what you all have to say.
I chose today’s title because the quotes demonstrate the basic attitude, or “posture,” of Stoicism in regard to dealing with the conditions of our lives.
The purpose of practicing stoic philosophy is to live a good life. To do that, we need to direct our actions to that purpose. And to know how to direct our actions to that end, we must know what to and what not to focus on.
Some things we can control — like what food to put in our mouths. Other things we cannot control — like the weather. No one would say the opposite with either — they are very simple and clear examples. We all know that blaming others for what we put in our mouths or blaming ourselves for the weather are utterly foolish. (Don’t we?) Someone who screams at the weather and gets utterly distressed over it would not be considered wise and reasonable, just as would someone who blames others for their horrible and self-defeating dietary choices. Everyone gets this.
But most things are rather less simple and clear. For instance: if we have a boss, how do we deal with him or her? We depend on the actions and decisions of that person. But is our boss under our control or not?
This is where the basic posture of Stoicism comes into play and can prove quite useful.
Stoicism advises us to separate those things we can directly control from those we cannot. If something is under our control — opinion, choice, desire, or aversion — we should focus our attention and efforts there. If something is not under our control, we should realize that it is not under our control and adjust our attitude to it accordingly. We should not expect that we can control it, and thus we should not pretend that we can ultimately depend on it. The weather is a good example: we have to adjust ourselves to the weather, which is not under our control, but we can adjust our diet to ourselves, which is under our control.
But what of the boss example? Our boss can fire us if she or he likes! But we depend on our income from that job, just as ancient farmers depended so much on the weather. So, what can we do?
First, we stop pretending that we can make that person do what we want. And we can stop being angry or outraged if they don’t! How many people have driven themselves crazy worrying about or hating their boss? Not only have many people made themselves miserable in doing so — worrying too much over something they cannot control — but they have often ruined their relationship with their boss or their employer as a result of their attitude and controlling actions.
Facing the fact that we cannot control many aspects of externals, we can also see that there are things we can do to deal with or prepare for situations out of our control. We can realize that no job is absolutely secure and act accordingly, such as by putting away a nest egg or emergency fund or keeping up our skills in case we must make a job change. Additionally, we can face the real possibility that we, like many others, may have to endure hardship. By doing that we can prepare ourselves mentally to face difficulties, and thus we will be better able to deal with them when they come. Rather than thinking we can control our way to a hardship-free life, which we cannot, we will instead see difficulties as an ordinary part of life, which they are. And rather than railing against difficulty as a terrible outrage and injustice, we can face it with more tranquility than we would if we had not prepared ourselves for that possibility. Hardship is rarely fun, but we can make it less painful and distressing by being prepared for the unknown and, perhaps, unavoidable.
Once we do or realize those truths, unpleasant as they may sometimes be, we become more calm. And when we become calm we act more rationally and wisely. In that improved mental state we can better see what we can actually do to improve things in terms of our job: exert positive influence. Perhaps we can take actions and say things to build a better relationship with the boss. Maybe we can learn about what they like or need, what worries and concerns them, so that we can help them out when they need it. We can see that doing such things — being helpful — is very much under our control, and we can realize that helpfulness is a much better way to improve our relationship with our boss than being controlling and angry. Ultimately, being helpful may not “save” our job if the axe falls, but it will likely do much to determine what happens. And while we are being helpful, we can learn and practice the skills of understanding and helping others, which can be used in any area of life and any job come what may. Thus, even misfortune can be turned to something good through wisely directing our attention and actions to things we actually can control rather than wasting our time pretending we can control things that reason tells us we cannot.
The Stoics had a somewhat different definition of “good” and “evil” than our somewhat “medieval” one. Rather than just judging things on the basis of what you might call “Biblical” morality (though the ancient Stoics were highly, highly moral!), Stoics defined “good” or “evil” more broadly as what brought peace, order, and happiness into our own lives. The “goodness” or “badness” of our actions and decisions were determined by how they affected ourselves. And for the Stoics, there was no conflict between what we do to be morally good and what was good for ourselves psychologically, emotionally, and physically. A fit “diet” of thought and action made us healthier, more moral, and, perhaps, more upright literally. Stoicism is the philosophy of a better posture.
As with our physical posture, we have a mental posture. We can develop bad physical posture by sitting poorly, having a bad workstation that we don’t change or fix, slouching, not getting any exercise, etc. Or we can choose to develop good posture but sitting in a healthy position, walking upright, learning the rules of ergonomics, exercising and stretching, and other wise actions and practices. Which of those paths we choose is something we have control over: something that is up to us. And that is the basic posture of Stoicism. Isn’t that the same posture we should have toward our own affairs, our own jobs, and our own lives?