On one hand, there are things that are in our power. And on the other hand, there are things that are not in our power. In our power are our opinion, intention, desire, aversion; whatever is our own doing. Things not in our power include our body, possessions, reputation, status; whatever is not our own doing.
(Epictetus, Handbook 1.1)
Yesterday we took some time out to cover just a few basic Greek words and concepts in philosophy. I left you with the quote above. This quote is extremely important within Stoicism, and it will be well worth our time to study it more in depth and become well acquainted with it. Believe me, when we return back to Stoic Serenity after studying these couple of posts in depth, Epictetus’ dichotomy of control, that is, what is in our power and what is not in our power, will become much more clear to us.
When Epictetus says “there are things that are in our power,” he means this completely and absolutely. He means that there are things that are 100% always within our control, no matter the day or the hour, the circumstances, the people involved, etc. He is quite literally claiming that our opinion, intention, desire, and aversion are always under our own control.
Now when Epictetus says that “there are things that are not in our power, he means that these things do not fall under the first category. He means that we do not have 100% control of these things ever. According to Epictetus, these things “belong to another,” such as God or Fate or other humans. “How can my body belong to another?” you ask. Let’s take a look at these things that Epictetus says are not in our power.
Epictetus says that our bodies, possessions, reputation, and status, “whatever is not our own doing,” are not within our own power. When he says “whatever is not our own doing,” he is referring to the actions of other people and things that, quite honestly, are beyond our own control such as the weather, inflation rates, etc. So we can fairly easily grasp the meaning of “whatever is not our doing.”
“But what about my body? How is that not under my control? I use it every day to carry out the tasks that I tell it to do.” True, you can tell your body what to do, and most of the time it obeys. You need to look at it this way: you are an agent who uses your body. For instance, you are using your body right now to read the lines of this page. Yes, your body is functioning normally, as it does most of the time. But is your body’s normal function really up to you? When our bodies function normally, we largely ignore the subject of whether we actually have 100% control over our own bodies because we are satisfied enough that it is functioning normally. But what happens when we become ill? If our body is 100% under our own control, we’d be able to will ourselves back to health immediately. Clearly, that’s impossible, because the truth is we never had 100% control over our own bodies. Yes, it makes sense to take precautions with our bodies, such as eating nutritious meals, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and washing our hands. But what if we become sick anyway? Even if you go to the doctor after becoming ill, what if the doctor doesn’t have a good knowledge of the illness and therefore is unable to treat the sickness? And what if they do prescribe the correct treatment, but the treatment doesn’t work and you remain ill? Once again, your body is ultimately not under your own control.
In Seddon’s book Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes, he gives an example to help us understand. The scenario is this: we intend to turn on the TV to watch our favorite TV show. What are the possible obstacles to our success? The door to the TV room might be locked. The TV might not turn on if there is a power outage. The TV itself might be broken. Our favorite show might have been replaced by a politician’s speech. Or, we might suddenly become ill with food poisoning and rendered unable to even make it to the room to turn the TV on. As you can see, when analyzing the potential factors here, there are quite a few possible obstacles. Is it really in your power to turn the TV on and watch the TV show? No.
Let’s consider our possessions next. Now you think, “Of course I have control over my possessions. I work hard to earn money to buy them. Then I lock them up so nobody can walk in and take them.” But as expected, I’m going to tell you that the condition of your possessions, whether your possessions will continue to function properly, and even whether you get to keep your own possessions, is ultimately not up to you. Once more, it makes practical sense to take all possible precautions, such as locking the door to your house, or unplugging electronics when there is a thunderstorm. But whether a thief successfully breaks in and makes off with your big-screen TV, or whether there is a tornado that comes through and wipes out everything anyway, the possession and function of your material belongings is ultimately not up to you. Are you seeing the pattern here?
Reputation & Status
Now consider your reputation and status. These might be a bit easier for you to understand the lesson. Here is my own personal example:
A couple of months ago, I lost my job when my boss created a rumor that I was untrustworthy. She repeatedly accused me, to my face, of lying. I assured her I never lied to her. I asked her what situations she believed I was lying about. I explained the “grey areas” for her fully. Was there something I could do to show her that I wasn’t lying, something that would actually appease her? I remember feeling so utterly frustrated. I was accused of something of which I was innocent, but there was no way out! I’m an extremely honest and deliberate person. Her accusations were against my very character. I felt trapped inside the accusations.
It wasn’t until three months later (I was really boiling for weeks on end), after studying the basics of Stoicism for a little bit, that it finally clicked: I did absolutely everything that was within my power: I was honest. I tried to answer any of her concerns. I only have control over my own character. But my reputation is a creation of others, and I have absolutely no control over it.
Seddon says, “We may strive to maintain good reputations, but whether we succeed or not [depends on] what other people think of us, and what they think is up to them.”
As for status, it’s quite similar. No matter what efforts we make to come across as we would like to be viewed, whether we succeed at getting hired for that job, or being promoted in our current company, or attaining some other status in society, this is quite actually entirely in the hands of other people.
That’s enough for today. Tomorrow we will look more in depth at what Epictetus says is within our power. Your assignment for today is simple:
As you perform every action in your day, periodically analyze the situation and practice identifying what is “not in your power.” For example, consider that you intend to drive to the grocery store to buy some milk. Potential obstacles to your success might include: the car might not start, the road might be closed, the store may be out of milk, someone may have stolen your wallet.