In our final part of our special series from Keith Seddon’s course Stoic Serenity, you can engage in two exercises to reflect on how you have applied and can apply Epictetus’ advice on what is in your power and what is not to your life.
Click below for the exercises! If you can, take 15 minutes to go through the exercises and please post below your reflections on this key Stoic maxim, and write about your overall thoughts on Epictetus’ approach. Is ‘knowing what is in our power and what is not’ at the core of Stoic philosophical practice?
What is in Our Power, Part Five
More about Keith Seddon & Stoic Serenity: Keith Seddon is director of the MA and PhD programmes in Ancient Philosophy at Warnborough College, Ireland. He is a freelance academic and writer, who started the ‘Stoic Foundation’ in 2000, an educational trust, offering advice, support and a correspondence course (on which his book Stoic Serenity, from which our extract is taken, is based) in practical Stoic philosophy to anyone interested in taking up Stoicism as a philosophy to live by. Our thanks go to Keith for allowing his work to be reproduced on this blog.
I had a bit of a strange reaction today while trying to react Stoically in an annoying situation.
I had an hour wait for an above ground train ahead of me (on top of a 40min trip time), so my father offered to pick me up (on his night off) from the subway, which, in theory, would have taken him 20mins round trip out of his day. My trip to meet my father ended up being delayed over 40mins due to unforeseen circumstances. I obviously became emotionally upset because my father was left to wait almost an hour in the car park and I couldn’t contact him about the delay since I was in an underground subway.
It’s Stoic to know that it wasn’t my fault the train was delayed and my father would be understanding, but it felt ethically wrong to not have an emotional reaction to him having to worriedly wait over an hour in a car park for me – to react like ‘it’s all good’ because that which is not in my power occurred. Would the Stoics want us to let go of upset even when it seems a bit ethically wrong to?
Thanks for the comment! I think that is a really good question, and I’ll give it a shot, based on how I understand things (I might be wrong, and it would be interesting to see what others think).
I think your question points out the potential difficulties in translating the Stoic idea as focussing on ‘what is in our power and what is not’. When it is translated this way, it can sound as if the Stoics just don’t care about what is outside of someone’s control in any given situation. I left my dad waiting – not in my power, so what?! Some people are homeless – not in my power, so what?!
But I don’t think that is actually the sense of what the Stoics were about at all. I think the original from Epictetus is better rendered as knowing the difference between ‘what is up to us and what is not up to us’. What is ‘up to us’ actually for Epictetus included the importance of ethical action (in fact this was what was first and foremost in his mind). It is ‘up to us’ to try our best to lead good lives. A lot of external things might happen as they happen (we can’t necessarily affect them, they are ‘not up to us, in that sense), but it is up to us to influence them as best we can, ethically, and to respond well to such events. In short, we try our best to make good use of things which are ‘up to us’.
So in terms of the situation above, I think it would have been more than appropriate to be concerned for your dad waiting, and to express that you were sorry when you say him, and for that expression to be genuine.
In general, I have to say that I think the translation of Epictetus as ‘what is in our power and what is not’ is very misleading!
How does one get in touch with Keith Seddon with email? I am working with a small group of professors who are working through the original Greek of the Encheiridion.