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:
- Everything is either something we control, or don’t control.
- We control our emotions, behaviour, and reactions to situations.
- We don’t control anything else, like other people’s behaviours or what they think of us.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.