Why do you hesitate or second-guess yourself when you know perfectly well what ought to be done? ~Meditations 10:12:1
Stoics take action. This is evident both from Stoic teachings and from the lives of famous practitioners. Stoicism, well lived, frees us to tackle the hard problems of this world without regard for the obstacles that fortune throws our way. That said, how can we move forward rationally without full knowledge of what’s ahead? Won’t we make mistakes, waste our time, or even waste our very lives fighting unwinnable battles?
Emperor Aurelius asked himself these questions. His daily decisions shaped an empire. From time to time in his Meditations, we find Marcus Aurelius struggling against choice paralysis. Wouldn't it be best to make no moves until the perfect solution came along? It's understandable to want to know everything before making a decision, but that doesn't work for emperors and it won't work for us either. Thankfully, Marcus Aurelius gave himself a pep talk that laid out a Stoic approach to action.
- If you know where to go, make a considerate but determined effort to get there.
The first point lays out the most obvious duty in Stoicism. If we know the right thing to do, then we do it. We don’t ask what others will think or if they will stand in our way, such things are indifferent. We simply move towards the goal. Do we mow over the opposition to get our way? Of course not. Stoics treat people with respect, but we still do what is required.
- If you don't, wait and seek the best advice you can find.
The second point allows that sometimes we just don’t know what the right move is. That’s alright. It just means that the right thing to do is to learn the right thing to do. Stoics don’t wander around aimless, we seek out directions.
- If you meet with resistance along the way, advance cautiously and prepare at any moment to take refuge in what you know to be just...
Obstacles may delay your efforts, but they can’t touch your moral choices. Life throws us curve balls, but once again, we're expected to be indifferent to such things. Yes, unexpected resistance may challenge our projects. That’s when we rely on our character.
- ...for to reach your goal justly is the apotheosis of achievement whereas to advance even one inch by doing an injustice is the most miserable form of failure.
Stoicism does not support the idea that the ends justify the means. Stoics understand that how you reach your goal shapes the outcome. Besides, we haven't invested our hope in whatever project is in front of us. Our goal is to be the best person we can be no matter the circumstances of life.
- Relaxed but alert, cheerful but determined--such is reason's faithful follower.
Aurelius’s final point is a mental posture. Relaxed but alert, cheerful but determined. It sounds like he’s repeating something, doesn't it? I hear this line as something Stoics said under their breath as they faced the trials of the day. Relaxed but alert, cheerful but determined--such is reason’s faithful follower. This is how Stoics are meant to be; cheerfully engaged with the real world as we seek to build a better one.
Stoics expect obstacles and uncertainty. Such things can't dissuade us from our goals. If we know what is right, if we know where we need to go, there is no room for second-guessing. So let's go out there ready to meet resistance with grit and good cheer.