Feb 17, 2019

Stoicism, Self-Control, and Optimizing One's Environment

Natasha Brown - someone I've enjoyed interacting with both in person (at Stoicon last year), and virtually (much more often) - raised an issue well worth reflecting upon and discussing in a post in the Facebook Stoicism group earlier today. 
The Stoic virtue of self-control has been the one I’ve found consistently most difficult. Whether it’s continuing long-term exercise, eating healthily & so on. 
I’m reading James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’. He argues self-control isn’t sustainable & rather we should seek to modify our environment to make it easier/more difficult to perform certain tasks. He says “make the cues of your good habits easier & the cues of your bad habits invisible”. Thus, stimulating the desired behaviour. Thoughts??
There is a good bit of back and forth conversation about the matter.  Some of it is concerned with the contention that "self-control" has its limits.  If that's true, then it seems that there might be some problems with classic Stoicism's consistent position that whether or not we develop or deploy self-control is really up to us.

It might seem, from a Stoic perspective, that making concessions to one's own limited self-control (or if you like "willpower") by changing one's environment rather than changing oneself, would be problematic. It represents a focus on externals, rather on what is really proper to oneself, matters outside of one's power rather than within one's power.  Shouldn't the Stoic strive to improve the strength of their ruling faculty and to develop the virtues (particularly temperance and fortitude), instead of making things easier on themselves by reducing challenges, frustrations, and distractions in their surroundings?

In my view, so long as one is not attempting to simply substitute managing one's environment (to minimize its problematic elements) in place of consistent use of Stoic practices, there's nothing wrong with this.  In fact, one could argue that it is actually an exercise of prudence to develop insight into where one is likely to hit one's current limits of patience, endurance, capacity to resist temptations, or the like, and then to reshape one's environment in ways that make it less likely that one will hit that failure-point.

Stoicism - like any form of intentional living properly understood - works with people where they are.  Most of us not only fall short of being the "sage" or ideal wise person, who presumably would withstand any temptation or frustration. We also tend to be a mess in many respects, or if you prefer more optimistic language a "work in progress".  If you're trying to improve your character, you labor at it as best you can, and get a little better day by day.  If for the time being, you remove obstacles to your moral progress from your surroundings, that might help you stay on track. 

The last thing to say about this, of course, is that one's environment remains within that domain that Stoics rightly consider outside of our control. So it would be quite counterproductive to get too invested in managing it, whatever one's intentions are in doing so. 

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