Friday, 17 May 2013

Not Under Our Control

Not under our control are our body, our possessions and property, our reputation, our political office - simply put, the things which are not our own works.
                                                                                            - Encheiridion, 1:1

     No amount of healthy food and exercise will protect our frail bodies from sudden illness or   make us any less mortal.  We can take meticulous care of our property, but it will still be at the mercy of fire, natural disasters, war, theft and vandals.  We can have the most noble of characters and still be widely slandered.  Hard work and excellence in our fields is no guarantee of career advancement, and public office is especially a fickle, thankless and potentially cruel thing.    
     What then?  Because these things are not under our control, should we stop eating and bathing, treat our property with neglect, sabotage our own good names through shameless behaviour, or shun public life?  Far from it!  Stoicism teaches that Natures bids us to take care of our bodies and possessions; to act with proper propriety and decorum; and to die in active duty as citizens.  These are part of the natural duties of mankind.
     We must recognise, though, that ultimately we cannot control the outcomes of the our diligent fulfilment of these natural duties.  We can only control our reactions to them.  

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Always Ours

Under our control are our reponses, our intention, our desire, our rejections; simply put, those things which are our own works.  
                                                                                      Encheiridion, 1:1

Only that which is "under our control" can be considered "our own works".

     Our responses are own.  A man with a gun may threaten our lives. He cannot force us to die in a cowardly manner.  
     Our intentions are our own.  An archer cannot make his arrow hit the mark.  A sudden gust of wind, poor craftsmanship of his bow, a mischievous shove from behind - any number of factors can send his arrow off course.  But his aim is his own doing. 
     Our desires are our own.  A man cannot control the beauty of his neighbour's wife, but he can choose not to long for her and become a despicable adulterer (the basest of all creatures). 
     Our ability to reject false impressions is our own.  I see that a giant wave is about to overcome my ship and likely drown me, but I can reject the idea that this is an evil and remind myself that only Vice truly harms me. 
     There is a very limited number of things under our control, but we may rejoice in knowing that they are precisely the things which are always under our control.  Neither Chance nor Providence have any power over them.  They are our own works.   

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Basics

There are things under our control; there are things not under our control.
                     - Encheiridion, 1:1

     This is perhaps the most central tenant of stoic ethics, especially the Stoicism of Epictetus.  All else is but commentary on this sentence.  
     But what does it mean? It seems self-evident.  Its the kind of knowledge that we all know and recognise, but somehow, true as it is, we behave as though we were completely ignorant of this knowledge.  We admit with our words the distinction between things that are under our control and things that our not, but in practice our actions, thoughts, and feeling seem to confuse these two categories. 
     How do we confuse these categories in practice?  
     We become angered by a perceived insult in the words of another person.  (The more hotheaded of us perhaps even forget all propriety, start yelling and storm out of the room like spoiled teenaged girls.)  Yet it is our anger that is under our control, not the words of another.     We are troubled by injustice committed against us. Yet it is within our power to be just, not to be treated justly.  We feel cheated when we don't get the recognition we think we deserve for our hard work.  Yet it is the quality of our work that is under our control, not the rewards for that work.  We fear, above all thing, death.  But it is in our power to die well (that is, die bravely), not to never die at all! 
     Of course, we know all this. We even repeat it to ourselves and others with standard expressions like "Well, what can you do?" or "We all gotta go some time".  We know it well. But judging from our actions, we apparently need to be reminded of it frequently.  
     It is fitting, then, that the Handbook of Epictetus should open with this most fundamental statement about the human condition:  There are things under our control; there are things not under our control.