For most of us, things are pretty good right now. The economy is booming. Our jobs or our personal lives are going well. Most of the doomsday predictions from critics and watchdogs have turned out to be overwrought or even wrong...so far. The world is mostly at peace—technically.
The question—and the main thing that Stoicism is designed to help cultivate inside each of us—is: What will you draw upon if any of that suddenly changes? It’s easy to be strong and self-contained when there is very little threatening us. It’s easy to have momentum with the wind at our back. But when everything is hard? When all is falling apart around us?
This year alone, the French have been rioting in the streets. The North Koreans have fired off short-range ballistic missiles. Israel and Hamas have exchanged rocket and mortar fire multiple times. The US is moving a carrier group into the Gulf in a showdown with Iran. Measles is breaking out across Los Angeles. And despite all that, everything is and should be okay.
And yet if it isn’t...
It was at one of the darkest points of the Revolution that Thomas Paine wrote his pamphlet, The American Crisis. “These are times that try men’s souls,” he said. A lot had gone wrong. Mistakes had been made. People were scared and upset. But this might be a good thing, he wrote, because there are some capacities inherent in us that cannot be unlocked by trifles. It was only in difficult times that we might find—and unlock—within us a “cabinet of fortitude.”
The Stoic version of this idea was the Inner Citadel—a fortress of fortitude—that could be drawn on for strength in difficult times...if it had been properly stocked and built in good times. That’s what the study of philosophy was about to them, that’s why we do this reading and follow these exercises. To prepare for an uncertain future and to never be so naive as to expect things to always be booming and pleasant.
It’s good that life is pretty good right now. Enjoy it. But be ready. Be sure that you have something to draw on in case of an emergency. Because the worst that could happen is not that the economy could turn or that your personal life could be upended or that war breaks out. It would be for that to happen and for you to turn inside to your cabinet of fortitude or your inner citadel and find it empty.