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.