There are many things that could be said to motivate a Stoic and we could write an entire book on the topic, but we will sum up the answer to this question in one word: ataraxia. This is ultimately the main goal of a Stoic and, therefore, what motivates them. Achieving ataraxia allows them to think reasonably about death, practice negative visualization, deprive themselves of comfort, and understand what they can’t control.
Ataraxia is the main reason why Stoics seek to develop their virtues and values in order to become better and accomplish their life purpose. It is also why they care about the joint evolution of the whole universe, not just their role in it. “Endure with firmness” would be their motto when it comes to achieving ataraxia.
An Untroubled Mind
So, what is ataraxia? It is a state of inner peace and balance achieved by practicing and implementing virtue. It is also a freedom from anxiety and distress. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? However, the best part of this is also the most difficult – it is free and can be reached by anyone who really wants it and is willing to make an effort. The problem, of course, is the effort it requires. We are all capable of reaching ataraxia, but many give up too early.
Ataraxia is the carrot suspended in front of us, exercising such attraction that we are compelled to want it, but dangled just far enough out of reach that many believe it to be impossible. But it is not impossible; we simply have to go through a process of development to become the best version of ourselves. Only then can we grab this metaphorical carrot.
There is a bonus that comes with striving towards ataraxia. As you get closer, you will feel happier. Life will seem better and you will be even more motivated to push a little bit further. The collateral effect of living a good life is this inner balance portrayed by ataraxia. Imagine being able to enjoy life without worrying about tomorrow, not because you are imprudent, but because you are in a state of complete harmony with yourself and your life.
Self-control is the main tool Stoics implement to reach ataraxia. It is not the only tool at our disposal, but it’s certainly a good place to start. In order to reach such inner balance, a Stoic reflects on their thoughts, emotions, and reactions to external events. They analyze the reasons for their behaviors and start learning to control those behaviors.
Our so-called reptilian brain (or primal brain) is responsible for our survival through processes such as our flight or fight response and our feeling of fear. It is also responsible for our most extreme, thoughtless responses to events.
However, with self-reflection, we can learn to use another part of our brain – the neocortex. This part is responsible for our speech, conscious thought and reasoning, among other functions. This is the part that tells you if an event is something you can control (and helps you decide the best way to deal with that event) or if it is outside your control (taking you through the process of accepting the inevitable).
This is the primary place we should visit when facing a challenge, but without self-control, many of us will react based on our reptilian instincts. So, the main motivation of a Stoic is to practice self-control and reflection in order to combat our base nature, and to instead reach the ideal mental state of ataraxia.