There are lots of components to this course but we want to keep the focus on one or two key things. So the main question we’d like you to keep asking yourself and reflecting upon throughout the first week, and even beyond that if you like, is as follows:
“What aspects of this situation are under my direct control?”
One of the central recurring themes of Stoicism is the importance of continually distinguishing between what is “up to us”, in the sense of being under our direct control and what is not. We might call this fundamental dichotomy the “Stoic fork”.
The Stoic “Manual”
If you’re new to Stoicism, it may come as a bit of surprise to discover that there’s literally a manual, dating from the Roman Imperial period, designed to teach Stoicism as a way of life to novice students. It’s just called the Handbook or Manual (Encheiridion) of Epictetus and consists of the key sayings of the famous Stoic teacher Epictetus, compiled by his student, Arrian. If you want to learn more about Stoicism, it’s one of the first things you should consider reading. We’re just going to get you started, though, by focusing on what the initial passages say, because they’re arguably the foundation of everything that follows. The very first sentence makes it pretty clear where Stoic students should begin their training:
Some things are “up to us”, or under our direct control, whereas others are not up to us. Encheiridion, 1
In the next sentence, Epictetus explained that Stoics mean what is “up to us” in the sense of being completely voluntary and within our sphere of control. In a word, as he puts it, this means our actions. That includes our external behaviour but also certain mental acts, such as voluntarily judging something to be desirable or undesirable. Everything else is only under our control indirectly, as a consequence of our actions, which means that other factors can always intervene to thwart our intentions. Those things, which are not our actions, are referred to as “externals” or “indifferent” things. The Stoics often sum up the most significant and problematic externals as: health, wealth, and reputation. Pain and pleasure are also “indifferent” in the sense of being things that happen to us, rather than things we do. When our voluntary actions are good, that’s called “virtue”, and when they’re bad, that’s called “vice”. So acting with virtue rather than vice, in this sense, is the main thing that is “up to us”. Indeed, we’re told the Stoics sometimes defined the fundamental goal of life as “living in accord with virtue”.
Epictetus goes on to say that the root cause of most emotional suffering is placing too much value on these external things, on things beyond our direct control. Becoming overly-attached to externals makes us all the “slaves” of our passions, he says. That’s definitely something worth thinking about, isn’t it? The Stoics therefore repeatedly advised their students to notice when they were experiencing unhealthy emotions or desires, feelings they might want to change. When this happens we’re to pause for a moment and try to grasp very clearly what aspects of the situation are entirely within our sphere of control.
Their advice seems like it must, ultimately, have been the inspiration for the famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous and many modern counsellors and therapists:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoics similarly advise us that “wisdom” consists in making a clear distinction between things under our control and things not. However, they make it more explicit that the only things we can truly change in life are our own thoughts and actions. When we do influence other things, including other people, it’s always indirectly, as a result of our own action. Placing absolute importance on the nature of our own character and voluntary actions encourages us to focus attention on the very centre of our sphere of responsibility, the point from which they arise.
Doing so obviously requires paying close attention to your own judgements and actions, throughout the day, which is the subject we’ll turn to shortly, after a brief practical exercise and example…