Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 14: Self-Restraint

"Lay down for yourself, at the outset, a certain stamp and type of character for yourself, which you are to maintain whether you are by yourself or are meeting with people. And be silent for the most part, or else make only the most necessary remarks, and express these in few words."

That advice, found in Chapter 33 of the Enchiridion, was from Epictetus to his Stoic students. He goes on. The Stoic teacher advises a rather thorough restraint on the part of his students. He addresses how to comport oneself in general, in conversation, and at public events. It's this advice that we will be looking at now.

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

  • Why does Stoicism advise self-restraint?

  • What sort of restraint is advised?

  • Must I reign myself in forever, or can I loosen up eventually?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caw]

Why does Stoicism advise self-restraint?

The Enchiridion is a collection of Epictetus' words to students. So as we review Chapter 33 of that work, it's possible that the words are meant only for the newest of philosophers.

After all, the perfect Stoic Sage would not need to "restrain" themself since there would be no conflict between the Sage's desires and the wisest course of action demanded by the moment at hand. But, of course, no Stoic is a sage. We are all progressors. As such, we're prone to mistakes. We have yet to conform all areas of our lives to wisdom. Epictetus advises that, because of this, we should restrain our actions in those areas where wisdom has yet to change us. Even the mature Stoic will take at least a moment to reflect on whether their thoughts and actions are aligned with virtue and not some rut of viciousness learned in an earlier life.

Later in the Enchiridion we find Epictetus cautioning all Stoics when he says, "In walking about, as you take care to not step on a nail, or to sprain your foot, so take care not to damage your own ruling faculty; and if we observe this rule in every act, we shall undertake this act with more security." [Chapter 38]

So we are all called to practice self-restraint for the express purpose of not damaging our ruling faculty, that aspect of ourselves that allows us to be agents in this world, rather than patients. The difference between a beginner and a seasoned practitioner is found in their discernment and the consistency of their practice. As we review Chapter 33, we'll find a strict list of don'ts given to Epic's students. These restrictions protect them from their own ignorance. They have yet to understand what is worth desiring and what is worth avoiding, so Epictetus has them avoid almost everything. Stoics who are well practiced can trust themselves to act more freely without acting foolishly. As to each of us, well, we need to be honest with ourselves and go from there. 

[Raven Caw]

What sort of restraint is advised?

Let's talk about sex. Epictetus advises that we save sex for marriage, if we can. If not, we should only do what is lawful. He then goes on to advise that if any Stoic successfully refrains from sexual encounters they should certainly not mention this fact to others nor speak a word against those who don't act in a similar fashion.

Side note: One of my favorite things about Epictetus is his continual insistence that Stoics not be obnoxious moralizers and know-it-alls. The insistence that we not brag nor lecture comes up multiple times in Chapter 33, so if there's any aspect of self-restraint we should adopted no matter our consistency of practice, it's this one.

Ok. Back to 33. Other than sex, Epictetus gives some general life advice concerning food, drink, clothing, and shelter. Specifically he says to, "take the things which relate to the body as far as the bare use...but exclude everything which is for show or luxury." I won't delve too deeply into Stoicism and consumerism, that would be its own episode. However, a quick look at Chapter 39 of the Handbook might be useful.

Chapter 39: "The measure of possession is to everyone the body, as the foot is of the shoe. If then you stand on this rule (the demands of the body), you will maintain the measure; but if you pass beyond it, you must then of necessity be hurried as it were down a precipice. As also in the matter of the shoe, if you go beyond the (necessities of the) foot, the shoe is gilded, then purple, then embroidered; for there is no limit to that which has once passed the true measure."

Epictetus had strict ideas concerning usefulness. I want to move on to Epic's advice on our comportment in conversation and social situations, but if you don't mind a little homework, read Book 3 Chapter 4 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations with Epictetus' shoe analogy in mind. I'd suggest that Aurelius is applying the same concept to his very thoughts.

But what does Epictetus advise concerning conversation? "Let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said, and in few words." Concerning laughter? "Let not your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor excessive." Concerning oaths, "Refuse altogether to take an oath, if possible; if not, as far as you are able."

Pretty sweeping rules, right? I mean, you might not be oath taking on a daily basis, but I hope you enjoy laughter often. So what's going on here? Are Stoics joyless statues? Not at all. But Stoic actions are taken with consideration of everyone's benefit, and Epictetus viewed most conversations as damaging and belittling.

For instance, you shouldn't talk much about yourself. "In company take care not to speak much and excessively about you own acts and dangers, for as it is pleasant to you to make mention of your own dangers, it is not pleasant to others to hear what has happened to you." Harsh, Epictetus. Harsh. But true. And here, Epictetus is simply trying to make you a pleasant dinner guest. Elsewhere he's protecting the community. "Take care not to provoke laughter; for this is a slippery way towards vulgar habits, and it is also adapted to diminish the respect of your neighbors." Epictetus recognized how often humor relies on the dehumanizing of others and he'd have none of that from his pupils. 

We can find similar concerns when he lists topics of conversation that are inappropriate for a student. Young Stoics don't talk about gladiators, horse-races, nor athletes. They also don't talk about food and drink. (I have a feeling Epictetus would not like Instagram) But they especially don't talk about people, "as blaming them or praising them, or comparing them." Talk about sports and luxuries can present a slippery slope to improper action but talk that ranks people? That is a direct embrace of non-Stoic thinking.

Epictetus also tells his students to avoid defending themselves against slander. He leaves only room for a bit of self-deprecating humor, providing the line, "if he knew the rest of my faults he wouldn't have mentioned only those." For any student that took Epic's words to heart and actually allowed harsh criticisms to pass without comment, well, that must have been quite the crucible. Rome was a status hungry society and Epictetus' choice to deny his students a defense against a perceived status-injury was strong medicine indeed. If you review chapters 20 and 42 of the Enchiridion you'll see the reasons why defense against slander isn't warranted from a Stoic perspective and, in this age of internet comments and deep social divisions, I do recommend looking at those chapters.

At this point, it may seem that Stoic prokoptons were meant to take a vow of silence! Not exactly. Epictetus does allow students a way to hold a conversation, but only if they are skillful. "If then you are able, bring over by your conversation, the conversation of your associates, to that which is proper; but if you should be confined to the company of strangers, be silent."

Epictetus also asked his students to restrict the events in which they participated. In particular, they were to avoid events that tended to encourage the unStoic conversations already forbidden to them. If you shouldn't talk about sports, then don't go to sporting events. If you do go well, don't get too excited and don't take part in after event conversations. Don't go to public readings by intellectuals because they are insufferable but, if you must, be dignified and don't be disagreeable. 

Chapter 33 of the Enchiridion is not the only place where we can find Stoic advice concerning self-restraint. The Stoics, after all, held Temperance as a fundamental aspect of virtue and temperance is the ability to rule over oneself, to direct ones mind towards worth actions and goals. So would the ideal Stoic simply scour the ancient literature and compile a checklist of dos and don'ts? No. But neither are we left free to do whatever we desire, at least, we're not yet that free.

[Raven Caw]

Must I reign myself in forever, or can I loosen up eventually?

Stoicism isn't a checklist philosophy. Stoicism treats living as an art or a craft. No doubt, the new sculptor has to first learn the tools and the medium and it can be helpful to focus the beginner on the basics. The expectation, however, is that that practitioner will grow in their abilities. In doing so, they learn to use their tools effortlessly which leads to true personal expression through the art.

But let's drop something as high minded as art and think about walking. Moving from the stumbling steps of the toddler to the surety of the adult or, even better, the confidence of a mountain climber or some other trailblazer.

Chapter 38: "In walking about, as you take care to not step on a nail, or to sprain your foot, so take care not to damage your own ruling faculty; and if we observe this rule in every act, we shall undertake this act with more security."

Stoicism reorients the practitioner's world. The focus of life becomes Virtue. Wealth, fame, health, and even life become indifferent; useful when they promote Virtue, hindrances when they obscure the same. It takes time to gain this new perspective. It takes a lifetime to perfect it. So when a student first steps through the columns of the Stoic school, what are they to do? Epictetus' radical program asked them to stay silent in conversation, sober in demeanor, hesitant to attend entertainments. Why? He wants them to avoid stepping on vices and spraining their ruling faculty. So he restricts them to the cleanest and smoothest ground as the try some Stoic baby steps. How can a person run free when they haven't yet learned to spot obstacles?

So when would the rules loosen up? Presumably when the Stoic became more sure-footed in the philosophy.  In his discourse titled, "Of Progress or Improvement, " Epictetus says;

"Where then is progress? If any of you, withdrawing from externals, turns to their own will to exercise it and improve it by labor, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest; and if they have learned that those who desire or avoid the things which are not in their power can neither be faithful nor free, but of necessity they must change with them and be tossed about with them as in a tempest, and of necessity must subject themselves to others who have the power to procure or prevent what they desire or would avoid, finally, when one rises in the morning, if they observe and keep these rules, bathe as a person of fidelity, eat as a modest person, in like manner, if in every matter that occurs they work out their chief principles as the runner does in reference to running, and the trainer of the voice with reference to the voice - this is the one who has not traveled in vain."

This is the Stoic who can run free. This Stoic understands what to desire and what to avoid. They live out those principles on a daily basis. Applying wisdom to even the small details and chores of life such as what they eat and how they bathe (which takes a bit more thought when bathing is communal like in Epictetus' city). So what then for us? Have we made this sort of progress? If so, we can trust ourselves to blaze trails in the wilderness of life. We just need to be honest with ourselves as we evaluate our abilities.

So let's return to the beginning. "Lay down for yourself, at the outset, a certain stamp and type of character for yourself, which you are to maintain whether you are by yourself or are meeting with people."  However long you've practiced Stoicism, for days or for years, stop. Take a moment to picture who you want to be. Begin in the general sense but be certain to move towards the specific. Do I want to be a "just" Matt Van Natta? Well what does he look like at work, in conversation, in dealings with his adversaries? Can I be that person now or do I need more maturity? 

As Stoics, we need to evaluate our moral progress consistently and with complete honesty. We may find areas of life that we best avoid altogether or, if that isn't possible, where we need to limit our self expression. This self-restraint is meant to keep us living out a virtuous life, even if our ruling faculty is not yet a perfect leader. Over time, we'll grow in wisdom and live freer, more artful lives. But we'll always need to continue in our growth. As the ancient philosopher, Plotinus, advised, "Do not stop sculpting your own statue."

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode fourteen of Good Fortune. If you enjoyed this one, might I suggest you read Massimo Pigliucci's How to Be a Stoic, which I reviewed over on In an interesting coincidence this episode and the Spiritual Exercises chapter of Massimo's book are both based primarily in Chapter 33 of the Enchiridion. I had started writing this about a week before receiving the book and was near finished with the writing and the reading when I noticed the overlap. No matter. As I said in my review, How to Be a Stoic is a wonderful introduction to Stoicism and worth reviewing, I believe, even if you've been practicing for some time.

Speaking of books, I will soon be releasing one of my own. I have nearly completed an ebook that I'm calling The Good Fortune Handbook. This book is not comprised of new material, though much of it is likely to be new to anyone who hasn't delved into the back archives of Immoderate Stoic. The Good Fortune Handbook collects transcripts of the first thirteen episodes of Good Fortune, as well as nearly an equal number of additional articles that enhance the podcast content. I'm releasing this book for two reasons. First, I have been gratified to learn that many listeners return to certain Good Fortune episodes multiple times. It was my hope in conceiving of the podcast that this would be the case. I think the format I've created in this ebook can enhance the usability of the podcast content. It's searchable. There's an appendix that allows jumping to the specific questions asked and answered in each episode. It also allows articles that have fallen into old-post purgatory on to find a new life. Second, the book will raise money. Hosting the site and the podcast has a cost, and it would be nice to cover a bit of that. I have also received a few direct requests to give me money to support this work and I want to allow a means of doing so. That said, all the content in the book is out there for free if you go digging and I have always wanted Good Fortune to be freely given. Anyway, look for that in the coming weeks.

Good Fortune can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and many other places. If you are willing to leave reviews on those services, they are always appreciated.

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Raven Caw]