Skip to main content

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “have rule over yourself, and you will be free”.

This insight from the great thinker is similar to the one made by Navy Seal Jocko Willink, who says discipline is freedom. Here, an ancient thinker and a modern soldier came to the same conclusion, though thousands of years separate them. Each has a vastly different set of life experiences, yet both converged toward a fundamental truth about life. 

When it comes to the subject of discipline, you slowly learn, either through life experience, historical figures, or psychological research, that its usefulness in resisting temptations and distractions is almost unmatched. 

However, that’s only half the benefit. To have control over yourself is not only a means by which you overcome difficulties, but also a trait that amplifies your success, or at least your capacity to prevail over the turmoil and chaotic events that get thrown at you every day. 

Modern People Face Ancient Problems 

The ancients discovered that if you wanted to guarantee your failure, all you needed was a lack of self-control. To them, if you could not temper your emotions or words, you were no different than a wild animal, and thus the harms you could experience would have been unhealthy at best and deadly at worst. 

Their resolution to this problem was to follow the virtue of temperance, to do nothing excessively. It was a sign of a great character for anyone who demonstrated such reasonable control over their actions, and once again, Plato adds his unique perspective by writing, 

“… for it’s not like a self-controlled man to either pursue or avoid what isn’t appropriate, but to avoid and pursue what he should, whether these are things to do, or people, or pleasures and pains, and to stand fast and endure them where he should.” 

The self-controlled man, as Plato recognizes, is the one who neither chases what is inappropriate, like greed for money or lust of women, nor does he avoid what is inappropriate, like a monk who avoids the enjoyment of food or who abstains from necessities like shelter in a storm. 

Instead, to have control over oneself, is nothing than the employment of reason, directed toward making the right choice, not the easiest, and if your circumstances are such that you experience burdens and hurdles, then you must use your reason to endure them. 

Sharpen Your Shovels 

As for the modern approaches to discipline, the military has a saying that Jocko often repeats, which is, “take care of your gear, and your gear will take care of you”. This not only pertains to their weapons and parachutes, but also to their relationships, their professional appearance, and their physical health. In short, they sweat the small stuff. 

To have such a care and attention to detail for one’s own life affairs was a lesson the military learned the hard way. They teach this to their young cadets to ensure both their safety and their success, even if they do not understand why at the beginning. At the core of it, are two features: 

1. Prioritisation. If you take care of the small things, you’ll gain peace of mind knowing that you’ve done everything correctly. As a consequence, you can then direct your total focus toward the bigger things in life that matter the most. 

2. Practice. Doing this regularly at the small scale makes it easier for discipline to become a habit, where it soon becomes an instinct and you’ve trained yourself to act in such a way that can handle any difficulty or triumph at the larger scales. 

From this, it’s clear how discipline becomes a crucial strength in your life for those moments when critical decisions need to be made, ones that change your life, and one’s where you need to keep your composure. 

And this itself correlates to wisdom, since your use of reason to maintain your affairs at the small scale, and large, when it’s easier to just ignore them, is the judicious discretion only found in those who think carefully about their future – and act in accordance with it. 

Swimming Against the Current 

An unappreciated quality of wisdom is to understand why things are the way they are, and to use that knowledge to make intelligent decisions, which in essence is the foundation of good reasoning. 

For discipline, it’s apparent that it is a struggle to many – like swimming against a current. Unfortunately though, few have explained why this is, which is unwise, since if you wish to defeat any opponent or problem, you must first understand what it is and the source causing it. 

In this case, the source is nature, or more precisely, the laws of thermodynamics. In them, we can find why the universe prefers to travel the path of least resistance, to conserve energy than to spend it, and most important, the tendency for life to be more chaotic than structured. 

However, for those unacquainted with physics, these concepts can be illustrated with the Saint-Étienne-le-Vieux, an abandoned cathedral in France: 

When buildings are left behind, no longer maintained, nature takes its course. Over time, the atmosphere chips away at the stone, the sunlight diminishes the vibrant colours, plants grow through the crevices, and eventually, what was once a place of liveliness, fades away. 

To maintain anything in life requires deliberate effort and is why being disciplined in one’s mindset is no different than maintaining an exceptional building. And in biology, this is more prevalent, because all living creatures find it more enjoyable to relax than to exercise, to play than to work. 

Therefore, what you need, is to embrace the innate gifts nature has given you, such as your ability to reason about future possibilities, combing such gifts with this knowledge to never let your character degrade. As you’ve seen, this is an unfortunate yet necessary law of nature that must be met with discipline, because this is the only way in life for you to, not only preserve, but to thrive and reach the heights you were destined for. 

Through Reason You Will Prevail 

Without discipline, humans would never have progressed. We wouldn’t have learnt to remove the bad, build the great, and preserve the best. That is what it means to have discipline. It is not a trick for being more productive or a shortcut to achievement; it’s a way of life – a one for you to advance further and prevail over what’s ahead of you. 

In our world today, it is our task to say no to the easy things, and yes to the difficult, to do what we know needs to be done, rather than what we want to get done. Such control over one’s temperament gives us the freedom to pursue the enjoyments that Plato and Jocko refer to. 

Both make it clear why self-control is necessary; because to use reason in such a way so as to direct your attention and efforts toward what you please, is how you regain your freedom to choose and live a better life. In a word, to be disciplined is to use your reason, and when you can employ your reason, that’s your path to freedom and prosperity. 


Written by: Jacob Tarlington