What is Important in Life – Day 1
What is most important in human life? Not filling the seas with fleets, nor setting up standards on the shore of the Red Sea, nor, when the earth runs out of sources of harm, wandering the ocean to seek the unknown; rather it is seeing everything with one’s mind, and conquering one’s faults, which is the greatest victory possible. There are countless people who have been in control of nations and cities, very few who have been in control of themselves. (NQ III, praef. 10)
Day 1 – The Inner Work of Stoicism
Seneca opens his examination of what is most important in life by directing us inward. The real work of the Stoic life, the work that provides the greatest victory, is inner work. This inner work, Seneca suggests, is done by directing our attention inward to conquer our own faults. External successes are indifferents to the Stoic. The excellent life—the life of virtue—is achieved through inward victory over the erroneous judgments, and inappropriate desires and aversions that diminish our virtue and disturb our tranquility. Moral excellence (virtue) cannot be measured by external success because “wealth, health, and reputation are indifferent” (Discourses 2.9.15). Why are they indifferents? Because, externals are neither good nor bad, and they are beyond our control—they are ‘not up to us’ (Enchiridion 1).
Through the practice of attention (prosoche) and the disciplines of assent and desire, we turn inward to examine the thoughts, desires, and aversions that trouble our mind and cause us to “find fault with both gods and human beings” (Enchiridion 1). I refer to this as the path of the prokopton (one making progress) and it leads to the creation of what Pierre Hadot calls the inner citadel where the vicissitudes of fortune cannot affect our tranquility. This inner citadel is within our soul (psyche), and as Marcus Aurelius asserts:
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills; and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul. (Meditations 4.3)
Marcus further asserts that we have the power to stop our inner turmoil, which is caused by faulty judgments, at any moment:
If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment. (Meditations 8.47)
The inner citadel is created from the understanding that nothing can touch the soul of the Stoic. This circumscribed Self is immune from harm by anything external to it.
Things as such have not the slightest hold on our soul, nor do they have access to the soul, nor can they alter it or move it; but the soul alone alters and moves itself, and ensures that whatever is submitted to it conforms to the judgements of which it considers itself worthy. (Meditations 5.19)
Inner work is not easy. Uprooting faulty judgments, desires, and aversions that cause us distress is hard work. That is precisely why, as Seneca writes, few are in control of themselves. The Stoic path of the prokopton traverses a challenging, sometimes steep, and occasionally precarious route. It is easy to assume, mistakenly, that the lush valley below offers a safer and shorter path to virtue and happiness. It does not. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes in Stoicism. The path of the Stoic prokopton is the practice of philosophy as a way of life, and it requires learning and constant training. However, the reward is worth the effort because the Stoic path leads to virtue, peace of mind and tranquility. The inner work builds the inner citadel that protects our psyche from vicissitudes of fortune.
Nevertheless, as I have written before, the inward directed nature of Stoic practice is not a call to withdraw from life’s tempestuous seas; quite the opposite. Through the creation of inner virtue and the application of the dichotomy of control, Stoics are prepared to fulfill their roles in society while maintaining their virtue and tranquility. Stoics shun the peaceful garden of the Epicureans for the rough-and-tumble world of human society. Because,
To fashion a [Stoic] who can genuinely be called a [Stoic], a stronger fate is needed. For him, the way will not be flat: he must go up and down, he must be tossed by waves, and must guide his vessel on a stormy sea. He must hold his course against fortune. Many things will happen that are hard and rough— but things he can soften and smooth out himself. Fire proves gold; misery, brave men [and women]. (Seneca, On Providence 5.10)
The three Stoic disciplines, which allow us to travel the path of the prokopton, allow us to gain control of our Self. The inner citadel of our psyche is not created as a safe place to hide from the turmoil of life. Quite the opposite, the inner citadel is our psychological stronghold; its strength is derived from the knowledge that nothing can touch our soul. From that place of inner strength, we can perform our roles in society with purpose. Our purpose is to live in accordance with cosmic Nature, our rational human nature, and our unique individual nature.
As you go about your day, try asking yourself these simple yet thought-provoking questions whenever you sense any emotional disturbance or lack of tranquility. Questions like these turn your attention inward and begin the inner work of Stoic practice:
- What faulty thoughts or judgments lie beneath my current mental state?
- How would my mental state change if I corrected those judgments?
- Is there something I want that I am not getting?
- Is what I desire within my control?
- How would my mental state change if I relinquished that desire?
- Is there something I fear may happen?
- Is that aversion within my control?
- How would my mental state change if I relinquished that fear?
Remember: it is the hard inner work of the Stoic path of the prokopton that creates the virtue and tranquility we seek.
 Hadot, P., & Chase, M. (1998). The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press