There is a concept in Stoic philosophy that can transform our frustrations into acceptance, our anger into understanding, and can help us focus our limited time each day on things that create real impact and change in our life, rather than focusing on things that waste it.

This is the Stoic concept of control; we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can always decide how we react to it. Our response is our responsibility, it’s a choice. Today we’re going to explore the ancient Stoic philosophy behind the concept and look at how we can implement it in daily life.

The philosopher Epictetus was born into slavery in ancient Greece – he was permitted to study Stoic philosophy under he guidance of the philosopher Masunius Rufus. Epictetus earned his freedom around the age of 18, shortly after the death of Emperor Nero – with his new found freedom he took to Rome to teach his philosophy for a further 25 years until Emperor Domitian banished philosophers from the city because of the threat their free thinking had on the control of his rule. Epictetus left Rome and settled in the newly formed city of Nicopolis in ancient Greece – here he lives simply and founded a school of philosophy where he taught until he passed away from old age.

Sadly, Epictetus did not write any of his work down. However we are left with the work of one of his students, Arian, who transcribed the lectures of Epictetus close to word for word. Of 8 books written by Arian, four survive and contain some of the best practical philosophy from the ancient word called the Discourses of Epictetus, which I’ll link below in the description.

A core teaching of Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy was control.

He 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 effort 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 we get, or frustrated we become, we cannot change the 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.

 Epictetus said:

“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, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

This concept in Stoicism is widely known as the Dichotomy of control, so called because things are really only divided into what you can control and what you can’t.

Epictetus took this further and described exactly what is within our power and what is not. He also helps us understand the pitfalls of spending too much time focusing on changing what we have no power to change, and the benefits of focusing on the areas of life within our power to change – in his writing Arrian recounts the following:

“There are things that are within our power, and things that fall outside our power. Within our power are our own opinions, aims, desires, dislikes—in sum, our own thoughts and actions. Outside our power are our physical characteristics, the class into which we were born, our reputation in the eyes of others, and honours and offices that may be bestowed on us. 

Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men. But if you focus your attention only on what is truly your own concern, and leave to others what concerns them, then you will be in charge of your interior life. No one will be able to harm or hinder you. You will blame no one, and have no enemies.  If you wish to have peace and contentment, release your attachment to all things outside your control. This is the path of freedom and happiness. If you want not just peace and contentment, but power and wealth too, you may forfeit the former in seeking the latter, and will lose your freedom and happiness along the way.”

Marcus Aurelius also wrote about a similar concept in his journal, now known as Mediations;

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

So how can we turn this Stoic practice into a daily habit?

A good first step is training our mind to quickly sort the things around us and within us into one of two categories. Inside or outside, and then learn to accept the things outside as they are and take responsibility for everything inside. When we get this wrong we suffer. And we normally suffer in one of two ways, and often both:

The First: We try and control the things in life that we have no influence over:

  • Other people, their beliefs, thoughts, actions and values.

  • The weather

  • Traffic

  • The economy

  • Politics

  • Time

  • etc

Obviously when we try to control the uncontrollable we’re putting effort into an endeavour in which we have no leverage, this results in little to no impact and ends up with feelings of powerlessness, frustration, anxiousness, ineffectiveness, bitterness, and anger. In a nutshell, we suffer.

The second way we suffer is not taking responsibility for what we control:

  • Our beliefs

  • Our values

  • Our perspective

  • Our actions

When we don’t take responsibility for these things we can’t overcome our situation because we’re not focusing our energy where we have impact. We remain stuck. People stuck here often complain, moan, point fingers, whinge and create a mentality of victim-hood. It’s not a healthy place to be.

The dichotomy of control helps us shift our perspective in two important ways:

  • When we are able to determine what is outside our control we no longer waste our time and energy trying to change it. We see it for what it is, accept it, and move on to what we can control.

  • When we are able to determine what is within our control (our beliefs, values, and actions) we are able to focus our time and energy on taking action in these areas and moving forward. This makes us much more efficient and effective.

As Epictetus says:

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

This all takes practice, and will need deliberate effort to start to build those mental pathways, but soon it becomes second nature, and you will naturally use these two categories to determine how to act in the face of events around you in ways that are both more effective and lead to happier, more resilient lives.

To end with some final thought; In his book A Guide To The Good Life, William Irvine explores this subject and described the following

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

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

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