Stoicism and the Continuum of Control
Increase the range of what you can control … but do it ethically!
Stoicism begins by urging us to focus on what we can control, setting aside what we can’t control. We can’t control the majority of the events around us, other people and their thoughts and responses, or what they believe and do, any more than we can control the weather, or traffic, or the fact that our neighbors party on Saturday nights. We can only control our emotional responses to these things, as well as our own thoughts and beliefs. In the heat of events, sometimes it takes some doing to remember that.
There’s a conceptual danger here. Even Epictetus dichotomizes a bit too much at the start of his otherwise magnificent Enchiridion (Manual, or Handbook). If there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the Western tradition at its core, it’s its tendency to dichotomize everything, when the world around us really offers gradients and continua of various sorts. There’s what I can never control, such as the weather, there are things over which I pretty much have complete control (my temptation to go get another cup of coffee!), and there are quite a things somewhere in the middle, along a spectrum of degrees.
So can we fix Epictetus here?
I think so, and the fix is quite easy.
It’s to substitute a continuum of control for the dichotomy of control. How do we do that?
Through learning. The more you know how the world around you works, and how your own emotions and desires work, the greater the range of what you can control. We need to add quickly: so long as we all do this ethically.
Stoic philosophy traditionally had three broad categories: Stoic physics, Stoic logic, and Stoic ethics. While scholars have cashed these out differently, by and large Stoic physics studies how the world works. What are its physical principles? Their conclusion is that (using modern language) we live in a world of both visible and invisible causes and effects.
Stoic logic then becomes our thinking about how the world works. Stoic logic incorporates apprehension of objects, that (as an Aristotelian might put it) they are what they are, and what they are determines how they will behave. It can then…