What is Stoic Control?

Control is a core concept in Stoic philosophy.

The philosopher Epictetus coined the Dichotomy of Control, and other Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca all talk about the concept of control in their own way.

Epictetus taught that the path to a happy life, a life of what the Stoics called Eudaimonia, was found in two things:

  1. Correctly identifying what is within our control, and what is not.

  2. Focusing our efforts on the things within our control and learning to accept what is not.

This distinction is important because, no matter how much we try, no matter how upset or frustrated we get, we cannot change things outside the reach of our control. A life of attempting to control the uncontrollable will undoubtedly be one of bitterness, frustration, and wasted effort.

On the other hand, a life focused on doing what we can with what we have is much more likely to be productive, effective, empowering, and, all together, more constructive.

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my top Stoic quotes on control:

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…

– Epictetus

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

– Viktor Frankl

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

– Marcus Aurelius

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

– Viktor Frankl

God has entrusted me with myself. No man is free who is not master of himself. A man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things. The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows where he is going.
― Epictetus

The key to control is not in controlling external events, but in controlling your own mind.

– Epictetus

Willingly accept the inevitable, and you will lead a life in harmony with the universe.

– Gaius Musonius Rufus

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.

– Epictetus

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.

– Epictetus

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Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
– Epictetus

In our control is the most beautiful and important thing, the thing because of which even the god

himself is happy— namely, the proper use of our impressions. We must concern ourselves absolutely

with the things that are under our control and entrust the things not in our control to the universe.

– Musonius Rufus

If you want your children and wife and friends to live forever, you’re a fool, because you’re wanting things that aren’t within your power to be within your power, and the things that aren’t your own to be your own.

– Epictetus

No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.

– Seneca

The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.

– Heraclitus

There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.

– Plato

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.

– Epictetus

Remember that among the things over which we have complete control are the goals we set for ourselves. I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.

— Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.
― Epictetus

Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability. These are goals I can achieve no matter how my wife and my boss subsequently react to my efforts. By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.

— Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

FAQ: Understanding Stoic Control

What is Stoic Control?

Stoic Control refers to the Stoic philosophy’s perspective on control, specifically the distinction between things within our control (like our reactions, judgments, and actions) and those outside it (such as external events or others’ opinions). This idea is central to the philosophy of the Stoics and has been used for thousands of years to help people reframe their beliefs about the world.

How Can Stoic Control Improve Daily Life?

Learning to implement Stoic control can significantly reduce our stress in day-to-day life. It teaches us to focus on personal actions and attitudes rather than external circumstances. This shift in focus can reduce stress, improve decision-making, and help us with a more balanced emotional state.

Is Stoic Control About Suppressing Emotions?

A common misconception is that these kinds of ideas in Stoic philosophy are about suppressing emotions. In reality, Stoicism doesn’t teach us to suppress our emotions, but to try and understand them, address them, and lessen the negative ones. The Stoics believed in responding to emotions with reason and not allowing them to dictate our actions impulsively.

How is Stoic Control Relevant in Modern Times?

In today’s day and age, Stoicism offers a framework for dealing with stress, uncertainty, and the challenges of modern life. By focusing on what we can control, we can navigate life more effectively, more efficiently, and with greater peace of mind.

Does Stoic Control Mean Being Passive?

This idea is often misunderstood as advocating passivity. In reality, it encourages active engagement with life, focusing on actions and attitudes within one’s control. It’s about proactive living, not passivity. It’s simply about focusing on the right things.

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