Stoic Inner Citadels by Greg Sadler

The image of each person having an “inner citadel” within their mind, which can be drawn upon as a resource and refuge, has proven particularly attractive to Stoics both ancient and modern.  That particular image of a walled-off interior space, and its catch-phrase from one classic Stoic text even furnished Pierre Hadot a title for his book, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus in fact invokes this idea at several points.  The citadel or fortress image comes up in this passage:

Remember that when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there, the mind is invulnerable. It does nothing against its will, even if its resistance is irrational. And if its judgment is deliberate and grounded in logic . . . ? The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.

Meditations, 8.48

Another passage dealing with the same idea frames this in terms of an internal refuge:

People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.

Meditations 4.3

Reading this can provide consolation to those who feel themselves surrounded, set upon, tempted, and frustrated by the surrounding world.  And indeed, there is a common conception of Stoicism as if it were largely reducible to this theme, this promise, this movement within oneself.  The world, with all of its problems and its people, meets one with hostilities and humiliations.  No matter what one tries to plan, to predict, to control, the world keeps serving up defeats.  So, why not follow Epictetus’ advice?

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer.

Enchiridion 19

Withdraw your desire and aversion, he tells us, from those things that you don’t control and either other people or the workings of the world get to determine.  Focus on what is in your control, that is, what is within, and you’ll find yourself free, happy, undisturbed.  Isn’t that the central idea of Stoicism?

That is indeed how Stoicism has come to be portrayed, not just by some modern interpreters of Stoic philosophy and practice, but even more so by both admirers and critics of the Stoics.  It is a commonplace in histories of philosophy from the 19th century onward that Stoicism represented a withdrawal from a world and society that had come to be viewed as unpredictable, unmanageable, and unfree – finding the good within oneself – and also at the same time a way of steeling oneself to perform one’s duties as best one could – producing the good outside oneself in one’s actions. 

This motif is echoed in the William Ernst Henley poem, Invictus, which gets brought up quite a bit as inspiration.  He “thank[s] whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul,” and ends by asserting:  “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”  Everything else may have fallen apart, failed, or even attempted to crush this undefeated person, but they can at least claim one place where they are master and captain.  Despite the rhetorical flourish, it isn’t their fate – they don’t control that after all – but just their soul.

We might also think about Admiral James Stockdale’s discussions of how he applied Stoicism to survive within the intentionally harsh and hellish environment of North Vietnamese prison camps.  His essay discussing how he applied Stoic philosophy (and in particular that of Epictetus, and specifically that drawn from the short Enchiridion), Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, in fact ends by citing Henley’s Invictus.  In Stockdale’s case, he is already caught within an extensive external citadel, with walls turned inward, confining the prisoners. 

Notice though that Stockdale’s account doesn’t portray the would-be-Stoic as having this inner citadel that can provide a perfect refuge from the torture, deprivation, beatings, insults, and outright attempts to break a person.  Instead, he highlights the needs to develop indifference towards what lies outside of one’s control, and nevertheless to “play the game well” with those indifferents, to “stay off the hook” by avoiding compromises.  He admits: “The key word for all of us at first was ‘fragility.’”  Stockdale derived and practiced other lessons that have to do with one’s interiority

Epictetus: “For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus: “The judgment seat and a prison is each a place, the one high, the other low; but the attitude of your will can be kept the same, if you want to keep it the same, in either place.”

There is nothing by itself wrong, bad, or false in the metaphor itself of the inner citadel.  In fact, this same general trope gets used by many other non-Stoics down to the present.  One might think of the “interior castle” of the Christian writer Theresa of Avila, or the recent invocation of a “memory palace” in the BBC Sherlock series. So many other authors have highlighted the dimension of interiority as essential to human nature that one could likely compile an entire book simply out of those references.  And they equally referenced a possibility of deliberately withdrawing into that space.

The problem with the image of the inner citadel lies in its uncritical and often thoughtless invocation and use. Real Stoics – Marcus Aurelius included – don’t actually think that all of us just happen to have this wonderful, peaceful, safe place inside of ourselves that we can at will slip into.   As prudent readers, we ought to keep in mind that, although we may have the impression that Marcus is writing directly to us, what we actually have in his Meditations is his thoughts quite literally “to himself”.  He can remind himself of this all-too-easily overlooked possibility of retreating within an interior space of the self precisely because he has studied Stoic philosophy and has chosen to diligently apply it in practice within the scope of his life. 

He has been practicing a set of disciplines, engaging in spiritual practices, rooted in a systematic philosophical perspective.  Marcus may not be the legendary Stoic sage or “wise person”, but he certainly is one of the people working at and working through Stoicism, a prokopton or proficientes, a practitioner improving his own grasp of the “art of life”.

The image of a fortress and of protective walls within is used by Epictetus as well, in book 4 of his Discourses:

In this way, also, those who occupy a strong city mock the besiegers; “What trouble these men are now taking for nothing: our wall is secure, we have food for a very long time, and all other resources.” These are the things which make a city strong and impregnable: but nothing else than his opinions makes a man’s soul impregnable. For what wall is so strong, or what body is so hard, or what possession is so safe, or what honour so free from assault?

Notice the proviso in the first passage of Marcus above – “when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there”.  The ordinary person’s mind, without some training, is not going to have such a fortress available for them.  The mind not only needs to have undergone considerable development, through ongoing study, understanding, and practice of Stoic philosophy.  When one begins the ongoing and repeated process of looking within oneself, it is common to discover that one is worse off than one initially thought.  And this extends to the fortifications and defenses already set up within oneself by what Stoics called the vices.

In his long chapter examining the topic of what freedom is in book 4 of his Discourses, Epictetus develops this metaphor in a different way.

How then is a citadel demolished? Not by the sword, not by fire, but by opinion. For if we abolish the citadel which is in the city, can we abolish also that of fever, and that of beautiful women? Can we, in a word, abolish the citadel which is in us and cast out the tyrants within us, whom we have dally over us, sometimes the same tyrants, at other times different tyrants? But with this we must begin, and with this we must demolish the citadel and eject the tyrants, by giving up the body, the parts of it, the faculties of it, the possessions, the reputation, magisterial offices, honors, children, brothers, friends, by considering all these things as belonging to others. – 4.1

“With this we must begin”. The very process of using Stoic philosophy to recognize how badly off one is initially, and then to make progress towards freedom, virtue, and living in accordance with nature, involves identifying the tyrants already within us, and the citadels within which they reside and rule.  In order to have the newer, peaceful inner citadel at our disposal, we will likely have to wage long campaigns and sieges against the fortifications of enemies already established within us. 

Notice that, as the passage continues, after those other citadels have been neutralized, their traces nevertheless still remain inside our minds, and for quite a while, a person might remain warily on guard against them.  Epictetus points out:

And if tyrants have been ejected from us, why do I still shut in the citadel by a wall of circumvallation, at least on my account; for if it still stands, what does it do to me? Why do I still eject guards? For where do I perceive them? Against others they have their fasces, and their spears, and their swords. But I have never been hindered in my will, nor compelled when I did not will. And how is this possible? I have placed my movements toward action in obedience to God.

After the long struggle against our mistaken views on matters, our misdirected desires and aversions, and the long-established habits that support and consolidate them, for some time, we will still have to remain on guard against temptations to fall back into those, to allow those to dominate and to determine.  The tyrants and guards may be driven out, but so long as the ruins of the walls remain, so long as the rudiments and roots of the vices remain, when we retreat within, we will need to keep up our vigilance, our attentiveness, our mindfulness – however you’d like to call it – against their return.

Clearly what we have in this image of the inner citadel as employed in Stoic philosophy is something considerably more complex and ambiguous than the notion of an inner retreat, walled off from the world. We might want to remind ourselves, whenever we are tempted to use it as an escape or a compensation against what we encounter outside ourselves, that not all interior citadels are spaces of refuge.  Many of us still have the work to do of identifying and tearing down those that do lie inside us, but are peopled by our own enemies within.  And we also have another labor, that of shoring up, expanding, and perhaps for some even building for the first time, a genuinely Stoic inner fortress.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

3 thoughts on Stoic Inner Citadels by Greg Sadler

  1. Steve Chinn says:

    An excellent blog piece – thought provoking and rich. Thank you. I do academic research with people living with chronic illnesses (PLWCI) – that is, illnesses that are not immediately life-threatening, but limit the scope or quality of life, and may go onto to limit the quantity of remaining life. I have such an illness myself. Many of us seem instinctively to adopt a Stoic outlook – particularly in terms of distinguishing between what you can and can’t control. I think elements of the testimony of PLWCI are consistent with the Stoic idea of the inner citadel. It’s often expressed as the idea that inside the public, interacting-with-others self, there is a private self that one can retreat to, and where one’s true self resides, and one isn’t defined by the illness. It has been described as home. It is not a place of denial, but acceptance of the realities of one’s life. In fact, the distinction between selves lies, in part, in the experience of pressure from others to appear positive, optimistic and hopeful of the future (in the public, interacting self) – which is a kind of denial – contrasted with the readiness to be realistic and truthful (in the private self). I don’t mean to suggest that PLWCI have divided or conflicting selves – it’s really that there is an awareness of the expectations of others pulling in one direction that doesn’t line up with one’s own experience, and one’s own needs pulling one back towards this inner home. A very valuable idea for PLWCI, and perhaps for others.

  2. Jayasinghe says:

    Superb article; there is no 2nd question ! I happened to read a Reader’s Digest article which was published about 40 years ago with the title “”Sanctuary for the Seeking”” ! “”Sanctuary””could be another “”Citadel”” Incidentally, this article was published at a time when the world was not burdened with this much “”Angst”” Still have it in my possession and often refer to it ! Would like to request Greg Sandler to come forth with more articles of this nature; it is a “bare necessity” for a world now burdened with Covid-19 in addition to other stresses !

  3. […] Aurelius also referred to the Inner Citadel as your “soul”. It is always there and possibly the only thing really worth paying attention […]

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