What don’t you get about “do your best”?

(Paris of Troy, in a reconstruction of what was likely a very colorful marble sculpture)

The other day I did yet another interview with a journalist curious about the resurgence of Stoicism as practical philosophy of life. Which is great. I very rarely decline to give interviews, chat on podcasts, or write op-ed pieces on Stoicism, because I am convinced that it can be very helpful to people, and that the world would be just a little bit better if more of us tried to follow the Stoic path (or, for that matter, similar ones, like Buddhism, ethical culture, and so forth).

Yet, almost invariably, the journalist in question (and yes, the latest one was no exception) runs into trouble when I explain what seems to me a pretty straightforward concept: the dichotomy of control. It also happens to be arguably the crucial axiom of Stoicism, so if one doesn’t get that, one really does not get the whole philosophy. The idea is famously and concisely expressed right at the beginning of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, though it goes all the way back to the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium:

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.

According to Pierre Hadot, in his classic The Inner Citadel (see my ongoing discussion here, here, here, and here), the dichotomy of control is at the foundation of Epictetus’ discipline of desire and aversion, the first of three disciplines (the other two being of action and of assent), and the one that is logically linked to the study of “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), one of the three fields that constituted the Stoic curriculum (the other two being “logic,” i.e., anything to do with sound reasoning, and “ethics,” i.e., how to live one’s life). The idea is that the dichotomy of control stems from our understanding of how the world works. Which means “physics” influences the part of “ethics” that deals with what we should properly desire and avoid.

The striking thing about the passage above is that Epictetus includes under things “not within our power” a lot of items that we normally think are, in fact, within our power. Of course, we misguidedly think, I control my body. After all, I can decide to go to the gym and eat healthy. Of course, we foolishly assume, I control my property, it is mine! Of course, we continue undeterred, I control my reputation, since it depends on how I myself behave. Right. Until a disease strikes your body, you lose your job because of outside circumstances and consequently can no longer pay your mortgage, or someone spreads malicious but effective rumors about your behavior, thus damaging your reputation. See how easy it is to lose control?

Body, property, reputation, office and many other externals (not, for instance, the weather!) can be influenced by our actions, but ultimately depend also on factors outside of our control. By contrast, our opinions, judgements, and the values we consciously adopt ultimately depend on us. Sure, we can be influenced about those by external factors, even unwittingly so. But at the end of the day, as they say, the buck stops at you. If you loudly proclaim that women are inferior and should stay home, for instance, that is your opinion, nobody else’s.

Both ancient and especially modern Stoics derive a major conclusion from all of this, and that’s the very same conclusion that - when I explain it to the press - gets invariably misunderstood. The idea is that, in order to be most effective and achieve serenity in life, we should internalize our goals. It comes natural to most of us to want a good body and be averse to an unhealthy one. We want a good reputation and are averse to a bad one. And so on. (You get why this is called the discipline of desire and aversion.) But that - given the dichotomy of control - is exactly the wrong way to go about it. We should, according to Epictetus, train ourselves to want what is under our control. What does that mean, in practice? Here is how Cicero famously has Cato the Younger explain the concept in book III of his De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (on the ends of good and evil):

If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘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.’ (De Finibus III.22)

This is a beautiful rendition of the modern concept of internalizing your goals: don’t hope for a healthy body, do your best to attain one; don’t hope for a promotion at your job, do your best to get promoted; don’t hope your partner loves you, do act as a loving partner yourself. And so on. The idea is that once you’ve done your best, “everything to attain the purpose,” as Cicero puts it, then there is nothing else to be done. Whether you win or lose (and, in life, sometimes you win, at other times you lose) you can be serene in the knowledge that you’ve done all you could.

Enter the journalist who is interviewing me: “so, doesn’t that mean that Stoics give up on things and withdraw from the world?” What? No, it most definitely does not mean that. What part of “everything to attain the purpose” did you miss? The archer in Cicero’s metaphor doesn’t skip the fight and go home on the grounds that sometimes his arrows will miss the mark. On the contrary, he stays and focuses on doing all he can to hit his target. But actually succeeding in doing so is not (entirely) in his power, so he is prepared to accept whatever outcome with equanimity: if he does strike down the enemy, he is not going to be too cocky, because he knows he achieved the objective in part with the help of Fortuna. If he does not strike down the enemy, he is not dejected, because he knows there was literally nothing more he could have done.

Many of the ancient and modern Stoics were and are people of action. The above mentioned Cato started a revolution against what he perceived as the tyranny of Julius Caesar. A group of Stoic philosophers and senators were killed or sent into exile (including, in the latter case, Epictetus and his teacher, Musonius Rufus) for being part of the “Stoic opposition” against the emperors Nero, Vespasian and Domitian. Modern day Stoic James Stockdale survived several years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam by deploying Epictetus’ dichotomy of control. Another modern Stoic, Susan Fowler, single handedly took on the culture of sexual harassment at Uber. And my recently passed away friend, modern Stoic Larry Becker, managed to have a fulfilling life and career despite being hit by crippling triple polio when he was young.

Does any of the above sound to you like “giving up on things and retire from the world”? Why do so many people, including well read and smart ones, keep making this mistake? Part of it, I think, is because the word “Stoicism” evokes a (misguided) image of tough and unemotional people that many don’t like, which triggers them into seeking a way, any way, to criticize the philosophy. But more than that, seems to me, we have a cultural resistance - especially in the United States - to the notion that we should ever accept that things won’t go our way, that we should be content with suboptimal or even negative results. It’s called life: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And the only thing you can do is your very best, and then hope that things will turn out one way rather than another. But if they don’t, once you’ve done everything that was possible for you to do, what are you going to do, the impossible?

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