"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control," That is the famous first line from the Enchiridion of Epictetus. It clearly lays out the dichotomy of control, a core means of thinking as a Stoic. Before we can act well, it's important to understand what we can effect, otherwise we may spin our wheels but go nowhere. So what is under our control? And what are the benefits of focusing our energies entirely on those things?
Hi. I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions: How can I become invincible? How can we internalize what is under our control? And finally, If Stoic invincibility is achievable, what would that life look like?
All right, let's get started.
How can I become invincible?
That's an odd starting question, right? How did I get from what is or is not under our control to the concept of invincibility? Well, that's epicetus's fault. Not too far from line one of the Enchiridion, in the same chapter in fact, Epictetus says this,
"but if you suppose only to be your own that which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one and accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed. "
The first chapter of the Enchiridion is bold. Just a few lines in, and the head of the Stoic school is claiming that his philosophy can make a person invincible. If I were handed a pamphlet that explained some random group's belief system and paragraph one said, "Follow these teachings and you will have no enemies and will not be harmed," I would stay far away from that group. So assuming Epic isn't a crazy cult leader what could he possibly mean?
Let's return to line one, now with line two for some context.
"Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing."
Everything Epictetus lists as under our control is mental. and he doesn't even include ALL of our mental life. for instance, you may notice that emotions aren't mentioned. OUTSIDE of our control are a much wider variety of things, our property, our reputation, our station in life. All of these things include our participation, of course, but our control of outcomes is limited. Did you notice what I just left off the not-under-our-control list? The BODY. Epictetus lists our own body as outside of our control. His list leads with the body and he almost doesn't need to follow up with property, reputation, and so forth. If my arm is not under my control, Stoically speaking, I'm guessing anything at an arm's length is even less in my sphere of influence. So, I find that Epictetus effectively gets across the idea that Stoicism considers only the mental life, our opinions, choices, desires, and aversions, to be under our complete control. What does that mean?
Are we to draw so completely into ourselves that nothing outside of our own thoughts matters? Surely not. Stoics have always been active individuals, often real political animals.
No. We ARE supposed to engage with the world, but we are meant to do so effectively. You've probably heard the phrase, "Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die"? Focusing our mental energy on things outside of our control tends to be ineffective in just this way.
The Stoic claim is that if we focus on holding intelligent opinions, making wise choices, desiring worthy things, and avoiding, not externals, like struggle, pain, and other uncomfortable situations, but instead avoid ONLY those things that make us less virtuous, IF we do that, our every action will be victorious because, even if the outcome is less than perfect, we will still have won because we obtained our goal; that of taking the best action possible while remaining true to our humanity.
How can we internalize what is under our control?
Understanding that our opinions, choices, desires, and aversions are under our control does not automatically make those things healthy. We have to learn what to choose, what to desire, but before all THAT, we have to learn how to examine our mind and challenge the unhealthy thoughts that reside there.
In Stoicism, there is a practice called suspension of judgement. this is a constant practice, a way of thinking, NOT just something we are to do at the end of the day. The basic idea is to pause and examine our thoughts to see if they are true. Some thoughts are more worthy of examination than others, of course. Let's say we're traveling by plane and have hit some severe turbulence. The thought, "I am on a plane," doesn't really require examination. Nor does the thought, "the plane is experiencing turbulence." But what if you think, "We're all going to die?" THAT is quite an opinion, one that may elicit strong emotions and irrational actions...it is worth examining. If a thought like that bubbles up. Stop. Acknowledge it. It has already happened, after all. NO need to suppress it. Instead challenge it. Realize that thinking something isn't the same as approving of it. In Stoicism we call this 'withholding assent.'
There's a good chance that you've seen at least one of the Marvel movies that have TOny Stark, a.k.a Iron Man in them. If TOny Stark is in a movie, it's inevitable that he will interact with a hologram. Usually he's looking at the schematics of some sort of machine. He'll reach into the hologram and pluck out a piece of it to examine more closely. It's a cool effect and it's my personal visual when I examine my thoughts. I pick the thought in question out of my head and strip it into its parts. Am I on a plane. YES. Is there turbulence. That checks out too. Am I going to die? How could I possibly know that? I may feel that I'm going to die, but that state of mind is built on imagination, not truth. I refuse to assent to it. No seal of approval for you thought!
There's another aspect of the thought I need to evaluate. Even if it were true, does it concern me? Meaning: is the thought about something I control? Well, I have pretty much zero effect on whether or not a plane I'm on is going to crash. I can fasten a seat belt, put up my tray, and place my seat in an upright position, but none of that keeps a plane in the sky.
Back to the idea behind "resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die." What am I getting out of fretting over the state of the airplane? Not peace of mind. So am I trading that peace of mind in exchange for something more desirable? Does my fretting KEEP the plane in the sky? That would be great, but that's not how the universe works. So I'm getting nothing out of the deal. All I AM doing is making myself useless TO myself, and also to others if there were an ACTUAL crisis.
So how should I think, if I could be the best Stoic I could possible be?
One more Epictetus quote:
"I will show the nerves of a philosopher. "What nerves are these?" A desire never disappointed, an aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid, a proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. These you shall see."
A desire never disappointed: If my desire is based on never experiencing crisis, or never dying, I'm going to be disappointed constantly and then, in my last moments, disappointed finally. If I desire to live well, in the present moment, and thrive up until my final moment? That's possible, but I have to stop investing in things I don't control.
An aversion which never falls on that which it would avoid: Again, seeking to avoid struggle, crisis, or death is a fools errand. Seeking to avoid our worst selves, that's possible if we dig in and do the work.
A proper pursuit, a diligent purpose, an assent which is not rash. Aim for these outcomes and our mind will become a tool for change in the world.
So, since I just had us falling out of the sky for 5 minutes, a recap.
Suspend you judgement
Pause and examine your thoughts
Is it provably true and, even if it is,
Is it within your control?
However it all plays out, show the nerves of a philosopher.
If invincibility were possible, what would that life look like?
I saved this for last because I don't want anyone to leave with the idea that advocating for a Stoically self-controlled mind is a call to live a self-centered life.
Chapter 1 of the Enchiridion lays out the dichotomy of control as a concept. But what does the life of a Stoic PRACTICING that dichotomy look like? For that, we can turn to Marcus Aurelius. In Book 12 of his Meditations, Chapter 3 says this:
"Your three components: body, breath, mind. Two are yours in trust; to the third alone you have clear title.
If you can cut yourself - your mind - free of what other people do and say, of what you've said or done, of the things that you are afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance - doing what's right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth-
If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past - can make yourself, as Empedocles says, "a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness,' and concentrate on living what CAN be lived (which means the present)...then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you."
Here we find a Stoic reminding himself to put his energies into what he can control. What is he "cutting away'? what other people do and say, what HE has said and done in the past, FEAR of the future, weaknesses of the body, and the whirling chaos that sweeps in from outside. What does he expect to get from this? Personal happiness despite the world's pain? No. NO.
the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity to live life on its own recognizance which means and again I quote "doing what is right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth."
If you care that other people oppose you. If you bend to your own past failures or cringe from imaginary thoughts about the future you will not live a life of justice, or of courage and you certainly won't thrive. You will stumble, bend, and break under the pressure of the world. Or worse, retire from the world to build yourself a cocoon of safety without real regard for others. Stoicism wants to free us to be an unstoppable force, immovable object be damned. We can do what is right, accept the consequences, and continue speaking the truth. We can have the nerves of a philosopher.
Thank you for listening to episode four. Next episode I'll try to talk about something simpler, less about changing the foundations of how you think, a quick exercise to do in the evening perhaps? As always, visit ImmoderateStoic.com for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you do listen through iTunes I would greatly appreciate a review. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at PaintedPorch.org.
The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.
And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.