Stoic Serenity 2.2: What is “In Our Power”

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)

Are you sick of this quote yet? If you’re sick of it, then that should mean you’ve memorized it! If you’re not sick of it yet, well good for you. 🙂

Hopefully we’ve begun to comprehend Epictetus’ meaning over the course of the last two days. We should have a relatively good understanding of the various items (opinion, intention desire, etc.) as well as what it means for something to be “in our power” and for something to be “not in our power.”

Moving forward, we turn once again to Seddon’s book Stoic Serenity, the second part of chapter two. Epictetus makes his argument for this basic tenet of Stoicism in the Discourses. We’ll take a look at this dialogue below. Remember that Epictetus’ teachings were recorded by one of his students, and they consisted of dialogues that occurred after the day’s formal lecture had ended. As usual, I’ll be paraphrasing just a bit for us:

What makes a person free from hindrance and makes him his own master? Neither wealth, nor a consul’s post, nor a governor’s post, nor a kingdom make him free from hindrance and master of himself. No, something else must be found. Now, when someone is writing, what is it that ensures he won’t be subject to hindrance or obstruction?

Knowledge of how to write.

And when someone is playing the harp? What ensures that she can play the harp freely without hindrance?

Knowledge of how to play the harp.

And so it follows that for a person to be free in life, one must have knowledge of the art of living. Now you’ve already learned this as a general principle, but consider it in its specific applications, too. If someone desires any of the things that lie within the power of others, will he be free from hindrance?

No.

Will he be free from obstruction?

No.

Then he himself cannot be free.
Now tell me which of these three is true:

– Nothing is within our own power.
– Everything is within our own power.
– Some things are within our own power while other things are within the power of other people.

What do you mean?

When you want your body to remain sound and whole, is that within your power or is it not in your power?

No, that’s not within my power.

And when you want your body to be healthy?

No, that’s not in my power either.

What if you want your body to be beautiful or handsome?

That’s not in my power either.

And if you should want to decide for your body when to live or to die?

No again.

Therefore, your body is not your own but is subject to whatever is stronger than itself.

Agreed.

And when it comes to your land, is it within your power to own what you want, for as long as you want, and exactly how you want?

No.

And your slaves?

No.

And your clothes?

No.

And your little house?

No.

And your car?

None of that is within my power.

And what if you should wish with all your heart that your children should remain alive, or that your wife should, or your brother, or your friends? Is that within your power?

No, that isn’t either.

(Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.62-67)


Assignment time!

Looking at the extract above, list the specific items that Epictetus says are not in our power. Do you agree with him? What things do you disagree with? How might someone possibly respond to Epictetus?

Body – remain sound and whole / perfect
Body – healthy
Body – beautiful/handsome
Body – live or die
Possessions – land/estate/assets
Possessions – slaves
Possessions – clothes
Possessions – house
Possessions – car
Lives of others – children, wife, brother, friends

Epictetus says that our bodies, whether they are “perfect”, healthy or attractive, or whether they continue to live or not, none of these things are within our power. (When ill, we cannot simply will ourselves back to health. We cannot change our physical features to become more attractive. We can’t choose the day that we die a natural death.) — Body is not our own.

Then he moves on to external things: our fiscal assets, having our property in exactly the condition we want it, slaves (consider also domestic or general employees), clothes, house, and car—none of these are within our power. (We can’t will that a magic genie brings us bags of gold, we can’t will a tornado to change course and avoid destroying our house, our employees aren’t guaranteed to stay with us forever, our clothes might be wrecked in a flood, our car might be stolen.) — Possessions are not our own.

Finally, he moves on to other people even: no matter badly we wish with all our heart, we simply don’t have the power to decide if our children, our spouse, our relatives, nor our friends survive a car accident, disease, or other catastrophic event. — Fates of others are not our own.

As we discussed in the earlier lesson about what is “not in our power,” it makes practical sense to care for our bodies, possessions, family members, etc. But the key lies in this:

Despite our best efforts to get what we want, there’s absolutely no guarantee that our efforts will be met with success. 

“So are the Stoics saying that we won’t get what we want?” No. What the Stoics are saying is that the emphasis is not on whether you actually attain those things (that’s ultimately up to God or Fate), but instead placed on trying to get what is sensible. It’s a shift from investing our hopes in getting what we desire to investing our hopes in trying our best.

“Hoping that we’ll try our best? That’s insanely easy. All I have to do is go try my best at anything, and I’ve succeeded.”

Exactly.


Is nothing at all then subject to your own authority, or exclusively within your power? Or do you have something that is within your power and completely subject to your authority?

I don’t know.

Then consider the question this way, and really think about it:
Can anyone make you assent to what you know to be false?

No, no one can do that.

Therefore, your own assent is free from hindrance and restraint.

Yes, I agree.

Can anyone force you to direct your impulses toward anything you don’t want?

Yes, that’s possible! A person could threaten me with death or imprisonment; he would force me to direct my impulses toward something I don’t want.

And if you held the opinion that death and arrest were nothing to be feared, would you still listen to his threats?

No.

Now if you conceive of death as something that’s not to be feared, is that your own act? Or is that the act of someone else?

That is my own act.

And to exercise your impulses, your intentions, is that your own act or not?

I agree, that’s my own act.

And to exercise your impulses not to act? That is your own act, too.

Yes, but what if I intend to go for a walk, but someone else restrains me and prevents me from walking?

What part of you is he restraining? Surely he’s not restraining your assent to go for a walk.

No, but he restrains my body from walking.

Yes, and he could also restrain a rock from moving.

True, but the fact remains that I can no longer go for my walk.

And who claimed that walking is in your own power and therefore cannot be restrained?! For I only said that your intention could not be restrained. But when it comes to the use of the body, when the body’s cooperation is required, you learned very well already that none of it is within your power.

Fair enough. I agree.

Now, can anyone force you to desire something that you don’t want?

No, no one can do that.

And when you make a plan or intention, or in general, when you deal with impressions that come to you?

Not that either. But when I form a desire, someone can hinder me from achieving that desire.

But if you direct that desire toward something that is within your own power, something that isn’t subject to hindrance, how can he hinder you?

He cannot. It would be impossible.

Then who told you that someone who directs his desires toward things that aren’t within his own power is free from hindrance?

What about health? Surely I can desire that.

No! And do not desire anything else that is not in your power. For anything that is not in your power to attain or keep as you wish is not really in your power at all. It is not your own. Keep not only your hands far away from it, but most importantly keep your desire far away from it. Otherwise, you will have allowed yourself to become a slave. You will have put your head under the yoke if you attach value to anything that is not in our power, if you conceive a desire for anything that is perishable and subject to anyone else.

But isn’t my hand my own, and therefore within my own power?

Your hand is part of you, but by nature it’s nothing but clay. It is subject to hindrance and compulsion; it’s a slave to everything that is stronger than itself. And why just speak of your hand? In reality, you should be viewing your entire body as a poor donkey, nothing but a beast-of-burden. Consider it thus, as long as you have your body. And if there comes a military draft and a soldier seizes it, let it go. Don’t resist or grumble. Otherwise you’ll get a beating, and you’ll end up losing the poor little donkey anyway. And if that’s how you should act with regard to your body, consider what’s left for you to do with everything else that’s procured for the sake of the body! If your body is a little donkey, then all those other things—make-up, hair gel, clothes, shoes, food and snacks—they all become bridles for the donkey, pack-saddles, shoes, barley, fodder. Let all of that go too; get rid of it more quickly and willingly than of the little donkey itself.

And when you have prepared yourself for this and have trained yourself in this way, to distinguish between what is not your own and what is your own, between what can be hindered and what cannot be hindered, between what is not in your power and what is in your power; and when you have trained yourself to concern yourself only with the latter and think nothing of the former, to desire whatever is in your power and have aversion to whatever is not in your power, then who is left for you to fear?

No one.

What is there for you to be afraid about? Should you be afraid for those things which are your own, in which your true good and evil lie? Who has any power at all over those? Who can take them away? Who can stand in their way? No one can, any more than a person can stand in God’s way.

(Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.68-82)


Real briefly, you noticed perhaps that Epictetus jumps back and forth from referring to things that “are my own” vs. things that are “in my power.” Don’t be confused by this; they are one in the same. As we read the dialogue, we might consider that Epictetus was speaking in a philosophic sense, (“my body is not my own because I cannot rule over it completely”). But I’d like to suggest that from this point forward, we need to view it in a literal sense as well (“my body is not my own because I am never guaranteed to have 95% control, or even 1% control over it”).


Assignment time again!

Looking at this second part of the extract, write down the things Epictetus says are in our power.

opinion/assent
impulses/intentions

Do these look familiar? I told you that all that “dichotomy of control” monotony would be worth it!

Ok, so when we read the dialogue, it seemed like Epictetus actually said several things were in our power, but here we’ve only listed two. Why?

The first type of item Epictetus discusses is our “assenting” to things. “This is our capacity to hold that something is true or false.” One might place this in a “thinking about” category.

The second type of item is what Epictetus calls our capacity to “exert our aim,” or our “intention to act” in response to something. I really like when the student presents the example of intending to go for a walk. Epictetus really lays it all out there for us nice and clear. Walking is not actually in my power, because it requires use of the body (which we already agree is not completely in our power). Perhaps just as I open the door to my front house, an angry rhinoceros will come charging into me and sever my legs. Yes, my body has been hindered and I’ve been prevented from succeeding in going for my walk. But was my intention to go for a walk ever harmed? Never. My intention can only change when I allow it to change. I am ruler over my intentions. And so I venture to say that intentions, plans, impulses, and the sort might be placed in a “thinking to do” category.

When we studied the dichotomy of control, we learned that 4 things are in our power: opinion, intention, desire, aversion. Do you remember that desire and aversion are exact opposites of each other? Opinion and intention aren’t opposites, clearly, and I’m going off on my own exploration here, but they seem to be a “pair” or some sort:

opinion , intention , [desire , aversion]

   thinking about , thinking to do , [an urge to go toward , an urge to go away from]

Maybe more on this later.


Now this post has gone on long enough, (you’re happy now that we prepared earlier, aren’t you?) and I hope you aren’t thoroughly confused. One thing I’ve had to learn is that although it bothers me immensely when I don’t understand something completely, sometimes you need to hold on to what you do understand and just keep chugging along. The rest will come to you in time. Eureka!

If there’s anything you do take away from this lesson, it should be that Epictetus is trying to make one point very clear:

You have complete control over your own mind.
You do not have complete control over anything else.

And for this very reason, I find Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 6.29 to be immensely profound:

How shameful it is that, in this life, when your body does not give up the struggle, your soul should do so first.

Epictetus just told us one of the most amazing things of all: our souls are invincible!

And when you have been enlightened of this—when you have the knowledge of this incredible fact, why, nothing can stop you at all! The world is your oyster! The human soul is truly amazing! Our mission as Stoics is to develop the capabilities of this amazing soul and to ensure that we use it to its full potential. The true Stoic sage is well aware of the invincibility of his soul. He does not truly invest desire in anything beyond the development of his own character because he realizes that they have no inherent value. This “enlightenment” gives him the self-control, justice, courage, and wisdom to stand firm through any adversity, and to emerge victorious shouting, “I have all my goods with me!”

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