The Stoic Dichotomy of Control

How This Tenet Can Help You Live Your Most Virtuous Life

This post originally appeared on Medium on October 25, 2019.

Epictetus perhaps more than any other Stoic of his time was fond of preaching the Stoic tenet of control. It is not surprising, therefore, that he explains that the most important task of an individual is to know what is and what is not within their control. As is stated in Discourses:

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. — Epictetus. Discourses. II.5

Dichotomy of Control

This concept within Stoic philosophy is referred to as the Dichotomy of Control (“DOC”), the understanding of what is and what is not within our control, and it is one of the most important tenets of the philosophy.

While we do not have any direct writings from Epictetus, his student, Arrian, curated several texts based upon Epictetus’s lectures, which still survive today, one of them being The Enchiridion (or Handbook). DOC is so crucial to living a virtuous life that The Enchiridion’s very first entry is about it, with Arrian quoting Epictetus, saying:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.— Epictetus, Enchiridion.

So if we were to look at an example through the lens of DOC, it would look similar to this:

  • Thing I have control over: I have control over how I respond to an event.
  • Thing I have no control over: I have no control over whether or not the train I am waiting for will arrive on time.

Trichotomy of Control

Many believe that this thinking of Epictetus’s is too binary, and has most recently been expressed by William B. Irvine who wroteA Guide to the Good Life; that what the philosophy requires in our modern age is in fact not a dichotomy but rather a trichotomy, separating events into three categories:

  1. Those within our control;
  2. Those outside of our control; and
  3. Those we have some control (influence) over.

This is commonly referred to as Trichotomy of Control (“TOC”).

On the face value, to those who are new to the philosophy, it may seem TOC is a viable and necessary update to the tenet. But if we truly examine it and understand Stoic philosophy, we realize the Stoics already accounted for these “somewhat within our control” events.

If we were to look at Irvine’s argument for TOC, it would look similar to this:

  • Thing I have control over: I have control over whether I allow a situation to irritate me.
  • Thing I have no control over: I do not have control over whether or not it rains.
  • Thing I have some control over: I have some control over a competition I am participating in because I have control over how much effort I put into preparation for the competition.

As Irvine writes in A Guide to the Good Life:

Remember that among the things over which we have complete control are the goals we set for ourselves. I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted. — Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

Irvine goes on to further explain:

Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability. These are goals I can achieve no matter how my wife and my boss subsequently react to my efforts. By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control. — Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

The problem with Irvine’s theory of TOC is that it negates Epictetus’s teachings of feeling fulfilled (eudaimonia), which DOC already provides to the Stoic. Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, provides an accurate rebuttal of Irvine’s theory, stating:

Attempting to replace it [DOC] with a threefold classification introduces many problems. Are we not thereby committed to the view that things “partially under our control” are “partially good”? However, this would seem to wreck the conceptual framework of Stoic Ethics. For example, it would mean that some aspects of Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) are partially in the hands of fate, which would fundamentally doom the Stoic Sage to the experience of frustrated desire and emotional suffering… To say that something is “partially” under our control is surely just to say that some parts of it are under our control and some are not. It would be better to spell out which parts or aspects of a situation are within our control and which are not, and that inevitably brings us back to the traditional Stoic dichotomy.

But let’s not forget what Epictetus says in Discourses:

Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things either are what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task. — Epictetus. Discourses.I.27

Epictetus is preaching about the Stoic virtue of Prudence, the ability to be free from external sources, to allow our own actions and judgments to guide us through our wisdom, nothing externally. The Stoics believed that things which were somewhat dependent upon our control, the ones we have some influence over, were categorized as “not within our control,” the reason being that we simply do not have full control over fate, we only have control over ourselves within a given situation.

Therefore, by following DOC, we must understand that we have control over:

  • What we either pursue or don’t pursue;
  • Whether we take action in a given situation;
  • The good or bad judgments we apply to situations.

We have control over ourselves and our actions, not others or their actions. In other words, we control our future through the actions we take and how we respond to actions we receive. We control the amount of effort we decide to put into our lives, whether it is creating a product or service. We do not control whether or not our book proposal is accepted by a publisher, but we do control how much effort went into creating that product and making it the best we could. If the book proposal is not accepted or liked, it has not harmed us. We did what was necessary to make it the best we could.

We control how much effort we want to put into our lives.

Living the Virtues of Stoicism

Through understanding the Stoic concept of DOC, we can better learn to live a virtuous life. We start to understand the situations which truly require our energies and which do not. By understanding what we have within our control, fights, squabbles, and altercations become less important and easier to let go of because we understand we have no control over others’ opinions, interpretations, and actions.

We have control over our own actions, no one else’s. Only by truly understanding ourselves are we able to push forward on our path of a virtuous life and live to our fullest potential.

As many are aware, the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism are Prudence (Practical Wisdom), Justice (Morality), Temperance (Moderation), and Fortitude (Courage). Only by living in accordance with these virtues can we live a virtuous life. But notice that all of these virtues have something in common: they’re reliant upon the individual (self), nothing external, nothing “partially” within our control. They all revolve around the individual’s control of them.

  • Prudence is the practical wisdom we apply to our lives.
  • Justice is the ability to be moral in our actions.
  • Temperance is our control over our own actions.
  • Fortitude is the courage we display to life’s adversities.

Understanding the concept of DOC and the Cardinal Virtues, and living in accordance with them leads one down a path of a virtuous life.

Exercise

You can easily work towards more easily separating events between what is and is not within your control by categorizing your day’s events and analyzing which were and were not within your control.

Create a spreadsheet (or on a piece of paper) write down the events of your day, whether or not you feel it was or was not within your control, and your reasoning behind it.

If you want control over your life, and you wish to achieve power over your actions, you must understand what is and what is not within your control. Do not fret about the things that are not within your control, you cannot change them. Focus on you, what you have control over, and the actions you will take to live a virtuous life.

This is ultimately what our goal in life is when we pursue a life philosophy built around Stoicism, the chance to live a virtuous life in accordance with Nature.


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PPS: This article contains affiliate links to the books I referenced. This being said, I have read and evaluated each of the books prior to my recommending them through the links within this article.

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