Irvine on the dichotomy of control

Epictetus-6I 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.


10 thoughts on “Irvine on the dichotomy of control

  1. viewfromreality

    While I can see the utility in updating this Stoicism for the 21st century, I’m of the mind that this particular insight of Irvine isn’t that useful. In fact I think it confuses an otherwise simple process of determining what is in one’s power and what isn’t.

    For instance, in the book Irvine uses Tennis as an example. Is it useful to say that the outcome of a tennis game is partially under our control? At first, maybe, but as you drill deeper this distinction isn’t necessary because within the game you will only focus on those things that are in your power and accept those things that aren’t. The deeper you dive the more the “partially under your control” dissolves and is unnecessary.

    Aside from that, Irvine’s book is a great primer and reference on stoic practice and one to which I refer often.


  2. John West

    I was going to write much the same as viewfromreality.

    But I think the notion of partial control, stemming entirely from overly coarse-grained analyses, may even be downright deleterious to stoicism. Where does one stop with it? Does one have partial control at 50% control? What about at 1% control? What about 0.001%, or 0.0001%, or 0.0000 … % until one has partial control over the atomic bombing of China when deciding to whether to break the back of a butterfly, and the whole Stoic project of dividing the world into what is in our power and what is not is undermined,


  3. John West

    Though, I should add, I do think there are cases where it’s genuinely difficult to know whether something is in one’s power or not. But I don’t think we should confuse whether one knows one has control over something with whether one actually does have control over it. The best we can do is strive to become better at knowing.


  4. Seth Leon

    I have been wondering how the Stoics decided precisely what was in their ‘control’ and what wasn’t. My view is that the outcomes of events are never fully under our control so I think it makes sense to focus our goals on the application & methods we use in our best attempts to act virtuously rather than on external outcome.

    Simple examples have been put forth using sporting competitions. One thing I do is compete in marathon races. I would like to qualify for the Boston marathon and am in range of doing so but a better goal is to train properly for long term fitness and to race smartly according to the fitness I bring on race day. Two marathons back (last May) I caught a bronchitis right before my race while attending my brothers wedding and traveling cross country for the two events. In that race i disregarded my circumstances and went for the qualifying time and paid for it dearly. In October I again had some misfortune injuring a hamstring right before the race despite following a smart tapering protocol. I did run the race but ran smartly getting a decent time without causing further injury although missing the qualifying time. I was intrinsicly pleased with the second performance despite missing the qualifying time,and rightly disappointed with my lack of self regulation in the earlier event.


  5. Wm. Burgess

    While I enjoy discussing stoicism with others, I haven’t read any Stoicism books except from the original Stoics yet. Perhaps I should read Irvine and others (I’ll definitely read Massimo’s when it comes out), but it’s a little difficult to understand why one would need a guide to understanding these very plain spoken ancient writers.

    But in the spirit of John West and Viewfromreality, I go further and wonder if there is even a dichotomy that is relevant to Stoicism. There is, perhaps, a dichotomy between external circumstances you can change and those you can’t but is this dichotomy significant to a Stoic at all?

    Both kinds of circumstances are equally, as Massimo quotes Epictetus, “material things that are, per se, indifferent” and both kinds are equally “made use of” in a way that is not indifferent.

    For example, in the case of the boat trip, one’s choice to drown without bawling or crying to god is as equally a chosen use of a circumstance as the date chosen to embark. In fact, I think even Epictetus would acknowledge that the choice of a date for embarkation is much less significant than the attitude one chooses at one’s drowning, even though one chose to embark and didn’t choose to drown.

    The dichotomy set up here by Irvine seems to be between ‘fate’ on one hand and ‘fate permitting’ on the other. However, maybe for a Stoic fate vs. fate permitting is not an important dichotomy because whether fate ‘permits’ or not, one’s attitude should remain the same. The relevant dichotomy is to show virtue vs. not showing virtue and all circumstances can be equally used for this.


  6. Massimo Post author

    Seth, it seems to me that your attitude toward your marathon attempts is exactly in line with Stoic teachings!

    Wm., I try to re-read the ancient Stoics as well as any good modern commentary for two reasons: first, there is always a chance that a good modern philosopher will shed more lights on the ancients; second, I am also interested in updating, whenever needed, Stoicism for the 21st century. Hence my interest in Irvine.

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  7. Seth Leon

    Hi Massimo,

    I just purchased Irvine’s book. I very interested in how the ‘attitude’ you are referring to is in line with both Stoic and original Taoist teachings even though one places great emphasis on rationality and the other could be considered as anti-rationalist. I look forward to understanding Irvine’s take and exploring the ways these approaches might engage with each other to assist one in staying on a path the makes a ‘good life’ more likely 🙂


  8. Fellini Spencer

    “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 brilliant summary! Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn this in childhood? Think of all the heartbreaks and disappointments and fights and suicides that could be eliminated.


  9. Massimo Post author

    Fellini, indeed, things would be much better if we got children started on the path to virtue, which is of course what both the Stoics and other virtue ethical schools advocated.


  10. Pingback: Epictetus on Cynicism | How to Be a Stoic

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