Stoic Self-Control: 4 Ways to Be the Captain of Your Ship

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Daily Stoic" by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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If your life were a ship, would you be the captain or a passenger? Are you in control, or are you just along for the ride?

In The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman say that self-control is central to the Stoic way of living. They explain that you can control your view of life in four ways: recognize what you can and can’t control, notice yourself, be mindful of your emotions, and see your assumptions.

Read more to learn four ways to live with Stoic self-control.

Viewing Life With Self-Control

According to the Stoics, living a virtuous life starts with self-control. The authors explain that Stoics equate self-control with being the captain, not the passenger, of your ship. Practicing Stoic self-control requires actively making sense of life with reason. Through reason, you can control your view of life: the foundation of your understanding, your intentions, and even your actions.

The Stoics assert that, when you don’t actively use reason, you end up a passive participant in life controlled by circumstances, emotions, and unchecked desires and thoughts. When this happens, you’ll lack self-control and will be unable to live virtuously. 

We’ll consider four central aspects of how you can live virtuously by practicing self-control through reason.  

The Role of Reason in Stoicism

The authors associate the virtue of self-control with the way we perceive the world—we’ve described this as viewing life with self-control. The glue in this association is reason. While the authors aren’t clear about how this association works, some basic principles of Stoic thought make it more apparent. 

The Stoics believed that the world presents itself to us through our senses. We form our understanding of what we experience through our senses by using our reason—if we judge our impressions to be true, we “assent” to them. Otherwise, we withhold our assent. This is a form of exercising self-control. 

To the Stoics this capacity to assent—to reason—makes us human: It’s our nature. Philosophers explain that Stoicism’s goal (telos) is to live according to nature. For a tree, that nature may include staying put and making fruit, but for a human that nature is using reason to live virtuously. You do this by 1) perceiving the world with logic/reason, then 2) acting with the four virtues of wisdom, self-control (temperance), courage (fortitude), and justice. Reason is the means or tool to attain each of the virtues. Those who act with perfect reason enjoy complete well-being and are unaffected by circumstances and bad emotions.

#1: Recognize What You Can and Can’t Control

To the authors, living this way depends first on recognizing a central Stoic principle we’ll call the basic division of control: You can’t control anything except the way you think. You can’t control external circumstances, but you can control how you view or understand those things with your mind. In this way, the Stoics argue that reason is your main tool for controlling your view of life.

Imagine you read of global turmoil in your news feed. You can’t affect the conflicts around the world and you can’t stop a recession from coming. However, you can control the way you understand the situation. You can view it circumspectly—recognizing that bad news sells, that your ability to live a virtuous life doesn’t depend on the amount of money in your bank account, and that your thoughts alone are under your control. Understanding this, you can be unmoved by the news of the day.

#2: Notice Yourself

For the Stoics, a second aspect of viewing life with self–control entails noticing yourself. The authors explain that you need to observe your tendencies—your thoughtless habits, faulty senses, and irrational impulses, for instance—and account for the way they affect your view of life. By checking every thought, impression, and action with conscious reasoning, the Stoics believed you’ll be better able to maintain self-control.

For example, many of us tend to uncritically trust our senses. We believe what we see. However, we should be aware that our senses aren’t always trustworthy: Magicians and optical illusions famously exploit this weakness. The Stoics noticed that our senses can’t always be trusted, so they suggested that we check our confidence with humility: We might be wrong. 

The authors state that we may also be inclined to act on irrational impulses—the Stoics advise us to be aware of these impulses and resist them with self-control, guided by reason. Maybe we feel like we can’t resist the urge to eat all the french fries or hit the snooze button once more. Notice that these kinds of impulses are irrational, caused by sensory stimuli and thoughtless habits. The Stoics argued that we should act based only on our reason: Can you justify eating all those fries or staying in bed past your alarm? If not, don’t do it.

(Shortform note: Modern experts have a view similar to the Stoics on this issue. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman argues that automatic (fast) impressions arise from our senses and feelings (he calls this the mind’s “System 1”). Like the Stoics, he acknowledges that these impressions are prone to errors, but he believes it’s not feasible to always check them through our rational mind (“System 2”) because it’s too slow. He suggests a compromise:  Be aware of situations where System 1 thinking might lead to errors, and avoid those errors when the stakes are high by using System 2. This approach offers a practical way to incorporate the Stoic ideal of noticing yourself.)

#3: Be Mindful of Your Emotions

According to the authors, a third aspect of viewing life with self-control entails being mindful of your emotions: For the Stoics, clear thinking leads to well-regulated emotions and is affected by unregulated emotions. They understood that emotions are an inescapable part of life, but they argued that they can become an obstacle on the path to virtuous living. The authors describe the two ways this can happen. First, wrong thinking can lead to emotional suffering. Second, emotions can cloud your thinking.

#4: See Your Assumptions

The authors say that one final aspect of viewing your life with self-control involves seeing your assumptions. Assumptions are a way our brains bypass reason, and they aren’t necessarily accurate. As such, the Stoics believe that controlling our view of life with reason involves being aware of—and questioning—our assumptions.

Some of us, for example, are pessimists. By assuming the worst of every situation, we affect the overall tenor of our thoughts. This negative bent can easily cause us to misinterpret life. For the Stoics, this assumption isn’t reasonable—we’d be better off adopting a neutral perspective that allows us to be impartial.

Similarly, some of us unquestioningly take on the assumptions of those around us, write the authors. Our views, in this way, become predetermined by the group we identify with. Again, for the Stoics, this isn’t consistent with being the captain of your own ship: You can’t uncritically adopt the assumptions of others and control your own view of life.

Stoic Self-Control: 4 Ways to Be the Captain of Your Ship

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Daily Stoic summary:

  • Insights from ancient Stoic philosophers on how to live a good life
  • Stoic practices you can follow on a daily basis
  • Why you should think about death more often

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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