Some things we can control, some we can’t. We can control our attitudes, opinions, goals and desires – choices of our own. We can’t control health, wealth, fame or power – things we can’t have by choosing them.
What we can control naturally is not governed, restricted or constrained by others; what we can’t control is naturally governed, restricted and constrained by others. If you mistake what’s constrained for what’s free, and what others control for what you control, you’re in for it: you won’t get your way, you’ll be unhappy, you’ll be disturbed, and you’ll be spewing blame in every direction. But if you take for your own only what really is your own, and what’s not up to you as exactly that, then you’ve got it made: no one will ever make you do what you don’t want to, no one will ever thwart you, you won’t find fault with anyone, you’ll have no enemies and you’ll never come to harm.
With this much to aim for, you’d better believe it won’t be attained without effort. There’ll be things you’ll have to give up for good, and others to put on the shelf. For instance, if you want what we’re talking about, and you still want power and money too, then you probably won’t get them because you’ve compromised your pursuit of them with this philosophy stuff, and you definitely won’t get the things we’re discussing here that are the sole basis for freedom and happiness. Practice a new attitude toward events that seem unpleasant, telling yourself that the way they seem isn’t the way they have to be for you. Analyze each event according to the rules you’re learning, especially this: Is it something you can control or not? If not, be ready to say it’s not your concern.
If you think you’ve got to have something, and you don’t get it, you’re miserable. If you think you’ve got to avoid something, and you wind up in the middle of it anyway, you’re miserable. That’s what happens, sooner or later, when you want something or want to avoid something. If the only things you try to avoid are things that really are under your own control, then you’ll never have to take what you wanted to avoid. But if you try to avoid illness or poverty or death, you’re bound to be miserable, sooner or later. So stop trying to avoid things you have no power to keep out of your life. Avoid instead the undesirable attitudes that are within your power to shun.
For now, put all desires on the shelf. If you pursue what you can’t control, you’ll be disappointed. And you don’t yet understand the things you can control that will be appropriate for you to pursue later.
As daily life requires simple selections and refusals of you, perform these gently and moderately, not desperately; go easy.
With regard to everything that you enjoy, find useful, or love, keep their nature in mind, starting with the smallest things. If you have a favorite coffee cup, remember that it’s a cup; then if it’s broken, you can stand it. When you hug your child or your spouse, remember that it’s a mortal human being you’re hugging; then if that person dies, you can stand it.
When you’re going to do something, keep the full nature of the activity in mind. If you’re going to a show, picture the way people behave at the theater – pushing, cutting in on lines, arriving late, talking. You’ll be better off if you say to yourself, “I’m going to see this show and I’m going to keep my attitudes under control.” And so with everything you do. Then if anything gets in the way of your enjoyment of the show, for example, you can say: “My goal wasn’t just to see this show, but to keep my attitudes under control, and I won’t keep them that way if I get irritated at what happens.”
Events don’t disturb us; it’s the attitudes we take toward events that disturb us. For example, death isn’t terrible, or it would have seemed that way to Socrates; it’s the idea that death is terrible that’s terrible. So when we’re hindered or disturbed or saddened, let’s not blame others but rather our own opinions. It’s the ignorant person who blames others for her or his troubles, the person with a little training who blames only herself or himself, and the well-instructed person who blames no one.
Don’t take pride in any merit that isn’t your own. If a car got excited and said, “I’m a great-looking car!” that might be acceptable, if only for its novelty value. But if you get excited and say “I have a great-looking car,” then you’re getting puffed up over merit that belongs only to the car.
What’s really yours, then? What you make of what happens in your life. And if you use events well, you can be proud – and you’ll be proud of something good that’s all yours.
It’s like a short rest stop on a bus trip. You can get some food, use the bathroom or play some video games. But you’d better watch the time, and keep an ear on the public-address system, so that you don’t miss your departure. And if you have to leave a bowl of soup or a game unfinished, that’s the way it is.
Same way with life. Instead of a bowl of soup or a video game, you may have a spouse or a career – and no reason not to. But when that whistle blows, it’s back on the bus, and you’ll have to leave them behind without a second thought. But if you’re old, stay right by the bus.
Don’t demand your own way. Instead, want things to turn out the way they do turn out. Then you can relax.
Sickness impedes the body, but not the will unless the will so chooses. Lameness impedes the leg, not the will. Say it to yourself whatever happens – it impedes something else, but not you.
Whatever happens, ask yourself how you can deal with it. If you see a sexy person, you can restrain lust. If you have heavy work to do, you can find stamina. If you’re insulted, you can exercise patience.
If you form good habits, you won’t be abducted by appearances.
Never say you’ve lost anything, only that you’ve returned it. A dead child? Returned. A dead spouse? Returned. A home taken away? Returned, too. “But the people who took it away are no good!” It’s not your business what agents the original giver used to get it back. While he leaves things in your keeping, take care of them – not as your own, but the way a civilized traveler treats a hotel room.
If you want to get better, give up thinking like this: “If I don’t take care of business, I won’t make a living.” “If I don’t reprimand my employee, he’ll be useless.” Because it’s better to starve while free from grief and fear than to live with abundance but be disturbed. Better your employee should be bad than you should be unhappy.
Start small. There’s minor breakage, or petty theft of paper clips? Say to yourself: “This is the price of not being disturbed, the price of tranquillity.” There’s no free lunch. So when you summon your subordinate, remember that he may not come, and if he does he still may not do what you want. But he’s not so powerful that your peace of mind depends on him.
If you want to get better, let yourself seem foolish and uncaring about externals. Don’t try to seem knowledgeable. If anyone thinks you’re important, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s difficult to keep your will on track and simultaneously go after external things. Take care of one and you’ll surely neglect the other.
If you want your family and friends to live forever, you’re a fool, because you’re trying to control what you can’t, and insisting that what’s up to others be within your will. Likewise, if you want your subordinate to perform perfectly, you’re a fool, because you’re deciding that his attitudes must be subject to yours. If you want to avoid disappointment, that you can do. Pay attention to what’s really up to you. Your master is whoever controls the things you want, or want to avoid. If you want to be free, don’t wish for anything, or try to avoid anything, that others control; otherwise you’re a slave.
It’s like a banquet, with dishes going around. If something tasty stops in front of you, take some if you want. If it hasn’t reached you yet, don’t grab for it. If it misses you entirely, don’t make a fuss.
Take the same attitude toward family, money and position. Partake of them as they come to you and there’s no blame. But if you scorn them when you could easily have them, that’s better – even divine. It’s for this behavior that Diogenes and Heraclitus were rightly called godlike.
When someone else is upset – problems with children, maybe, or a business difficulty – watch out that you don’t get upset too, by thinking that these events themselves are really evil. Remember that what bothers your friend isn’t these events themselves – since someone else would be completely unmoved by them – but the attitude she takes toward them, considering them so awful. Commiserate with her, of course. Even sigh or groan, if that’s what she’s doing. But don’t let yourself sigh or groan inwardly.
Remember that you’re acting in a play. It will go the way its author, not you, wants – short if it’s going to be short, long if it’s going to be long. If your role is nothing more than a walk-on as a panhandler, try to perform it well. Likewise if your part is that of a cripple, a politician or just John or Jane Q. Public. What’s up to you is playing your given part well. The casting is up to another.
When an expert renders bad news, don’t let the sense of doom foreseen run away with you, but make the essential distinction and tell yourself: “This has nothing to do with ME. It may be the worse for my measly body, or my measly property or my measly family. But any news is good, if I decide it is, because I can make good use of it, whatever it is.”
You never have to lose, as long as you stay out of competitions in which you can’t control the outcome. Look out when you see someone who’s doing well in externals (prospering, powerful or just generally well liked), in case you’re fooled by appearances and decide he’s happy.
If the true good pertains only to what we control, there’s no point at all in envy, and you needn’t be desperate to be someone important – you can just want to be a free person. And the only way to do that is to stop trying to control what you can’t control.
Remember: It’s not the person who calls you names or hits you who insults you – it’s your own conclusion that these things are insulting. Therefore, when someone annoys you, it’s your own attitude that’s annoying you. So don’t be hypnotized by the seeming significance of the event; buy yourself some time, and it’ll be easier to get your attitudes back into line.
Think about awful-seeming things, especially death, every day. Then you can be grateful to be alive, and you won’t make unreasonable demands.
If you really want to pursue philosophy, be ready to take flak from people who’ll say “Here comes Mr. Philosopher again,” and “Where’d he get the snotty look?” As for you, skip the snotty look and stick to your job, just as though God Himself had given it to you. Make these principles part of your life and the people who jeered will eventually respect you. If you let them get to you instead, they’ll get to laugh at you twice.
If you concentrate on externals in order to please someone, then you’ve lost the way. Be a full-time philosopher in all aspects of your life, and if you’ve got to look like one, just convince yourself, and that will be enough.
Ideas not to worry about:
“I’ll live without recognition, and be nobody.” If obscurity is evil, you can’t be left in obscurity by someone else, any more than you can be involved in anything disgraceful by someone else. Is it your business to get a powerful job, or to be invited to dinner parties? No way. So how does lacking these things add up to being nobody? Your job is to be somebody in exactly those areas that you can control – and there you can become as great a person as you want.
“But I won’t be able to assist my friends.” What kind of assistance? Do you mean you won’t be able to give them money or get them political favors? Who told you that things like that are under our control? How can you give anyone things that you don’t have yourself? They want you to make money, so they can share in your prosperity. If they can tell you how to make money, and still be modest and honest and principled, let them tell you, and go to it. But if they want you to give up what’s really yours and worth having, to chase after what’s not worth having, they are obviously unfair and uncaring of your interest. Besides, which are they better off having, money or an honest friend? Better they should help you develop your character than ask you to do things that endanger it.
“But the public interest will suffer from the lack of my attention.” Here again, what kind attention is involved? You won’t be endowing an animal hospital, or pressuring your Congressman on some burning issue? What does that mean? The community doesn’t get shoes from a lawyer; the army doesn’t get bullets from a farmer. It’s enough if everyone does his own work well, and if you’re providing nothing more than one honest citizen, you’re making a contribution. Your own growth is in the public interest.
“What position should I hold, then?” Any position you can, as long as you can also hold your honesty and modesty. But if your desire to be useful costs you those, what good can you possibly be to the community?
Was another the guest of honor at a party? Was another asked for expert counsel? Was another on the cover of Time or People this week? If these are good things, rejoice for the people who got them. If they’re not good things, you shouldn’t mind missing them. Remember that if you don’t do the things others do in chasing after what we can’t control, you’ve got no claim to a piece of that action. If you don’t kowtow to the powerful and flatter them, you can’t expect to get the same rewards as someone who does. You’re unfair and impossible to please if you won’t pay the going price for advantages and think you should get them for nothing.
What’s the price of a hamburger? A dollar, say. If someone else pays her dollar and gets her hamburger, and you don’t, she’s no better off than you – she has her hamburger, and you still have the dollar you didn’t give.
There’s no free dinner, either. If you weren’t asked to a dinner party, you didn’t buy your invitation with the currency the host sells them for: attention and praise. Pay the price, if it serves a purpose for you. But if you want to withhold the praise and still get the invitation, you’re a fool. If you don’t buy, what do you have? The pleasure of not having flattered, and exemption from having to endure the airs that the host puts on.
Learn nature’s will from the ways in which we’re alike. An example: Your neighbor’s car gets hit in a parking lot, and you’re quick to say “Things like that happen.” When it’s your own car’s fender that gets crumpled, you should be as quick to say the same thing.
Ditto bigger things. Someone else’s spouse or parent or child dies, and we say it’s ordinary human mortality. When one’s own spouse or parent or child dies, one says “Oh, no! I can’t stand it!” But we should remember how we react to the news of someone else’s similar misfortune.
No one establishes a goal in order not to achieve it. The same way, the purpose of the universe isn’t chaos or evil, and whatever happens can be used wisely and well.
If someone put you in chains and put you in the custody of some random passerby, you would be angry. But if you give control of your mind to any random person who curses you, leaving you flustered, shouldn’t you be ashamed of that?
In any project, consider the entire process and the steps it requires before you begin it. Otherwise you’ll start off eagerly enough, but quit when it’s time for the gritty work.
Say you want to win a gold medal at the Olympics. That’s certainly a fine ambition. But first review the full sequence of events, and then go for it if you still want to. There’s tremendous discipline required, a careful diet, rigorous training on a schedule, regardless of weather; your large or small vices must be given up; you have to turn yourself over to your coach as a sick man would to his doctor. And this is a matter of years, not hours or days. Then in each stage of competition you may sustain painful injuries, eat a lot of dust, take verbal abuse – and still lose. Taken all that into account? If you have, and you still want to go for the gold, go for it. Otherwise, you’ll act like a child who plays at being a detective one minute, an astronaut or a musician the next, depending on what he’s seen on television recently. The same way you’re a businessman one day, an artist the next, maybe a philosopher today – but absolutely nothing with your whole being. You ape the motions of whatever you’ve seen, and one thing after another catches your fancy. You’ve never begun anything with careful deliberation, after carefully reviewing the entire process involved, but rather you’ve started rashly, with what you thought was a cool determination.
Similarly, some have been exposed to philosophy, and want to be philosophers too – instant philosophers. Friend, consider the entire process and what it requires, and then decide whether you’re up to it. If you wanted to enter the pentathlon, you would have to consider the strength of your limbs and your wind; different persons are cut out for different things. Do you think you can go on acting the way you have, and be a philosopher? Do you think you can eat and drink the way you have, and be angry and quick to take offense? You’ll have to forego your ease, work hard, leave people behind, be despised by menials, be laughed at, and get crumbs at best when it comes to recognition and position – in all affairs. Consider these costs, and see if you’re willing to pay them to gain peace, freedom and tranquillity. If you’re not willing, stay away from philosophy.
Don’t be like a child who’s a philosopher one minute, then a movie star, then a bureaucrat. That’s inconsistent. You’ve got to be one person, good or bad. You take care of your own will and attitudes, or you take care of external things. You apply yourself to what’s inside you, or to things outside. You’re a philosopher, or you’re not.
Relations define duties. You’ve got a father? Then you have duties – helping him, taking care of him when he’s in need, listening to his advice even when it’s reproachful.
You object that you’ve got a bad father. Are you necessarily related to a good father? No, only to a father.
Is your brother unfair to you? Don’t dwell on his unfairness, but remember that he’s your brother. Instead of analyzing what he does, analyze how you can keep your attitude calm. No one can harm you unless you let him, and then you’re harmed because you think you are.
Use this method to discover your duties to a neighbor, to the community, to your boss, and so forth. They’re all implicit in the relations.
People aren’t Kleenex, and you can’t wish away your responsibilities just because the people involved don’t please you all the time.
As for religion, you can take this position: that God exists, that He runs the universe well and fairly, that you should obey and yield to His will in everything, and do so voluntarily, as following the wisest leader. Do this, and you’ll never blame God or feel He’s neglected you. The only way to do this is to stop trying to control things you can’t control, and to see good and evil only in those things that are truly up to you.
If you think any of the things you can’t control is good or evil, then you’ll certainly, sooner or later, miss your good or encounter your evil, and then you’ll find fault and hate the cause of the circumstance. Nature makes all animals avoid what seems harmful and what causes it, and seek what seems useful and what causes that. It’s impossible then for a rational person who thinks she’s been hurt to take pleasure in either the hurt itself or its cause.
A child resents the parent who gives nothing of the apparently good. That’s what made Polynices and Eteocles enemies: each had the idea that ruling Thebes – by himself – was good. So it is with those who think God is holding out on them: farmers, sailors, businessmen and those who’ve lost loved ones, all sometimes curse God. It’s not surprising; their interests determine their piety or lack of it.
By contrast, one who looks after her attitudes, seeking and avoiding only what’s actually in her control, has no trouble maintaining a relationship with God. And to worship according to the traditions of your family and community is proper.
When you seek expert opinion, remember that you don’t know exactly what it will be (or you wouldn’t be making the consultation), but that you’ve come to ask. If the result is something you can’t control, then it’s neither good nor evil. So leave your longings and loathings behind when you consult the expert, or you’ll go in a state of fear. Instead, decide beforehand that the result will be acceptable, because you will make good use of it – and no one can stop you. Then you can approach the expert with confidence. Let God work through the expert, and remember whose advice you’re neglecting if you ignore the opinion rendered.
Seek out experts, as Socrates might have advised, when the entire question is the outcome, and your own reason and expertise can produce no answer. When duty is clear – to put yourself at risk to help a friend or the community – there’s no need to get an expert to tell it to you. You’d probably be told that doing the right thing will cost you money, time, trouble or danger. But reason tells you to do your duty in any event. The greatest expert of ancient times, the oracle at Delphi, made no bones about it when throwing out a questioner who had failed to do his duty and ran when his friend was being murdered on the road.
Right now, assume a character and a way of behaving that you can follow consistently both when alone and when with others.
If you have some possible pleasure in mind, don’t get carried away with it. Let it wait for you, while you think about how you’ll feel when you’re enjoying it, and how you’ll feel afterward, when you reproach yourself for it. Compare those moments to the joy of having abstained and the congratulations you can then properly give yourself. And if the prospective pleasure seems appropriate to you, beware of the allure, the sweet promises it may be using on you, and think again how much better an awareness of victory can be.
When you’re certain that something should be done, don’t try to avoid being seen doing it, even though many will disapprove. If the deed is wrong, don’t do it. If it’s right, why fear those who’ll rebuke you unjustly?
The sentences “It is day” and “It is night” can have meaning separately but have very little meaning together. Similarly, when you take the largest portion at dinner, that may be very good for your body, but it’s no good at all for maintaining social feeling. When dining with others, remember not only the value to your body of a large helping, but also the value of good manners.
If you have assumed a character that’s beyond your powers to carry out, then you have not only made a botch of that, making a fool or worse of yourself, but you have also neglected some more modest character that you could have carried out well.
When you’re walking you take care not to step on glass or turn your ankle. Take similar care of your attitudes. Remember this in everything you do, and you can proceed with confidence.
The body is the measure of material needs, just as the foot is the measure of the shoe. Once you go beyond the measure, it’s like falling off a cliff. With the shoe, when it exceeds the needs of the foot, it can be made of the finest leather, then fashionably colored, then garishly ornamented. Once the proper measure has been passed, there are no limits.
From an early age, women are taught to believe that everything they’ll ever get will come from relationships with men. So they start with make-up and all the other exterior trappings. Men should show women instead that what they’re really valued for is integrity and self-respect.
It’s vulgar to give too much time and attention to affairs of the body, whether exercise, eating, drinking, defecating or sex. Don’t be driven by your stomach, bowel or glands, but do these things along the way and give your attention to your attitudes.
When anyone treats you badly, or attacks you verbally, it’s because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. It’s not possible for him to do what seems right to you – only what seems right to him. And if he’s wrong, he’s the only one who’s harmed. When someone thinks a true statement is false, the statement isn’t damaged, only the person who’s mistaken about it. Using these principles, you’ll be mild with someone who criticizes you, and say, “That’s the way he saw it.”
Everything has two handles, one you can bear it with and one you can’t. If your brother is unfair, and you try to grasp the situation by the handle of his unfairness, you’re using the handle that won’t work. Grasp the situation by the other handle, that he’s your brother and the two of you were reared together, and you can carry it well.
These do not follow logically: “I’m richer than you, therefore I’m better than you,” and “I’m more eloquent than you, therefore I’m better than you.” Instead the logical reasonings are: “I’m richer than you, therefore I have more money than you,” and “I’m more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, friend, are neither money nor speaking.
Does someone wash quickly? Don’t say he washes badly, just that he washes quickly. Does someone drink a lot? Don’t say that he drinks badly, just that he drinks a lot. Unless you know exactly what’s behind a person’s actions, you can’t determine whether he’s doing anything badly. This way you can avoid making judgements in cases that you don’t really understand.
Never call yourself wise, or talk much about your principles to civilians. Act on your principles instead. At a party, for example, don’t blather about how people should behave; just behave as you should.
Socrates made no show of his wisdom. People came to him and asked to be introduced to philosophers. He took them to philosophers, and didn’t mind being overlooked.
There’s danger in regurgitating what you’ve only partly digested. And if someone tells you that you don’t know anything, and you aren’t bothered, then you’ve made a beginning at wisdom. Sheep don’t throw up their grass to show the shepherd how much they’ve eaten; they digest it internally, and then produce milk and wool externally. So don’t show off your thoughts to the ignorant, but show them the actions your thoughts produce after they’ve been digested.
When you’ve learned to take care of basic bodily needs with very little, don’t make a point of pride of it. If you drink only water, don’t be constantly telling everyone that you drink only water. (People who are really poor get by on even less, and aren’t always talking about it.) If you want to acquire stamina and endurance, do your exercises in private, and don’t make a boring fetish of your ability to finish a marathon. If you are very thirsty, take a mouthful of cold water, spit it out, and tell no one.
It’s typical of a vulgar person that he never looks to himself for help or harm, but to externals. The sage instead looks only himself for help or harm. The marks of someone who’s making progress are the following: he criticizes no one, praises no one, blames no one, says nothing about himself as being anyone or knowing anything; when he’s held back, he blames himself; if he’s praised, he inwardly laughs at the praiser, and if he’s censured, he makes no defense. He acts like someone who’s recovering from an injury, taking care to put no pressure on anything that’s not yet firmly healed. He stops making demands, and moderates his desires. He tries to avoid only what he can avoid that might interfere with his principles. If he looks stupid or ignorant, he doesn’t mind, and he keeps a close eye on himself as though he were an enemy waiting in ambush.
When someone is proud because he can explain the writings of Chrysippus, say to yourself, “If Chrysippus had written more clearly, this person would have nothing to boast about.”
What’s my wish? To understand nature and live in harmony with it. I hear that Chrysippus explains nature, so I want to understand him. I find his writings obscure, so I seek someone to explain them. So far, there’s nothing I can take pride in. When I find someone to explain Chrysippus to me, what counts is to make use of his principles – that’s the thing I can take pride in. If I merely admire the interpretation, I’m using my teacher as a literary critic rather than as a philosopher, and we might as well be studying Homer instead of Chrysippus.
When anyone asks me to explain Chrysippus, I’m embarrassed when I can’t show my own actions to be in keeping with his words.
Whatever rules have been put before you, that you begin to understand and can agree to, stick to them as though they were law and it would be sacrilege if you broke any of them. Ignore what anyone says about you, because it’s not yours to control.
How long will you wait before you consider yourself capable of the best, and of living in accord with reason? You’ve been through the reasoning and accepted the principles. What great master are you waiting for, so that you can stall your improvement until his arrival? You’re no longer a child, but an adult. If you’re negligent and lazy, keep delaying and making a collection of one good intention after another, naming day after day on which you’ll start to take care of yourself, you’ll just go on without getting better, and you’ll live and die miserable.
Right now, consider yourself worthy of living like a grownup, and someone who’s getting better. Let what seems right to you be an iron law. And if anything comes your way that seems like work, or seems tempting or glorious or disgraceful, remember that the struggle is on already, that the Olympics have begun and can’t be delayed, that what you do today – this minute – will determine whether progress is made or lost. Socrates became perfect this way, making everything an opportunity for his improvement, following only reason. Though you’re not yet a Socrates, you should live as though you intend to become a Socrates.
The first and most necessary part of philosophy is practical principles; for example: don’t lie. The second part is proofs, as of why we shouldn’t lie. The third, which validates the other two, is logical theory, answering such questions as, how do we know that this is a valid proof? What is a logical demonstration? What does it mean when we say something follows something else? What is contradiction? What is truth? What is falsehood? The third part of philosophy is necessary for the sake of the second, and the second for the sake of the first. But the most necessary part, where we should linger, is the first. Of course we do exactly the opposite. We spend our time on the third part, becoming enthusiasts in that, and utterly neglect the first. So we lie through our teeth, but we certainly can demonstrate why one shouldn’t lie.
At all times, we should keep these ideas ready:
Lead me, God and destiny,
To the place you’ve planned for me,
I’ll follow cheerfully; if I didn’t,
Bad and unhappy, I must go there anyway.
Whoever surrenders to necessity,
We call him wise and skilled with heaven.
Well, Crito, if the gods like it this way, then let it be.
Anytus and Melitus may kill me, but they can’t hurt me.