What Is and Is Not in Our Control

The ability to distinguish between what is in our control (ἐφ᾽ἡμῖν) and what is not in our control (οὐκ ἐφ᾽ἡμῖν) is the key to Stoic and in particular to Epictetus’ ethics. What is in our control is, for the most part, our internal disposition, which ultimately forms the basis of our moral character and action. What is not in our control is external to us. The first reason why it is important for us to distinguish what is in control and what is not is that what is under our control is free, unhindered, and unimpeded (1.2). On the other hand, things which are not in our control are slavish and can be hindered or impeded. In section 3, Epictetus goes on to maintain that mistaking one of these categories for the other will lead to frustration. In section 4, he presents a second reason, maintaining that if you wish to attain your goals in both categories, you may ultimately not attain what is in your control. Finally, he concludes by advising us to ask of every impression whether it is something in our control or something that is not in our control.

1.1: At the beginning of the chapter, Epictetus lists four things which are under our control: opinion, impulse, desire and aversion. It may be best to begin with the last two categories, desire (ὄρεξις) and aversion (ἔκκλισις). These terms along with impulse may be defined most easily by the objects at which they aim (what does one desire?). Desire is directed toward the good or what one supposes to be good, whereas aversion is the avoidance of evil or what one supposes to be evil. Cf. Diss. 1.4.1ἡ μὲν ὄρεξις ἀγαθῶν ἐστιν, ἡ δὲ ἔκκλισις πρὸς κακά. The Stoic concept of good and evil is drastically restricted to virtue and vice. In our common conception of happiness as being “healthy, wealthy and wise,” the Stoics would only consider the last item as a good. Health and wealth were regarded as indifferents, things which were neither good nor evil in themselves. Wealth may be used for good or evil and thus has no intrinsic value as something good or evil. For the Stoics, it is the one who uses the money well or badly who is good or evil. If one acts with the proper disposition, then one is acting morally. Furthermore, these indifferents are not in our control. Diseases, for example, may undermine our health. The Stoics concede that in most cases, there are “preferred” indifferents (e.g., health, sufficient money to live, etc.) and “dispreferred” indifferents (e.g., sickness, poverty, etc.), but ultimately these do not contribute to the moral well-being of a person (e.g., poverty is not to be looked upon as an evil). More will be said about these indifferents in the discussion of what is not under our control. For the present, it is sufficient to note that desire is directed toward the attaining of a good or supposed good and aversion toward the avoidance of an evil or supposed evil.

While desire and aversion are directed toward the good and one’s internal moral disposition, positive and negative impulses (ὁρμή and ἀφορμή) are directed toward one’s relations in society, i.e. toward τὰ καθήκοντα (“appropriate actions”). On this see ch. 30. For earlier Stoics, appropriate action is action, which is appropriate to a particular being, to a stage in life, to a position or relationship. For example, animals and human are beings who both avoid certain behaviors to survive (e.g., gazelles flee lions, we pull our hands away from a hot pot). On the other hand, the Stoics believed that humans who have reached maturity are distinguished from animals by having reason. One can see that at birth a baby is not expected to be reasonable but at a certain stage of life, he is. Finally, there are certain appropriate forms of behavior depending on our position or relationship in society (e.g. respect for parents and elders). Epictetus most often seems to have in mind this last category when he speaks of appropriate action. What I have translated as position or relationship is in Greek αἱ σχέσεις.

What then motivates a desire toward the good or impulse toward appropriate action? Epictetus’s answer is that our opinions are the motivations. Here he uses the word ὑπόληψις for the term opinion, but more often he employs δόγματα. Our opinions are grouped under our φαντασίαι, which are most often translated as an “impressions.” The term covers not only our perceptions (“Here is a table”), but also judgments (“Money is a good thing” and “One should pursue money”). If someone consents (συγκατατίθεσθαι) to the latter judgment, then it will generate a desire or impulse and the human will act on this desire or impulse. Note that human impressions have this propositional content and therefore are true or false. Earlier Stoics include these judgments under the term λεκτόν, a “sayable,” which includes everything from a word to statements. While Epictetus is quite aware of this usage, most often he uses δόγματα. Thus, it becomes important for a Stoic to evaluate these δόγματα or φαντασίαι. As we see at the end of this chapter, the most important criteria (κανόνες) or δόγματα or φαντασίαι are whether they are related to matters which are in our control or not. Thus, Epictetus often speaks of this evaluative process as the proper use of our impressions. Cf. for example the end of ch. 6, where he speaks of the the use of impressions according to (our rational) nature: χρῆσις φαντασιῶν κατὰ φύσιν and ch. 52.1, where Epictetus says that the first and most necessary subject in philosophy is the χρῆσις τῶν δογμάτων. (cf. also Diss. 3.24.69, 3.1.40, 3.7.7 and fr. 4.4-5) See also the note on nature in 1.2. This evalutative process takes place in the προαίρεσις, often translated as volition or will. The earlier Stoics did not use this term; the closest approximation would be τ ἡγεμονικόν, the ruling part of the soul. For Epictetus the προαίρεσις is where the evaluative process of our opinions takes place and thus is the decisive factor in motivating our desires, etc.; he regards it as the essential self

Examples of what is not under our control include the body (health), possessions (wealth), reputation and (political) office. As noted above, for the Stoics these fall under the category not of goods but of indifferents. They possess no intrinsic value in themselves. Furthermore, as Epictetus emphasizes, they are not under our control; they depend on others, e.g., people must elect one to political office. Although one takes care of one’s self, nevertheless diseases may arise.

1.2: Here and in the next section Epictetus gives his first major reason for understanding the distinction between what is and is not under our control: if we only desire what is on our control, we will be free and never meet any obstruction of this desire. The last two adjectives show that the Stoic concept of freedom is one which is free of (from obstruction) rather than a freedom to do something (which is most often connected with the concept of rights, e.g., we possess the right to freely express our opinions). The Stoic concept is a freedom such that nothing will impede our internal deliberations. If we mistakenly desire what is not in our control, we will be enslaved and hindered. In committing this error, we will be constantly frustrated. Cf. Diss. 2.1.23-24 and 4.6.16. Also cf. ch. 2 below where Epictetus explains that the promise of desire is that it will be fulfilled (accomplished); this can only happen if desire is restricted to those things which are under our control; otherwise it will be frustrated. Furthermore, Epictetus believes that in desiring what is not in your control, you not only risk frustration but also enslavement. Cf. Diss. 4.1.77. Thus, if one pursues political office as a good (to use one of Epictetus’ examples in sect. 4), then you will have to flatter those who are influential and powerful and appeal often to the lowest common denominator of the crowd for votes – all this at the expense of your self-integrity, which is under your control. In this way you will be under obligation to all who help you attain office. Thus, Epictetus argues that one should limit one’s desire to what is under one’s control because desiring the opposite leads to enslavement and often obstruction, ultimately to frustration. Epictetus is especially concerned that if you develop a violent passion for office, you will then lose your moral integrity. For the Stoics passion (πάθος), which was regarded as an excessive impulse, was to be avoided at all costs. For Epictetus, a passion develops from mistaking what is not under our control as a good. Especially if one is thwarted in obtaining the desire (e.g., politcal office), one can easily see that this desire could quickly turn into an obsessive passion. Cf. Diss. 3.2.3πάθος γὰρ ἄλλως οὐ γίνεται εἰ μὴ ὀρέξεως ἀποτυχανούσης ἢ ἐκκλίσεως περιπιπτούσης. (Passion is nothing else except the failure to attain what we desire or an encountering of what we wish to avoid). The Stoics regarded this excessive reponse as irrational. Insofar as one under the influence of a passion is no longer in control of himself, he is regarded by the Stoics as enslaved to the object of his passion. 

1.4: Here Epictetus presents a second reason: if one desires both what is under one’s control and what is not, then one risks failing to attain what is under one’s control. The danger here is that in pursuing what is not in your control, we risk being frustrated and enslaved to externals (money or poitical office) and other humans, as we saw above and being distracted from what is in our control. One may imagine that someone might be good at balancing what is and is not in our control. For Epictetus, however, figuring out what is and is not in our control is a full-time occupation and requires much training; cf. Diss. 3.15.13. Without fully grasping this distinction, it is extremely likely that you will be frustrated in obtaining your desire, fall into enslavement (passion) for a thing or person, and thereby lose what is in your control, your moral integrity. 

1.5: Epictetus ends this opening section by encouraging us to ask ourselves whether our impressions (φαντασίαι) are about things which are in our control or not. Since our opinions (ὑπολήψεις or δόγματα) about what is good and what we should do fall under the category of our impressions, we must examine them to see whether they are under our control or not. It will often be an impresssion that something bad or annoying has happened to us that will get us in trouble. These are based on a mistaken sense of the what is good, e.g., if we are poor, Epictetus would maintain this is not a bad things, since it does not affect our moral character. Thus, we should test our opinions to see whether poverty is really an evil, whether it is under our control or not. Epictetus tells us that we must practice μελετᾶν this (the noun form is μελέτη). Elsewhere he speaks of this practice as ἄσκησις