Stoic Philosophy:

Over the last few thousand years, philosophy has grown into a massive subject that asks questions about almost every area of our lives, from the very small to the very large, like “What is the meaning of life?”.

While some of the more esoteric schools of thought have their place, I find that the real value is in the concepts that you and I can sink our teeth into and apply from day to day. Those are the bits I love, and those are the bits that I think have the greatest impact on our wellbeing.

Of these practical philosophies, Stoic philosophy is home to some of the most applicable and effective ideas from the ancient world. The founder, Zeno of Citium, and the subsequent followers of the Stoic school, such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, have left us with a wealth of knowledge. Wisdom that has been read, digested, and applied by everyday people like you and me, to help them build resilience, achieve peace of mind, enhance their wellbeing, and live better lives.

Out of all the books, lectures, letters, essays, and scraps of work left to us by the ancient Stoics, there is one lesson in particular that stands out as the golden core of this practical philosophy: The Dichotomy of Control.

At it’s core Stoic philosophy is simply a system of living and thinking that leads to a life of flourishing, or what the Stoics called eudaimonia. These same Stoics believe that a necessary principle in achieving this is developing the virtue of wisdom (more on Stoic virtue here). Where wisdom is the ability to see the world clearly, free of bias and prejudice, and the ability to use what we know to make sound judgements.

A large step in developing the virtue of wisdom is developing the understanding of what is within our control and what is not. This may sound like a simple thing to do but it can have a huge impact on the way we view the world, how much we suffer, and how resilient we are, as we’re about to find out.

“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.

Within your control are your own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel you. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.

Not within your control is literally everything else. You must remember these things are externals, and none of your concern.”

– Epictetus

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

Suffering and Control:

Control is a difficult thing to see clearly in our modern world. We often assume that we have far more control over the world around us than we really do. In reality, we control very little.

This can be an uncomfortable truth, especially for those of us who like the feeling of control or find comfort in it. However, much of what we think we control is an illusion, a story we tell ourselves because it’s comfortable. This temporary comfort can be the death of long-term well-being, and we all have a responsibility to look at our lives objectively and decide what is within our control and what is not.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

– Epictetus

Epictetus teaches us that almost everything is outside our control. All we can really do is decide how we think, how we act, and how we respond to the events around us. Everything else is up to chance or the decisions of others. When these two distinctions are made, we are left with two choices:

  1. We can choose to spend our time worrying about things which are outside the power of our will (ineffective)

  2. We take ownership for the areas in our life that we have control over and we move forward (effective)

For many of us, frustrations and suffering are born from focusing too much on what is outside our control and too little on what is within our control. Our inability to differentiate between what we can control and what we can’t will eventually cause us to suffer. This happens for two main reasons:

  1. We spend too much time and energy on the aspects of life that are outside our control.

    The best examples of day to day suffering as a result of uncontrollable externals are:

    • Traffic

    • Other people’s actions

    • People not texting back

    • The economy

    • The weather / Disasters

    • Politics

    • Not getting enough likes on our Instagram selfie

    • etc

  2. We fail to take ownership and focus on the areas of life that are truly within our control:

    • Out thoughts

    • Our beliefs

    • Our values

    • Our actions

    • Our perceptions

That’s it; it’s that simple. However, adopting it perfectly into our daily lives takes a fair amount of self-awareness, reflection, and practice.

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

– Epictetus

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

The Story of the Fisherman:

Take the example of a Stoic fisherman at sea. The wind is outside his control, as are the tide, the rain, the waves, and the number of fish below the surface. Bemoaning any of these is a fruitless task and simply a source of unnecessary suffering. It achieves nothing. It changes nothing.

Within the man’s control is how he uses the wind in his sails, where he decides to cast the net, how hard he works for his catch, etc. We work with what we have, accepting reality for what it is. We take ownership of the things in life within our control and take the rest as it comes.

Life and Control:

The world’s most successful addiction program beautifully articulates the same Stoic philosophy. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous recite the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

The concept of control is not unique to Stoicism or the AA. The US Army’s Leadership manual contains the following:

“It is crucial for leaders to remain calm under pressure and to expend energy on things they can positively influence and not worry about things they cannot”

This philosophy has been used time and time again by AA to pull people from the dark corners of their lives, back into the light, and its used by the US Army to build leaders.

It can just as easily be applied to everyday life to prevent frustration, feelings of powerlessness, and to build empowerment, resilience, and effectiveness.

No matter where we are on our path, taking responsibility to distinguish what is in our control and what is not, will allow us to see where we can affect change and where we can stop wasting our time. Acceptance and awareness begin to replace complaint and frustration.

The only thing we fully control are our beliefs and our actions.


Ask Yourself:

  1. Where in your life do you try and control things outside the reach of your sovereignty?

    1. The thoughts, opinions and beliefs of other people

    2. The economy, job market, political climate

    3. Your body, age, hunger, desire, emotion

  2. Where in your life do you neglect control of things within your sovereignty?

    1. Your actions

    2. Your thoughts

    3. Your beliefs

  3. Your decisions

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