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The Dichotomy of Control

Chapter 1 / 53: The Enchiridion (The Handbook of Epictetus), provides 53 potent Stoic teachings. In this first lesson, we learn to differentiate things that we have control over and things we do not have control over. This distinction is key to unlocking Stoic wisdom.
The Dichotomy of Control

The Enchiridion Chapter 1 / 53

The Enchiridion was written by ex-slave-turned-Stoic-philosopher Epictetus.

It is one of the greatest philosophy books of all time, and it can be read in a single sitting (though I don’t recommend that).

Enchiridion means “a book containing essential information on a subject,” which is why many people refer to it as The Handbook of Epictetus.

This book presents one of the few systematic guides to Stoic philosophy, with each of the 53 succinct passages representing a key psychological technique or process on the practice of Stoicism.

Because of the book's length, and little time it takes to read, I do worry that the gems contained inside often get overlooked by its readers. Each point Epictetus makes ought to be savoured, meditated upon, drilled, and truly embodied before moving to the next.

To help my readers (and myself) with their study of Stoicism, I've decided to retranslate each chapter of The Enchiridion for a modern readership.

The posts that follow in this series are not academic expositions on the philosophical meaning and context of Stoicism. Rather, these articles are my own simplified and expanded versions of the chapters found within The Enchiridion.

I've tried my best to keep the meaning as close to the original version as possible, while also attempting to increase the practicality, relatability, and readability.

This is the first post of fifty three, and arguably the most essential to read if you wish to decode the later sections.

I/ Understanding the Dichotomy of Control

In order to live well, you must differentiate between things that are worth fretting about and things that are not worth fretting about.

There are some things in life you are not responsible for, and some decisions that are not up to you. Likewise, there are some things you are responsible for and some decisions that are up to you.

In short:

  1. There are some things that are within your control, that are up to you, that you are responsible for, and it is wise to spend your energy trying to change these things.
  2. There are some things that are not within your control, that are not up to you, which you are not responsible for, and it foolish to spend energy trying to change these things.

Let’s look at some examples.

5 Things In Your Control

1. Your Judgment

You can argue with other people’s point of view quite easily, but you can also argue with your own point of view. You have the power to question your own opinions and reason your way to wiser judgments.

2. Your Impulses

You may not be able to control your knee-jerk reactions to a situation, which often last just a few seconds, but you always have the power to exercise patience or self-control to override your impulses and form better judgments about how to proceed. It may not be easy, but it is certainly possible and therefore within your control.

3. Your Desires

You may argue that one cannot control their desires, but this is not entirely true. If you take an extreme example such as someone addicted to heroin, you will see that even though the stirrings of desire may remain with them for life, they can displace this desire with an ever more powerful desire: the desire to be sober.

4. Your Aversions

Anxiety and fear is often made much worse when the thing that one fears is avoided. One’s emotions, in the grip of such fear will motivate one to avoid the source of the fear. However, we can override this aversion and confront that which we fear. This mechanism is one of the fundamental pillars to personal growth.

5. Your Mental Faculties

If we find that we are lacking in some area mentally, we have the power to improve and learn. This is the heart of “self-improvement.” If we apply ourselves with enough effort to the task of improving our mental faculties, incredible transformations can occur.

On the other side, there are many things that are not up to you and you ought to to fret about.

3 Things Outside Your Control

1. Your Body

You have the power to change your judgements about eating, alter your desires about attending the gym, and overcome your aversions to healthy eating. But you don’t have direct control over you genetics, your height, your eye colour, your bone structure, your bone density, your immune system, your susceptibility to illness, and the chance of experiencing an accident or death.

2. Material Possessions

You have the power to read books on making money, cultivating the desire to work more, and improve your mental faculties so that you can increase the likelihood of acquiring more material possessions. But with all that, you may still fail. Your wealth may be stripped from you; your items may be stolen. There are many things that could happen, outside of your control, that may stifle your attempts to gain or maintain material possessions.

3. Other People’s Opinions of You

You have the power to try to improve your social skills, and you can try to create judgements and desires that help you to become more liked and respected, but ultimately this is not within your direct control. The social class you were born into, the way you look, the tone of your voice, the past experiences of the person you’re interacting with, the amount of sleep they had, and a million other factors go into how you are perceived by others.

II/ Conceptualising the Dichotomy of Control

When it comes to conceptualising The Dichotomy of Control, it is worth noting how much freedom there is in exercising that which is under your control. Your intentions and judgments are beautifully free and unrestrained by anything. Whereas outcomes and reactions are not robust, frail, and weak.

It is for this reason the wise person puts his efforts into that open space which they have direct control over, instead of the inferior space where things happen to them. That space is none of their concern.

What's in our control is unconstrained by externals, and what is outside our control is constrained by externals.

Take note of the direction of the arrows above. The wise person respects the flow of life and focuses on that which they can control. The unwise person goes against the flow, and will seek to control what is up to The World.

III/ The Benefits of Practicing the Dichotomy of Control

The benefits of adopting The Dichotomy of Control as a form of Being cannot be overstated.

If you truly embody this practice by understanding what belongs to you and is up to and what does not, here's what you can expect:

  • You will feel liberated and free.
  • You will not have any hatred or resentment in your heart.
  • Every single thing you do will be chosen by you.
  • Nobody will have the power to hurt you.

Your life will revolve only around your actions and intentions and all else will lack any power to affect you.

If you practice the dichotomy of control incorrectly, however, and mistake that which is in your control for that which is not here's what you can expect:

  • You will live a life sought with suffering and misery.
  • You will be dissatisfied often.
  • You will constantly chase things you can never attain.
  • Other people will be able to harm you at will.

IV/ Bringing The Right Intention to Practicing the Dichotomy of Control

If you want to receive the vast benefits that The Dichotomy of Control brings, you must practice it religiously. A fundamental life shift must occur if you wish to attain deep freedom and happiness.

If you are seeking fame and wealth while undertaking your practice of the dichotomy, you will likely fail in both pursuits.

Dedicate some time to the sole study of the dichotomy of control and you will achieve levels of personal freedom that you didn’t think were possible. Set aside all other aspirations for a while, put yourself in a dichotomy of control training camp, so to speak.

V/ Practical Application of the Dichotomy of Control

Let's look at how we can put these ideas to immediate practice. Here is a diagram that shows the step-by-step process.

Step One: Separate The Source from the Impression

The first stage of the practice of the dichotomy of control is in the discernment of source vs. impression.

We do not have access to “Reality.” Everything we perceive arises within our own consciousness. When we perceive the world, we are really looking at our mind’s interpretation of the world. The wise person realises that every event is greatly coloured by the mind.

When you are faced with an event that gives rise to a strong impression—a powerful emotion or thought—you must always remind yourself, “This is simply an impression.”

In other words, a dreamy interpretation of something out there, and you do not have access to the actual source of the impression. Furthermore, the source of the impression is always separate from the impression itself, similar to how a shadow is distinct from the thing which casts it.

Before we can analyze our strong impressions or feelings we must first create some space or distance around them by realising they are just impressions.

Step Two: Separate the Internal from the Indifferent External

After we have created some space around the impression, we simply ask ourselves the following question:

"Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?"

Step Three: Take Action or Screen Out

After filtering the impression into the two categories:

  1. This is something in my control.
  2. This is something that is not in my control.

You then act accordingly.

For everything outside of your control, you simply say:

"That is none of my concern."

You can make the firm decision to not put any more energy into this thought, similar to if you heard someone gossiping about something you did not want to gossip about.

If it is something within your control, you can focus your thoughts, intentions, and actions to improve or alter the situation.

Practicing the dichotomy of control at first may be difficult, like learning any new skill, but stick with it until each step becomes second nature.

Enchiridion Chapter One, Epictetus, Translation by Robert Dobbin:

[1] We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control.

[2] The former are naturally free, unconstrained and unimpeded, while the latter are frail, inferior, subject to restraint – and none of our affair.

[3] Remember that if you mistake what is naturally inferior for what is sovereign and free, and what is not your business for your own, you’ll meet with disappointment, grief and worry and be at odds with God and man. But if you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. You won’t have a single rival, no one to hurt you, because you will be proof against harm of any kind.

[4] With rewards this substantial, be aware that a casual effort is not sufficient. Other ambitions will have to be sacrificed, altogether or at least for now. If you want these rewards at the same time that you are striving for power and riches, chances are you will not get to be rich and powerful while you aim for the other goal; and the rewards of freedom and happiness will elude you altogether.”

[5] So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’