You can always choose

Understanding the dichotomy of control

Merry Christmas! Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

Today, we’re sharing a piece from Michael Tremblay, co-founder of Stoa, that he also shared to Reddit. Michael’s running a free workshop January 3rd that you can sign up for here.

🏛️ Theory

I think that the dichotomy of control is better understood as an argument about identity (what we fundamentally are), than an argument about control, influence, or cause.

The Handbook introduces the dichotomy of control as follows:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

 Handbook 1.1

Most people take this to mean that there are three things are play:

  • Us (who we are).

  • The things up to us (opinion, motivation, desire).

  • The things not up to us (body, our property, reputation).

Instead, I think the argument is better thought of as this:

  • There are the things that we ARE, that make up our identity (our opinions and desires).

  • There are the things that we ARE NOT, that don't make up our identity (our body, our reputation).

Therefore, we should focus on improving and caring about what we fundamentally are.

Our life goes better when WE are better (better opinions, better desires). Our life does not go worse when things WE ARE NOT get damaged (our office, our property). The dichotomy of control then is not about describing what we can or can't control, but about where the limits of our identity lie, which technically for Epictetus is our Prohairesis (our faculty of choice).

It is a change in the emphasis of the argument. Epictetus is not just saying that we suffer when we try to control what is outside our control (although that is true). He emphasizes that we suffer when we identify ourselves with the things that are not up to us. When we think something belongs to us (is up to us) that doesn't.

This is why in Discourses 1.1 Epictetus focuses so much on personal identity. He presents an example with a tyrant:

'Tell me your secrets.'

I won't reveal them; for that lies within my power.

'Then I'll have you chained up.'

What are you saying, man, chain me up? You can chain my leg, but not even Zeus can overcome my power of choice (prohairesis).

'I'll throw you into prison.'

You mean my poor body.

The humour in this passage is that the tyrant is trying to threaten Epictetus, but the tyrant is applying a non-Stoic perspective. He is threatening Epictetus' body, but Epictetus realizes that he is not his body and so he is not intimidated. He is his character, his prohairesis, his capacity to make choices. That is what applying the dichotomy of control looks like in action, not just saying "Oh well, I can't control it, what can I do.".

🎯 Action

Apply the dichotomy of control today.

🏛️ Sign up for Michael’s workshop on the dichotomy of control here.

🏛️ Interested in taking our 3-week Stoicism course, but want to talk to one of us before signing up? Michael just opened up his calendar for 1-1s – he’ll answer any questions you have.

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