This Is What Matters Today

Understanding what you are and what is up to you with Stoic philosophy

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.

🏛️ Theory

The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus opens his Handbook with the lines:

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, Handbook 1

This is the central piece of Stoic philosophy. Let’s go through it carefully.

What is up to us? We can understand this through the Stoic model of perception:

  1. Impression: First, we receive an impression. This is the initial experience or appearance. An example impression: it seems like someone is looking at us. 

  2. Reflection: we reflect on the impression. We bring our past experiences to bear on the impression and ask: are they looking at us?

  3. Assent: we judge the impression as true or not. This is when we decide whether or not to believe that someone is looking at us.

  4. Impulse: our judgment motivates action. Someone is looking at us, therefore we respond appropriately by returning their gaze and saying “Hello!”

The last three steps are up to us. The impressions that arise are not. How we respond to them, through reflection and assent is.

The output of our reflection, assent, and impulse is a decision. By deciding to respond, we begin to physically make that happen. And the cycle continues.

It’s important to realize that Epictetus is not saying that we can snap our fingers and attain tranquility with ease. Only a sage can do that.

There are two obstacles standing in the way of progressors (people who have not yet mastered the philosophy).

First, we cannot control what impressions we receive. If you’ve meditated, you know that the mind will naturally start to present us with all sorts of distracting ideas when it gets bored. The external and internal world are constantly throwing impressions at us and many are challenging to handle. Second, when we reflect, we are influenced by our past judgments. Many of these are the result of bad habits.

We can transform who we are – but this is a matter of steadily and slowly steering a ship back in the right direction. There’s no guarantee that it will be easy to get where we need to go.

If there’s one takeaway from Epictetus's Stoic psychology, it’s an understanding of what we are. We’re fundamentally reasoning beings. We’re responsible for reasoning well. That means perfecting our abilities of reflection, judgment, and decision.

To do this we must vigilantly focus on what is up to us:

Therefore, for every troubling impression practice saying at once ‘you are an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by the standards which you hold, but first of all and most of all this standard, whether it is about the things up to us or about the things not up to us. And if it is about something that is not up to us, then be ready to say ‘it is nothing to me’.

Epictetus, Handbook 1

In other words, we ought to place our energy into making excellent judgments and choices. Accept everything else.

🎯 Action

Today, pause before immediately reacting. Determine what is and is not up to you. Take responsibility for what is and accept what is not.

🔗 Links

🎧️ Listen to a conversation with Michael Tremblay and me on Stoic Psychology here. We go deep into the Stoic theory of mind and show how we can use it to understand ourselves and others better.

📺️ We’re going to be releasing a goofy AI video on our YouTube channel tomorrow. Subscribe here to catch it.

We also have hours of meditations and lessons, such as this one on the dichotomy of control:

📖 The translations of the Handbook in this letter come from the newly released Epictetus’s 'Encheiridion': A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics. In addition to a fine translation, this book includes an introduction to Stoicism, thoughtful commentary, and a section on challenges to Stoicism.

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1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

3 Referrals – The Stoic Training Program PDF — in this 10-page guide, we share the three main ideas and practices that ground a Stoic approach to life.

5 Referrals – Five Stoic Meditations get five downloadable meditations to go deeper into your practice.

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