Category Archives: Stoic Articles

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.

Stoicism and Facing Change

This story originally appeared on Medium on October 22, 2019.

There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means. — Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

A lot of us like our lives just the way they are. We have our daily routines, we have rituals we like to adhere to such as meals we eat, or the people we interact with. We like having a set of systems and routines to help us get through the day. But if these systems limit us due to fear of change, we are stopping ourselves from growing and living our best life. Here’s a fact: Change is inevitable.

We are all in a constant state of change, but seldom do we look at our lives in this way. Marcus Aurelius knew this, however, and reminded himself of such when he wrote:

Is any man afraid of change? Why — what can take place without change? — Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Change is not necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary, it can often be a good, leading to unexpected surprises which force us to grow. It is in our mindset that we determine whether or not change is a positive or a negative. In his bestselling book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday describes such when he says:

There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means. — Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

Adversity is what often leads to change and that is what builds us into stronger and better individuals.

In Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, she states:

Mindset change is not about picking up a few pointers here and there. It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people…change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support. — Carol Dweck, Mindset

Is it so strange to look at change and see the potential for growth in it? As young children, we are fragile and weak but as we grow older, our bones strengthen, our understanding of life becomes clearer, our worldview grow larger. This is change and it has happened, and will continue to happen to us throughout our lives. Rather than fight this, we should embrace it.

Marcus reminds himself of the need to embrace change and events when he writes:

It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed. — Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Everyone is born into this world and experiences change and adversity. It is through our mindset that we are able to utilize these changes to our advantage. As Dweck continues in Mindset:

We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary. — Carol Dweck, Mindset

Think of yourself. You are not the same today as you were yesterday. Your hair has continued to grow while you went throughout your day. You have gone through different events, each impacting you in a way that forced you to act and react. Some of those actions and reactions were natural while others had to be learned on the fly because you had to pivot within the situation you experienced. Each event you go through is a stepping stone to growth so long as you continuously look at it with this mindset. We have set backs. We go through adversities. We face change. This is life but that doesn’t mean we do not, or cannot, learn from these events.

As Marcus Aurelius states:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. — Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Keep an open mindset to change and you will see your life and knowledge expanding rapidly. Or keep a closed mindset, stay in your lane with your thought patterns, and experience a life half lived.

The key to a virtuous life is through growth, understanding ourselves and those around us, taking continuous action to advance ourselves so we can live our best life.

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PSS: 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.

Life IS Art, as Art is Life

Have you ever been watching a movie or play, or read a book and stopped in awe because you realized the author was speaking directly to you? That their work, while not directed at your own life or situation, was a reflection of the themes, struggles, and adversities you too have experienced? 

This is art at its finest. 

The inspiration for art is taken from the world around the artist. It could be events that have happened directly to them, it could be a theme that transpired in their own life that propelled them to produce the piece of art in the first place. 

Marcus Aurelius was no stranger to art. His tutor, Diognetus, was a Stoic philosopher and painter who taught Marcus about philosophy and art. Marcus’s years and dedication to learning taught him a lot about the arts and he had a great respect for them. It is why he probably reminded himself of how art is just a reflection of life when he wrote to himself in Meditations :

There is no nature which is inferior to art, the arts imitate the nature of things.

What is so important about art is that it breaks down our mental walls for advice and guidance. Through an allegory or story, we are transported to a world which shows us key insights, strategies, and guidance into situations which are all too familiar to our own lives. It creates a bond between us and the art, and allows that art to seep into our psyche and help teach us the lessons which are buried within the motifs. 

Most of us would ignore advice that was just handed to us. For the most part, it is a natural reaction to reject help and we’ve all done it before. The problem is, by listening to other people’s advice without the right mindset, our ego takes hold. We do not want to reveal that we’re not perfect. This of course is ridiculous because no one is perfect, regardless of what they project. But we refuse to show vulnerability. We do not want to look weak. We do not want to seem as if we need the assistance of someone else for a situation we ourselves are in because it makes it seem as though we are less than what we are. But it is this vulnerability, in fact, which connects us to others. It is by shutting down the ego and lowering our defenses to admit we need help which binds us to one another. 

But alas, the majority of us do not do this. It is scary to be vulnerable. It is daunting to be open, to expose ourselves to others’ opinions. We hear words in our head such as “what if they don’t accept me?” or “what if I am not good enough?” We’re afraid of losing a hold on our life to an extent. We spend so much time trying to create the perfect image of our life for others to see. We only put the best photos on social media, we only try to tell the best stories with our friends, we only try to talk about topics which we know people will be interested in, even if there is more we want to share. 

When we suffer in life, we tend to isolate the problem and project it out into the future. A situation which is momentary can suddenly become life-long in our mind. 

Art is there to pierce this ill-fated veil of life which prevents us from seeing the truth behind our problems. It is the mirror to the world. It reminds us that we’re not alone, that others too have experienced the same events, the same emotions, the same situations you yourself have or are, experiencing and as we discussed here about community, this is necessary in life. Maybe it is not the same exact situation, maybe the players are different, but the struggles you face have been faced by others before you and will be faced by others after you. Art helps to bridge this gap within all of us and reminds us that we’re not alone. It provides a path, guidance in a noise polluted world. 

Art allows us to be transported to another world, to see common problems we face and portrays them in a medium which does not harm us but allows us to observe, as an audience, the lives and situations of the characters. We can see how these characters handle their situations, what they did right, what they did wrong. 

And this is why we lean into art. This is why art is so important to the soul. Through art, artists are able to clearly share their inner emotions, turmoils, loves, hates, and ideas. But why discuss the importance of art with Stoicism? Because art is not only the mirror of life, it is the mirror of the soul. Through it, we are able to better see and reflect upon our own lives and situations. Your brain works in the background to break down that story and absorb the themes, meanings, and actions of the art and allows you to digest it and then potentially apply it to your own life. 

Art is a mirror to the lives we live. The next time you are watching something, or reading a story, ask yourself, is there something I can take from this? Try and find the parallels between the art and your own life, and see if there is any wisdom and guidance you can gleam. 

Life creates art, but art finds ways to help us truly live. 


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STAY IN THE HERE AND NOW

There’s not a day that goes by where we are not pulled in multiple directions. Unlike days of yore, we are much more easily pulled in multiple directions due to our reliance on technology. Our phones all have access to the internet, to Facebook and social media, to all other distractions which pull our attention. Our phone chimes with a notification from an app, or an email from work, or a text message from a friend. We immediately feel the pangs of anxiety ticking like a clock, the pressure mounting as the need to respond grows larger and larger the longer we delay the response. 

The notification has snapped our attention away from the task at hand. And by doing so, has stopped us from our productivity and the opportunity to be more aligned with the present moment. In the blink of an eye, our attention to the task at hand is gone. And we think that it’s okay, because we will get back to the task at hand right after the message is responded to, or we see that video a friend just sent us. But marketers’ jobs are to keep us hooked. Once you watch that first video, there’s another after it, and before you know it, we’ve wasted 15 or 20 minutes on the distraction. Thus, the task we were performing is dead. 

Remember what Seneca says in On the Shortness of Life:

“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.”

Science shows that it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on track after we have been distracted by something. 25 minutes is nearly half an hour. If we work an average of eight hours a day, that’s nearly 5% of our working day we’ve lost to a single distraction. But compounded over the week, that’s almost an hour and a half. Over a month? Well, that’s over eight hours just trying to get back on track from tasks we’ve abandoned due to distractions.

Every minute counts and we must remember what a gift it is to have this moment. That we are lucky to be here, doing what we do. To be alive. 

Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations:

“Let no act be done without a purpose, nor otherwise than according to the perfect principles of art.” 

Marcus is reminding himself, and in turn us, of the importance of our actions and our presence in those actions. Without the presence and intention to what we do, we have something that is incomplete, lacking the most vital parts of ourselves which could have been poured into whatever it is we were doing. 

Later in Meditations, Marcus writes about how it is through abstinence in something we want that we are able to be better and grow. This restriction of desires is not new, it is a powerful exercise the Stoics used to help conquer their desires of things and keep them grounded in the present moment, one of the key tenets of Stoicism. 

We need to remember that being still is okay. Not answering that text or notification is okay. The world does not end. Do not be afraid of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). We are stronger than that. 

We can spend time with ourselves. We can work to be comfortable in silence. We can spend time in solitude. It is from ourselves that we learn to create a happy and comfortable life. External stimuli will not create this for us. It is an illusion to believe it will. Ralph Waldo Emerson whose essay, Self-Reliance, was heavily influenced by the Stoics, states:

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

So how do we remain present in a distraction-laced world?

It begins first with our mindset. We must set our minds to be comfortable with silence. And it is strange at first. It is uncomfortable to sit and hear nothing. It does not feel right to not have our cell phone or computer right next to us. But does that mean it’s bad or wrong? No, of course not. Learning to be still in the world is the key to success. While everyone else is running around jumping here and there, being distracted from this or that, we have the ability to focus on something in its entirety and in turn do our best at that task. Think about what is discussed in the best-selling book The One Thing: The key is to focus on the most important task and that is it. We have the ability to do more by doing less. It is about quality not quantity. We have control over ourselves and our own actions. From this we can find peace. It means that we don’t need other things to form a happy life. Like Marcus reminds himself in Meditations:

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

To help yourself practice presence and optimize your time away from distractions, try to restrict phone usage during certain hours. Learn to become comfortable without having these right by your side. Find a place you like and go to it. Sit there in silence for five minutes and just exist without distraction. Feel your breath entering and exiting your lungs. Enjoy the moment you have, embrace the silence from all distractions. If your way of staying present is through writing, try writing with a pen and paper rather than keyboard and computer. This will not only help you retain the things you write down much better but will also keep distractions away. If you’re listening to music, try to listen to music which is instrumental only, avoiding lyrics which could pull your focus elsewhere. The point of all of this is to avoid the distractions that usually consume your day and be at complete peace with the stillness. 

By opening yourself up to stillness, you will allow creativity to freely flow through your mind, unhindered by any of the distractions or problems of the day. Your thoughts will begin to flow freely and without restriction. Allow the silence to speak to you. It will engage your focus in the present moment. Try this each day for seven days and see if you feel a difference. 

You will find that once you relinquish all distractions and are left in silence, your monkey-mind will start bouncing off of walls with ideas, things to do, worries that have gone unaddressed. Allow these thoughts to flow. Through practice, you will learn to accept the thoughts as they come up, to accept the noise they create and be comfortable with that noise. You will learn to prioritize the thoughts and speak directly to them. Thoughts tend to bounce around in our minds because they want to be heard. They’re like the kid in the classroom who keeps raising his hand saying “Pick me! Pick me!” But like the teacher in the classroom, we must teach ourselves discipline in this and center our thoughts. You can do this through journaling and writing down the thoughts. Alternatively, you can speak directly to the thoughts and explaining through self-talk that all the thoughts will be heard in order. (Safi Bahcall has a great method for dealing with insomnia due to these fluttering thoughts that he shared on the Tim Ferriss Show which you can find here,and Safi’s newest book, Loonshots, here).

Your mind needs rest and rejuvenation the same way your body does each night. Take care of it the way you would anything else. Allow it to be free of distractions. To relax. To enjoy the present moment. 

As Marcus reminds us, all we really need to live a happy life is already inside of us, we just need to stop and listen. 

WANT MORE?

We’ve enlisted the help of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca to assist us in providing even more additional guidance to help you live your most virtuous life. Want to see what wisdom they have to offer? Complete the form below and join our private monthly newsletter. Oh, and did we mention there’s also free goodies for signing up?

BUILT BY THE COMMUNITY

Have you ever heard the phrase “you are the people you surround yourself with”? The aphorism is so common nowadays, it is a little cliche but the Stoics knew how important the people around us were. The Stoics understood that we, as living human beings, are not only built by ourselves and our day-to-day experiences, but also by the people we surround ourselves with. By our community. 

We are built by not only ourselves but by those around us. We grow in this life based upon the community of people we keep as company. In life, there are times where we must lean on one another for support, and in turn, they may one day need to lean on us. 

In his introductory book on Stoicism, How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci details exactly how important the idea of community was to a Stoic.

“Stoicism was very much a philosophy of social engagement and encouraged love for all humankind and Nature as well.”

As the Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was responsible for an entire country. He understood that we as humans are relational, meaning we are built by our community and the relationships we hold within that community, whether directly or indirectly. 

In book eleven of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, he speaks directly to what it means to be a part of a community. 

“Have I done something for the general interest? Well then I have had my reward. Let this always be present to thy mind, and never stop doing such good.” 

We do not grow without help. You will always hit a point in life where you must ask or take someone’s assistance to achieve something, whether it be in business, personal goals, or anything else one may require.

We must understand that by leaning into another for support, it is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. We must build each other. We must fight for the common good of our community and those around us. We have teachers, mentors, friends, and family. The actions we take reverberate to those around us. Think about the concept of pay-it-forward that has taken off within the United States with Starbucks. The premise is simple. You pay for your coffee and for the person behind you’s coffee. But this small act of kindness has immense effects. For example, these “Starbucks chains” which form a series of people who when it is their turn to pay, because the person in front of them already paid for their coffee, generously in return pay for the person behind them’s cup of coffee. These small acts reverberate throughout a community and are meaningful to those involved. Just look at this example here of how a small gesture made a big difference in a stranger’s life.

It is not so far fetched to believe that it is acts like this, or others that may have taken place during Marcus Aurelius’s time, which caused him to write the following in Meditations:

“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.”

Only by understanding that we require others can we truly grow. This is why we have teachers, coaches, mentors. This is why we have friends and families, why we like to interact with others.  We learn from people. We lean on them for support and guidance. We grow as a community. 

By being of service to others, by helping others grow, even if on an individual level, we are building our community. We are strengthening our bonds with others. We are in service to others and that is why long after we’re gone, our actions will remain through those affected by them, by those who knew us and saw what we did. Those will continue and be passed down. The lessons taught today will be taught tomorrow. 

When we do good for our community, we should feel good about it. We should feel fulfilled about helping someone else. It is only through these bonds of comradery and growth that we can attain true fulfillment in our own lives. We are built by those around us, and in turn, others are built and strengthened by us.

WANT MORE?

We’ve enlisted the help of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca to assist us in providing even more additional guidance to help you live your most virtuous life. Want to see what wisdom they have to provide? Complete the form below and join our private monthly newsletter. Oh, and did we mention there’s also free goodies for signing up?