- The Stoa Letter
- Don't expect change in an instant
Don't expect change in an instant
What is up to you
Happy new year! Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.
Hope to see you there – Caleb
A common confusion about Stoicism is the idea that you can radically change yourself in an instant.
Now this isn’t impossible. But it’s not what Stoicism teaches.
The confusion emerges from the ideas about what is up to us. It may be worded as follows:
Stoicism teaches that our decisions and judgments are up to us. If we can control that, then nothing is holding us back from changing ourselves into the sage this very instant.
Sometimes, when they encourage themselves, the Stoics support this confusion. Here is Marcus Aurelius:
However, none of the Stoics thought that vice could be transformed into virtue without dedication. That can take years of work. There’s no time to waste.
This principle is evident with a deeper understanding of Stoic theory.
According to the Stoics, life is throwing impressions at us, we reflect on those impressions, agree with them (or not), and then move to action.
Nonetheless, some impressions are overwhelming, presenting themselves with such force that we must believe them. If the sun is out, we cannot convince ourselves that it is nighttime (Discourses 2.18).
Additionally, when we reflect on something, we bring to bear every past judgment. These are informed by our past experiences, character, and animal nature. Our decisions and judgments are up to us – but every new choice is influenced by who we are. Who we are is something we must shape over time.
This implies that we are like broken machines engaged in self-repair. Expecting immediate change is likely not justified. To expect that would be like expecting yourself to never lose focus when you meditate. Minds get distracted. That’s what minds do. Your role is to notice when that happens and return to the meditation object.
Likewise in life. When we become distracted and make mistakes, our job is to notice what happened and then return to what matters.
Action by action.
Return to your principles today. Live them out. Move in the right direction.
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What did you think about today's letter?