Courage In Any Circumstance

The little things

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

There’s a line that I’m reminded of often: “The little things are the big things.”

The details matter. This is true in craft, but also in character. Small acts of courage not only unlock heroic courage but are also where it fundamentally resides. As Marcus Aurelius said, we move forward action by action.

There’s a powerful quote that I stumbled on a few years ago:

All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency, we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit… If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future.

Tim O’Brien

Sometimes one can feel like you’re waiting for the right circumstance to prove who you are. When I read about Stoics of old I’m inspired by their great acts of courage: Cato the Younger facing off against Caesar, Epictetus finding freedom from physical and mental slavery, Marcus Aurelius applying Stoicism in war and political intrigue – my life is small in comparison. It’s modern, and perhaps even domestic. If only I had a trial to prove my worth!

No doubt some readers are facing that trial. Perhaps you are being asked to perform the heroic. But I know that’s not true for all of you.

In mundane times, I’m reminded that character is just how we’re disposed to act in different situations. Courage is the ability to act with bravery – in any situation. It does not require trials. All it demands is bravery in this very moment. That bravery, in this moment, if it’s truly present, is the very same thing that is present in moments of heroic action.

It comes back to the Stoic idea, that wherever you are, happiness is possible. Put another way, the Stoic is someone who lives an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.

🎯 Action

Think of one courageous act today, do it.

🔗 Resources

✏️ Correction: in the last letter, I should have written that James Stockdale was a reluctant vice presidential candidate.

🎧️ The thought that a Stoic is an ordinary person who lives an extraordinary way was first mentioned to me in a conversation with Leonidas Konstantakos: 

📺️ This is not for everyone, but the parable of Narcissus as told here is captures Tim O’Brien’s quote in story. Narcissus falls in love with his self-image – the image of someone who would or will be beautiful, heroic, and virtuous. In doing so, he avoids reality.

What is the most underrated Stoic virtue today?

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