Stoic Strength: The Promise, the Price, and the Result
The invincibility of the Stoics comes at a price, but not the price conventional thinking expects us to pay
What are we talking about when we use the word “invincibility”? The Stoics had a specific meaning.
Who, then, is the invincible human being? One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice…Now that is what I really mean by an invincible athlete.¹ (Discourses 1.18)
“Disconcerted by nothing.” Anything could happen, hell or high water, and we wouldn’t become unsettled, disturbed, flustered, shaken, upset, worried, dismayed, rattled, and/or unnerved. (What thesaurus?)
Going about our lives with this attitude would have others believing we have a super power. No anxiety; worries about the future a thing of the past; fearless in the face of challenges; equanimity all the way.
More To The Story
If we stopped there we’d have the common misconception of what it means to be a Stoic: unemotional and uncomplaining as we endure hardship. That’s actually stoic with a small ‘s’. Walking about unflappable despite trying circumstances is part of it.
Epictetus adds to our understanding:
Who, then, is a Stoic?…Show someone who is ill yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy. Show me such a person; by the gods, how greatly I long to see a Stoic! (Discourses 2.19)
Happy regardless, that’s the other part of Stoic invincibility.
Happy is almost the right word. The ancients used “eudaimonia”. This has been translated as “flourishing”, “optimal living”, and “a smoothly flowing life”. Anthony A. Long, in his book Epictetus — A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, also added this brilliant distinction:
[Eudaimonia] is steadily enjoying the best mindset that is available to human beings.²
That’s beautifully clarifying when it comes to understanding the price we must pay.
Here’s where conventional thinking leads us astray. In order to be invincible (i.e. disconcerted by nothing and happy) we need to stop equating our experiences with our circumstances.
Most People’s Experience
Check in with friends, family, and work mates and we’ll hear the same formula:
External circumstance = Experience
For example: being stuck in traffic is frustrating; public speaking is nerve wracking; poverty is shameful; sitting by a lake is peaceful; laying on the couch is relaxing; receiving criticism is stressful.
It’s as if the experience is inherent in the circumstances. But that’s not true. Not everyone stuck in traffic is frustrated. Many public speakers are excited to stand at the podium. Some people choose a life of poverty with pride. You get the idea.
What’s missing from the common formula is our volition. We forget, are unaware, or refuse to acknowledge we are making a choice in the context of the circumstances.
It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them…So accordingly, whenever we’re impeded, disturbed, or distressed, we should never blame anyone else, but only ourselves, that is to say, our judgments. (Enchiridion 5)
So a more accurate formula looks like this:
External circumstance + Our Choice = Our Experience
That’s the power of exercising our volition. We can choose to interpret the circumstances differently and create a different, preferably a more excellent, experience. (Here’s an example of someone choosing to experience freedom while in prison.)
Why Is This Important?
If our eudaimonia were dependent on any specific circumstance it would be beyond our power.
The Peripatetic school, founded by Aristotle, claimed a certain level of health, wealth, and reputation are necessary for a good life. What if we’re born with, or develop, health challenges? What if we live in poverty? What if our social network is limited? According to the Peripatetics, and most people agree, eudaimonia would be impossible for us. We would then need to manipulate the circumstances to experience a good life.
As we learned in our first exploration together, The Foundation of Stoic Strength, not even the assistance of our own body is within our power. The Peripatetics are describing a very grim perspective.
The Stoics tell us something different, something better: eudaimonia is possible for anyone regardless of circumstances.
Great. This is making sense. Just one little thing.
Invincibility and Myth
Invincibility, as a consistent state of being, is for the mythical Sage. It’s an ideal not to be achieved but an aspiration toward which we can direct our effort. As Epictetus put it:
What, do all horses become swift-running, or all dogs quick on the scent? And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me. For I won’t ever be a Milo either, and yet I don’t neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and I don’t neglect my property; nor in general do I cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because I despair of achieving perfection. (Discourses 1.2)
So even though only the ideal Sage chooses invincibility in every moment we absolutely have the option to choose invincibility in any moment.
What, then, is the realistic result of more consistently recognizing and asserting self-responsibility for our choices and our resulting experiences?
We’ll be so mentally, morally strong we’ll be nigh incorruptible.
Our circumstances will no longer dictate how we experience life. The excellence we choose to live will be our standard and our path. If we step off that path we’ll acknowledge our choice to do so, not blaming the circumstances, and we’ll get back on the path over and over and over again when, not if, we stumble.
We will choose to be, depending on our preferred standard, happy regardless, self-disciplined regardless, loving regardless, courageous regardless, free regardless.
Ultimately we’ll hold this mindset in every moment of choice:
I am responsible for creating my experience and I choose to think, speak, and act with excellence regardless of the circumstances.³
We’ll look at the three levels of practicing the Dichotomy. Stay tuned.
Note: This is the second article in an exploration of Stoic Strength. First article.
¹Hard, Robin, translator. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. By Epictetus, Oxford University Press, 2014. All quotations from this edition unless otherwise noted.
²Long, A. A. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002.
³Samuelson, Korey. The Gymchiridion: Everything You Need To Master Your Life You Will Learn In The Gym, Stoic Strength Inc., 2018.