What Matters Is What You Do

Like all philosophies, there are plenty of theoretical debates inside Stoicism. The early Stoics argued about whether virtue was the sole good, whether pleasure was important, whether we had free will. Some debated various superstitions, and criticized each other’s style and rhetorical abilities. 

But Epictetus? He didn’t have any time for that. He was more interested in actions, and how they had immediate and inescapable consequences. “You have only to doze for a moment, and all is lost. For ruin and salvation both have their source inside you,” he said. “Don’t talk about your philosophy,” he advised his students, “Embody it.” 

Most of all, Epictetus was interested in the right actions. Just because someone was busy—reading or living—didn’t mean they were doing well, he said. What mattered is what and how they were doing those things. 

Kyle Eschenroeder, a student of Stoicism and the author of The Pocket Guide to Action, has some thoughts on those distinctions worth thinking about this weekend. As he told us in an interview a while back:

Action may be reacting to unimportant, incoming emails while right action would be focusing on a high priority item.

Action is eating whatever you want, right action is eating what you will want to have eaten in an hour from now.

Action is flailing around looking for the perfect system, right action is beginning to build.

Action is yelling about your political opinions, right action is focused on making change.

Action is telling people what to do, right action is focused on getting them to do it.

Action wants to be busy, right action wants to be effective.

We must ask ourselves: Am I acting or am I just talking? Am I acting rightly or am I just acting out of habit or impulse? “Our words and actions,” Marcus reminded himself, “should not be like those of sleepers.” Instead, we must be conscious. We must be awake. We must be deliberate. 

We must do what is right.

P.S. This was originally sent on February 29, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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