Clearly the Stoics were doers. They ran for public office. They fought in the army. They started business ventures. They created artistic works. How can this fit, though, with what Marcus called “the art of acquiescence?” Isn’t this resignation a contradiction? If you believe in a kind of predetermination, why bother?
Perhaps the way through this puzzle is best captured in a quote from Democritus, a pre-Socratic philosopher admired by the Stoics (Seneca most of all). Democritus said that “Boldness is the beginning of action. But fortune controls how it ends.”
What that means is that the Stoic believes in their power to, say, write a book, but not in their power to determine whether people will like it or buy a lot of copies of it. A Stoic will fight bravely in battle but know that the outcome is determined by so many other things. They will run for office, they will start a business, they will compete in an athletic event—but whether they win? That’s not up to them. Whether they give it their best, boldest, and hardest effort? Well, that is.
That’s the message for today–in fact, it’s the perfect message for today, as we begin a new year and a new decade. All we control are the beginnings of things. We control how we start. We control our first move. Whether we say hello to a pretty stranger, but not whether they reciprocate. We can make the pitch, or the apology, but fortune controls whether its accepted. We can plan the trip, but not when or if we arrive. We control this first minute of the long year ahead.
It’s not a lot…but it’s enough, so let’s do it right. Let’s do it boldly.