What Many People Misunderstand about the Stoic Dichotomy of Control by Michael Tremblay

Of all Stoic philosophy has to offer, the “Dichotomy of Control” (DOC) is one of the most popular aspects, and it is not hard to see why. In its most simple form, the DOC is often represented in the following way:

  1. Everything is either something we control, or don’t control.
  2. We control our emotions, behaviour, and reactions to situations.
  3. We don’t control anything else, like other people’s behaviours or what they think of us.
  4. If we wish to be happy/better people, we should focus on the things in our control, namely our behaviour and our reactions to situations.

One thing appealing about this representation of the DOC is its immediately applicability. It is a kind of “life hack”. You do not need to know anything else about Stoicism to find this concept both insightful and useful. Most impressively, it both provides comfort against the difficulties of life, as well motivation to improve.

In painful or stressful circumstances, reminding ourselves to focus on what we can control has an immediate calming effect. It gives us permission to turn our attention away from the circumstance causing us pain or frustration. And often times, such a switch in focus does not just alleviate the symptoms, but helps us solve the problem too, or at least realize whether the problem really concerns us or not.

Outside of these difficult moments, it gives us a growth mindset for self-improvement. It is the original call to switch from “outcome” to “process” thinking. If we want to be happier and better people, we should keep our focus limited to improving ourselves. It is also a call to be mindful and present in the moment, where we have control, and not the past or future, where we don’t. The DOC tells us not to dwell inappropriately on past failures, or be anxious about the possibility of future failure.

This way of talking about the DOC offers this major benefit without any further explanation of Stoic theory or ethics, and for a large number of people this will be enough and all they will want out of Stoicism.

My main concern about this version of the DOC, and reason or this blog article, is that it misrepresents the concept as it appears in Stoicism. This is ends up being very confusing for those trying to dig deeper into Stoicism (myself included). This blog post will try to explain away what I take the be the main misunderstanding concerning the DOC, and I will show why the Dichotomy of Control is a bad name for this concept, which is not about control at all.

Part 1: What Does “Eph’ ēmin” Really Mean?

The DOC is developed most thoroughly and clearly by the late Stoic Epictetus. His famous Handbook (the Enchiridion) opens with a clear articulation of it:

Some things are within our power (eph’ ēmin in the original Greek) 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, Handbook 1, Trans. Hard

Epictetus then goes on to talk about the consequences of not understanding this distinction. If we consider that which is not within our power as being up to us, we will suffer all kinds of negative psychological harms and vice versa. So far this sounds pretty similar to the DOC as I discussed earlier. The crucial change is that we do not find the word control anywhere. But why does Robin Hard translate this passage as things “within our power”, and not things “within our control”? 

To understand, we will have to quickly go over some Greek. The phrase being translated as ‘within our power’ is eph’ ēmin. These are two words. Ēmin is just a pronoun. It means “us”. The other word is epi, a preposition. It appears as eph’ because Greek words ending in vowels are often elided, which means their spelling changes before a word beginning with a vowel. The meaning of the preposition epi changes based on the grammatical case of the word it proceeds. In this circumstance, ēmin is in the dative case.

With that out of the way, what does this tell us about what this phrase means? Well, epi with a dative can mean a number of things, but most relevantly here, it means ‘to depend upon’ or ‘to be in the power of’. What Epictetus is literally saying is that something things ‘depend upon’ us, or are caused by us, and somethings do not. This is represented in another common way to translate the DOC, which is that somethings are ‘up to us’.

There is no mention here of ‘control’, and this was on purpose. The Stoics were much more concerned with causes, than with the concept of ‘controlling’ other things. Imagine someone insults me and I get incredibly angry. The relevant question for the Stoics is what ‘caused’ the anger? What does the anger depend on? They would say that the anger depends upon me. My beliefs and interpretations of the situation caused it. This is shown by the fact that someone else can get called the exact same nasty name and not get angry at all. So since I am the cause of my anger, it is my job to fix or resolve the anger. Does the other person’s mean comment depend upon me? Did I cause it? No, it caused by that person’s character, and thus they are the person responsibility for changing it. 

What we are left with is not a Dichotomy of Control, but a dichotomy of cause or dependence. I am responsible for, and should focus upon, the things that depend upon me, i.e. my beliefs, my decisions, and my character. These are the things that matter, which determine if I am a good or bad person, and If I live a happy or unhappy life. I not mistakenly think my happiness or value is determined by the things not ‘up to’ me. As you can see, control has nothing to do with this idea.

Part 2: What Is Wrong With The Word “Control

But what is wrong about the word ‘control’? At first, there is a large appeal to it. People want to have ‘control’ over their lives. They want to be able to determine the kind of person they are. And any philosophy that offers absolute unalienable control will strongly appeal to this desire, even if it is just control over something as small as our reactions and judgements. However talk of a Dichotomy of Control seems to lead to one of two major misunderstandings about Stoic philosophy, depending on how control is understood. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, control is the ability “to decide or strongly influence the particular way in which something will happen.” However, both of these ways of interpreting ‘control’ lead to misunderstandings of Stoic philosophy.

  1. Control as the ability to decide

First, there are those who take ‘control’ to mean something very strong. They think the Dichotomy of Control means that the Stoics believe we have the ability to decide, in any given moment, our reactions, our behaviours, and our choices. 

But the Stoics do not believe that. If I have an addiction, or am ignorant about something, or have a tendency to get very angry at the slightest provocation, the Stoics do not think I can just ‘decide’ not to be like that. They do not think I have control over these ingrained aspects of my character, if we take ‘controlling’ my actions and behaviors to mean I can just choose to be immediately different. Likewise, I cannot immediately change my habits, my subconscious ways of thinking, or my dispositions to act in certain ways in responses to trauma or stress. No Stoic argues that I can ‘control’ or ‘will’ myself into being a perfect person without years of strenuous work, and that we lack this ability is apparent to anyone who has tried and struggled with self-improvement. 

What the Stoics do believe is that I am the cause of these poor or undesirable parts of my character. These parts of my character depend upon me. And so they are my responsibility to change. This is a subtle point. I am responsible for my character. I cannot put the responsibility for who I am onto others, or past circumstances. But I also do not have total control over my behaviour. Changing takes work, time, and practice. But the more nuanced Stoic position is only apparent when we drop our focus on ‘controlling’ ourselves.

Whatever the Stoics thinks we have this kind of ‘control’ over, it is certainly less than the number of things that are ‘dependent on us’. If we think of the Stoic DOC as a division between things we control in this strong sense, we risk two problems. First, it might seem incoherent. The idea that we can totally ‘control’ our responses or behaviors makes Stoicism seem like an idealistic philosophy oblivious to complicated problems associated with addictions, habits, and emotional turmoil. And this would be a problem for Stoicism, if it was what Stoics were committed too. Fortunately it is not.

Another problem that comes up if we understand the DOC in the strong sense of control, is that it can make people feel like failures. It is easy to fall into thinking of this sort: “Stoicism teaches that we should be able ‘control’ our behaviors and responses. I cannot seem to do that. Therefore I am failing as a Stoic, or I am doing something wrong.” But, once again, often this kind of reasoning arises from a misunderstanding of the DOC.

  1. Control as the ability to strongly influence 

The second way of understanding the word ‘control’ is to take it to mean ‘to strongly influence’. I see this use all the time in athletic contexts. A coach, channelling his inner Stoic, might say something like: “You don’t control the opponents/referees/your teammates, you only control how well you play”. Or when someone thinks: “I can only control how I live, and the things that I do with my life.” This seems to be the idea that we control our ‘actions’, or what we do out in the world.  

This picture of ‘control’ is much too loose and includes far too many things that the Stoics would say are ‘not up to us’.  We certainly strongly influence what we do out in the world, but it is not up to us. For example, how well I play a soccer match is not ‘up to me’, because it is dependent on not getting the flu, or spraining my ankle, or being hit by a car on the way to the game. These are external things that can stop be from playing well. 

The problem with this view of the DOC, is that it lacks some of the most importance lessons Epictetus is trying to teach us. Yes, it is probably prudent for all of us to focus on developing things we strongly influence, like our hobbies or our personal relationships, instead of worrying about things we don’t influence. But you might still be find yourself disappointed and anxious if you start placing too much importance on these pursuits which aren’t ‘up to you’ in a Stoic sense. Not only that, but the Stoics will think you are thoroughly confused if you think what determines a ‘good life’ are these kinds of things which depend upon external circumstances. 

Now you might not want to be fully Stoic in your outlook in life. You might want to keep that sphere of focus to a medium size, which includes things you influence, like personal relationships, but excludes things you don’t influence at all. And this is your choice, but you should at least know that this is not the Stoic position.

Part 3: So What Is ‘Up To Us’?

If we cannot use the term ‘control’, then what is a snappy way to think of this division between what is up to us and what is not? 

My favorite way to think about it is in terms of what something external to you can stop. By external, I mean something that isn’t your character, choices, or beliefs. You might not have control over your temper yet, but that anger is still up to you, because what is stopping you from being calm is your own character, something internal. Travelling to a foreign country, or playing well in a soccer game, or being forgiven, are things not up to me, because these can all be prevented by circumstances external to me, my character, my believes, and my choices. 

This kind of division might be less immediately appealing than thinking of things we ‘control’ vs. things we do not, but ultimately it is more faithful to Stoic philosophy. And thinking about the DOC in this way should show that what seem to be a lot of inconsistencies in Stoicism are actually just misunderstandings. 

Michael Tremblay is a PhD. Candidate in Philosophy at Queen’s University. He is interested in philosophy as a way of life, and particularly enjoys Epictetus’ brand of Stoicism. You can learn more about his research at his website, or follow him on Twitter

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

12 thoughts on “What Many People Misunderstand about the Stoic Dichotomy of Control by Michael Tremblay”

  1. Wonderful article. Last year I published Secundum Naturam, which is now in its second edition, in which I find this phrase by Epictetus also goes back to Zeno, and regard it as causal responsibility. I’d like to add to the discussion by pasting below a section from the 2nd ed.:

    According to Epiphanius of Salamis (von Arnim, 1905, SVF, 1.177 = 375, Panarion, III, 2, 9 (III 36) Diels p. 592), Zeno wrote:

    τὰς δὲ αἰτίας τῶν πραγμάτων πῆ μὲν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, πῆ δὲ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, τουτέστι τὰ μὲν τῶν πραγμάτων ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, τά δὲ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν.

    The first part of this sentence regards one’s responsibility (Greek: αἰτίας) as something that is in our power (Greek: ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν). After the adverb τουτέστι, which means “that is to say” or “namely,” Gould (1970, p. 142) translates the second part of this sentence as “some things are in our power and some are not.” Although this famous Stoic sentence originates with Zeno, it is most commonly cited from Epictetus of Hierapolis.

    The Enchiridion (108c) of Epictetus, as translated by Oldfather (1928), begins with: “Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” If Epictetus meant that certain things are in our “control” (or are governed or ruled by us), most likely the ancient Greek would be the substantive ἀρχή from the verb ἄρχειν. In 1877, George Long translated this as “Of things some are in our power, and others are not.” The word ἡμεῖς or hēmeîs is a first person plural, personal pronoun, and is translated as we, us, and our. Usually, the phrase ἐφ ἡμεῖς has been translated in this sentence as “in our control” or “in our power,” but Hadot (1998) had the better translation, as “up to us,” as in “Some things are up to us, while others are not up to us.” This is interpreted here, as Zeno pointed out, as being equivalent to “Some things are our responsibility and others are not our responsibility.” I conjecture that the pronouncement of Zeno, which was echoed by Epictetus, derived from Stoic causality and regarded responsibility in causal analysis. The phrase ἐφ ἡμεῖς has been translated in Aristotle as “on us” or “depends on us,” and has also been regarded by some, unfortunately, in relation to free-will. Some causal effects (we are causally responsible for and hence) depend causally upon us, and some do not.

  2. I prefer the word control to the phrase casually dependent (although I can understand why we could use that) because control firmly places the responsibility for the choices I make on me. Casually dependent does not because I can make the argument that “x caused y which caused me to respond in z manner.”

    However, at the end of the day I don’t think the phrase used is as important as knowing the concept it was trying to teach and that it is something that exists in isolation but is developed through the three disciplines.

  3. I appreciate the thoughtful replies from Jane, Greg, Leo, Michael and others, re: my comment on the Stoic dichotomy (DOC), and I will try to address a few of the points made by Michael and others. I apologize for the length of my remarks, but I think the topic merits a “deep dive” into the Stoic

    First, let me emphasize that I do not in any way question the Stoic claim that our experience of pain–even intense pain–can be greatly modified or attenuated through the agency of our thinking and “re-framing.” (In Stoic terms, through prohairesis or “choice.”). As Donald Robertson notes in a fine essay on the Stoic view of pain, including the (? chronic ulcer) pain that Marcus Aurelius suffered:

    “Marcus would tell himself that pain is just a “rough sensation” in the body, nothing more or less.
    It can’t make us a better or a worse person but how we respond to it can. It’s an absolutely fundamental principle of Stoic ethics that painful (or pleasant) sensations are neither good nor bad but rather indifferent – at least with regard to the supreme goal of our lives. It’s natural for us to prefer not to experience painful sensations, or other symptoms of illness. However, once they’re already happening to us we should accept the fact rather than becoming upset or frustrated. Stoics, therefore, suspend their value judgements about external events, including pain and other bodily sensations. If we can avoid imposing strong value judgements on unpleasant sensations we thereby eliminate a whole layer of emotional suffering from our experience, allowing us to cope better with the “rough” sensations we feel.”


    I have no objection at all to the Stoic program for modulating or mitigating pain through such suspension of “strong value judgments”, and would agree that this particular task—to use Michael Tremblay’s formulation–is one “I am responsible for” and one which “depend[s] upon me.” Thus, to this extent, I think one can defend the dichotomy Michael is exploring; i.e., not one of “control”, but of causal dependency, agency, and personal responsibility.

    But this notion of the autonomous “me” that rises up, re-conceptualizes, re-frames, and thereby surmounts pain is a complex and debatable notion in its own right, and requires much more analysis than this space permits. Some of Greg’s comments touch on these more metaphysical or meta-psychological issues.**

    Suffice it to say that, in my view, rather than a “DOC” or even a dichotomy of things that “depend on me” vs. those that do not, I would argue in favor of a CCE–a “continuum of causal efficacy.” For example, if we focus our mental energy on preventing mutations of the Covid-19 virus, we will be engaging in an activity with very low causal efficacy (in contrast to wearing masks).
    If we focus our concern on eliminating all rude behavior, we will again be engaging in an activity with low causal efficacy. In contrast, if we focus our concern on ignoring insults, we will be engaging in a high causal efficacy activity. Regarding pain, I would suggest that this falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum of causal efficacy. This model, in my view, is philosophically more defensible than the DOC that Michael nicely debunks, but also avoids a dichotomy based on things that “depend” or “do not depend” on me. Of course, this is my own view, and evidently not that of the major Stoics.

    Thanks again to Michael for stimulating this discussion!

    Best regards,

    ** It suggests that our mental states are not greatly dependent on our physical sensations; and, indeed, that somehow our mentation is not itself physical and dependent on physiological
    processes, including but not limited to intense pain. It implies, in short, a kind of proto-Cartesian “mind-body split” that raises profound philosophical problems that can’t be fully addressed here. It is one thing to argue that my anger depends on “me”–but quite another, in my view, to
    argue that my pain depends on “me.” Similarly, it is one thing to say that “I am the cause of my anger” and yet another to say that “I am the cause of my pain.” Perhaps the most we can say–consistent with Stoic teaching–is that I am the cause of that component of my pain that can be mitigated through the willed suspension of strong value judgments (prohairesis). It is in this
    sense that I question the value of dichotomous formulations, whether conceived as a matter of “control” or a matter of causal dependence.

  4. Thank you. My own understanding of DOC, in the 30 years or so that I’ve been attempting to practise Stoicism, has been as you describe. In fact, in my memory, the Handbook starts with ‘Some things are up to us’. You prompted me to find out why, when every translation I own uses ‘under my control’. I discover that it is because one of the first books I read on Stoicism was John Sellar’s ‘Stoicism’, and I must have memorised his translation. Coincidentally, I recommended this book to a couple of friends not long ago, only to discover that a copy is now over £20 to buy. It is time it was reprinted.

  5. Hi, Michael,

    Thanks for the insightful point, distinguishing between things we can “control” and things that are “dependent on us” or “up to us.” I agree with you that Stoicism is primarily concerned with the latter.

    But I think there is a deeper conundrum here, and I don’t believe I have seen it addressed in detail by many scholars of Stoicism; namely, the issue of “dichotomous” distinctions. This really harks back to the Platonic notion of “carving Nature at its joints”, as he writes in Phaedrus 265e.

    Consider the phenomenon of pain–a topic I deal with all the time, as a physician. Is the degree of pain we experience after, say, major surgery, a thing “dependent on us”–or is it something “external” to us, in some important sense? As a practical matter, I’m inclined to say that the question does not lend itself to dichotomous classification. In some measure, as the Stoics would quickly point out, our subjective response to pain is something that is “dependent on us,” and varies greatly from person to person. Some people, for example, “catastrophize” even minor pain and almost certainly amplify their misery thereby. Others–think “Zen Master”–seem almost oblivious to pain. But a patient’s post-surgical pain–or pain from metastatic prostate cancer– is only partly dependent on the person and his or her “character.” It also depends on the degree of bony metastasis; and how well the pain is being treated by “external” forces, such as analgesics, etc.

    In short, I think the whole notion of dichotomous classification is a problem for Stoicism. I believe, rather, that “dependency” in the causal sense you describe is a more or less continuous function, that exists along a continuum of “self” vs. “not self”, internal vs. external.

    I would welcome your and others’ comments, and thanks for the thoughtful contribution!


    Ronald W. Pies, MD

    1. The pain is an external. How I deal with the pain is up to me. Despite being a Stoic, I can borrow from Epicureanism and remind myself that pain never goes on forever Severe pain carries its own end (death), whereas chronic pain can always be endured.
      I’ve summarised Marcus Aurelius’s various references to dealing with physical pain as best I can. I think it is clear that he saw physical pain as an external, and recognised the subjective response to pain was up to him. Resilience to physical pain could be learned, just as resilience to psychic pain could.
      I read an account of the life of Cato the Younger’s daughter Portia (who was Brutus’ second wife). She was a Stoic like her father. Wanting to have the resilience of a man, she used to cut herself to practise being in pain. She was admired for doing so. There are also references to Stoics depriving themselves of water.
      So I’m not convinced that DOC is a problem for Stoicism.

    2. Hi, Ron:

      I’d think that one you factor in what Epictetus thought “we” really are, it becomes a little more clear. And much more dichotomous:

      “For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice (prohairesis)…” (Discourses 3.1.40)

      This “choice” is a very small part of our mental lives that, if Epictetus is to be believed, has the completely free ability to assent to impressions. That’s pretty much all it does. Thus, everything that is “up to us” can be translated as “up to prohairesis”. And pretty much all that’s up to prohairesis is assent.

      So, with this in hand, is pain “up to us” in the Epictetan sense? No. Can the patient with congenital insensitivity to pain use their power of assent to make pain happen? No. Because the pain doesn’t depend on their prohairesis.

      Or, to frame it another way, you can used Michael’s test that he gives in the third section of the essay: can anything external to you influence pain? As a medical doctor, I’d suspect that you could uncontroversially answer “yes” to this question.

      All this rests on another dichotomy that may be harder to justify: that our minds and mental life can be cleanly divided into a small core that’s free to assent or not assent, and everything else (automatic thoughts, sensations, body, etc.). I certainly think this is open to question, and that if this dichotomy fails, Epictetus’ dichotomy also fails. However, I also hold that Epictetus’ view makes sense as long as you *assume* that this underlying dichotomy of prohairesis/everything else applies, and I hope I’ve made a clear-enough case for that.

    3. Hi Rod,
      Here’s my current understanding of how the DOC works and how it can be applied in the situation you describe. As humans when we perceive things we don’t merely perceive the object or phenomena but rather we perceive a mirage – some combination of both the phenomena and our judgements about it. For example pain and the judgment that it is terrible. This occurs almost automatically and we are typically unaware that these automatic judgments are integrated with the act of perception. The discipline of assent is the practice of engaging our rationality at the point of perception and before action or conscious judgement is made. E.g. there is pain in my groin and it is intense, 7/10 I need some help with it.
      This puts us in a better position to deal with the phenomena and cope psychologically. The dichotomy of control is in controlling our judgements which are internal to us deploying wisdom to discern the phenomena accurately and respond to it appropriately which may include seeking external help to treat or manage intolerable pain.

    4. Hi Ron,

      Thanks for this detailed and insightful comment. I myself think the Stoics focus much less on pain than one would expect considering 1) The concept of pain was philosophically central to the philosophy of their contemporaries, the Epicureans, and 2) Chronic pain, or even extreme acute pain, seems to be the most common example in our own lives of a time when an external impressions seems to be over powering, and our assent to that impression as bad seems to be forced upon us.

      As for your point, I think it is important to question this use of dichotomy instead of continuum. The Stoics were notoriously criticized even by their contemporaries for doing this with vice and virtue as well. The Stoics claim everyone is either perfectly vicious or virtuous, there are not levels or degrees of change between those two states (which still seems to me like a weird point for them to stand by).

      However, I will try to defend the Stoics here. I think there are maybe 2 things they could say in response to your comment about pain in medical practice. First, there needs to be a distinction between the physical sensation of pain, and then our mental participation in deeming it to be a bad or harmful thing. The physical ‘pain’, seems then to be not at all ‘up to us’, it is a result of what our body has suffered, and our bodies tendency to experience sensation more or less intensely than others. This kind of pain can be alleviated through medication. But the mental ‘pain’ does seem to be up to us. It is a result of our assent to that physical impression as bad. To which one might respond “of course we must deem pain to be bad”, but then the Stoics would point to plenty of times people enjoy pain. I myself can think of enjoying how hard I have exerted myself in a workout, for example.

      Another way to deal with this issue is the further break down the point about ‘causation’. I did not get into this in the essay, but the Stoics divided between types of causes. In the event of mental pain, there is the auxiliary and proximate cause (the physical sensation), and the complete and primary cause (our character). So physical pain would only have one kind of cause. An external cause. But mental pain is the result of two causes, the physical illness and my personal response to that physical sensation. According to the Stoics, we know our mental response cannot be caused ONLY by the external cause, because it is different in others, for example the Zen master vs. the catastrophizer. So for the Stoics, anything that runs through an internal cause becomes ‘up to us’ in the philosophically important sense that we can be morally judged for it.

      And I think this is reflected in the way we talk about pain (at least outside of a clinical setting). We praise those who are able to withstand great amounts of physical pain with mental equanimity, but we would not praise or judge people for their degree of physical pain they feel. We judge the part that has an internal cause, not the part that is only externally caused.

      I hope this helps to clarify.


  6. Many believe that there is a stoic influence in the conception and practice of cognitive behavioral therapy/ theory (cbt). Ellis, the founder of one form of cbt, rational emotive behavioral therapy has said that he relied on the stoics in the formulation of REBT.

  7. Great article – this is so good and so important! For people who suffer from trauma etc, they quickly dismiss stoicism as a practical philosophy because it is too idealistic. This article nicely reconciles stoicism with say, the ideas and conclusions in the book ‘the body keeps the score’ about trauma. It refocuses on the longer haul character training aspect of stoicism, which will may need an expanded toolkit of psychological or psychiatric interventions (than merely reflecting on texts and doing stoic meditation/reflection exercises) if you are coming from a place of trauma.

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