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, reputations, status; whatever is not our own doing.
(Epictetus, Handbook 1.1)
Yesterday we looked at the second part of Epictetus’ claim concerning what is not in our power. As you went about your activities yesterday, were you able to think of potential obstacles that might hinder your success? As we learned, our body, possessions, reputations, and status are not 100% completely under our own control. The flip-side of this is Epictetus’ first claim, that our opinion, intention, desire, and aversion are 100% completely under our own control. All the time. No matter the circumstances.
At this point, we’re beginning to really understand what Epictetus’ meant by this “dichotomy of control.” “Body, possessions, reputations, status.” Those terms are fairly concrete and self-explanatory. And after yesterday’s lesson, we understand how they are not completely under our own control. But when we talk about “opinion, intention, desire, aversion,” those are much more abstract concepts. What exactly is Epictetus referring to? Ladies and gentlemen, these four things are the only four things in this entire universe that you have absolute control over. It’s imperative that you understand what they are.
opinion, intention, desire, aversion
In English, we have many synonyms for each of these items, and we tend to throw various words around in our speech. (Example, the distinction between “spirit” and “soul” is probably a bit blurry for an English-speaking American, but the distinction is quite obvious for an Aramaic-speaking person from southern Iraq.) And in your studies of philosophy, each English author will often change one or two of the words to what they think is the more accurate and descriptive English translation. For this very reason, I’ll also provide the respective Greek words. That way, if you wish to research further, or if you’re ever engaged in a discussion about these, you’ll be able to use / understand if someone else uses the Greek word. Then you and the other will both agree that you are talking about the same thing. Make sense? Here we go.
Opinion (hupolêpsis) — what we think of things; our beliefs and judgements; how we evaluate things
Intention (hormê) — how we intend to act; how we exert our aim; how we respond to events; assent to a proposition about how it is appropriate to react; “a motion of the soul toward something”; also translated as “impulse”; a result of desire/orexis
Seddon says this in Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes:
“The Stoics understood that nature [gives] all creatures impulses that direct them to what is appropriate…for example, gazelles eat grass and lions eat gazelles, and this general fact about what is specific to different kinds of creatures is also true of human beings. But humans differ because we also have a capacity for reason which means that, unlike animals, we do not simply instinctively respond to stimuli, but can reflect on what is in our best interests, form intentions, and act accordingly.”
I struggled when choosing a word to use for “intention.” The word is perhaps more closely translated as “impulse,” but that seems to ignore humans’ reasoning capabilities. To me, the true meaning of the original Greek seems hormê seems to lie somewhere between “impulse” and “intention.” But for our purposes of understanding and application, “intention” seemed to be the better choice at the moment.
Desire (orexis) — to want something; to want power over it, to want it to be a certain way; results in intention/hormê
Aversion (ekklisis) — to want something to stay away or go away; the exact opposite of desire/orexis
Clear as mud? I hope not. If you’re really ambitious, you may wish to spend some time learning Greek philosophical terms. They would be extremely beneficial as you further your studies in Stoicism.
Seddon states this:
Epictetus’ fundamental claim is that no outside agency has power over these capacities of the mind (not even [God]). They are entirely in our power. What we think of things, how we respond to events, what we desire, and what we are averse to, are all wholly and entirely in our own power.
As you can see from these last two lessons, Epictetus presents a very stark contrast between what is in our power and what is not. Our mental capacities are by nature “free, unhindered, unimpeded.” They are free from restraint, invincible, the sky’s the limit. You are ultimate ruler of your own opinion, intention, desire, and aversion.
In contrast, things that are not in our power are “weak, slavish, hindered, and belong to others.” Clearly, when we say that these things “belong to others,” we don’t mean that other people have complete control over our own bodies, possessions, reputations, and status. But even if we hypothetically had 99% control over them, the final 1% is dependent on outside agencies such as other people, God, or Fate. The 1% is up in the air to determine how things will go, to determine if we are successful or not. We will never gain that final 1% for ourselves. It will always belong to an outside agency. And for that reason alone, we never have any guarantee that things “not in our power” will work out the way we wish them to.
I like the word “slavish.” By conceiving of things outside my power as slaves to others, I can more easily resist the urge to seek control over them and therefore resist the urge to fight against reality. If we are able to accept that this is the way things are, then we can make rational decisions to mold our characters and act in a way that is harmonious with “nature,” or “the reality of things.” This is key to eudaimonia.
Next up, we turn our focus back to our book Stoic Serenity. We finally look at Epictetus’ dichotomy as a whole, and we view his arguments as to why each thing is either in our power or not in our power from the original source, Epictetus’ Discourses. Considering the time we’ve taken to cover each category, this next lesson should be a breeze. 😉