What is Important in Life – Day 5
What is most important? Refusing to let bad intentions enter your mind; raising pure hands to heaven; not seeking any good thing if someone else must give it or must lose it so that it may pass to you; wishing for a sound mind (something that can be wished for without competition); regarding the other things rated highly by mortals, even if some chance brings them into your home, as likely to exit by the door they entered. (NQ III, praef. 14)
Day 5 – Living the Dichotomy of Control
This passage strikes at the core of human strife. Seneca instructs us not to seek “any good thing if someone else must give it or must lose it so that it may pass to you.” Our bad intentions and acts that result from unrelenting competition for possessions, money, power, and positions destroy our virtue and well-being. Stoicism teaches us to be content whether we are rich or poor. That does not imply we should not seek any of those items listed above; however, we must seek them knowing they cannot improve our moral character or increase our well-being. Additionally, we must be careful because seeking these externals can quickly lead to bad intentions and unclean hands. Envy and guilt have no place in Stoic practice. As we saw on Day 3, the vast majority of factors that determine our external success—“those things rated highly by mortals”—are beyond our control; they are ‘not up to us.’
If this radical form of the dichotomy of control was practiced by a large percentage of the human population—by both ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’—it would transform the world. Our constant reach for what others have is a perennial source of strife on an interpersonal and international level. Our insatiable hunger for more and more possessions and an ever-increasing number of distractions has brought mankind to the brink of destruction at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Epictetus mocks those who reach for things belonging to others in Discourses 2.4.8. Likewise, he asserts,
My principal task in life is this: to distinguish between things, and establish a division between them and say, ‘External things are not within my power; choice is within my power. Where am I to seek the good and the bad? Within myself, in that which is my own.’ But with regard to what is not my own, never apply the words good or bad, and benefit or harm, and any other word of that kind. (Discourses 2.5.4-5)
Seneca helps us put the “things rated highly by mortals” into perspective—the cosmic perspective. Unfortunately, some are beginning to use Stoic practices to assist in the acquisition of externals—as a means to achieve external rather than internal success. Stoicism certainly will help us overcome external obstacles and challenges in life. However, that is not the aim of Stoicism; that is a side effect of the internal strength Stoic practice fosters. When we make outward success rather than inner change our goal, we are out of accord with Nature. Better health, more wealth, and greater acclaim are not the aim of Stoic practice. As Epictetus admonishes:
If you place value on any external thing, whatever it may be, that will cause you to become subject to others. (Discourses 4.4.1)
Likewise, he warns,
As soon as you subordinate what is truly your own to external things, you must be a slave ever afterwards. (Discourses 2.2.12)
How then should we behave toward externals? Epictetus uses a banquet as a metaphor for life to teach us:
Remember that you should behave in life as you do at a banquet. Something is being passed around and arrives in front of you: reach out your hand and take your share politely. It passes: don’t try to hold it back. It has yet to reach you: don’t project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. So act likewise with regard to your children, to your wife, to public office, to riches, and the time will come when you’re worthy to have a seat at the banquets of the gods. (Enchiridion 15)
The dichotomy of control is a radical concept for us moderns because we were raised on a diet of commercial advertisements designed to increase our appetite for externals. This may be one of the hardest aspects of Stoicism for many people. Nevertheless, it is the most powerful in the Stoic toolbox when used properly. The Dichotomy of Control chart below highlights the promise and warning of Epictetus.
Refer to the Dichotomy of Control chart throughout the day and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this an opinion, impulse, desire or aversion? If so, it is in my power. If not, let it go.
- If I limit myself to what is up to me, how will that affect my mental well-being and my behavior?
As you go about your day, imagine the Dichotomy of Control as a large set of pruning shears. Look for opportunities to prune your concerns for things beyond your control. Become a Stoic Edward Scissorhands and radically prune your concern for everything that is not in your control.
- My boss is angry: snip.
- That idiot just cut me off: snip.
- My company is downsizing and I may lose my job: snip.
- My spouse doesn’t love me anymore: snip.
You will enjoy being free, unhindered, and unimpeded by all that extra emotional baggage you have been carrying.
p.s. If you interpret this radical pruning of thing not up to you as being cold-hearted or uncaring, you may be confused about the nature of indifferents and the proper Stoic response to them. My post on The Discipline of Desire may help you understand this confusing topic.
Click here for a downloadable pdf version of the Dichotomy of Control chart