As I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, I have enrolled in the Stoic mindfulness and resilience training course offered by the good people at Modern Stoicism, and coordinated by Donald Robertson (the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). I’m doing this in part for my own benefit, and in part as an exercise in philosophical journalism, in preparation for one of my forthcoming (fate permitting) books on Stoicism.
I figured, then, that I would write a series of posts, one for each of the four weeks of the course, focusing on the suggested “big question of the week,” to bring the discussion to people who have not enrolled in the course and to perhaps broaden the appeal of what Modern Stoicism is doing.
This week’s big questions are: What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?
The questions refer, of course, to one of Stoicism’ s basic precepts, the distinction between what is and what is not under our control. As Epictetus famously put it in the Enchiridion (1, 1): “We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.”
Specifically, the Stoics thought that what is under our control are our judgments of things and our considered behaviors (i.e., behaviors that are the result of reflection, as opposed to instinctual reactions). Pretty much everything else is out of our control, including wealth, health, and all sorts of other things they classed as “indifferent” (to virtue).
This dichotomy needs to be qualified somewhat, as I’ve discussed in the past. For instance, Irvine proposes that it is really a trichotomy: things that are under our complete control (conscious thoughts and actions), things that are completely outside of our control (e.g., the weather), and things that we can influence but whose ultimate outcome does not depend only on us (e.g., the outcome of a game we play, or whether we retain our job).
To answer the first question above, the idea is that keeping the in/out of one’s control distinction clearly in mind, particularly in difficult situations, ought to do a few things for us: first, it allows us to focus on what we can actually change, and not waste our time on things that we cannot accomplish. Second, it is supposed to allow us to achieve some emotional detachment from the outcome of things: for the Stoics it makes no sense to squander emotional energy on regretting how something turned out, if you did your best under the circumstances. (This, again, is conceptualized well by Irvine’s suggestion that Stoicism is about internalizing our goals: the goal is not to win the tennis match, say, but to play well, regardless of the final score.)
As to the second question, the long term consequences of blurring the in/out of one’s control distinction would be a cumulative waste of resources (because we would insist in trying to accomplish things we cannot actually accomplish) as well as of emotional energy (because we would be worried and distraught by things over which we have no control).
There are typically two objections to the idea of the Stoic “fork” of distinguishing what is and is not up to us: on the one hand, some worry that this will lead to apathy (as opposed to apatheia!) or inaction; on the other hand, people keep bringing up the idea that, allegedly, modern science has shown that much of our thought processing and decision making is subconscious, so it turns out that even our own judgments and actions are not really under our control. Let me address both points briefly.
Concerning the first one, many of the ancient Stoics were teachers, politicians or military commanders, i.e., the sort of people who very much thinks (and acts) in order to change society, hopefully for the better. They were most definitely not a bunch of apathetic (in the modern sense of the word) characters. On the contrary, they were able to focus on what they could really hope to accomplish, as opposed to wasting their time, energy and resources on things that philosophical reflection would lead to conclude they could do little or nothing about.
On the second point, reports of us being little more than zombies are greatly exaggerated. Yes, modern research in cognitive science does highlight just how much processing of information in our brain occurs at the subconscious level (though please notice that even our subconscious is “us,” not someone else!). But Libet-type experiments, for instance, have been conducted under very specific circumstances, situations in which we actually expect decision-making to be unconscious. They in no way invalidates the idea that our brain is, as Nobel winning Daniel Kahneman famously put it, a two-track device where “fast” (i.e., unconscious) and “slow” (i.e., conscious) thinking continuously interact with each other to reciprocal influence. Moreover, it is precisely because a great deal of our reactions and behaviors spring automatically from our subconscious that Stoics train themselves to slow down and examine their “impressions” in a detached fashion.