I do hope you’ll forgive me for spending so much time on Epictetus’ dichotomy of control, but understanding it is essential to our progress as Stoics. While the message may seem gloomy at first (considering everything we don’t have power over), the trade-off is more than worth it: we know that our souls are invincible and that we can overcome anything. How empowering!
Once we accept the reality that things happen in the world and that we just don’t have power over it, we begin to catch of glimpse of the meaning of our textbook title, Stoic Serenity. The weight of the world has been lifted from our shoulders. We know that we aren’t expected to make everything “work out in the end,” because that’s simply impossible and therefore a foolish expectation to entertain.
After contemplating this, I felt compelled to focus part of today’s post on reconciling Stoicism with Christianity. The similarities are extremely striking here. Nonetheless, if you’d prefer to skip the part about Christianity, scroll down to the horizontal lines partway down the page that look like this:
How does Epictetus’ Dichotomy of Control compare to Jesus’ teachings?
In the dialogue we studied earlier, Epictetus basically told us that we should not value external things such as body, possessions, reputations, and status. Instead, we should put our focus on our mental capacities—opinion, intention, desire, aversion—which will ultimately guide us in our journey to develop our characters toward the Virtues—self-control, justice, courage, wisdom.
Consider this famous Bible passage:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
(Matthew 6:19-21, 24)
And so it holds true in Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: our mental capabilities are themselves simple tools to allow us to pursue Virtue. We cannot value both the Virtues and external things. Now there does lie herein a difference between Epictetus’ idea and Jesus’ words in the Bible, because Epictetus’ wasn’t talking just about material possessions. He was also talking about anything that we don’t have 100% control over, including the fates of the lives of our family members. Is Stoicism contradicting Christianity here? I don’t believe so. Epictetus isn’t telling us that we really shouldn’t care if our beloved family members were swept away in a flood. Not at all. In fact, part of the Stoic goal is to expand our “spheres of love” to include those outside our inner circles (we’ll discuss this much later). What he is telling us is that if we want to be happy, we need to accept the simple fact that we can’t control everything. We simple little puny humans ultimately aren’t in control, and we need to stop trying to be. Clearly God is in ultimate control! Now does that sound like a such a terribly revolutionary idea?
Consider the next passage:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
So don’t worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we eat?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
(Matthew 6:25-27, 31-33)
Doesn’t this look really familiar? Epictetus’ compared our bodies to that of a “poor little donkey,” and all the things we use on account of the body as “mere bridals, pack-saddles, shoes, barley, and fodder.”
Jesus and Epictetus both agree: stop worrying about the stuff that you have no control over. Jesus says that “the pagans run after all these things”. I think Epictetus would say that the someone who doesn’t know any better, the idiotês, run after these things. 🙂 The idiotê would be devastated if their house was destroyed in a hurricane. They’d set out in a panic to procure all these material things “necessary for life.” Jesus is basically saying, “Stop driving yourself insane with worry! God is much more powerful than you are. Trust Him. He’ll take care of you.” But now a bit of a roadblock, because it might seem like Epictetus’ version is, “Stop troubling yourself at all. God is much more powerful than you are, and He’ll decide if you are going to get the things necessary for life.”
It seems like if we try to compare them here, Epictetus is painting God to be indifferent to the plights of humans. (Certainly Epictetus’ idea of Zeus differed from the Christian view of a loving Yahweh.) But remember in our discussion of what is “NOT in our power” that it just makes practical sense to take regular precautions such as locking the house when you leave. Epictetus isn’t saying “Don’t try at all.” His point is that we need to accept the simple fact that we are humans. And despite our reasonable efforts, we need to accept that ultimately God is in control!
So I might apply for a job and pray fervently before the interview. But Jesus and Epictetus both agree: Do what makes practical sense. Endeavor to apply for the job. Aim to do your very best in the interview. But if you don’t end up getting the job in the end, don’t beat yourself up, because to think that you had control of the entire situation in the first place is entirely ridiculous! God is in control! And if we didn’t get hired for the position, that doesn’t mean God has abandoned us. It means that God has His own plan in mind. And once again, HE’S ULTIMATELY IN CONTROL. Shall I beat you over the head with a stick until you understand this??
Haha, ok, ok. I think we got the point here. It’s kind of nice to explore these two schools of thought and see where they seem to differ and agree. My challenge for you to is read the remainder of this lesson, consider what Epictetus’ message could be for Christians (emphasizing accepting the will of God), and try to apply the remainder of today’s lesson to Christian principles. What do you think would be the “Christian equivalent”?
How do I protect myself if so much in the world is beyond my control?
So now that we know we aren’t expected to be held responsible for the success of everything in the world, we’ve had an immense weight lifted from our shoulders. But the question now is this:
The world is literally full of things that aren’t in my power. Certainly I can’t stop doing my everyday business in an effort to “protect” myself. What kind of life would that be? So how am I supposed to go about my everyday business, even though the success of it isn’t within my power?
No, Stoicism is not advocating that we withdraw to the mountains and live secluded lives in an attempt to “protect our happiness.” That would be illogical, anyway, because natural events are beyond our power. We might be free from annoying people in the caves in the mountains, but we just as well have a chance of starving to death. No, no, no. Stop.
How does the Stoic guard what is “in his power” and still go about living life? He does this by “acting with reservation.“
Acting with Reservation
Therefore, the safest policy is rarely to tempt [Fortune]. Always keep her in mind, but trust her in nothing. So your daily activities begin to look something like this: “I will arrive at work on time unless something prevents it.” Or, “I will gain the votes of the people and become elected as mayor unless something prevents it.” Or, “My business will expand and we’ll open locations in three more cities unless something interferes.” This is how we can say that a wise man is never caught off guard.
(Based on Seneca’s Dialogue On Tranquility of Mind)
[The Stoics] say that nothing happens to the good man which is contrary to his [desire] (orexis) or his impulse or his intention, on account of the fact that he does everything of this kind with a reservation (hupexhairesis), and nothing which he would not want can happen unexpectedly.
The wise man sets about every action with reservation: “If nothing happens which might stop him.” For this reason we say that he always succeeds and that nothing unexpected happens to him: because within himself he considers the possibility that something will get in the way and prevent what he is proposing to do.
(Seneca, On Benefits 4.34.4)
Make a note of this term: hupexhairesis. This is the Greek term for this concept of “with reservation.” According to Seddon, Marcus Aurelius talks about hupexhairesis five times in the Meditations. We’ll investigate one of those today:
When the ruling power within us is in harmony with nature, it confronts events in such a way that it always adapts itself readily to what is feasible and is granted to it. For it attaches its preference to no specific material; rather, it sets out to attain its primary objects, but not without reservation, and if it comes up against something else instead, it converts it into material for itself, much like a fire when it masters the thing that falls into it. These would have extinguished a little lamp, but a blazing fire appropriates it in an instant all that is heaped on to it, and devours it, making use of that material to leap ever higher.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.1)
One can kind of get a general feel for what Marcus is talking about in this passage, but I myself don’t feel quite comfortable with my level of understanding. Seddon helps us out here with the concepts:
- “ruling power” mentioned at the beginning refers to “the aspect of ourselves which thinks and feels and decides what to do.”
- “in harmony with nature” refers to what the Stoics believed was the proper way for us to use the thinking/feeling/deciding part of ourselves when dealing with things in the world. (This is the topic of the next chapter, which we’ll begin next week).
- “primary objects” simply means the (preferred) Indifferents we discussed in Chapter 1, that is, anything that does not have intrinsic value.
According to Seddon, “In the first part of this [Meditation], Marcus says that the proper way for us to engage with the world is to pursue the preferred indifferents ‘with reservation.’ And if we fail to get what we had aimed for, like a burning fire that ‘masters’ (i.e. burns) everything that falls into it, we will immediately turn ourselves in a creative and responsible way to the new situation we are in. Indeed, in our capacity to deal with new developments, especially after a disappointment or failure, we should not be like a ‘little lamp’ but like a ‘blazing fire’.”
Be sure to continue your “Power Log” everyday for now. We’ll take a look at a couple other times where Marcus talks about acting “with reservation” in our next post.
By all means, please comment if you have any thoughts of your own that you’d like to share.