January 22, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

The Importance of the Dichotomy of Control

Key ideas of this discourse

The Stoic dichotomy of control

Epictetus classified things as being under our control or not under our control. His classic Enchiridion (The Good Life Handbook published by The Stoic Gym) starts with this basic idea of control. But what about things that are under our partial control? For example, if we exercise regularly and eat properly, we are likely to prevent certain diseases, even though there are no guarantees. Therefore, preventing some disease is under our partial control. The core of Epictetus’ teaching does not allow for a third category of partial control. He grouped anything that we have partial control over as “things not under our control.” Some others, such as William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life), attempted to create a third category of “things under our partial control.” This raises the question; how did a brilliant mind such as Epictetus’ overlook the simple fact that some things are under our partial control?

Did Epictetus really ignore partial control?

As it turns out, he did not. Epictetus was well aware some things are under our partial control and utilized this very effectively so we may enjoy the festival of life. In a recent blog post What Epictetus Really Thinks Is in Our Power in Partiallyexaminedlife.com, Greg Sadler cited many quotes from Epictetus to support this contention.

Why is the dichotomy crucial to Stoic freedom?

The dichotomy is crucial if we are to achieve complete freedom and happiness. The dichotomy follows from the Stoic promise

“To complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous, and happy.” (Epictetus. Discourses. Book II.19.29)

There is nothing conditional about this promise. It is absolute. It follows then if complete freedom is possible, it can only come from things under our total control. If things are only under our partial control, for this purpose they are not under our control. No matter how many gym hours we clock in, no matter how many vitamins and supplements we swallow, no one can guarantee we will not fall ill and get old and infirm. No matter how carefully we drive, no one can guarantee we will never get into to an accident. The Stoics wanted us to realize that even if one falls ill or gets into an accident, one can still be free. The only things under our control are what we are attracted to or avoid, what we judge to be good or bad, and whether we are moved to act or not act. If we are to achieve the freedom talked about by the Stoics, it is essential we understand this dichotomy with absolute clarity.

The potential danger of the third category

If we prematurely start classifying things into a third category without understanding why the dichotomy is as critical to Stoicism as Epictetus conceived it, there is this danger:

“Taking into account the value of externals, you see, comes at some cost to the value of one’s own character.” (Epictetus, Discourses I.2.14)

Not understanding this dichotomy before having preferences for things under our partial control may give rise to a false sense of security. Lee Lipsenthal, a California physician dying of cancer after preaching wellness all his life, pointed out in his Enjoy Every Sandwich:

“At some irrational level, we believe that if we eat right, exercise daily, and take vitamins, we won’t die. Although these actions may decrease our risk of illness, they give us a false sense of safety.”

The skillful use of things under partial control

That certain things are under our partial control did not escape the laser-sharp analysis of Stoics. Many of them cultivated their bodies. They had preferences. To quote Epictetus again,

“If you want to know if life or death is better, the answer I give is life. If you ask about pain and pleasure, I say pleasure is preferable.” (Discourses, I.2.15)

Preferred indifferents take care of things under our partial control. Even when things were not under his control, even when he knew he could not be the best in the field, Epictetus did not stop trying.

“Even if I lack the talent, I will not abandon the effort … I will never be a Milo … nevertheless, I don’t neglect my body. Nor will I be another Croesus – and still I don’t neglect my property.” (Discourses I.2.35; 37)

The ancient Stoics understood we have partial control over certain things, and pursued those that were desirable. Chrysippus was a long distance runner and died laughing at the age of 73 during the 143rd Olympiad. Cleanthes was a boxer. Marcus Aurelius was a warrior and expressed thanks to the gods for giving him the body that could withstand so much stress. Epictetus’ body was strong enough to endure physical disability, slavery, and banishment. Musonius Rufus advised his students to exercise both mind and body. Seneca was wealthy and had an opulent lifestyle. But first and foremost, they were clear that they did not need any of the things under their partial control. Epictetus did not need fully functioning legs to be free. Seneca didn’t need his wealth as he wrote in his Consolation to Helvia, while on exile after being very rich and comfortable,

“I have kept a great distance between them [material wealth] and myself: and therefore she [Fortune] has taken them, not painfully torn them away from me. No man loses anything by the frowns of Fortune unless he has been deceived by her smiles.” (Of Consolation: To Helvia by Seneca, as translated by Aubrey Stewart)

What makes such freedom possible, in my view, is the uncompromising focus on the dichotomy of control.

Wisdom to know the difference

Long before I studied the Discourses, I came across Niebuhr’s serenity prayer

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Even though I was attracted to the idea, the biggest difficulty I had in following it was that I wasn’t sure what I had control over and what I didn’t. Epictetus defined it for me. If we don’t understand the clear dichotomy, we are likely to be carried away by motivational speakers and authors who promise that almost anything (such as having perfect health for the rest of your life, getting the next promotion, or becoming rich) is completely under our control. This is the trap of trichotomy.

The importance of the Stoic dichotomy

In my view, the trichotomy takes the focus out of what exactly the Stoics were trying to teach us and dilutes it. Maybe it makes it palatable to some people and, if they benefit from it, so be it. The trade-off is between understanding clearly what the Stoics were trying to teach us and why vs. diluting it to make it potentially less objectionable to skeptical newcomers. A clear understanding of the Stoic dichotomy is essential for achieving unshakable freedom promised by the Stoic masters.

(This blog is partially based on my response to Greg Sadler’s post referred to in the article.)