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From Vol. 3, Issue 2, February 2021

Dichotomy of Control and the Eternal Now


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How does ‘dichotomy of control’ work in practice?

In my previous pieces I outlined the concept and introductory tenets of reformed Stoicism. They might have seemed a bit abstract, so today the time comes for some specific applications. In particular, it is important to understand how the Dichotomy of Control — the golden, timeless idea I’ve praised so much — works in practice. So, here is one vital example. The Dichotomy might be applied to the axis of time itself.

Whatever we think of the nature of time we may agree that it consists of basically three elements: the past, the future, and the present. One may poetically say that we are continuously cruising ahead and whatever was labeled as “future” just a moment ago, now counts as “present”, and it turns into “past” before we get to the end of this sentence. Simple as that, powerful as that.

Is the future within our control?

Is the future within our control? No, it’s not. Some non-Stoics like to claim that we can always achieve all we dream of, but that is obviously a naive mirage. We never control all factors defining future events. We can never predict them fully. As I explained in my earlier pieces, if something is even just a little bit out of our hands, Stoicism counts it as not under our control. Hence proved.

How about the past?

It’s even clearer with the past. Past events are history which cannot be undone or changed — that’s plain as day. The past is signed, sealed, and delivered. Dichotomy of Control admits of no degrees, but if it did the past would be the very thing that is outside of our control the most. After all it’s not only that we cannot change the past. No one can. The past is locked forever.

Then what about the present?

This is how we land in the present. Is the present moment under our control? It might be. The present moment is always elusive. As mentioned above, it’s trying to escape from us all the time. If we want to catch it, we need to focus on it. Without the continuous toil of concentration, without the mental work funneled right into the very present moment — it will elope yet again and momentarily freeze as “the past,” forever out of control. That’s why we can say that the present is the only interface for interaction between us and the world. But it doesn’t come for free. We open it up and we exercise it only with conscious effort.

Do it now

The practical (and ethical!) point is clear. If we want to think, act, and improve ourselves, we need to do it now. “Now” is the only moment ever given to us. If we lose it, we lose all. If we use it, we may have a fighting chance.

Finally, an important comment. Certainly, the idea that we need to check in in the present moment and try to grasp it is... well, it’s trivial. Or at least it’s not specifically stoic. Who, after all, will deny that it’s fruitful to focus on here and now? Stoicism is not unique in this regard, but it provides quite a backing for this concept as described above. It just fits well into the entire system of Stoic rules of thought and conduct. And if it is shared with other philosophies of life, well, is this really a problem? A pearl of wisdom is not desecrated if it is praised by many.

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer and philosopher, promoter of reformed Stoicism. He authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism, and Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? as well as other books in his native Polish.