The Way To React

One criticism of Stoicism and its emphasis on our ability to control our responses to events is that some reactions really are out of our control. If it gets cold, you’ll shiver. If you hear a loud enough noise, it will startle you. Sure, training can reduce some of this but we are biological creatures. No amount of mental discipline will neutralize a dump of adrenaline or prevent a reflex.

This criticism is often used to dismiss Stoicism…as if the Stoics hadn’t thought about that already. In fact, Seneca readily acknowledges that we will have involuntary reactions to things. He talks at some length about the distinction between motus (our impulses) and affectus (our passions).

Say some stranger comes up and strikes you. You’re going to have a reaction. You might duck. You might throw your hands up. You might even impulsively strike them back. There will be very little thinking involved in any of it. Stoicism is not primarily concerned with those involuntary and immediate reactions. The decision to hate this attacker forever? Being afraid to go outside? Plotting some disproportionate revenge? Those are dangerous passions—passions that are in your control. That’s what Stoicism is about.

Cato was struck in such a way and later told his attacker that he didn’t even remember being hit. He had willed himself to forget it. It’s perfectly understandable to be shaken up after you were tossed off a horse…it’s Stoic to work on that fear until you can get back on. It’s reasonable to be frustrated with a bad call from a referee, it’s unreasonable to keep yapping about it until you get a technical. So you recoiled from the cold water when you dipped your toe in…you’re human, so what? But as a Stoic you can take a deep breath and then dive in head first.

That’s how we react. Not on impulse or passion, but when we’ve gathered our wits about us and can make the right choice.

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