Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.-Benjamin Franklin
Perhaps no trait more embodies a practicing Stoic than the drive to moderate one’s thoughts and actions. Stoics strive to be the voice of reason during a crisis. Self-Control is what allowed James Stockdale to survive being shot down over Vietnam and then live through multiple years of hell at the hands of his captors. Self-Control helped Cincinnatus and then his philosophical descendent, George Washington, to rise to the height of power and then willingly give that power up once a reasonable amount of time had passed. Self-Control allowed Seneca and Socrates to face unwarranted sentences and meet death in the manner consistent with their highest ideals.
Self-Control as a core Virtue is related to another exceedingly important belief of the Stoics: the dichotomy of control. Although we will have much more to say about this important concept in a later post, the dichotomy of control can be summarized as separating the things under our control from the things that are not. Namely, your own thoughts and actions are under your control and everything else is not under your control. For our purposes today, it is sufficient to note that Self-Control is a Virtue, and the dichotomy of control is the roadmap for exercising the Virtue.
Stoics understand the danger of losing control. There have been monumental lapses in Self-Control from even the most celebrated figures of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius seems to have allowed the persecution of early Christians to proceed largely unimpeded through his entire reign (although, this claim is heavily debated), and he could not bring himself to disinherit his son, Commodus, who ended the Pax Romana. Seneca’s lapses in Self-Control could fill volumes of history books, these lapses being largely brought about by his proximity to Nero. Losing control may cause a minor inconvenience or may move nations. Are you willing to gamble that each time you lose control nothing catastrophic will happen?
Stoicism is not a catalog of lifehacks. But it may provide the support you need to take a pause and reason through an appropriate response to a situation. This pause is a necessary prerequisite for exercising the Virtue of Self-Control.
Attorneys benefit greatly from a well-developed Virtue of Self-Control. We are hired to zealously advocate for our clients, but being aggressive may be — and often is — a perfect mechanism for harming your client. Judges don’t like when we lose control, clients don’t hire us to lose control (usually), and malpractice insurance carriers have no sympathy for attorneys who lose control. On the other hand, there is rarely a more effective form of advocacy than clearly and calmly presenting our client’s case. As our adversary gets louder and more aggressive, often quietly listening without escalation will allow you to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your client’s position while your adversary becomes more blind to his own. But it takes an incredible amount of Self-Control to not respond to an irate adversary in kind.
Take this moment to reflect on your own adventures in Self-Control. What other ways have you relied on Self-Control to best serve your clients? In what ways have you failed to control your thoughts and actions in your practice and what was the outcome of that failure?