In examining my actions and those of others, the motivations behind them seem to fall into two broad categories, that which I fear and wish to push away, and that which I want and seek to draw to me.
In the category of fear are all things that threaten me, both physically and emotionally, and my default instinctive/emotional response in these instances is either to run from the threat or attack it.
In the category of wants, the most fundamental are all the things I need to survive, including basic survival needs (food, shelter), sex (or the desire to reproduce), and socialization (the desire to be around others).
Knowing what motivates my actions is the first step to rationally controlling them, as opposed to being a meat puppet and being controlled by them. Without this awareness, I fall victim to rationalization rather than rational thought.
My body will react to its needs and threats and I will be aware of these needs through my senses and my emotions. The actions I take without thinking in response to these I will rationalize after the fact in order to justify my actions, fooling myself into thinking that I was the director when in reality I was only the actor reading the script written by my emotions.
If these processes are the default “what” of my life (and most lives it seems), the ability to interrupt the processing of emotion into action and apply rational thought beforehand instead of rationalization after, is the “how” to the start of living a virtuous life.
Recognizing but not instinctively reacting to my fears, senses and emotions allows me to apply the virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude to my decisions, instead of taking the default path of “what’s best for me in this moment”.
“What then? Can one who follows out this Plan be safe in any case?” I cannot guarantee you this any more than I can guarantee good health in the case of a man who observes moderation; although, as a matter of fact, good health results from such moderation. Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour; but what do you think happens on the open sea? “ Seneca
Living a Stoic life is a journey not a destination. I do not look forward to a reward at the end – rather my reward is the improvement I see in myself daily, both mentally and physically, by working to adhere to the values I have set for myself.
I have recently started to work on the virtue of temperance, in particular in regards to what I eat and drink. Part of this is driven by my age – what I could do with ease when I was 20 is no longer possible when I am 3 times that age. Part of it is also driven by a greater awareness of my body – what makes me feel bad and the extent to which external events unconsciously drive me to treat myself with food and drink to help relieve stress.
As I have grown in my understanding and adoption of a Stoic mindset, I am finding that I have less desire to self medicate, and with that realization am also seeing the extent to which my past behavior was also driven by society. There is a constant drum beat of advertising and promotion that food and drink will make me happy. I cannot recall an advertisement for food or drink that did not involve a scene of happy people enjoying themselves (by enjoying whatever food or drink was being served).
This is not a lie. I do enjoy being with friends for a drink and meal and still do, however I am working to look at it from the context of my personal values. Am I doing this because I enjoy their company (I am) or because I am looking to relieve my stress through their company as accompanied by food and drink (I was).
My stress is driven by my desire to control that which I cannot control. As I give up working to control the uncontrollable and focus instead on what I can control (my reactions, thoughts and actions), I find that my stress is reduced, and along with it my desire to medicate it.
“Cynicism is a school of thought of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the Cynics. For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.” Wikipedia
The cynics were famous for their disregard of the opinions of others, and to some it appears this philosophy is an attractive alternative to the enforced conformity of modern times. However rejecting society to live in the streets is in my mind is as baseless a way of life as endlessly striving to “fit in” and meet the expectations of society.
Living in agreement with nature in my mind starts with an understanding of man’s position in nature, which is that of a social ape with better communication skills than others in our clade. Being social is at the core of our being, and what it requires in me is the need to balance being a member of the social group while at the same time maintaining my independence of thought. Being neither a social conformist and striver, nor a social outcast living in the woods or street.
Being a member of the social group and living a virtuous life is not only complementary but supportive of each other. What use is the virtue of justice without it’s application in social settings and my interactions with others? It is by my interactions with others that I measure myself and my progress in living a virtuous life.