“A warrior is not something you become, Dan. It’s something either you are, in this moment, or something you are not.” –Socrates in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior
Folks like to see philosophy as a parlor game that has nothing to do with the rigors of life, but the Stoics had quite a different view:
“Philosophy isn’t a parlor trick or made for show. It’s not concerned with words, but with facts. It’s not employed for some pleasure before the day is spent, or to relieve the uneasiness of our leisure. It shapes and builds up the soul, it gives order to life, guides action, shows what should and shouldn’t be done—it sits at the rudder steering our course as we vacillate in uncertainties. Without it, no one can live without fear or free from care. Countless things happen every hour that require advice, and such advice is to be sought out in philosophy.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 16.3
Contrary to popular opinion, Stoic philosophy is a robust, highly practical, action-oriented prescription for the many struggles we face in daily life. The Stoics knew that most of our difficulties in handling the situations of everyday life come from the fears and hopes that we hold for things that are often not in our control.
Seneca kept the simple rule of thumb in mind that he had learned from Hecato of Rhodes, disciple of Panaetius:
“Hecato says, ‘cease to hope and you will cease to fear.’ . . . The primary cause of both these ills is that instead of adapting ourselves to present circumstances we send out thoughts too far ahead.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 5.7b–8
Learning not to get ahead of ourselves and to focus on the present moment by not fanning the flames of fear or hope—what Hecato saw as the flip side of the same coin—requires strict discipline. The kind of discipline that makes great soldiers and elite athletes. Fear and hope are powers that we falsely impute to events, and we must first learn to deny that transfer of power, much as we’d guard our own castle.
Epictetus put it best:
“No, it is events that give rise to fear—when another has power over them or can prevent them, that person becomes able to inspire fear. How is the fortress destroyed? Not by iron or fire, but by judgments . . . here is where we must begin, and it is from this front that we must seize the fortress and throw out the tyrants.”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.85–86; 87a
The great French scholar of classical philosophy Pierre Hadot wrote extensively about this Stoic focus on our judgments in a brilliant book called The Inner Citadel, his great study of the thought of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus stressed the need for keeping constant watch on our ruling reason (hegemonikon) as being critical to the task of maintaining the peace and calm of this inner fortress:
“Remember that your ruling reason becomes unconquerable when it rallies and relies on itself, so that it won’t do anything contrary to its own will, even if its position is irrational. How much more unconquerable if its judgments are careful and made rationally? Therefore, the mind freed from passions is an impenetrable fortress—a person has no more secure place of refuge for all time.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48
When we free ourselves from indulging the passions of fear and hope, we increase our power in each moment as we improve our character.
Elsewhere in The Meditations (9.6), Marcus tells us we actually need only three things in the present moment: certainty of judgment, action for the common good, and grateful acceptance of what may come. This vigilance for maintaining our power and improving our character in the present moment is understood by the late Stoics as a great battle in which we each constantly are engaged and play a vital role—a view Marcus learned from reading his teacher Rusticus’ collection of the writings of Epictetus, who put it in a nutshell:
“Don’t you know life is like a military campaign? One must serve on watch, another in reconnaissance, another on the front line. . . So it is for us—each person’s life is a kind of battle, and a long and varied one too. You must keep watch like a soldier and do everything commanded. . . You have been stationed in a key post, not some lowly place, and not for a short time but for life.”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24.31–36
There are enough difficulties in this battle, the Stoics tell us, and we shouldn’t add to them needlessly! Difficulties are not only to be expected, but trained for, just like an Olympian does:
“Difficulties show a person’s character. So when a challenge confronts you, remember that God is matching you with a younger sparring partner, as would a physical trainer. Why? Becoming an Olympian takes sweat! I think no one has a better challenge than yours, if only you would use it like an athlete would that younger sparring partner.”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 1.24.1–2
The Stoic focus on the training of character moves continually from military to athletic metaphors in helping us focus on the kind of training that philosophy alone can provide us:
“But what is philosophy? Doesn’t it simply mean preparing ourselves for what may come? Don’t you understand that really amounts to saying that if I would so prepare myself to endure, then let anything happen that will? Otherwise, it would be like the boxer exiting the ring because he took some punches. Actually, you can leave the boxing ring without consequence, but what advantage would come from abandoning the pursuit of wisdom? So, what should each of us say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this my discipline!”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 3.10.6–7
Whether a sentinel on watch at the parapets of a fortress, an Olympian in the rigors of pre-games training, or a boxer trying to survive the ring, the Stoics are constantly telling us that the biggest battle is going on inside us—in our thoughts, the value we impute to things, the judgments we make, the passions we allow to paralyze us. Getting control of these things brings us peace even in the heat of battle.
Dan Millman, the world-class gymnast, coach and trainer, went on to write the internationally mega-bestselling book The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, in which the central figure Socrates teaches this same lesson about the interior battle that brings peace and greater effectiveness in the present moment. In the major motion picture, Peaceful Warrior, based on Dan’s book, Socrates is played brilliantly by Nick Nolte, who says (in the great trailer): “I call myself a peaceful warrior, because the battles we fight are on the inside—this moment is the only thing that matters.”
Let’s seize the fortress of our mind and soul and throw out the tyrants of fear and false hope. When we do so we’ll find a refuge for all time, and we’ll also find peace no matter the sparring match or battle we presently face.
Stephen Hanselman is the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.