I keep reading (together with a local Stoic group in New York), William Irvine’s superb A Guide to the Good Life, and want to bring up his discussion of the (in)famous Stoic dichotomy of control. This is, of course, the idea that Stoics distinguish between things that are completely under control and things that are not, advising us to let go of the latter and focus on the first.
There is plenty of textual evidence for this distinction, for instance:
“‘Define for me now what the “indifferents” are.’ ‘Whatever things we cannot control.’‘Tell me the upshot.’ ‘They are nothing to me.’” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 30, 3)
“Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 1)
The problem is that if we interpret this as a strict dichotomy, we are in trouble for two reasons: first, because it seems fairly obvious that there is a third category to be considered, that of things that are partially under our control; second, because it seems to condemn Stoicism to an inward looking philosophy of passivity.
And yet, this can’t be the right picture. To begin with, many Stoics were very much people of action, who tried to change things that were not (entirely) under their control – think of Marcus Aurelius managing the Roman empire, or Seneca attempting to rein in the madness of Nero. Moreover, this observation, coupled with the strict interpretation above would imply that the Stoics were either inconsistent or hypocrites.
But one can easily find texts that seem to imply a trichotomy, not a strict dichotomy:
“It’s something like going on an ocean voyage. What can I do? Pick the captain, the boat, the date, and the best time to sail. But then a storm hits. Well, it’s no longer my business; I have done everything I could. It’s somebody else’s problem now – namely the captain’s. But then the boat actually begins to sink. What are my options? I do the only thing I am in a position to do, drown – but fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 10-12)
Picking a captain, a boat, a date, and a time to sail are not entirely up to us, because all those choices depend on other people as well as on circumstances. Still, Epictetus is clearly saying that we should engage in those choices. It is only in the latter part of the quote, when we truly have no choice but to drown, that the only thing left to us to control is how we react.
With that in mind, Irvine makes a crucial distinction to reconcile Stoic writings with the idea that the alleged dichotomy is actually a trichotomy:
“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 provides other, eminently practical, examples:
“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.”
I think this is a very good example of the sensibility of the original Stoicism, as well as of how its teachings can be updated and adapted to modern settings.