The Stoic Traveler

"Wherever I go, it will be well with me."

05 December 2006

On Stoicism, Part I

L.A. Seneca salutem dat caro Lectori:

The counting is over, the bunting is down; after the mad hysteria of a general election at last we can return to sanity. Its recent occurrence allows me the demonstration of the first question of the Stoic life: what can we affect? Or, what is under our control?

To answer this question from a Stoic perspective take Mark. Now, Mark is a very powerful man. He was born into a wealthy family, and rose to a position of great importance. It is said that he controls the world. One word from him sends kings running. But what does he really control?
Does he control the weather? Certainly not, he seeks shelter from the rain and snow and revels in warmth and sunlight, just like any other man. He can not order the rain "stop" and it stops.
As a general, one might say that he controls his troops. After all, he commands and they obey. They follow his orders, assuming they are well-trained and conditioned. Even so, those troops might mutiny, they might not fight well, they might lose their battles. So he does not control other men, and he does not control the world around him.
Does he control himself? This he obviously controls. At a command "walk" his legs move forward. At a command "write," his hand takes a pen and forms letters, words, sentences. Again, these are commands of the type given to soldiers. And again, there is the possibility of rebellion: a muscle exercised to fatigue simply will not obey the command. There is additional proof that Mark is not in control of his body. Suppose that he seeks to lose weight, or to change his physical appearance in some way. He cannot say to his hair "Change from brown to golden" or to his waist "Shrink!" and have is hair or waist obey. He can, however, influence them.
Thus far, Mark cannot control the physical world. He cannot control his fellow men. He cannot even control his own body. He can influence the world, but influence is not the same as control.
This is the first principle of Stoicism: the recognition that the world is beyond our control. As Epictetus says in his Encheiridion "Some things are in our power, others are not." The only thing that actually is in our power, of the millions of things around us, that happen to us, is our reaction.