This article is part of a series of modified excerpts from the introduction to our book "On Virtue." 

Article 3 - Control Yourself

Epictetus was born around 50 AD. Unfortunately, he was physically lame and weak from his birth. As a boy he was a slave. Eventually, he became a freedman and learned Stoicism. Like Zeno of Citium, Epictetus wrote that the first thing a person should know about themselves is what is in their control and what is not.

For example, Epictetus wrote that the things you can control include your opinions, your goals, your desires, and your aversions. You control them by your thoughts. So, a fundamental part of being a Stoic is controlling your thinking; it is the second part of Knowing Thyself.

One of the most important things Epictetus gave to the Stoic School was a remarkable clarity of why it is so important to control your thoughts. He wrote, “Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature in the power of others to be in your power, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men; but if you accept that what is in another’s power is his concern and only what is in your power is your concern, then no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing against your will, no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, and you will not suffer any harm.” How you think controls your emotions.

How well you train your thinking influences your attitudes of others and can determine the quality of your friendships. Epictetus wrote, “It is the act of a poorly trained person to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed to lay the blame on himself; it is the act of one who is well-trained to neither blame another nor himself.”

Your individuality is made by how you choose to control your thoughts, opinions, desires, speech, and actions. If you do not take control of these things yourself, then others are shaping you into the kind of person they want you to be. Who exactly do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to be? What are your personal ideals? What traits in others do you admire and would like to have in yourself?

Take the first step in trying Stoicism. Write down who you are trying to be. If you want to be an excellent person, then write down in detail what that means to you. Define the personality and character you want for yourself. The second step is looking at what you wrote and keeping in your definition only what is in your control. Periodically read your self-definition of who you want to be.

The third step in trying Stoicism is to learn something important about nature. For example, think about what you might say if your friend’s child accidentally dropped and broke a glass of milk at your house. You might say to the child and your friend, “Don’t worry. Life happens.” Afterwards, you probably will not think about it again. To complete this step, train yourself to think similarly about yourself. For example, when you break a glass or have a similar accident, train yourself to recognize how nature causes accidents and remember in yourself, “Life happens. Don’t worry about it.”

The next article discusses the happiness Stoics experience when they train their thinking well.