Philosophy and Will Power

Work is not a good.  So what is?  Not minding the work.

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 31.4.

Will Power Volition Concept

Just how much will power is it reasonable to expect of myself?

Since discovering Stoicism at the beginning of this year, I am finding something extremely powerful in Stoic mindfulness.

At its most basic level, philosophy calls me to think about very good ways to spend my life.  This is what it means to live as if you could die tomorrow.  “Pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension,” says Massimo Pigliucci in his New York Times piece on his modern Stoic practice, “and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness.”

For me, this has meant that I have consciously identified several areas of my life where I would like to function more reliably:

  • Call my parents and grandparents more regularly.
  • Send birthday cards to my friends and family (on time!).
  • Do nice things for my fiancée spontaneously.
  • Work diligently every day.
  • Respond to emails quickly.
  • Be reliable for others: Be punctual, and get tasks done early—especially those little ones that are easy to put off!
After 2,500 years, the most sophisticated lesson of philosophy is still: “Spend your time on what matters.”

I can’t say that I’ve met all of the goals above (you win some, you lose some).  I’m not a very organized person by nature, so all this “reliability” and “planning” stuff is always a work in progress.  But the result of simply emphasizing these priorities has been nothing less than transformative!  My fiancée got me a Moleskine planner for Christmas, which I use religiously, and I am certainly living life more intentionally than ever before.

If I ever do master these goals, then I will move on to something higher and even more difficult.  Philosophy—in its truest, most useful sense as the love of wisdom—calls us to be deeply dissatisfied with a conventional, low bar for human excellence.  The various traditions founded by Socrates all call us to recognize that, on close analysis, we know nothing about how to live a good life, and to stop at nothing less than striving every day to reduce the chasm between ourselves and true excellence.

But we humans have very real limitations, some physical and some psychological.

As a graduate student, it seems like the limitations in my work ethic are what I am constantly battling.  I’m not alone, either—grad school blogs and comics are just packed with all-too-honest satire about battling procrastination.


If we are genuinely committed to being excellent people, it takes a lot of will power to stay on course!  Once we have decided what is important and worth pursuing, wouldn’t a real adult stay on task and pursue their priorities rationally?

Just how rational can we be, as human beings, anyway?  Does the “real adult” even exist? How much can we improve?

Gaius Mucius Scaevola putting his hand in fire without flinching.

There are limits to how much we can change our character through habituation.  Not all of us can have the bravery of the Roman hero Scaevola, who once burned off his own hand without flinching just to make a point to his enemies!

On the other hand, however, there is something to be said for mindfulness.  If we truly, deeply believe in a particular principle, we have a lot of power to become stronger, more loving people, etc, and to habituate ourselves into coming one step closer to the person we would like to be: the “real adult,” or the “Sage.”

Marcus Aurelius counsels us to approach life with the belief that “where it is possible to live, there it is also possible to live well” (Meditations, 5.16).  This is what it means to meditate in Western philosophy: we move cognitive ideas about how to live from our minds into our characters.  We use meditation to “become intensely aware of, and assimilate within ourselves, the fundamental dogmas” of our chosen philosophy, says Pierre Hadot (What is Ancient Philosophy, p. 122).  Marcus compares this process to dyeing cloth: “the soul takes its coloring from its conceptions.”


Marcus compares the practice of philosophy to dyeing cloth.

I don’t know just how much power we actually have to change our behavior.  And I’m not competent enough in developmental psychology to make any scientifically meaningful claims about nature versus nurture, temperament, etc.

What I do know, however, is that I’m finding power in the Stoic-Epicurean practice of consciously keeping lifestyle principles and maxims close at hand.  When I feel tempted to lapse in self-control, prudence, courage, or justice, it can be helpful to simply remind myself what my priorities are.

I’ve described before how we can use a relevant quote or idea to help us maintain our emotional stability in challenging scenarios.  Well, the same thing applies for maintaining our resolve when we have the urge to do counterproductive things, like giving in to the instant gratification monkey!

In particular, this week I have found that Seneca’s remarks on hard work in #31 of his Letters to Lucilius are very useful tools for battling procrastination.  Just like hearing encouraging words from a friend, bringing these principles to mind can make hard things easier!

If working hard is part of what it means to you to put virtue into practice, given your personal and social responsibilities, I recommend that you keep some of these passages close at hand!  When you are struggling to practice prudence and self-control, grab Seneca and read a few of these short words.  Then you just see if you don’t find it easier to stay strong!

When people strive toward honorable goals, I give them my approval, and all the more when they apply themselves strenuously and do not let themselves be defeated or thwarted.  I cry, “Better so! Rise to the occasion! Take a deep breath, and climb that hill—at one bound, if you can do it!”

Noble spirits are nourished by hard work. —31.4,5.

Urge yourself on toward difficult tasks, saying, “Why the delay?  A real man is not afraid of sweat.” —31.7.

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