In his essay Of Clemency, Seneca tells a story of a time Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, had his temper severely tested. Augustus receives intelligence that a man named Lucius Cinna was conspiring against him. Augustus summoned a council of close friends to consult on his plan to have Cinna executed. When the group agreed unanimously against Augustus’s retaliation scheme, he blew a fuse, racked equally with anger and fear.
His ranting and screaming met only silence from the group he gathered, broken only by more ranting and screaming. Finally, Augustus’s wife intervened:
“Will you take a woman’s advice? Do what doctors do when the usual prescriptions have no effect: try the opposite remedies. Strictness has gotten you nowhere...Now try and see how far clemency gets you: forgive Lucius Cinna. He’s been caught and now can do you no harm, though he can do your reputation some good.”
Augustus thanked his wife, called the meeting adjourned, and summoned Cinna to make amends. Cinna became Augustus’s “most grateful and loyal adherent,” Seneca reports. “And no one ever again formed any plot against him.”
Even if you never find yourself the ruler of an empire or the target of a murder plot, this advice applies to so many circumstances. “What assistance can we find in the fight against habit?” Epictetus asked. Then answered, “Try the opposite!” Viktor Frankl liked to cure neurotic patients with a method called “paradoxical intention.” For insomnia, for instance, instead of standard therapies, his cure for the patient was to focus on not falling asleep.
Whether the enemy is a conspirator, a bad habit, or trouble falling asleep, sometimes the best course of action, the best remedy, is to do the last thing they (or it) would ever expect you to do. Break the pattern. Try the opposite.