How To Understand The Stoic Dichotomy Of Control

Understanding what is up to you

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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.

🏛️ Theory

The dichotomy of control is one of Stoicism’s most transformative ideas.

It’s simple: some things are up to you, others are not.

As Epictetus says in the opening of The Handbook:

There are some things that are up to us, others that are not up to us. The things up to us are understanding, impulse, desire, aversion and, in a word, whatever acts are ours. The things not up to us are the body, possessions, reputation, professional positions, and in a word, whatever acts are not ours.

Epictetus, The Handbook 1

But what is under your control?

In simplest terms, your judgments and decisions. That’s it. Throughout life, you are presented with sensations and impressions. These are questions that you answer with your choices. You decide whether to agree–or not–to each one.

The dichotomy of control calls for viewing our place in the world in a radically different way.

The Stoics called the things outside of our control externals or indifferents. It’s how we use indifferents that makes the difference.

Picture an excellent poker player. How the cards are dealt is external. She focuses on making strategic plays that will succeed over thousands of games. Fortune is fickle. She knows that she may make the best decisions and still lose a single hand. The outcome of each game is indifferent. Anyone can get lucky and “win” off of poor choices. That’s not what makes a great player.

Stoics don’t bind themselves to externals. To the extent that we can, we desire to be excellent in whatever role we occupy. We harmonize our choices with the tragedy and comedy of the world the best that we can. We desire to do our best with “whatever acts are ours” and willingly embrace everything else.

As Marcus Aurelius reminds himself:

Willingly give yourself to Fate, allowing her to spin her thread into whatever things she pleases.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.34

🎯 Action

Do your best with “whatever acts are yours.” Make the best choices and judgments you can.

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🔗 Links

💡 Here's another framing that many have found powerful: the dichotomy of control describes what you are. Ultimately, we are choice-making beings. We are not what happens to us, but what we agree to and decide to do.

📔 Read Stoa cofounder Michael Tremblay's piece What Many People Misunderstand about the Stoic Dichotomy of Control. It focuses on the idea of identity instead of control.

📖 William Stephens and Scott Aikin’s translation of Epictetus is useful: Epictetus’s 'Encheiridion': A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics. It includes clear and crisp commentary.

🎧️ Listen to this topical episode Stoicism FAQ: Who Should You Read First? What Is Up to You? for more discussion on the common question.

📓 Find a stricter translation of the Marcus Aurelius quote here. The only difference – he references a specific Fate of ancient Greek myth, Clotho.

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