Simple Stoic Advice
The beautiful thing about Stoic philosophy is the advice contained within it is just as applicable today as it was when it was first written all those many years ago. We can learn a great deal from interpreting the advice provided and using it to our advantage as we go throughout our own lives.
Today’s quote comes to us courtesy of Cicero in De finibus bonorum et malorum:
“Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.”
Written by Cicero, the story of the Stoic archer encompasses the Stoic ideal of the Dichotomy of Control, understanding what is and is not within our control.
As Cicero points out, our goal in life is excellence and, in the example of the archer, to hit a bullseye. We work to prepare ourselves for this through rigorous training and practice. We work on our breathing, on the way we pull the bow, how our fingers grasp the arrow, and the release.
Our goal is to hit the target.
Once we release the arrow, however, we no longer have control over the situation. Whether or not that arrow hits its intended target, we no longer have control to determine this. Everything leading up to this moment we controlled, but once we release the arrow, our control ceases and it is put into the hands of fate.
Maybe the wind picks up and moves the arrow slightly off center. Maybe the target falls over, or a bird flies in front of it, or it begins to rain.
Any number of things can happen once we release the arrow that can prevent it from hitting its intended target.
And whatever the outcome becomes, it is up to fate. If the arrow does not hit the target, this is not bad, though our perception and judgment of it might be.
Cicero’s telling of the story of the archer is to provide clarity on the Stoic concept of Dichotomy of Control, that there are things we control (practicing, preparing, shooting the arrow) and things we cannot control (what comes after we shoot).
If we’re doing all we can to hit the target, then we cannot ask more of ourselves. It is not about the destination, rather, it is the process and things we learn through trying to hit the target that matter most.