3 Disciplines of Stoicism: Will

4 minutes reading time

There are three primary disciplines that other Stoic practices flow from. Perception. Action. Will.

Perception: Seeing clearly, without letting emotions cloud your judgement.
Action: Take action on those things that are right.
Will: Accept willingly the things I cannot control or change.

The third and final discipline is Will. It is the force within us that helps to deal with the things that are outside of our control, and that we cannot change. Yet, it’s also more than that. Epictetus described it as the discipline of Assent; being mindful of our judgements.

It means trying to live a virtuous life in accordance with our nature as rational beings, continually monitoring our value-judgements and evaluating them. We withhold our assent to those immediate judgements we are prone to make, instead, choosing a better response and taking the right action.

It is the way we choose to look at obstacles and see them as opportunities for learning and overcoming adversity. Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether that results in success or failure.

Fortitude and resilience

We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared. Epictetus

First let’s address the general case of fortitude and resilience, otherwise known as grit or endurance. We have many words that describe this inner strength that we must cultivate if we are to respond well to the trials and tribulations of life. The Stoics often discuss this in terms of the cardinal virtues of courage and self-discipline.

The lines between the three disciplines often overlap. For example, having a good work ethic is relevant to both Action and Will. Grit is often displayed through continued action.

When a challenger confronts you, remember that God is matching you with a younger sparring partner, as would a physical trainer. Why? Becoming an Olympian takes sweat! I think no one has a better challenge than yours, if only you would use it like an athlete would that younger sparring partner.

Acceptance not resignation

In the obstacle is the way, Ryan Holiday recounts the story of Edison and how he handled the fire at his factory. Instead of becoming angry or depressed, he was almost joyful. He called for his family to come and look at the spectacle of the green and yellow flames because they’ll never see a fire like this again! His son was surprised at his father’s reaction. Edison said, “don’t worry, we just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”

This kind of reaction and response is what the Stoics refer to as Amor Fati, the loving acceptance of fate. There is an important distinction to make. It’s not resignation. The key is to embrace your destiny wholly, not merely accept it.

Virtues

Self-discipline relies on our having strong virtues. First, we have to know what we stand for, and as Viktor Frankl found in Man’s Search for Meaning we have to know and understand our purpose to enable us to endure. When conditions are truly terrible, as they were in those concentration camps, it was a person’s strong ethics, character and purpose that they could use as a rock to cling to.

Cato of Utica (known as “the invincible Cato” to Stoics) marched what remained of the Republican army through Africa to make a last stand against Julius Caesar. Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend because his will was utterly unconquered. He chose to tear his guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited for his propaganda.

So display those virtues which are wholly within your power - integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? Marcus Aurelius

We have within our power the ability adhere to a set of values, and exhibit them no matter what is thrown at us. As you’ll see in the list from Marcus above, kindness is mentioned. I find this virtue particularly interesting since when we’re facing adversity, it is tempting to skip kindnesses, to ourselves and others. If we can still be kind in those circumstances, then we become invincible.

Kindness is invincible, but only when it is sincere, with no hypocrisy or faking. For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and if given a chance, you gently point out where they went wrong—right as they are trying to harm you? Marcus Aurelius

Mortality

Death is inevitable. Have the courage not to be scared of death; that it’s a natural part of life. Then, realise that it’s better to accept it especially if we can come to terms with Amor Fati. That knowledge can enable us to push harder and further but also live in alignment with our principles without fear. We will not be cowed, like Cato, ready to face death rather than living and compromising our principles.

Death gives our lives purpose, reminding us that we don’t have forever to meander. Instead, we have to choose what to do, and what not to do with the time we have been granted. The Romans called this Memento Mori—Remember, you are mortal.

If perception is the head, and action is the body, then will is our heart and soul. Epictetus sums it up in the slogan, Endure and Renounce, or as I have heard it, Persist and Resist.

In every situation, we can:
- Always prepare ourselves for more difficult times.
- Always accept what we’re unable to change.
- Always manage our expectations.
- Always persevere.
- Always learn to love our fate and what happens to us.
- Always protect our inner self, retreat into ourselves.
- Always submit to a greater, larger cause.
- Always remind ourselves of our own mortality.
And, of course, prepare to start the cycle once more.
Ryan Holiday - The Obstacle is the Way

As I see it, the goal of Stoicism is to give you practical wisdom and inspiration to build your inner citadel, unbreakable, unwavering and true to your purpose and values. It helps you choose how you see the world, without being afraid to try and fail while trying to be good and do good for humankind by starting with yourself.

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