This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the dichotomy of control is and how you can use it in your Stoic practice.
Definition Of The Dichotomy Of Control
The dichotomy of control as a Stoic concept comes to us from Epictetus. He describes it as follows at the beginning of his Enchiridion:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.
In other words, the only things we are in complete control of are our judgements and our actions. Everything else in life – including things like wealth, health, and other people’s opinions – depend to some extent on external circumstances. We can try to influence these things but ultimately we do not have complete control over them.
What the Stoics Said
Armed with the definition of the dichotomy of control, Epictetus tells us that our job is then to develop the wisdom to distinguish what things are and what things are not within our control. We should then focus on what is within our control and work on accepting what is not:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.Epictetus, Discourses 2.5.4–5
In his book, The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life, Massimo Pigliucci cites a passage of Cicero’s as the best metaphor he has come across to properly understand the dichotomy of control:
If someone were to make it their purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, their ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as [the Stoics] pronounce it, would be to do all they could to aim straight: the person in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although they did everything to attain their purpose, their “ultimate end,” so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase “to be chosen” but not “to be desired.Cicero, On the Ends of Good and Evil
Pigliucci goes on to further clarify:
It comes naturally to think that the dichotomy is too strict: surely there are a number of things that fall in between the two “control” and “no control” categories… Think of it this way. As clearly illustrated in Cicero’s passage, everything we influence can in turn be broken down into the two components of control and no-control: practicing archery belongs to the first, a gust of wind to the second; the choice of when to let the arrow go to the first, a sudden evasive maneuver by the target to the second. And so on…
The most important passage in Cicero’s metaphor is the very last one: hitting the mark is to be chosen, but not to be desired. Obviously, the archer intends to hit the target, that’s the whole point. Similarly, we prefer to be healthy rather than sick, wealthy rather than poor, and so forth. But because these outcomes are not entirely under our control—and assuming we have done our best regarding what is under our control—then our self-worth should not depend on hitting the target (or being healthy, wealthy, etc.).
In life, sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, so equanimity toward outcomes (we “choose” them but we don’t “desire” them) is the only reasonable attitude to cultivate.
How Can I Use The Dichotomy Of Control Right Now?
Putting the dichotomy of control to use in everyday life is a powerful technique. It is simple in its implementation but takes practice.
You can start small with this writing exercise.
- Choose an event that has recently caused you some difficulty or that you are still having trouble with. To ensure you aren’t taking on too much too soon, pick an event that wasn’t/isn’t too distressing.
As Epictetus said: “Start with things of little value”. As you get more comfortable with the technique you can progress to matters of greater consequence.
- Take a blank page and draw a line down the middle. Label your two columns “Completely within my control” and “Not completely within my control”.
- For the event you have chosen, describe briefly why it is bothering you then list its components. Write each component in the relevant column.
- If something in the second column seems to be partially within your control, it may be useful to separate its components out further.
- You should notice that your “Completely within my control” list consists mainly of judgements you make and actions you take.
- This gives you an actionable list of things you can focus on. This practical focus should make it easier to accept and let go of the things that are outside your control.
Event: “An upcoming job interview. I am worried that I won’t be able to answer the questions and therefore won’t be offered the job.”
|Completely Within My Control
|Not Completely Within My Control
|My intention to show up on time
|Actually showing up on time – some accident or delay could prevent it
|Preparing as best I can
|The questions I will be asked
|Adopting a professional but friendly attitude
|Whether the interviewers adopt the same attitude
|Viewing the interview as valuable experience for future interviews
|The decision to offer me a job or not
Through this short exercise we are able to place a greater focus on the elements of the situation that are under our control, namely our judgements and actions in relation to it.
Even though we have taken our attention away from our preferred outcome, which is ultimately outside our control, we have ironically given ourselves a better chance of achieving that outcome by concentrating more on our preparation and attitude.