How to use the Dichotomy of Control

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I see it often where fellow Stoics do not get what the dichotomy of control is all about. Epictetus spells out what is in our power and what is not in our power at the beginning of the Enchiridion. What Epictetus is literally meaning is that everything that is up to us is only in our judgment and will and lists examples of desires, opinions, goals. And then lists what is not up to us, which is everything else – reputation, wealth, health, as examples. So, I will give examples of how NOT to use the dichotomy of control followed by how to use the dichotomy of control. I will write the dichotomy of control as DoC for short.

How not to use the DoC: You’ve traditionally been political, and you believe your candidate is the correct one but since whoever wins is outside of your power, you reason that you should not vote since it is outside your control.

How not to use the DoC #2: It is possible that you can make a promotion but since you reason that it is outside your power to ever make that promotion at your job, you might as well as not try. It is outside your power.

How to use the DoC: You have traditionally been political, and you believe your candidate is the correct one. Given that you know the DoC, you know that it is outside your power that your vote will make a definite difference. But you realize that it is only your judgment and good will to try to vote for a good candidate that matters, so you go ahead and vote and if the fates allow your vote to make a difference, then great!

How to use the DoC #2: It is possible that you can make a promotion. So, using the DoC you know that it is outside your control that events will unfold in any way, but you reason that it is good to strive for a position that is better and will help you make a greater impact in life, your intentions are what matter.

Notice in all these situations that, as a Stoic, you are powerless over events outside of your will and judgment. Perhaps one day you thought you had power over your own arm. Wrong, you try to lift your arm only to find that it is paralyzed. So, situations outside of our will and judgment impact our ability to act on things outside our own intentions and judgment. The Stoics called this fate and believed that universal reason or fate allowed or forbid our abilities to do the things that we intend to do. So, we must prepare for those circumstances when we cannot do what we intend to do. So, we must realize how powerless we really are externally. But we must also realize how powerful we are in terms of our good judgment and will. Despite this though, we should always try. If we think we have a good shot at making a practical impact that is virtuous, then we should act on it. Never let opportunities pass you by.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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