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THE WAY TO LIVE_DOT II (YOURSELF) // CHAPTER 15
The idea of what is controllable and uncontrollable seem universal to us. The notion of thoughts, attitudes and actions make sense at a profound level. But where do these concepts come from? The things that seem to be universally true must emanate from somewhere. Also, who gets to determine what is good and bad? Who decides what is a virtue and what is a vice?
The Stoics believed that there was a fundamental universal principle called the logos (λόγος). The Greek word for reason, logos is where we get the word “logic.” Logos represents the idea that the entire universe was governed by reason and rational thought.
This is what binds all of creation together. Tertullian referred to all matter as honey, and the logos was the honeycomb that binds it all together and gives it meaning.[i]
Heraclitus believed that the logos is eternal,[ii] yet many of us have not heard of it. He asserted that those of us who have heard of it do not understand it. Through the logos, all things come into being, yet we cannot understand how logos works.
Life is a series of dots. To the Stoics, the logos was the thing that would make all these dots connect and become meaningful. Because of the logos, human beings can observe and rationally process the world we live in. We can then use our observations and experiences to create and form meaning for our own lives.
In Stoicism, the logos represented ultimate perfection. Although there is much that lies outside of our control, the logos controlled the uncontrollable. Human beings can focus on what they can control, because the providence of the logos guarantees that all that can’t be controlled is part of the plan. The logos created the concept of virtue—core values—and when we decide to live by virtue, we are living according to the plan of the logos.
Because of the logos, whatever happens to us and around us that lies outside our control is destined to happen. But these events aren’t bad, they are meant for our good. Therefore, no matter what happens to us, we can be happy, because the divine plan is greater than our perspective. And the part we play in the plan is to live by virtue.
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” // Epictetus[iii]
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” // Marcus Aurelius[iv]
The Stoics had a term for this “acceptance of fate”: amor fati. The love of fate. We should not just accept what happens to us but love it, because it is part of the plan for our lives.
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it. // Nietzsche[v]
What we experience is not undesirable to the Stoics. In fact, it is preferred. Everything happens for a purpose, but that purpose is up to us to decide. One of the chief goals of life, according to modern Stoic and author Robert Greene, is to “stop wishing for something else to happen, for a different fate. That is to live a false life.”[vi]
Early Christians used to write “DV” or “Deo Volente” (God willing) at the end of letters. The Stoics referred to this as the reserve clause.
We live our lives and make our plans. We should always remember that our success is not guaranteed. Life is a vapor; we are always subject to the plans of God. We should live life and make our plan with the reserve clause in mind. That these things only will happen if God wills. Much of what happens to us will not be in accordance with our plan but God’s plan. So we must amor fati—love what happens to us that lies outside of our control.
Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” // James 4:13–15
The goal is not just to be okay with what happens, or even feel good about it. The goal is to love it. Because if something happens to us outside of our control, it was meant to happen, and therefore, we are meant to make the best of it.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” // Robert Burns[vii]
How often do we go through something that seems awful in a moment and then later see that it was better for us to experience that? Most often, we can only decide something is better in hindsight, after the story is written. What the Stoics believe is that we can be grateful for what happens to us in advance because of two things. First, it was inevitable; we could not have avoided it. If we could have avoided it, we would have. Second, because of the logos, it is meant for our good. So we can be grateful for all events that we encounter, good and bad, because it’s a part of the plan. And the plan of the logos is always good.
No matter what we experience, good and bad, we should make every effort to carefully consider how we are responding. Without denying the reality of our experience, we must discover the meaning in those events that makes our life mean something. We decide what those moments mean. If our response to outside events is virtuous, we are well on our way to living a good life.
“If your impulse is without a ‘reserve clause,’ failure at once becomes an evil to you as a rational creature. But once you accept that universal necessity, you cannot suffer harm nor even be thwarted.” // Marcus Aurelius
[i] Tertullian, Delphi Complete Works of Tertullian (Illustrated) (Sussex, UK: Delphi Ancient Classics, 2018).
[ii] Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (London, England: Penguin Classics, 2003).
[iii] Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings.
[iv] Aurelius, Meditations.
[v] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Mortals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York, NY: Vintage, 1989).
[vi] Ryan Holiday, “An Interview with the Master: Robert Greene on Stoicism,” Daily Stoic, accessed May 6, 2022, https://dailystoic.com/robert-greene-interview/.
[vii] Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” Scottish Poetry Library, 1785.